Iowa Democrats to make their appeal to keep caucuses first in the nation

By: - June 21, 2022 4:39 pm

Iowa Democrats are fighting to keep the Iowa caucuses first in the nation. In this file photo from February 2020, caucusgoers gather at the southside YMCA in Des Moines. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Democrats will make their pitch Thursday to the national party to stay first in the nation for the presidential nominating process.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Democratic National Committee is looking at a change to the early state lineup, which allowed Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carola to hold their presidential nominating contests before the first Tuesday in March.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws committee approved a proposal in April of this year to strip the four states of their early voting status.

The committee announced that all interested states could apply for one of the five waivers allowing them to hold their primary or caucus in February. On Wednesday and Thursday, 17 states and one territory – Puerto Rico – will give their arguments to the committee for why they should earn one of those spots. The committee evaluates each state on three metrics: diversity, competitiveness, and feasibility.

By these three standards, Iowa falls short compared to other Midwestern states hoping the represent the region. Iowa is much less racially diverse than states like Michigan or Illinois, which are also competing for a waiver. Reporting failures during the 2020 Democratic caucuses bring up questions of feasibility. Republicans have made substantial gains in the state’s recent elections.

Iowa Democrats said the changes they’ve proposed to the caucus system will fix some of these issues. More importantly, Iowa offers an in-road for Democrats to appeal to Middle America, party leaders said.

“It is crucial that potential Democratic nominees hear the voices of rural Democrats and learn firsthand about the economic, social, and cultural issues that are impacting their lives,” Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn said in a letter to the  Rules and Bylaws Committee. “Iowans take this role very seriously. If, as Democrats, we wish to protect and expand our electoral map, presidential candidates must continue to hear these voices.”

Iowa argues diversity beyond state’s racial profile

Iowa is 85% white. It’s becoming a more racially diverse state, Scott Brennan, a former IDP chair and current rules committee member said, and it already represents different variations in America’s population. Brennan pointed to economic diversity, and the variety of rural, urban and suburban voters who participate in caucuses.

With Democrats struggling to appeal to working-class rural voters nationally, Iowa is a good testing ground for candidates who hope to win in a general election, he said.

“We can’t just glom onto a pile of votes on the coasts and a couple big cities and hope that’s enough,” he said. “It isn’t enough.”

Iowa Democrats also have to persuade the national committee that their caucuses’ 2020 problems won’t happen again. Issues with a mobile application used to report voting totals caused a three-day delay in vote reporting, which led to the resignation of then-party chair Troy Price.

State party representatives will give a 15-minute presentation, then answer questions for 20 minutes. Iowa’s presentation will highlight its plans to “professionalize” the reporting process by contracting with an approved vendor or with the Iowa Secretary of State and county auditors.

There’s another roadblock to Iowa’s place at the top of the Democratic presidential nominating process: Iowa’s caucus system itself.

“The fact of the matter is that the DNC prefers primaries over caucuses,” Brennan said. “We have a state law that says we have to be a caucus. So we’re making probably the most dramatic changes we’ve ever made.”

In 2020, Iowa was one of only five states to still hold caucuses instead of primary elections. Democrats have long criticized the caucus system, arguing that it prevents marginalized people from participating as the process requires in-person attendance.

Caucus changes include absentee participation

Iowa Democrats hope to address these concerns while still following state law by no longer requiring in-person attendance. In the party’s proposal, Democrats participating in a caucus would request a presidential preference card by mail, and have two weeks to 28 days to return the card by mail or in-person on caucus night.

The new process would also eliminate any realignment. Typically, Iowa caucuses have two “alignment” steps – first, voters stand in an area of the caucus room by their candidate of choice, and move to support another candidate if their first pick fails to earn 15% of voters present. Under the proposal, voters would only mark down their top choice.

While Iowa plans to show how caucuses will improve from 2020, other states want to prove they’re better suited to take the mantle. The Michigan Democratic congressional delegation wrote a letter to the rules committee on why the state should join the early lineup, and the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee launched a “Move Up Michigan” campaign in support of the effort.

After this week’s meetings, the Rules and Bylaws committee will reconvene Aug. 5 and 6 to determine which five states will hold early seats in the nominating process.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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