Will Democratic caucus changes be enough for Iowa to remain first?

By: - July 8, 2022 7:07 pm

National Democrats still question whether proposed Iowa Democratic caucus changes bring enough participation and diversity to the process. (File photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa caucuses will look very different in 2024 under a proposal submitted by Iowa Democrats, but some national party members still question whether the planned system is enough of a change to make Iowa more equitable.

The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws committee met Friday afternoon for the first time after hearing from states vying to earn an early spot in the 2024 presidential nominating process. Iowa Democrats were one of 17 states and one territory to present their argument to the DNC in June to retain their place as first in the nation to hold caucuses.

In Friday’s meeting, committee members discussed which issues they thought should be at the forefront while making their final decisions on which states get the five waivers to hold early competitions.

Democrats are contemplating changing the established line-up — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – to include states which are more diverse, and which might give Democrats a competitive edge in the general election.

Mo Elleithee, an influential committee member from Washington, D.C., argued against the dominance of “two very small states” — Iowa and New Hampshire — in the nominating process.

“Ever since the modern primary process came into play, two very small states have set the trajectory for the entire process. I think that’s worth recognizing,” he said. “I believe several of you have talked about needing a process that does the best job of nominating and eventually electing a president. Wholeheartedly agree, a thousand percent agree. In my mind, bringing more voices into the process earlier will help us, only make the process better.”

Carol Fowler, an RBC member from South Carolina, said the Democratic Party needs to ensure its presidential nominating process produces the best possible candidate to win in a general election. That may mean switching out states in the early voting roster, she said, but argued that the committee needs to make a strong case for how new states would help Democrats win in presidential elections.

“We need to be certain that we end up with a Democratic president, a stronger nominee,” Fowler said. “Let’s not make change just to make change.”

But having diverse and competitive voter bases is not enough if those voters can’t participate in the primary process, Democrats argued. It’s one of the reasons why some Democrats criticize Iowa caucuses, which require participants to come in-person on a February Tuesday night to support their presidential candidate of choice.

In response to the criticism, Iowa Democrats proposed major changes to how the caucuses would look in 2024 and beyond.

“I feel the proposal we presented to the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee was well-received,” Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn said Thursday. “RBC members who have been critical about Iowa in the past and Iowa caucuses, they praised our presentation and our willingness to make significant changes.”

What would the new caucus process look like?

No more walking around a room

When voters and onlookers talk about the fun of the current caucus process, they talk about the fun of moving around a room in support of their candidates of choice. Supporters separate into groups, designated by presidential candidates, in support of their favorite candidate.

Volunteers count how many voters are in each group, and any candidate that did not have 15% is deemed inviable. People supporting nonviable candidates then get to realign: Supporters in the remaining group get to share their arguments on why those looking for a new candidate should come to their side. Based on totals from that final round, delegates are awarded.

If Iowa Democrats follow through with their proposal, this type of caucusing would no longer happen. There still will be an in-person event on caucus night, but by then, voters’ caucus choices will already be locked in.

What’s changing about the caucuses?

In the proposed system, Iowans would instead vote by a presidential preference card. To participate, voters would request a card by mail, which they have two weeks to 28 days to return. Those cards could be returned either by mail or in-person prior to caucus night.

The card eliminates the realignment process for caucus participants, with voters only marking down their first-choice candidate.

The Iowa Democratic Party said they expect primarily remote participation in the caucuses under this system. This would eliminate the burden on voters by expanding their window to join the process. It would also help caucus night volunteers, who would be able to use the time on reporting results and attending to other party business instead of conducting ‘caucus math,’ Iowa Democrats said.

What would happen on caucus night in the new system?

While the most exciting part of Iowa’s caucus night is the alignment process, that process isn’t a directly supporting a candidate in the way that a vote cast in an election is. Caucuses determine how many delegates each candidate gets from a precinct voting site, who will then go on to support that candidate at later conventions to determine the party’s nominee for the general election.

Delegates would still be selected on caucus night. People wanting to serve as a delegate would still have to attend the caucuses in person.

What’s staying the same?

Iowa’s system on delegate selection heading to the Democratic National Convention would look the same outside of these precinct level changes. Precinct delegates, selected on caucus night, would head to their county convention. That same process of electing delegates would occur there, and subsequently at the Congressional District convention, where Iowans selected would serve both at the Democratic state and national conventions.

The process of determining which candidates receive delegates would also stay the same. Candidates still need to meet a 15% threshold to get any delegates from a precinct. However, if a voter’s candidate does not meet that mark, they cannot switch to another candidate to get them more delegates.

Is the process changing enough?

While Wilburn said the new caucus system was met with a positive response, other concerns about Iowa’s first-in-the-nation spot remain.

Iowa’s problems reporting results in the 2020 Democratic caucuses was a large motivator for the DNC’s move to change the decades-long early nomination process this year. The state party has made plans to contract with an approved vendor or with the Iowa Secretary of State and county auditors so that issue does not come up again.

However, RBC members said Iowa and New Hampshire failed another critical role as early states in 2020. The candidates who thrived in the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, did not secure the Democratic presidential nomination. President Joe Biden, the eventual nominee, performed poorly in the nominating process before his overwhelming win in the South Carolina primary.

Early state results in 2020 show the need for a more diverse lineup, RBC member Leah Daughtry of New York said.

“The Democratic electorate has changed sufficiently that people in communities where I go want to know why our lineup is the way our lineup is, and why the two earliest states do not reflect the base of the Democratic Party,” she said.

Elleithee also argued for change.  “We all see it: Elections are changing. Demographics are changing, coalitions are changing. And if we don’t get voters in these new coalitions, and these changing coalitions in these newly emerging battleground states. If we don’t get them our candidates earlier in the process, we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.”

Scott Brennan, former state party chair and current rules committee member, said he understands some criticism of the current early state roster. But he reminded committee members that Iowa has served as a good benchmark for who would win the Democratic presidential nomination, and who is the strongest candidate to win the general election in previous cycles. He pointed to caucus victors like former President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.

“Shame on us if we change a process that has resulted in victory for the sake of change,” Brennan said Friday.

The committee will make its final decision on the early state lineup in early August.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that presidential preference cards could be returned and counted on caucus night. The Iowa Democratic Party proposal requires voters return the cards before caucus night.

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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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