The Iowa Democratic caucuses gave a voice to rural voters

Sen. Bernie Sanders, during his 2020 presidential campaign, met with Roosevelt High School students in Des Moines in September 2019. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

By Barbara Trish and Bill Menner

Barbara Trish

Bill Menner

The death knell of the Iowa caucuses wasn’t sounded last week when the DNC’s Rules & Bylaws Committee recommended a 2024 presidential nomination calendar that left out Iowa. It was sounded in 2016, when the caucus process was called into question by supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And the volume simply amped up in 2020 with the disastrous Caucus Night counting debacle.

That said, the national deluge of vitriol from caucus haters is missing some important perspectives.

While in competitive years the caucuses have occupied Iowans interested in politics, much of the state proceeds with life as usual, even at the height of a caucus campaign. A small proportion of Iowans attends caucuses, even in competitive years. This is all to say that the idea that Iowans are having an identity crisis because the caucuses are endangered is not only untrue, it wreaks of arrogance. For sure, this all has upended the Iowa Democratic Party. But a significant faction even within the state party has pushed for the elimination of the caucuses, at least since 2016.

And then there’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose opinion that the Democratic caucuses should be first, seems quite genuine. Of course, he’s a Republican.

Admittedly, accessibility is a problem with these in-person events, and of course every Iowa Democrat should have the opportunity to participate. But unlike a general election, a nomination contest is an internal party affair, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong or undemocratic about people choosing not to be involved or ignoring nomination politics.

It makes sense that the 2024 calendar would be contentious and a tough call for the Democratic Party, but not so much because it could affect the outcome. Rather, early states affect the dynamics of the longer contest. It looks like now, for the first time since 1972, that dynamic won’t include perspectives from Iowa. Democratic candidates will flock to states like South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan – in addition to long-standing first-primary state New Hampshire. And where candidates go, reporters generally follow.

That would be a loss for Iowa, though not tied to something inherently good about candidates’ presence. It’s that they listen and bring a national audience – and a chance for Iowa activists to make a case about their issue agenda and values to the national party.

This opportunity was thrust on Iowa early on, something of an accident. Under rules first in place in 1972, the national party mandated that nomination events within states be separated by at least 30 days. The only real option for Iowa Democrats that year – given availability of Des Moines hotel rooms for the state convention – was to bump the caucuses early. After the fact, Iowa Democrats realized that this early contest brought attention to state party, an observation shared by Iowa Republicans.

What did it mean to be first over the years?  Candidates in Iowa had to think about issues they might not normally consider, like ethanol, farm subsidies, rural development, or mental health.  It meant the national press corps, reporters from both coasts, had their first – maybe only – experience in rural places. Yes, it pulled in a lot of cash for hotels, restaurants, and broadcast outlets.

Some Iowa voices on the left have second-guessed the decision by Iowa Democrats to stick with the caucuses so long, even though primaries could have offered some headway on inaccessibility and other caucus shortcomings. But it was never quite that simple because the caucuses were also important steps in party building and maintenance. For a long time, the dual purposes of caucuses –selecting delegates in the presidential nomination contest and building a strong organization – seemed to work in tandem.

That’s largely gone by the wayside, an alliance ironically damaged by the growth over time of the caucuses. It’s a stretch to imagine longstanding relationships forged in a caucus of several hundred participants. Even the task of securing sites for caucuses – usually borne by county party chairs – is no simple matter, with caucuses in around 2,000 precincts, some requiring space that accommodates hundreds of people. The caucuses, long thought to energize activists, can also create fatigue among them and the local party leaders.

It’s not a misplaced sense of privilege that keeps party and campaign activists doing the heavy lifting. Nor is it a belief that without the caucuses Iowa would have nothing going for it. Rather, it’s the conviction that the caucuses are a window of opportunity for expressing the interests of Iowa Democrats, varied as they are. In some ways, the outcome of the caucuses is immaterial, more important to candidates and the media than to the activists.

What mattered is that the candidates showed up and listened to the concerns of average Democrats, including the rich pockets of diversity across the state. What mattered was that those Iowans even without wealth and power could be heard. And that candidate wealth or power doesn’t give them a pass. What mattered was that the bulk of the candidates – the large number who won’t ever end up in the White House – would return to the Hill or to their statehouses having interacted directly with a broad swath of Iowa Democrats.

That won’t happen again, at least not in 2024.

It’s not just the candidates, but also the generations of young Democratic activists who’ve lived and worked in Iowa as staffers. Like many members of the national media, being deployed to Iowa might have been their first introduction to the Midwest, to rural life. Though unlike the media, it was the job of these campaign workers, most of them organizers, to build relationships with Democrats on the ground. They needed to understand Iowans to succeed in their campaign positions – to get people to volunteer and to show up at caucus time. The relationship went the other direction as well. All the better for Iowa Democrats when in the long run some subset of staff, who understand the interests of the people they’ve worked with or even lived with, themselves occupy the corridors of national power.

Give Iowa Democrats some credit for looking past the hype and seeing the subtleties of value associated with the caucuses coming first. They recognize the national party’s decision may further alienate rural voters, the very constituency Democrats should be courting. And for understanding that moving to a primary, assuming that would somehow pass state constitutional muster, will not only mean giving in to the DNC, but also to the state of Iowa and the Republicans who run it.

Watch carefully if Iowa Democrats opt to defy the DNC, by holding caucuses and going early, whether for 2024 or some future cycle. Will the candidates show up, and if so, will the media follow?

About this column

Barbara Trish and Bill Menner are the authors of the book “Inside the Bubble: Campaigns, Caucuses, and the Future of the Presidential Nomination Process.”  Trish is professor of political science and director of the Rosenfield Program at Grinnell College.  Menner is president of The Bill Menner Group and a former public radio political reporter.

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