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Democrats May Finally Be Ready to Demote the Iowa Caucuses

A DNC committee meets this week to consider a proposal that is a dagger aimed at Iowa. Do they really have the guts to unsheathe it?

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks to reporters about the technical issues that delayed the results from the 2020 Iowa caucus.

It’s become a running topic of debate: How should Democrats reorder the early state presidential primary calendar to better reflect their party? This time they might actually do it. But do what, exactly?

On Monday afternoon, members of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee will gather to consider a proposal to set new criteria for the early primary states. That discussion is based on a draft resolution that’s been circulating among DNC members to emphasize “diversity,” “competitiveness,” and “administration” in selecting and keeping early primary states.

The subtext of the memo is obvious. It’s aimed at one state: an aggressive response to the chaotic and dysfunctional 2020 Iowa caucuses that, in the moment, resulted in mass confusion and an unclear winner. Pete Buttigieg, now transportation secretary, won the caucuses, but recounts and feuding over recanvassing stole much of the momentum Buttigieg would have benefited from by coming in first in the contest.

Since then, the calls for a change in which states lead off the Democratic presidential primary contest have been louder than usual. It’s been about more than how the 2020 Iowa caucuses went down and the ensuing suspicion and finger-pointing. It’s that Iowa is characterized by two colors that aren’t so Democrat-friendly: red and white.

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and even Michael Dukakis carried the Hawkeye State. After Obama’s two wins there, Iowa was looking pretty blue. But all that has changed. Iowa’s governor and both senators are Republicans. Iowa is increasingly difficult for Democrats to win statewide. Three of the four House members are Republicans.

And as for that second color, the state is 91 percent white—and just 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Black. Suffice it to say that Iowa’s demographic makeup is at odds with how the Democratic Party views itself.

The draft memo that’s circulated over the last week proposes picking five states to lead off the Democratic primary calendar in 2024 and beyond. Its language directs the Rules and Bylaws Committee to approve those states based on three key pillars:

a.     Diversity, including ethnic, geographic, union representation, economic, etc; and

b.     Competitiveness, contributes to the party’s ability to win in the general election; and

c.      Administration, feasibility of scheduling a pre-window contest and the ability to run fair, transparent and inclusive nominating process

By those standards, Iowa would be pretty clearly locked out of the early primary process. The chairs of the Rules and Bylaws Committee—the DNC panel that will handle any change to the calendar—told DNC members that the proposal is just a starting point meant to foster discussion on what a change would look like and how it would be done.

Almost as predictably as the sun rising in the morning, when it’s not a presidential year, there’s always discussion of some state or other losing its coveted spot in the early primary calendar. More often than not, those discussions fizzle out (look back to 2021 when the momentum to cut Iowa and New Hampshire, the other very white early state many Democrats grouse about, faded away). This time, though, party elders think some kind of change is inevitable. “This is going to happen,” former DNC Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview. “The problem has been for many years that you have had two states that don’t reflect the Democratic constituency who go first, and I don’t know that that makes a lot of sense.”

There have been hordes of lawmakers who have overtly or covertly worked to try to dethrone the earliest states from their positions. They’ve always failed. But this time looks to be different. Beyond the widespread frustration among Democratic officials with Iowa’s clumsy administration of the last caucuses, the current president does not feel any kind of debt or obligation to Iowa or New Hampshire. President Biden is the first Democratic president since the early 1990s to become president despite not winning either the Iowa or the New Hampshire primary (Biden did beat Trump in New Hampshire in the general, though). South Carolina was Biden’s turning point, forcing a massive, dramatic shift in the course of the 2020 presidential primary.

States have already begun lobbying for consideration to be at the front of the primary calendar. The New Jersey Democratic Party chairman has written a letter to DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison advocating for New Jersey to get bumped up to the front of the pack. Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen has also pushed DNC officials for Nevada to go first, saying, “We’re diverse. We’re a battleground state that matters to who becomes the next president.”

Multiple Michigan Democrats have also told me they expect their state to make a bid. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell told the Post, “We are certainly going to look at” it. Michigan is not quite a gorgeous mosaic, but it is a demographic improvement over Iowa—it’s 80 percent white and 15 percent Black.

Democrats who have done extensive work in the DNC rules arena say changing the primary calendar is not easy. Depending on the state, changing its place in the primary calendar may require changing state law or winning approval through the state legislature. In some cases, Republicans would essentially have to be involved in the process that goes into deciding when a state holds its nominating contests. The Iowa Republican and Democratic parties, for instance, have coordinated for years to hold their contests on the same day—a rare ongoing tradition of bipartisanship.

The factors the DNC laid out in its draft proposal may complicate things, as well. Dean said switching Iowa for a state that is more diverse and competitive for Democrats—Michigan or Georgia, for instance—would also mean a more expensive state would be going first. Georgia’s media markets are some of the more expensive in the country, and Michigan’s aren’t the cheapest, either. And in New Jersey, candidates would have to buy ad time in both the New York and Philadelphia media markets.

“We need four small states because if you go to a big state first, the amount of money you have to raise to get to the front line is obscene, and a Michigan or a New York or a California—that means it’s an old boys’ club, and the Democratic Party is going to fall apart if we don’t do something about that,” Dean warned.

That seems less a concern in the age of small-donor internet money. Bernie Sanders was hardly part of any old boys’ club, and he raised more money than he knew what to do with. So candidates with strong grassroots support can certainly compete in a state like Michigan.

But there are still other hitches. Privately, one Democrat strategist with extensive experience on caucus and delegate matters I talked with said he also expected TV networks would have a fit over one party changing its primary schedule unilaterally. That would mean the extensive resources networks spend setting up shop in an early primary state, sometimes weeks or months ahead of the actual contest, would have to be doubled for a Democratic primary and a Republican primary, even if an incumbent president were running for reelection. Networks would have to hedge bets on where to devote their coverage if the primary calendar becomes more divided.

“The problem is the networks are going to go there for the Republicans, and then Democrats are not going to get that coverage,” the strategist said. “The other problem is, if you completely blow up the schedule, the networks are going to howl. I mean the networks like the system of having both parties on the same day on the same schedule because it makes it easier for them to cover.”

What is clear now, though, is that there is more than a little momentum and strong interest for a change to the primary calendar process. Any Democrat involved in the process or who has a background on presidential campaigns will tell you something’s going to change. That could mean a fifth state bumps Iowa or the first state in the calendar becomes Nevada or somewhere else. “It does look like there will be a fifth state, if the proposal is adopted. But they may just change the four states,” Democratic strategist Addisu Demissie told me. “They may just change one of the four states. I think everything is on the table.”

“We have a lot to do before deciding what steps we will take and what states will apply if it’s reopened. And yes, we have to ensure the White House is on board,” former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile, a member of the Rules Committee, told me.

It’s unclear where the White House stands on all this. Biden will be 81 when the 2024 primaries kick off. It’s not certain that he will run for reelection, and if he doesn’t, there will be multiple candidates jockeying in the primary.

There’s an argument that the whole process should be rethought, top to bottom, and there have been many proposals along these lines over the years—for a series of regional primaries, for example. Change that massive is probably impossible. But bumping an increasingly red state whose past importance forced candidates to embrace the indefensible policy of supporting ethanol subsidies would be a start.