It needs to be said: Abolish the caucus

John Webb is a retired chef and currently a writer, organizer, and activist living in Des Moines. He has been active in the struggle for representation for more than 20 years. And yes, he showed up to caucus. -promoted by Laura Belin

I have a few confessions to make before I get into the meat of this essay. I am not from Iowa in any way. I moved to my wife’s hometown after she finished graduate school three years ago. Also, I have spent the past twelve months living and breathing presidential politics in one way or another. I have knocked doors and attended rallies and taken the requisite pictures. And yes, I hugged Cory Booker.

I have taken the responsibility of First in the Nation status seriously. I have loved the attention and experiencing things like the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, Polk County Steak Fry, and Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration. And I have come across a lot of good people, both volunteers and organizers, who supported many of the different candidates.

But it is time to either systemically alter the caucus system or do away with it entirely. I don’t really care about the first in the nation status. The caucus system is endemically flawed and disadvantageous to entire groups of Iowans. To claim that the caucus represents all Iowa Democrats is to ignore many of us.

And now it is time to address all of the feelings that the previous paragraph just provoked. I will lay out my argument shortly but I want to give all the Iowans reading this a chance to breathe through their pride in state and party and let the rising steam in their ears dissipate for a moment. Because the first in the nation status has been a bit of a sticky wicket around here for a few months now.

I want to divorce my analysis of the caucus system from the first in the nation status for a moment. Yes, I understand that New Hampshire has a state constitutional amendment and that even ranked choice voting looks too much like a primary to them. I also understand that loss of first in the nation status means losing approximately all of the access I have enjoyed this year and millions of dollars.

That being said, it is time to abolish the caucuses. They are often inaccessible and have many flaws that I think outweigh the benefits of the format.

The caucus system is great. As long as you can stand on a gym floor for hours. In February. In Iowa. Have a job that you can afford to be away from for three or more hours on a Monday night. Can arrange for child care or have older children who can come to the caucus with you.

And as long as you don’t mind standing in front of your neighbors publicly making your choice for presidential nominee be known. Or, in some cases, don’t mind sharing with your partner that you are casting wildly different votes. And don’t fear retribution from that partner later that night.

Or that you are confident that your public support for a presidential candidate won’t have any repercussions with your boss. Iowa is small. It is pretty easy to figure out who caucuses for whom in most of the state.

These are just a few of the problems with the caucus system. As evidence, I would point to the turnout historically and especially in 2020. I have talked to as many people who said that they wouldn’t or couldn’t caucus as I have supporters of any of the candidates.

I know that Iowans take pride in the caucus and the attention that they bring. I know that the traditional purpose of party building is Rockwell esque. But I would ask you how the platform proposal process went in your precinct. Were there any offered? Was there debate? How many were accepted or rejected?

The time has come to re evaluate the purpose of the caucuses and, indeed, the Iowa Democratic Party. Personally, I am a Democrat because I believe in lifting every voice. I spoke to too many Iowans who don’t feel the caucus system represents them. It needs to be said: abolish the caucus.

Top photo of Des Moines precinct 42 on realignment during the February 3, 2020 caucus provided by the author and published with permission.

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  • Platform folly

    It’s a little odd to criticize over attended caucuses for not debating platform planks. No candidate is obliged to honor the platform anyway. Platforms are for nerds.
    We have had friendly platform debates at our county conventions in the past. But even thirty Democrats have a hard time agreeing on much in a timely fashion.
    This year I expect no platform debates at my county. We will spend our time discussing GOTV details instead: forming a postcard committee, a phone bank, a parade contingent, a yard sign detail, a gang of door knockers.

    • The point of the question...

      Was to ask how much “party building” actually takes place in a precinct.

      And attendance numbers don’t reflect mass turnout either.

      So what then, is the purpose of a precinct caucus that outweighs the representation issues raised in the article.

      And thanks for demeaning the nerds who actually care about platforms.

      • I don't submit platform planks anymore...

        …but I and some other Iowa conservationists used to work hard on pro-environment platform planks in Iowa years ago. I know we at least raised political awareness of certain issues that weren’t getting much attention, and I think at least one state bill passed partly as a result. If that work made us “nerds,” I’m sure most of us would willingly accept the label.

      • Caucus is social

        At my caucus someone said, “I didn’t know there were this many Democrats in town.” That awareness builds power. The pizza we shared after adjourment made some new connections among potential activists. It was successful at party building. Yet no one had any platform ideas to promote.

  • Caucus or nominee selection process?

    If Iowa went to a primary system for presidential choice, so in June we cast our votes for the presidential nominee just as we do for state contests, would we still hold a caucus in February, as we do during gubernatorial years, to elect precinct people and to gather platform proposals? Are there non-caucus methods we might use to develop the party? I have reservations about the caucus for party building. For presidential selection process, I want the caucus simply because it is much more rewarding to be able to choose from 20 candidates rather than the 2 or 3 candidates that are left viable by the time most primaries occur. Every 4 years, I want to apologize to the rest of the country that the big-money backers, the media, and the political powers decide that if a candidate has not taken the most delegates out of Iowa, then that candidate must somehow have already lost the nomination. As someone stated elsewhere, Iowa is not selecting the nomine; the Iowa caucuses are only the first marker.

  • Bygone Relic

    No one harvests with scythes anymore, either. The Caucuses are a bygone relic from a bygone era.

  • Another way the caucuses are outdated

    So many good candidates ended up dropping out even before the caucuses happened. In previous years, solid candidates such as Gillebrand, Harris, Booker and Castro could have gotten a boost from a strong caucus showing. Instead, the relentless national attention and polling took its toll long before Iowans got a chance to choose. That, combined with the self-financed vanity candidacies of billionaires and other non-serious candidates, has reduced the impact of the caucuses, at least in my opinion.