I love the Iowa caucuses.
But for the good of our state, it’s time to kill the Iowa caucuses.
The caucuses have defined my professional career in journalism and politics, and in various roles over the years I’ve dutifully echoed the arguments for loving and defending and keeping them: They level the playing field for presidential candidates. They force those candidates to interact with real people. They’re fun and interesting and full of the drama that engages people in our political process. They humanize the epic endeavor of picking a president.
That’s all true and valuable and good for our democracy. And there is something unique to Iowa that uplifts these virtues.
And because of my personal and professional investment, I’m well aware of the arguments against the caucuses, too: Iowa is too white to accurately represent the country, and gives outsize influence to unrepresentative factions within both parties. The caucus process is at best convoluted and unwieldy — and at worst undemocratic and discriminatory. The record of caucus failures and embarrassments exceeds the history of caucus triumphs.
These are all fair arguments, and contain a degree or more of truth that must be taken into consideration as the Democratic National Committee takes up the future of the party’s nominating process in the months ahead.
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But if Iowa Democrats are really serious about the future of their party and their state, they won’t leave this decision to the scheming of other states or the inscrutable machinations of the DNC’s Rules & Bylaws Committee.
They’ll do the dirty work themselves, and kill the caucuses in the name of self-interest.
Why? Because being first in the nation is bad for Iowa. For the Democratic Party to reach Iowa voters, win Iowa elections, make Iowa policy and improve the lives of Iowans, it must give up its privileged place on the national nominating calendar.
Lasting benefits for Iowa Democrats hard to see
Reviewing the recent history of the caucuses and the political fortunes of Iowa Democrats helps explain why.
In 2008, the caucuses provided the launch pad for Barack Obama, proving his electability and catapulting him to the White House — thereby proving every positive and disproving every negative opinion ever voiced about the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Right?
Sure, but what did Iowa Democrats get out of that? The obvious answer — the one at the heart of any rationalization of the caucuses — is party building. 240,000 Democrats showed up at the 2008 caucuses, and that enthusiasm powered Iowa Democrats to big victories in November.
But wait. Obama carried Florida, North Carolina and Indiana in 2008 — none of which held a first-in-the-nation caucus. Democrats captured a Senate seat in Alaska. Democratic enthusiasm in 2008 was not dependent on caucuses held 10 months before Election Day — it was driven by Obama’s charisma, widespread fatigue for Republicans and a massive economic collapse.
In 2016, well-organized and spirited caucus campaigns by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged the full spectrum of Democratic voters — and succeeded mainly in turning those voters against one another while revealing glaring faults in the caucus process. Caucus organizing didn’t prevent crushing defeats in the Iowa statehouse or a 10-point victory for Donald Trump in November.
In 2020, the most exciting, dynamic and diverse presidential field in history spent more than a year organizing every corner of the state. Despite that party-building, Democrats failed to win back the Statehouse, failed to protect two Democrat-held congressional seats, failed to elect a U.S. senator and failed to put Iowa’s six electoral votes in the winning column.
A rebuilding plan that includes first in the nation won’t work
After a decade of near-constant electoral defeats and an erosion of support from all but the largest counties in the state, Iowa Democrats are in disarray. We’re no longer Minnesota. We’re Missouri.
As a result, Republicans are now advancing harmful, spiteful legislation in the Statehouse and entrenching their power with anti-democratic voting restrictions. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Rebuilding the Democratic Party and making it competitive enough to win statehouse and statewide majorities will require a focused, localized, long-term plan. Making it relevant again will likely require some degree of separation from the national Democratic Party.
That will be impossible as long as the presidential circus is the focal point of the state party’s activity, investment and identity. Let it go. There’s no shame in casting a presidential preference vote on a Tuesday in March — or April, May or even June.
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Republicans have their own decisions to make about the future of the caucuses and their nominating calendar. Best wishes. Democrats are under no obligation to aid them in one course of action or another.
Killing the caucuses is hard to imagine — let alone actually act on — because it entails giving up status. No more housecalls and handwritten notes from presidential candidates. No more satellite-truck traffic jams in downtown Des Moines. No more self-aggrandizing quotes in the New York Times. I love all those things. So do a lot of Iowans.
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But politics, especially Democratic politics, isn’t supposed to be about status. It’s about helping your neighbor, defending basic rights and ensuring opportunity for all. If Democrats are really serious about those things, they’ll leave behind the temptations of being first in the nation and get to work.
Jason Noble is a former journalist and Democratic campaign operative from Des Moines.