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If not Iowa, what? Elbows fly as Democrats plan for 2024 primary

After a disastrous 2020 caucus, many Democrats want to dethrone Iowa. But doing so will be harder than it seems.
Christopher Le Mon, right, a precinct captain for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, counts supporters during the Democratic caucus at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020.
Christopher Le Mon, right, a precinct captain for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, counts supporters during the Democratic caucus at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020.Nicki Kohl / Telegraph Herald via AP file

Thought Iowa’s caucus caused chaos for Democrats in 2020? Try removing Iowa from the picture, and the mayhem only gets worse. 

Forces within the national party are pushing to cut Iowa, saying its caucus system is undemocratic and so convoluted that it completely broke down last time, not to mention Iowa is overwhelmingly white and now solidly Republican.

What exactly should happen next, however, is triggering a cascade of political, legal and practical challenges, interviews with more than a dozen Democratic National Committee officials and state party leaders show.

“They’re gonna find out pretty quickly that the cure to what they see as the problem is going to be worse than the problem,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party and head of the national GOP committee that oversees its presidential schedule. 

Kaufmann said when the GOP attempted to knock out Iowa in the past, the effort failed for lack of a better plan. He predicted something similar could happen to Democrats. 

“You just don’t click your fingers and a bunch of people bloviating at a committee meeting, many of whom have never even run an election themselves, actually come up with something that’s better,” he added.

Two years ago, Iowa Democrats tried to address the criticism of their caucuses by making them more accessible to people who weren't able to physically participate in a process that traditionally can take hours. But the added complexity ended up confusing volunteers, and the bespoke software created to tabulate the results crashed, delaying the outcome for days and leaving many with lingering doubts about its veracity.

Immediately afterward, elbows started flying behind the scenes from state officials jockeying for a better or even just their current place in Democrats’ coveted early primary window — considered the four early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Others are arguing that Democrats should explore adding a fifth state to the mix. New states are trying to muscle in.

Nevada is aggressively pushing to leapfrog to the front of the pack. New Hampshire has in the past threatened to move its primary as early as necessary to preserve its first-in-the-nation status from being usurped. South Carolina says it has earned a top spot. And Iowa isn’t about to give in easily.  

“I think people don’t understand the complexity of the process. They think the DNC can just unilaterally alter primary dates and states — that’s not the way it works,” longtime DNC member Frank Leone said, noting that state legislatures ultimately set election dates. “We can persuade and we can penalize states that go outside of the window, but there are limits to our control of the process.”

And it’s unclear what the leader of the party, President Joe Biden, who lost three of the four early states, wants to do ahead of his planned re-election campaign.

“At some point, we’ve got to hear what the White House wants,” Trav Robertson, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said.

Inertia and lack of a consensus alternative, not to mention a patchwork of self-promoting state laws, have helped Iowa and New Hampshire maintain the status quo despite years of mounting criticism. 

But reformers think they may finally have a chance.

They want to see more diversity, more battleground states and fewer caucuses — all in states that are small enough to keep campaign costs low, so the eventual nominee won’t emerge broke from the primary.

“It’s not about whether or not one state checks all the boxes; it’s about whether all four fit,” said DNC member Mo Elleithee, who is a member of the committee that would oversee any changes. “I think New Hampshire can. I think South Carolina can. I think Nevada can. I think it is a harder case for Iowa to make.”

Nevada has the right ethnic diversity, with a sizable Latino population, and switched from a caucus to a primary — but it’s had intraparty strife, with Democratic Socialists taking control of the state party last year and a shadow Democratic Party establishment setting up shop.

South Carolina — which saved Biden’s presidential campaign — has a robust Black population, but the state is so deeply red that critics say the inordinate amount of time and money spent there by presidential candidates goes to waste in the general election.  

New Hampshire has its own diversity problems. And, perhaps underscoring the sometimes upside-down nature of Democratic entanglements, one of the lead officials advocating for New Hampshire’s place moved there after serving as the Democratic Party chair in another state: Iowa.

“Nevada is uniquely positioned to be first in the nation,” Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer said, arguing that the state has the most geographic, racial and economic diversity. “We value tradition. ... But sometimes tradition has to give way to new ideas or processes to make sure that we’re truly representative of the country as a whole.”

Whitmer said Nevada Democrats have resolved their internal disputes and are now working together well. And she said the entire party, including Nevada's Democratic Legislature, is committed to “do what is necessary to make sure Nevada is first in the nation.”

The political jockeying and the race to untangle the legal ramifications are unfolding as the clock ticks dangerously close to an all-consuming midterm season. 

At this summer’s DNC meeting later this year, the party is expected to launch a process that will allow any state to pitch its case for why it should be allowed to be one of the first.

But the intensity of the efforts show just how seriously Democrats believe in the role that early states play in choosing presidential nominees. 

It also speaks to the financial boon for states that host one of the first four nominating contests, which bring a steady flow of ad revenue, sustained media attention and an early jump on political infrastructure-building ahead of the general election.

“I don’t think they have a clue how hard this is yet,” said a state party leader outside of Iowa, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the process. “The reality is, if they start from the premise of no Iowa, then what?” 

Without Iowa in the mix, many feel the Midwest would still need to be represented.

There’s no obvious state that both is similarly affordable and has Democratic control over its legislature to set its primary date to be brought into the early state fold. Still, Several DNC officials mentioned Michigan and Minnesota as possibilities. 

Iowa DNC member Scott Brennan, who remains on the panel that will direct the calendar, argued that as a rural Midwestern state, Iowa is a critical proving ground for a party that has struggled to reach beyond the coasts and major cities. “We can’t get to a ruling majority if we can’t talk to rural folks,” Brennan said.  

Iowa advocates have also long argued that the state's relative smallness allows candidates to build support by campaigning in coffee shops and living rooms, instead of just relying on expensive television ad campaigns.

And the voters of Iowa have grown accustomed to conducting a thorough examination of candidates, investing time in meeting with and questioning presidential hopefuls. The voters of Iowa were largely credited with helping propel Barack Obama to the nomination in 2008.

Some Iowa Democrats have threatened to proceed no matter what, even if the DNC strips them of delegates to the national convention, as it did with Florida and Michigan in 2008. The significance of Iowa, they noted, comes not from its relatively small number of delegates, but from the attention and momentum gained by going first.

“It’s not Florida, and it’s not Michigan. They don’t have a lot of delegates, so if they lose half of them, big deal,” said Josh Putnam, an expert on the rules of presidential primaries who runs the political consulting firm FHQ Strategists.

Other Iowa Democrats say fighting to save caucuses is a losing battle. Instead, they say Iowa should angle for an early primary that doesn’t run afoul of New Hampshire’s state law requiring it to go seven days before any other primary.

“Go to a primary, but say we should be in the first window. That should be what the battle is over right now — holding a party-run primary when the DNC tells us we can hold the primary. And I’m not hearing that from any of the Iowa leadership right now,” said Pete D’Alessandro, an Iowa-based strategist who served as a senior adviser on Bernie Sanders’ campaign. “I think you can make an argument that it’s the only thing that should save it.” 

Doing that, however, would require the Republican Legislature and governor in Des Moines to play ball. 

“Good luck with that!” Kaufmann, the Iowa GOP chair, said.