Joshua Doležal writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and produces a Substack newsletter, The Recovering Academic. He is also the author of a memoir, Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging.
President Biden made headlines in November for his proposal to replace Iowa with South Carolina as the first state in the Democratic primary calendar. The Democratic National Committee voted in early February to approve proposed changes to the presidential primary, and while some obstacles to implementing those changes remain, Iowa’s fate is effectively sealed.
As a former Iowa resident whose views changed substantially after participating in three caucuses, I applaud these changes.
THE VIEW OF A CAUCUS-GOER
The 2008 Iowa caucus was my first. I was single, able-bodied, and free to participate within the strict time constraints on a weeknight. The public voting reminded me of how every school cafeteria segregates into insiders and outsiders. But I’d been sold on the Iowa tradition, and I had a front seat to Barack Obama’s historic victory, so I largely kept my reservations to myself.
President Obama ran unopposed in 2012, and like many Iowans I sat that caucus out. The stakes felt low, and my wife was pregnant with our first child, so we stayed in on that cold January night.
THE VIEW OF A CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER
Our daughter was three years old in January 2016, and we brought her with us. I was serving for the first time as a volunteer, for Bernie Sanders, and after knocking on doors for several months, my view of the caucuses had changed considerably.
Some people told me they couldn’t participate because they couldn’t find child care. Others worked the night shift, and some knew they would be out of town on business. Since there was no absentee voting, those people were effectively disenfranchised. We did our best to provide transportation for all who needed it in our precinct, but Iowa winters are harsh. Venturing out in early January to sit in a crowded room for up to two hours is a daunting commitment for the elderly and for people with disabilities. For some, it might even pose a serious health risk.
But the final straw for me was the kind of personal moment that the Iowa caucuses are meant to foster. I was standing at the door welcoming voters alongside other volunteers, when my next-door neighbors, who I’ll call Tim and Sue, walked in. They had become close friends, surrogate grandparents to our daughter, and I had understood from our backyard conversations that they’d be joining me in the Sanders camp. But when I greeted them, Sue looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It means something to me that Hillary is a woman.” And she walked across the room to join the Clinton supporters.
I’ll never forget the swirl of shame that followed. Sue felt that by exercising her right to vote, she had let me down. I wondered if other Iowans felt that they had to choose between their consciences and pleasing their spouses, neighbors, or family members. If public pressure influences even one conciliatory caucus vote, that is one too many.
Our family had grown to four by January 2020, and we asked our part-time nanny if she could babysit so we could attend the caucus. She claimed she wouldn’t have been going anyway, and she was a Republican, so we joked about my plan to suppress GOP votes. But she worked for us during the week. Maybe she felt that she couldn’t say no. Iowans should not have to choose between paying for child care and exercising their right to vote.
I was a volunteer again in 2020, this time for Amy Klobuchar, but instead of knocking on doors I sent a letter to voters in my precinct. Many of them told me on caucus night that my letter had brought them into the Klobuchar camp, which was gratifying.
But as I greeted voters at the door, two of my colleagues arrived, both recent hires, both strong supporters of Elizabeth Warren. I was their department chair. We had spoken freely about our choices in the hallway for weeks, and neither of them would have voted differently out of fear that I might torpedo their tenure review. But the public nature of caucusing only emphasizes these power dynamics. If we’d had a different relationship, they might have felt that publicly voting against my candidate posed a risk.
The Iowa Democratic Party attempted to broaden access in 2020 by allowing satellite voting, but this only compounded the chaos following the infamous app malfunction. As Faiz Shakir has recently argued in the New York Times, there ought to be accountability for incompetence. And many have claimed for years that Iowa’s predominantly white population stifles diversity among presidential candidates.
Others make the opposite case: that the lack of diversity in Iowa is strategically advantageous in honing messages that will resonate in other red and purple states with large rural populations. But the fact remains that just two non-incumbent candidates—George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have won both the Iowa caucuses and the presidency. Anomalies are a poor basis for policy.
I now live in Pennsylvania, and I thought about Iowa as I voted in the midterm election last fall. A large man wearing a MAGA hat stared me down while I stood in line. He had no idea how I voted, in the end, but I thought of him afterward as a different kind of argument against the Iowa caucuses. I’ve never seen any overt intimidation on caucus night, but there’s no prohibition against observers watching from the back of the room. The MAGA man I saw could, if he wished, drive to Iowa, wander into a caucus gathering, and match votes to faces and names. If he had help, he could do worse than that.
