Editor’s Note: Laura Belin is the primary author at the website Bleeding Heartland. She has been covering Iowa politics since 2007. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Democratic National Committee’s overhaul of the presidential nominating calendar will create many challenges for Iowa Democrats, who are already at a low point following another disappointing election cycle.
The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted Friday to recommend a schedule that removes Iowa from the small group of early primary states. The full DNC will vote on the calendar in January; while some tweaks are possible, it’s nearly certain the Iowa caucuses won’t be in the mix.
I grew up in Iowa with the luxury of seeing presidential candidates up close and have enjoyed attending precinct caucuses since I was 18 years old in 1988. But as painful as it is for fans of the caucuses to accept, the DNC has valid reasons to start the presidential campaign elsewhere.
Although Iowa was a bellwether state for six straight presidential elections and voted twice to elect Barack Obama, five of the last seven general elections have been Republican landslides here.
It’s one thing to experience a red wave when the same thing is happening nationwide, as in 2010 and 2014. It’s another for Iowa Democrats to lose up and down the ballot last month — including in many onetime strongholds — when the party’s candidates exceeded expectations in many other states.
Next year, Iowa will have no Democrats in our congressional delegation for the first time since 1956, only one Democratic statewide elected official for the first time since 1982 and the smallest Democratic state legislative caucuses in decades.
Granted, South Carolina (which would supplant Iowa on the DNC’s new calendar) is not a swing state either. But moving that state ahead will give Black Democrats a bigger role in choosing a nominee, which is overdue.
As critics of the current calendar have noted for years, the electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire are much less diverse than the US population and bear little resemblance to the Democratic Party’s base.
Moreover, President Joe Biden and others, notably former presidential candidate Julián Castro, have rightly pointed out that it is much more difficult to participate in a caucus than a primary election.
Iowa Democrats didn’t do enough to make our caucus system more accessible and transparent before the last couple of presidential election cycles. Party leaders dismissed most calls for serious reform, instead choosing a united front with New Hampshire.
The party altered the system in 2020, creating a paper trail and reporting raw supporter totals for the first time. But Iowans who wanted to help select a presidential nominee still needed to be in a specific place and time for an hour or more on a cold winter night. No early voting, no absentee voting, no proxy voting.
The massive problems with reporting the 2020 caucus results after a mobile app malfunctioned further damaged Iowa’s case for remaining first.
Iowa Democratic leaders proposed bigger changes this year, including “presidential preference cards” that could be mailed before caucus night. The complicated “realignment” process, which sometimes produced screwy delegate math, would have been eliminated as each caucusgoer selected one presidential contender. It was too little, too late.
Losing the early state slot will make it harder for Iowa Democrats to rebuild. For decades, presidential candidates have helped the party identify supporters and recruit volunteers. Old-timers will tell you Tom Harkin’s first US Senate campaign in 1984 got a big boost from the organizing that preceded that year’s Democratic caucuses.
Presidential candidates have headlined fundraisers for numerous down-ballot candidates and local party groups in the early states. Their campaigns have paid large sums directly to the Iowa Democratic Party for access to the voter file or tickets to large “cattle call” events. All of that is going away now.
Financial considerations aside, Iowa’s 2024 Democratic candidates will find it harder to qualify for the ballot without thousands of caucusgoers signing their nominating petitions as they attend their neighborhood caucuses.
Meanwhile, Iowa GOP candidates and party organizations will continue to enjoy the old ways as presidential hopefuls generate local enthusiasm and boost attendance at events throughout the coming year.
Republicans, including Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, already are portraying the DNC’s decision as an insult not only to all Iowans but also to all Americans outside urban areas. Gov. Kim Reynolds tweeted, “Democrats have abandoned rural America and denied everyday Iowans a voice in the presidential nominating process.”
Iowa law requires our state’s precinct caucuses to take place “at least eight days earlier” than the scheduled date for any other state’s caucus or primary in the presidential nominating process. Republicans who control the Iowa Legislature have no interest in changing that law, especially since the GOP is preserving our state’s first-in-the-nation status.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn confirmed last week that Democrats will follow state law “and address compliance with DNC rules” later. So the party will hold caucuses in early 2024 to select delegates to county conventions and members of various party committees.
But those caucuses will have no broader significance. While more than 100,000 Republicans show up to support their favorite presidential candidate, only hard-core Democratic activists will attend.
Serious presidential candidates will avoid campaigning here, so as not to lose delegates under the DNC’s new rules, which would penalize contenders who have staff, run ads or give speeches in unsanctioned early states. Iowa will lose half the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention as well.
As Iowa Democrats prepare for life after the caucuses as we know them, they should seek inspiration from state parties that never received the money and attention that comes with being first.