How Iowa Democrats could have saved the caucuses

Anyone who was paying attention has seen this day coming for years.

The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted on December 2 for a new presidential nominating calendar, leaving Iowa out of the coveted early group. Though the Iowa Democratic Party will hold precinct caucuses in early 2024, as state law requires, we will no longer have presidential candidates campaigning around the state.

Some activists are already focused on adapting to life without being first-in-the-nation. I applaud their pragmatic mindset and welcome guest commentaries about how to rebuild the party without the money and national media spotlight we have enjoyed during presidential campaigns for decades.

But first, let's acknowledge what some Democrats gloss over as they fondly recall the good times or grouse about President Joe Biden's "complete kick in the teeth."

Iowa Democratic leaders might have avoided this outcome if they had addressed problems with the caucus system a long time ago.

FAILING TO CHANGE WHAT WE COULD

Party leaders can't alter some realities. Iowa's electorate doesn't reflect the diversity of the Democratic base or the U.S. population, a major concern for Biden and others who want to change the calendar. But the Iowa Democratic Party could have taken other concerns about the caucuses on board.

John Deeth and I have each written a book's worth of blog posts about the caucuses. For at least fifteen years, we've been writing about how inaccessible the gatherings are to many politically engaged people, due to work or family obligations, illness, disability, lack of transportation, aversion to crowds, or a reluctance to make one's preferences public.

We've discussed the convoluted caucus math, which can produce delegate counts that don't reflect the distribution of bodies in the room. The formula has sometimes short-changed whole neighborhoods, as when caucus-goers in two precincts with the same turnout may not allocate the same number of delegates, because of how their precincts voted in the last elections for president and governor.

The math has sometimes short-changed whole counties, as when Johnson County accounted for 12.3 percent of all 2020 Democratic caucus-goers, but determined only 7.7 percent of the state convention delegates. (The numbers were similar in 2016 and 2008.)

As the lead organizer of Democratic caucuses in Johnson County for several cycles, Deeth has highlighted the overcrowding problem.

A few obvious reforms could have resolved most of those issues. Create an absentee ballot option for Democrats who can't or won't spend hours in a specific place on a cold Monday night. Eliminate the viability threshold, which for decades allowed Iowa Democrats to register a preference for a candidate only if a certain percentage of their neighbors agreed. Ditch "state delegate equivalents" and gamesmanship during realignment to report the results like Iowa Republicans have done for decades. Then we would all know how many Democrats chose each presidential candidate, and everyone's "vote" would have equal weight.

State party leaders consistently ruled out those changes. Why?

SOLIDARITY WITH NEW HAMPSHIRE OVER OUR OWN VOTERS

As then presidential candidate Julián Castro observed in 2019, "If you didn't know anything about this process, and I told you how it was set up, you would think that a right-wing Republican set this process up, because it really makes it harder to vote than it should be."

I couldn't count how many times party insiders have told me we "can't" do this or that to improve the caucuses, because New Hampshire's secretary of state wouldn't "let" us. Under New Hampshire law, that state is supposed to have the first presidential primary election. So anything that would make the Iowa caucuses resemble a primary was dismissed out of hand.

Iowa Democrats lionize Senator Tom Harkin for his role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet when one activist raised the matter of disability accommodations in 2002, the state party chair responded that doing so would make the caucuses too much like a primary.

Scott Brennan, who represents Iowa on the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, told the Des Moines Register that the letter Biden sent the committee this week (encouraging a new calendar and eliminating caucuses from the nominating process) was a "complete kick in the teeth." He warned committee members, "Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to our party for a generation.”

Yet when a New York Times reporter asked Brennan—then the state party chair—about an emergency room worker who couldn't attend the 2008 caucuses due to a required evening shift, Brennan waived off the mass disenfranchisement of shift workers: "there’s always the next cycle."

The state party created a caucus review committee in the spring of 2016. Deeth offered to serve on that panel, but wasn't invited to participate. Leaders made clear from the beginning that major changes were off the table. Rather, the body would preserve "the essential nature of a caucus."

