Biden’s move to replace Iowa would upend five decades of tradition

December 4, 2022 8:00 am

Will this Des Moines gathering in February 2020 be one of the last Iowa Democratic caucuses? (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Barring a miracle, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is over.

On Thursday, President Biden asked the Democratic National Committee to put South Carolina first on the 2024 presidential nominating calendar, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire a week later; after that would be Georgia, then Michigan.

On Friday, the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee ratified the new lineup.

There are some complications to this reordering of the calendar, and a final decision by the full DNC isn’t expected until early next year. But it would be shocking if the party repudiated its own president.

So, what now?

My guess: Iowa will have to accept that it is going to lose its privileged place. (In the Democratic Party, anyway. Republicans are putting Iowa first on their calendar in 2024 just as they traditionally have.)

Scott Brennan, an Iowan who sits is on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, objected Friday, but the writing is on the wall.

Some folks in Iowa have urged state Democrats to stand fast and hold their caucuses first, anyway.

If it happens, it would be quite the turnabout.

For years, other states have tried to barge ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire in contravention of party rules.

Back then, states like Michigan were seen as the interlopers, as states that couldn’t accept the rules of the game.

Will Iowa now be the one to fill that role, to flout party rules?

That may not be a good look, especially at a time when prominent forces in the Republican Party seem to think they can just rewrite the rule book to suit their own purposes, even to the point of refusing to concede elections they lose.

I wouldn’t equate Iowa fighting for its leadoff spot with an insurrection, of course, but the state still would run the risk of coming off like a spoiled child who has enjoyed the fruits of the system for 50 years, only to repudiate it when it didn’t get its way.

Of course, what Iowa Democrats decide to do may not matter that much.

What really counts is whether candidates and the media show up if Iowa insists on being first.

If Biden runs again, this likely will be a moot question. But if he doesn’t, there will be the temptation for some candidates to replicate what Jimmy Carter did in 1976, to leverage the state to elevate themselves.

It could happen, but I doubt there would be a meaningful number of credible candidates who would do it – and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they were largely ignored by the media.

Iowa’s disastrous 2020 Democratic caucuses turned off a lot of the national media, as if the state didn’t have enough detractors already. Not being able to say who won until days later is a calamity few will want to risk repeating.

More importantly, many of these reporters have now turned their attention to places like Arizona and Georgia, which are the new electoral swing states. Iowa hasn’t belonged to that category in a decade.

Candidates who may want to court Iowa may also be threatened with a loss of delegates or banishment from debates if they don’t stick to the DNC calendar.

That may or may not matter to some of them, but my guess is that it will. Why risk it, when there isn’t much payoff?

More importantly, I think candidates who want to lead the Democratic Party will be more apt to spend their time courting the diverse voters that increasingly determine the course of the party’s future, not a state whose largely white, non-college-educated voters are abandoning the party.

Besides, the Democrats are seeing some slippage among Black and Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. By elevating these voters in the party’s nominating process, Democrats might be able to win some of them back.

With this new calendar, Biden is clearly telling these voters they matter.

Personally, I’d hate to see the caucuses go away. Iowa has benefitted greatly from the attention the last five decades. And I think, for the most part, our state has been worthy. We do give candidates without huge TV advertising budgets the chance to compete. Activists also take their role seriously, and the small gatherings that Iowa has traditionally hosted (but don’t seem to be as common as they used to be) add value to the debate.

At the same time, there is nothing sacrosanct about Iowa going first.

Other states have voters who also are discerning, who care and who bring a valuable perspective to the debate. And many of them have ached to be given the opportunity Iowa has been privileged to hold for decades.

I’ve never thought that Iowans themselves see the caucuses as their birthright.

I’m not sure about New Hampshire, however. Party leaders there are donning their armor and have made clear since Biden’s letter became public that, come hell or high water, they are going to be the first primary.

Iowa Democratic leaders don’t seem to me to be as aggressive, even as they’ve said they will fight this, too.

State party leaders were smart to change the format of the caucuses in an effort to keep their leadoff spot. Even if they aren’t successful, I hope the changes to make the caucuses more inclusive are maintained. That will be good for Iowans, no matter what happens.

As of this writing, there still are some unresolved questions. Iowa law requires that the caucuses go before other states, although that isn’t binding on the DNC, of course. I’m not sure how that will play out.

Also, it’s historically been a risky bet to go against Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, by all appearances, the party is over.

We’ll have to wait to see whether Iowa leaves the festivities voluntarily.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.