Democrats May be Making a Mistake with the Iowa Caucuses

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #47 | By: Ian Milden | December 8, 2022

Header photo taken from: Associated Press




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President Biden had asked Democratic National Committee leaders to drastically reshape the 2024 presidential nominating calendar and make South Carolina the first state to host a primary, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day a week later, Georgia the following week and then Michigan.

Photo taken from: Mary Green / WIS

Policy Summary

The DNC recently voted to approve a plan to shake up the schedule for the 2024 Democratic presidential primaries. While parts of the proposal would require the cooperation of several state governments (some of which are controlled by Republicans), the biggest change that will likely come from this plan is the removal of the Iowa Caucuses from its first-in-the-nation status. This Brief will examine the reasons why the Democratic Party approved this plan and the potential hazards this plan may pose for Democrats down the road.

Policy Analysis

The DNC approved a plan proposed by President Joe Biden that would significantly revise the schedule for the 2024 primaries. It would give the first primary to South Carolina. New Hampshire and Nevada would then vote next on the same day. Georgia and Michigan would be permitted to hold primaries before Super Tuesday. Iowa would be gone from the early state lineup entirely.

Biden requested the change to insulate himself from any potential primary challenge if he moves forward with his plan to run for re-election. Iowa and New Hampshire were his weakest states, so they made sense as targets. Iowa’s caucuses are run and paid for by the state’s Democratic Party, unlike New Hampshire’s primary, which is run and paid for by the state government.

Other Democrats had argued before Biden’s proposal was unveiled that Iowa’s caucuses should not go first because Democrats have struggled in recent Iowa elections, Iowa is not very diverse, and Iowa’s 2020 Caucuses were a disaster. The Iowa State Democratic Party has proposed a vote by mail caucus to prevent a repeat of the issues from 2020.

While Iowa’s caucuses are likely to lose their spot, there is one unsettled legal issue. Iowa state law requires the political parties to hold a presidential nominating caucus at least eight days before any other state holds a similar contest. The law also says that the caucuses should be held by the fourth Monday in February. It is unclear what power the state has to enforce this or what the consequences would be if Democrats did not hold their Iowa caucuses in a manner consistent with Iowa state law. New Hampshire has a similar state law, and the DNC’s request to have it changed is not sitting well with local elected officials.

While it is unlikely that Democrats are going to change their mind about the fate of Iowa’s caucuses, there are four arguments that I think are worth considering for future Democratic primary cycles.

The Iowa Caucuses display at the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Photo taken from: Yahoo

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New Hampshire has held the first-in-the-nation presidential primary for a century. A sign outside the state capitol in Concord, N.H. marks the state’s treasured primary status.

First, I think moving the caucuses due to poor performance by Democrats in state and federal elections in Iowa is a problematic argument to make when South Carolina has an early voting date on the primary calendar. Democrats have a better chance of competing in Iowa elections than in South Carolina elections. Democrats have been losing elections in Iowa due to poor campaign strategy, occasional issues in candidate selection, and dwindling investment of resources from outside of the state. These issues are fixable if Democrats are willing to put in the effort and try new ideas.

Second, Iowa isn’t an early state for diversity. Iowa has maintained an ability to be appealing for an early state because of its small size. It is cheaper to do most campaign activities in Iowa than in other places, which lowers the financial threshold required for a campaign to compete. This gives candidates who are not as well-known or well-funded the ability to compete if they have a good strategy and a compelling vision for voters. Nevada and South Carolina were added as early states by Democrats in 2004 to bring geographic and racial diversity to the primary process while keeping the financial threshold to compete relatively low.

Third, Iowa generally doesn’t pick the nominee for President. As the first state in the process, its main job is to eliminate campaigns that are not viable financially or strategically. The states that have the most influence on the process go third and fourth, which are currently Nevada and South Carolina. Nevada and South Carolina have a better track record of picking nominees because they go after Iowa and New Hampshire eliminate a lot of candidates. Since there are rarely more than four viable campaigns after the first two contests, the winners of subsequent contests require a broader coalition to win primaries, rather than the 20% to 33% of the vote needed to win in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Midwest farmers may lose an opportunity to hear from Democratic presidential candidates and lose a chance to educate those left-leaning politicians on agriculture as well with the push by Democrats to change the 2024 primary calendar.

Photo taken from: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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Fourth, while Iowa’s small towns and rural counties may not look like the diverse constituencies of the Democratic Party’s base, they do look like the small towns and rural areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Those four states have featured increasingly close races for their electoral college votes, which have been influential in determining the outcome of recent presidential elections. Democrats have been losing small towns and rural counties in these states by increasingly larger margins. 

Allowing Iowa to maintain its first-in-the-nation caucus would require candidates to figure out how to better compete in these small towns and rural counties since Iowa does not have a large city where a Democratic candidate can expect to run up a large margin that makes up for poor performance elsewhere. 

If Democratic candidates develop new strategies to compete in these small towns and rural counties, they can deploy them in the general election in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. While Democrats are likely to still lose small towns and rural areas with new strategies, losing them by a smaller margin may affect the winner of a state’s electoral votes.

I don’t expect Joe Biden to face a serious primary challenge in 2024. I also don’t expect the DNC to suddenly give up on the plan they recently approved for 2024, though I am not sure to what extent they will succeed in implementing it. I hope that these arguments are considered when the Democrats revisit the rules for the 2028 presidential primaries.

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