When the Iowa caucuses were established as first in the nation in 1972, it took some courage for Democrats to gather together publicly. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated just four years earlier. Thousands of Americans were still voting no confidence in their government by protesting the Vietnam War. It was a good idea, maybe even an audacious one, to focus on community building during such a divisive time.
But from their inception, the caucuses have been just as exclusionary as they have been inclusive. Even a private ballot can’t fix that. I think of the caregivers, ER surgeons whose shifts fall on caucus night, patients who are conscious but bedridden, long-haul truckers, military personnel serving out of state or overseas, gas station clerks, Walmart employees, police officers on duty, and many more who can vote absentee in the general election but are silenced on caucus night. Democracy demands that they be heard, too.
Iowa had a good run. It’s time to try a different experiment.
Top photo of Joshua Dolezal provided by the author and published with permission.
The best way to start the presidential process would be to earn it. The state that gets the highest percentage of voters would have first choice. The state with the second highest would be next and follow in that order. Plus a higher turnout of voters generally favors the democratic party.
I've been caucusing since my first caucus in 1980...
...and I agree with this post. And 2020 was the last time I'll attend a caucus.
I’m one of the few who’ve attended every presidential caucus since ‘72, even the two of three years with no contest. I was in my 20s in ‘72 and literally drug along by my teacher/colleague. In ‘76 (fall 1975) I attend my first JJ Dinner (again drug along by a colleague). I was bedazzled, intrigued, baptized, and confirmed a Democrat (capital D). 17 candidates spoke and McGovern was the keynote. I thought this was SOP. My wife and I drove to Des Moines for another party hootenanny and we both committed to Birch Evans Bayh Jr. who authored (found this out that night)Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which bans gender discrimination in higher education institutions that receive federal funding.We lived in Iowa Falls then, and I got a personal call from Mo Udall and I saw Jimmy Carter several times. The caucus was at the public golf course, and the county in Eldora, and the state at Vets Auditorium, and Edward Asner (RIP) was keynote. By then I had exhausted my commitment and happy not to go further. ‘80 for Jimmy. ‘84 for Mondale. ‘In ‘8t I went to a meet/greet for Gary Hart, stood next to Paul,Simon in the men’s room at the Starlight Hotel. And shared an elevator with Roger Mudd. ‘92 Tom Harkin. ‘96 no contest. 2000 Al Gore. 2004 John Kerry. 2008 my wife’s fav HRC. 2012 no contest, but caucuses were held to do “party business.” We could have had a “deliberation” about issues, but we were divided into precincts so a guy and I talked and agreed on all. 2016…my wife was a HRC volunteer and I went to many meetups. The caucus was crowed, attendee frustrated, lines too long, and no chairs. (I wish, Joshua Doležal, the Bernie folks would have been told to register Democrat before the caucus. The counting of delegates was difficult, but ended in a 50-50 split. I was worn out when we got home. In 2020 I was for Liz Warren and my wife Biden. The caucus room was spacious (thanks Ankeny Methodists) and turn out tremendous. We had a young man who knew his stuff as caucus chair. Much new info to gather and report. He knew how to use the app and it worked fine. We were home by 10 ready to hear the news on TV. It didn’t come, as we all know by now. My belief is that the majority of caucus chairs were I’ll-trained, or ignored training thinking the caucuses were same old, same old. They were not. Much new info and numbers to crunch. I’m thinking the folks gave up on the app and reverted to phone calls. The leadership expected the app to work so had too few lines to collect data, much of which was incomplete. BTW. We had a Mayor Pete organizers staying with us and Pete won our caucus. Bernie and Liz got a few delegates, but Amy Klobuchar was a clear second. BTW. I loved the JJs. I once walked into a reception room and there was one man at the bar. My wife and I spoke to him. No introductions. She knew he was Al Franken. I didn’t until he was introduced as the keynote. As I’ll-informed as I was, I shouldn’t be helping to pick the president., but that’s democracy. I will miss the campaigning and meetup, even the TV ads;. But in the end Joshua is right. By the time ‘24 arrives there may not be enough Democrats to fill a room. Please help Rita Hart grow the party.
I've participated in the Iowa Caucus since '76 and applaud the efforts of Dave Nagle and others to continue to "go first" regardless of DNC penalties. Biden's pandering to Clyburn and South Carolina is nauseating. I will support Williamson or any other Democrat not named "Biden" in the '24 Caucus and encourage others to do the same.
