Your Village: Will Iowa lose its first-in-the-nation status?

Kids occupy themselves in the City High cafeteria on Caucus Night. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

What are the chances the state of Iowa will be first in the nation ever again after 2020’s incredibly inconvenient, undemocratic, overcrowded and likely virus-filled caucuses that still haven’t even been called by the AP?

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The chances of Iowa being first in the nation are excellent, despite the 2020 Democratic caucus turning into a national embarrassment. Why? Because state law mandates it.

Chapter 43 of the Iowa State Code allows the political parties to set the date of the caucus but specifies, “The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus, or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory, or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.”

Iowa, however, isn’t the only state with such a mandate. New Hampshire prides itself on having held the earliest primary in every presidential election since 1920, so it has a law requiring the presidential primary “be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a Tuesday selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier.”

Iowa, and only Iowa, gets a free pass from New Hampshire, because both states have agreed the caucus is different enough from a primary that it’s not “a similar election.” Any change that makes it more primary-like, New Hampshire warns, will force it leap-frog over Iowa to reassert its firstness, which in turn would trigger Iowa’s law to leap-frog over New Hampshire, and then New Hampshire would –and so on.

It’s like a really stupid version of mutually assured destruction.

What both states seem to deliberately forget is they stumbled into their respective first places by accident. New Hampshire was looking for the cheapest way to hold a primary and the second Tuesday of March was already Town Meeting Day, so the primary could be grafted onto that at minimal expense. Almost nobody outside New Hampshire paid any attention to its firstness until the 1950s.

Johnson County Democrats caucus at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in Iowa City. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In 1972, Democrats in Iowa — Republicans didn’t launch their caucus until 1976 — just wanted to find enough hotel rooms in Des Moines for their state convention in the summer. To get the rooms needed, the party had to move the convention to an earlier date, which pushed the first step in the delegate selection process, the caucus, into late January.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status didn’t attract much national attention until the ’80s.

Democrats who don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire have become increasingly uncomfortable in recent years with two small states with populations that are overwhelmingly white, as well as largely rural and definitely older than the national average, playing an outsized part in choosing their party’s presidential nominee. And Iowa has another problem.

The Democratic parties in only four states — Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming — still use a caucus, but that’s still too many according to the Democratic National Committee, which is concerned the caucus format limits the ability of people to participate. In 2018, the DNC adopted new rules to pressure the four states to make it easier to participate.

Comply, the states were told, or the DNC might disqualify some, possibly all, of your delegates to the national convention.

North Dakota and Wyoming added a vote-by-mail option. Iowa and Nevada decided to go with “virtual caucuses” that people could participate in by phone. Iowa planned to have three of them. The DNC seemed to be onboard with the plan, until late August 2019, when it suddenly rejected caucusing by phone, citing security concerns.

Nevada substituted five days of early primary-style voting for the virtual caucus. Primary-style anything, including voting by mail, wasn’t really an option for Iowa. Why? New Hampshire.

Instead, Iowa added 87 “satellite” caucus sites, which didn’t really address the fundamental accessibility problems with the caucus, but was good enough to get a pass from the DNC.

What the DNC decides to do with Iowa in 2024 is pretty much up to the new head of the party, Joe Biden, also known as the candidate who finished fourth in the 2020 caucus. And that was the best showing Biden ever had in Iowa running for the Democratic nomination.

Sen. Kamala Harris flipping pork burgers at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

In the 2008 caucus, Biden finished fifth, and dropped out of the race the next day. In 1988, he didn’t even make it to caucus night, dropping out after a video circulated showing remarks he made at the Iowa State Fair in 1987 were plagiarized from a speech given by a British politician.

Biden acknowledged that Iowa was old, rural and very white while campaigning in the state before the 2020 caucus, but said that was OK, because Iowa takes its role in the presidential selection process very seriously and is worthy of its firstness. Other candidates made similar noises. But the embarrassing implosion that happened when the Iowa Democratic Party tried to figure out who won the caucus badly damaged Iowa’s national reputation for seriousness.

So what happens in 2024? Will Iowa be penalized by the DNC because the caucus is still too inaccessible for too many? Will Democratic candidates cut back on campaigning here, or skip the state, because of its unrepresentative nature, and because it and New Hampshire were both rendered irrelevant the moment South Carolina voted overwhelmingly for Biden? Hard to say, but one thing seems certain: Iowa Republicans have no incentive to change things.

Old, rural and overwhelming white is the GOP’s demographic sweet spot. And without a Republican incumbent in 2024, the state should be crawling with ambitious Republicans looking for an early win as caucus night approaches. So that pretty much guarantees the law isn’t going to change, and the Iowa Caucus will still be “at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus, or primary” in any other state.

Republicans caucus at Alexander Elementary. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.

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