Iowa Democrats fight to keep caucuses first in 2024

By: - June 23, 2022 1:50 pm

Iowa Democrats appear before the national party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee on June 23, 2022, to discuss why the caucuses should remain first in the nation. (Screen shot from Democratic National Committee video)

Iowa’s decades of success holding the first spot in the Democrats’ presidential nomination process makes it best qualified to stay an early state, Iowa Democrats told the national party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee Thursday.

“We intend to remain first,” said Scott Brennan, former state party chair and current rules committee member.

But Iowa’s 2020 Democratic caucus was not a success. It’s one of the big reasons why Iowa had to give a presentation to the Democratic National Committee. In April, the committee stripped Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina of their early nominating positions and allowed states to compete for the coveted spots.

Iowa, alongside 15 other states and Puerto Rico, gave presentations and answered questions from the DNC’s rules committee this week. They are applying for one of five waivers which would allow states to hold their presidential nominating contests before the first Tuesday in March.  The committee will evaluate each state on three metrics: diversity, competitiveness, and feasibility.

Iowa starts with a disadvantage in all three areas. The state is 85% white, its politics are increasingly red, and the state party received a black mark with its conduct of the 2020 caucuses.

In their presentation, Iowa Democrats emphasized the increasing racial diversity of the state, its largest cities and its elected officials. Iowa is already home to economic and population diversity, speakers argued.

Iowa’s relatively low-cost media market allows lesser-known candidates to compete, Brennan pointed out, and the candidates who spend the most don’t always win.

Iowa still claims its status as a swing state, even though the GOP holds the trifecta in the Statehouse and all but one of the state’s congressional seats. Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst argued Democrats can recover, pointing to competitive races in three of the state’s four congressional districts.

“What I hear a lot is that maybe Iowa Democrats are in the desert, and I say, well if that’s true, I can still see the water,” Konfrst said. “Because it’s right there, 2018 is when we picked up six seats in the Iowa House, it’s not that far away.”

Iowa’s solution to vote reporting problems

But Iowa must go beyond proving its value as a competitive space for Democrats. The speakers also had to show how the party plans to move past the problems marring the 2020 caucuses. In 2020, errors in the mobile application used to report voting totals caused a three-day delay in reporting results.

Scott Brennan, a Democratic National Committee member from Iowa, presents Iowa’s case for keeping the caucuses first in the nation on June 23, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Screen shot from DNC video)

The state party will contract with an approved vendor or with the Iowa Secretary of State and county auditors in 2024, according to the plan outlined to the DNC. Changes to the state’s vote reporting process do not negate the rest of the infrastructure Iowa has to offer as a campaigning state, Brennan said.

“Fifty years of competitive Iowa caucuses created one of the nation’s most well-organized networks of county party committees and activists who welcome candidates to all parts of Iowa, and understand the challenging logistics of presidential campaigning,” he said.

The fact that Iowa holds a caucus instead of a primary is also a point of contention. Democrats nationally have long criticized caucuses as being less inclusive, the in-person process prohibitive to lower-income, disabled and elderly voters.

Other states, including Nevada, have moved to primaries in recent years because of these criticisms. Iowa cannot make this switch: State law requires parties to hold caucuses for the presidential nomination process.

“Caucus states are going to be a hard sell for me,” committee member Mo Elleithee said in April.

How do you define a caucus?

Iowa will still hold a caucus in 2024, but the Democrats proposed significant changes to the process. No longer will Iowans gather in community spaces, separating into different corners of a room to align and realign to support candidates of their choice.

Instead, Iowa voters would request a presidential preference card by mail. Voters would have two weeks to 28 days to return the card by mail or in person on caucus night. The card would only mark down the voter’s first choice candidate, eliminating the realignment process. In-person precinct caucus meetings would focus on party organization and not include presidential preference votes.

Committee members questioned whether this new caucus process is distinct enough from primaries to stay first in the nation.

New Hampshire has a state law requiring its secretary of state to set its presidential primary date before other “similar” primary contests. Iowa has held its contest ahead of New Hampshire since the 1970s, because caucuses have not been viewed as “similar” to a primary. New Hampshire made its pitch to the committee Wednesday.

It’s unclear how the Granite State will go forward if the committee denies its application for an early state waiver. “At the end of the day, the state law isn’t something that the people of New Hampshire would allow to be changed,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley said Wednesday.

Also unclear is whether the changes to Iowa’s caucus process would make it count as a similar enough contest under New Hampshire’s law to spark a dispute over which state goes first, if both states regain their early voting spots.

Iowa Democratic leaders, from left, Scott Brennan, Ross Wilburn and Jennifer Konfrst. present their case to keep the Iowa caucuses first in the nation on June 23, 2022 at a Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington, D.C. (Screen shot from DNC video)

Under Iowa law, precinct caucuses must be held at least eight days earlier than any other state’s contest. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said Iowa Democrats are happy to talk with other early states about their place in the lineup.

“We’ve not had negotiations with New Hampshire, but if you want to establish the order here today, we can go right back there in a room back there,” Wilburn joked, drawing laughs from committee members.

The Rules and Bylaws Committee will deliberate and announce which states get the five waivers Aug. 5 and 6. Konfrst said regardless of the DNC decision, it’s important to keep in mind that Iowa Republicans will hold the first-in-the-nation caucus in 2024.

“We did make a good case for why Iowa deserves to continue to be the first test for presidential candidates. … And one of the reasons is Republicans will be going first,” Konfrst said in a news conference after the meeting. “So in order to help Democrats continue to grow, and for our party to continue to stay strong in the state, Democrats being first is critical to that point.”

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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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