For many years, when top Iowa Democrats could have been working with the DNC to make the caucuses more inclusive, their priority was to maintain a united front with New Hampshire against all who might upend the calendar. That alliance preserved our first-in-the-nation status in 1984 and beyond, but is way past its sell-by date now.

THE CAUCUS CAMPAIGN VS. CAUCUS NIGHT

It makes sense to start the presidential campaign in small states, where lesser-known and underfunded contenders can compete with the front-runners. Many former candidates or staffers have praised Iowans for taking their role seriously. I've seen it myself lots of times: when ordinary Democrats have a chance to meet presidential candidates, they often ask substantive questions about policies, not stupid questions about the horse race or whatever the right-wing noise machine is hyping that day.

But the virtues of a small-state campaign are outweighed by the barriers to participation in a caucus. Consider Connecticut and Iowa, which had a similar number of registered voters in 2016. Turnout for the Connecticut Democratic primary (where the presidential candidates spent almost no time and had little campaign infrastructure, and which occurred after Hillary Clinton had built up a large delegate lead) dwarfed that of the high-stakes Iowa caucuses.

Some who benefited from the caucus system have tried to put a good spin on its complexities. For instance, the immense time commitment required was a plus; "caucuses should be inconvenient" to ensure the most dedicated Democrats help select the presidential nominee. The uncertainty over whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders won in 2016 was grounded in a misunderstanding: "Caucuses are not primaries—they are party building events rife with idiosyncrasies. [...] They don’t always lend themselves to clear results [...]."

Nostalgic Iowa Democrats may recall the caucuses as friendly meetings, where people had a chance to persuade their neighbors. That romantic image doesn't always match how caucuses have played out, especially in large precincts.

I'm extroverted and able-bodied, and have generally enjoyed caucus night (aside from watching experienced Democrats use the realignment process to deprive my candidate of a delegate in 1988). Unfortunately, too many who try it once leave their precincts determined never to repeat the experience.

I personally know Democrats who showed up for our packed 2008 caucus but stayed away in 2016 and 2020, even though they still lived in our neighborhood. Deeth has written at length about how crowded rooms and hours-long counts deter first-time Johnson County caucus-goers from becoming active volunteers.

Dan Guild observed chaos and confusion in Dallas County in 2016. Resentments and distrust between Clinton and Sanders delegates that year led to ugly scenes at the Polk County Democratic convention.

Some residents of Des Moines precinct 61 approached me after the 2020 caucus, upset because the precinct chair (influenced by volunteers for Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar) didn't give supporters of Bernie Sanders enough time to realign. Regrettably, I never finished my post about that fiasco after shifting gears to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. But the machinations probably cost Elizabeth Warren a delegate and left many committed Democrats disenchanted with the caucus process.

WHOSE FAULT IS IT REALLY?

In fairness to Iowa Democratic Party leaders, they did pursue a virtual option for the 2020 caucuses. While flawed, that proposal would have allowed some Iowans to make their voices heard without being physically present at a caucus site. The DNC pulled the plug on the virtual caucus with only a few months left to devise an alternative.

The DNC was subsequently involved in selecting the much-maligned Iowa caucus app, which malfunctioned and led to big delays in reporting the 2020 results.

On the other hand, you can't blame the DNC for the inexplicable decision by the state party's governing body to certify 2020 caucus numbers that contained known errors.

This year, Iowa Democrats sought to please the national party with bigger changes: a caucus with no realignment or complicated math.

Under the proposal, a caucus-goer would request a presidential preference card. An Iowan would receive the card in the mail and they would have 14 to 28 days to either mail it back or return it in person.

The state party would be able to announce the results on caucus night.

Biden's December 1 letter to the DNC rules committee stated in part,

Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process. We are a party dedicated to ensuring participation by all voters and for removing barriers to political participation. Caucuses – requiring voters to choose in public, to spend significant amounts of time to caucus, disadvantaging hourly workers and anyone who does not have the flexibility to go to a set location at a set time – are inherently anti-participatory. It should be our party’s goal to rid the nominating process of restrictive, anti-worker caucuses.