I'm with Joshua, too.
Like the writer of the "Old Timer" comment, I have not missed a caucus. And I have chaired a bunch of them. Never again. It was good while it lasted—mostly—but the more "important" it became, the less participatory it felt. I say let the Republicans carry on their "first in the nation" game as long as their Statehouse majority keeps the law that requires going first. They'd rather be Trumpists, so they won't be the moderating force they could have been in the days of Robert Ray. If ever Dems find our way, maybe happy day will come again.
I’m very disappointed in some of these comments. The first in the nation Iowa Caucus is sacred and makes our state unique. The “ho hum” attitude of its gone, so what is disturbing. IDP has been reeling after the past few elections and now DNC(and President. Biden) have kicked us to the curb.
Just in case a small clarification might help...
...I have several Democratic friends who are also willing to let the caucuses go. But that does not, repeat not, mean that we are thinking "oh well, Iowa is deep red now, so be it." We really want to bring Iowa back to purple (at least). And we are ready and willing to act accordingly, with donations, volunteering, etc. We know the process won't be fast or easy, but we're ready to contribute.
I would bet that many other Iowa Democrats who are willing to let the caucuses go are just as determined to make the IDP a major effective force in Iowa again.
In response to 2020 being the last caucus you will have attended, I think that is a matter of fact. The last time I saw a presentation from then-Iowa Democratic Party Chairman, Ross Wilburn, he informed the group I was in that our electoral format is going to change to a primary because the national party requires it. So, I hope that you participate in whatever caucus substitute we have.
We need you.
Regarding Iowa being "deep red," I think the government "trifecta," as some refer to it, demonstrates that Iowa is in fact, deep red. I hesitate to call it a "trifecta," for a couple of reasons. First, the obvious: the Iowa Supreme Court is not (yet, anyway) elected. Second, I study the court and, while it has given the Governor what she wanted with respect to abortion and other important social issues, its justices do not walk in lock step on a number of other important matters, like criminal justice.
But that's a quibble.
I believe the Iowa Democratic Party wants to galvanize and, Heaven knows we need to, as this legislative session is more awful than the past session, which was more awful than the one before that, which was more awful than its immediate predecessor, and the race to the bottom has been devastating.
What we have never been good at is joining our enthusiasm and working as a party, as opposed to as a party in name only, with too many constituency groups, too many issues, and no focus -- therefore no proportionate progress. Many active Democrats are one-issue "activists." For example, those who seek to clean up the environment. This blog has thoroughly addressed the ridiculous restrictions on individual liberties. They have come so fast and furious for the past half decade that, if the legislature and the governorship were to somehow become completely Democratic tomorrow, it would take at least two decades to turn things around. The bureaucratic changes, alone, would be daunting.
For purposes of discussion only, can the environmental contingent take a back seat for one six year cycle, so that we can regain some civil liberties? Or will they walk away because they are smarting from not being heard? Will those who seek to reclaim civil liberties be willing (again, for purposes of discussion) to put counter legislation on the back burner for a cycle so that we can have clean water to drink and soil that is not contaminated by oil and natural gas spills? Will those concerned about court-packing continue their work independent of the legislative process, and commit to focus for a cycle on getting some legislative consensus on civil liberties and the environment and one other issue?
The list and variety of oppressive laws that have gone through since 2018 is/are enormous. The list of interest groups affected is too big to provide "all things to all people" at the statewide party level in a five-year period.
Before even contemplating whether our constituent groups will make those sacrifices, the most immediate matter, it seems to me, is grappling with how to effectively function at the core level, without the "first in the nation" framework that has guided the party for the past 50 years.
We can delude ourselves into believing that we are "ready and willing" to "bring Iowa back to purple (at least)," but when we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don't know what a functioning post-caucus electoral system devoid of the incentive produced by photo-opportunities with presidential candidates looks like. Two generations of those goofy caucuses -- exclusionary though they were -- gave us a structure that no longer exists.
I am not familiar with Rita Hart. Those who have worked with her like her "energy." They like her "focus." If nothing else, they like the fact she's a woman. That's all good stuff.
But does she have the vision, and does Greg Christiansen have the vision, to find and work with organizational architects who can go back to the drawing board and develop something palatable and serviceable to the party faithful that will meet national requirements?
And while that is going on, can Rita and Greg help field great candidates?
I sure don't know.