Current Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn responded in a written statement, "It’s disappointing to see a characterization of caucuses that does not reflect the historic reforms that we proposed. The new Iowa Caucuses will be a simplified vote-by-mail process that increases accessibility and grows our Party."

If the party had taken that approach in 2015, Iowa Democrats would be in a far better position to defend our early spot. We would have avoided much of the controversy surrounding the last two caucuses, because there would have been broader participation and a clear winner. Paraphrasing Deeth, we would be able to say we are "the party of voting rights not just on election day, but on caucus night."

At this point, it's too late to satisfy those who demand "a fair, transparent and inclusive nominating process."

Wilburn told the Des Moines Register that if the DNC adopts the proposed calendar as expected next month, “they will be ignoring the voice of middle America with all our diversity and all of the strong grassroots networks that we have.”

The state party could have done much more to elevate the voices of Iowa Democrats, regardless of their address, occupation, mobility, or family circumstance. We gambled on sticking it out with New Hampshire and are paying the price.

Top photo from the crowded 2020 precinct caucus in Iowa City 5 provided by John Deeth and published with permission.

  • jenniwd

    As mother of Grinnell alum and grandmother of current student I was momentarily disappointed to hear about the probable demise of IA caucus. Liberal Grinnelians from all over used to be so proud to participate every four years in heartland Americana in a unique process that seemed to exemplify the essence of true democracy. And of course, it's exciting to be the first state to launch the national presidential campaign.Yet the end of an era should not be looked at as IA "getting kicked in the teeth". What counts, especially in ths era, should be the democratic party as a whole. If the national party benefits from from having early primaries launched from states less parochially red and insular, states that enjoy wider demographic representation, then it seems to me that all dems including IA dems should support the change. .

    • Hear, hear

      I have been to every caucus since 1972. My best memory was 1976 and we were living in Iowa Falls in Hardin County in North Central Iowa. A teacher friend invited me to go along to the JJ Dinner in Ames. I had a new suit. Most of the candidates were there, as were TV stations. It was thrill.

      Caucus ttendance was not much (compared to 2016), but we learned there were other Democrats in Iowa Falls. I was a Birch Bayh delegate to the county, which was administered by a lawyer whom I didn’t know. I got a phone call from Arizona Rep. Morris Udall.. I attended the state convention where Ed Asner was guest speaker. Skip to 2000 and we were living in West Des Moines. Prior to the caucuses we housed a Gore advance man, and a Tipper staffer. The caucus wasn’t much that year. Skip to 2016 in Ankeny. The facility at a motel was fire coded at 175, about half of what was needed. The two lines…one to register to vote, the second to sign-in for the caucus stumbled over each other. Needless to say, no chummy policy chats. The delegate count was haphazard at best and some (many) left mad. It was awful. We were housing campaign workers, many whose names and faces have disappeared from memory.. we housed one worker, a high ranking organizer from Mayor Pete, who got the most delegates in our 2020 caucus, which was 100% better than 2016, and all numbers were crunched and sent in via the maligned app. We got home in time for the 10:00 news where we found the local anchors were as bewildered as us. As somebody said , It’s been a nice ride. I wouldn’t have traded a front row seat for the antiseptic efficiency of a primary. BTW. In Jimmy Carter’s second trip through Iowa we hosted a neighbor’s coffee for Rosalynn Carter. Maybe fall 1979.

  • How Dems Could Have Saved the Caucus

    Great article, Laura! You nailed it!

  • In the end

    I think part of this is Biden getting retribution against both IA and NH. Honestly though the reporting failure in '20 I think meant the end of the caucuses.

    I thought the 20 process was much better - but the IA Dems were much too deferential to NH. The irony is that BOTH IA/NH has now been devalued.

  • How will the caucus select delegates to the county convention?

    There are all sorts of rules about the delegations and I don't see how they can be applied based on a mail in ballot if the too few participants for the viable candidates.

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