DES MOINES – Former Republican President Donald Trump left no doubt about Iowa’s future as he campaigned for votes ahead of his 2016 victory.
“You’re going to keep your place in history. You’re going to be that first state,” he told Des Moines rallygoers that August. Efforts to reorient the presidential nominating calendar? “Not gonna happen if I win.”
But now, a president who has made no such promises occupies the White House, and calls for scrapping Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses have reached a new fervor.
One year after Iowa’s 2020 Democratic caucuses ended in calamity, Democratic President Joe Biden has assumed his role as the head of the party and installed former South Carolina state party chairman Jaime Harrison as leader of the Democratic National Committee. Both will have substantial power over conversations about Iowa’s future, but neither has given any public indication of how he might wield it.
With new national leaders in place and a year’s worth of retrospection, the stage is now set for a consequential year of debate and political maneuvering that will help decide whether Iowa retains its historic role as the nation’s first arbiter of presidential aspirants.
“Every cycle is a new challenge,” said Scott Brennan, who has seen numerous challenges to Iowa’s status as one of the state’s longtime representatives to the Democratic National Committee. “Obviously, because of things that happened in February of 2020, it's probably a bigger challenge than usual. But it's always a challenge, nevertheless.”
What will President Joe Biden, a three-time caucus loser, do?
For more than a year, a historically large and diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates had barnstormed Iowa with the singular goal of declaring victory on the night of the 2020 Iowa caucuses, Feb. 3. But the Iowa Democratic Party was unable to report out timely results of the contest.
Although the state party certified former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as the winner weeks later, the Associated Press said that reporting irregularities and potential data errors meant it could not be certain of the outcome and it would not declare a caucus victor.
Many of Iowa’s political insiders believe February 2020 will go down as a date that definitively changed the trajectory of the state’s storied caucuses — forcing changes to their place at the front of the calendar, their unique processes, or both. Few believe the caucus structure will come away unscathed, and leaders of both parties are preparing for the uncertainty of what the next few years will bring.
“It would have been much easier if Donald Trump were president, because we wouldn't have had a fight,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said on a recent taping of "Iowa Press" on Iowa PBS. “That's not in the cards. So I can cry over spilled milk or I can do what I need to do, and I'm going to do what I need to do.”
Though Trump placed a close second in Iowa’s 2016 Republican caucuses, behind Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the former president regularly espoused his affection for the state and returned often throughout his presidency.
Biden, who was sworn into office last month, has had a far longer and deeper relationship with Iowa during his three campaigns for president, during which he cultivated friendships that have weathered the years. Just in the last month, Biden has issued public condolences following the deaths of two prominent Iowa Democrats, former AARP Iowa state director Bruce Koeppl and Polk County Treasurer Mary Maloney.
Still, those relationships have not translated into Iowa success for Biden. In 1987, he dropped out of the race before reaching the caucuses. In 2008, he finished in fifth place with 0.9% of state delegate equivalents. And in 2020, he called his fourth-place finish a “gut punch” as his team criticized the process.
"What we’re saying is that the Iowa Democratic Party needs to be very judicious in checking, checking again and rechecking their data," Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the campaign, said the morning after the caucuses. "The reality is that there were considerable and serious failures in the process yesterday evening all throughout the evening at every single level."
Elected presidents have the power within their parties to help guide conversations about changes to the nominating process. But Biden’s disappointing 2020 caucus experience — paired with the monumental tasks of vaccinating America against a mutating coronavirus, bolstering a staggered economy and wrangling with an unwieldy Congress — may mean his political capital will be spent elsewhere.
“I think those things are probably far bigger issues for the administration than, let's say, petty politics,” Brennan said.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Hangover from DNC-Iowa 2020 battle
Brennan has served on the DNC’s influential Rules and Bylaws Committee for years, as have representatives of the other early carve-out states. As is common after presidential elections, the DNC has tasked that committee with reviewing the party’s nominating process and making recommendations for improvement by March 31.
“With the purpose and the goals of continuing to further accessibility, transparency, and inclusion in our Party, the (Rules and Bylaws Committee) shall conduct a comprehensive and structured review of the presidential nominating reforms adopted by the DNC for the 2020 primaries to evaluate where even further reforms are needed, while maintaining the advances that have been made,” a resolution adopted at the DNC’s January winter meeting states.
So far, Harrison, the new DNC chair, has not commented publicly about his own views on caucuses. David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the DNC, said in a statement that the process would play out under Harrison’s leadership just as it has in the past.
"Every four years, the DNC looks back at what worked and what didn’t work," he said. "And the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee will continue to evaluate all areas of our nominating process and make recommendations for any changes."
But some Iowa party leaders say the state’s prospects can only improve with the departure of former DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who is a staunch and public opponent of caucuses. In his farewell speech to the party, Perez praised states’ movement away from caucuses and toward primaries under his watch.
The DNC’s involvement in Iowa’s 2020 caucuses has left a sour taste in the mouths of many state Democrats, potentially previewing a tense relationship as the Iowa and national parties work to negotiate a resolution to the future of the caucuses.
A report commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party highlighted the DNC’s involvement, including its last-minute call for changes to the cell phone app used to collect and share results from precincts across the state.
"Without the DNC's intervention in that process, the IDP may have reported results in real-time as it intended ..." the report said.
Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price, who resigned after the 2020 caucuses, said in an interview with the Des Moines Register that he faults the DNC for failing to offer assistance early in the process when it would have been more useful.
“I previewed what we were looking to do with the caucuses at the end of 2018,” he said. “We asked for help with some of the tech pieces. We asked for their partnership and help in February of 2019. We were told no.”
Rather than offer early assistance in building out a reporting app that all caucus states could use and assisting in the creation of Iowa’s virtual caucuses — an answer to a DNC mandate that Iowa create a method for people to participate without being physically present at the caucuses — Price said the DNC waited.
Citing cybersecurity concerns, the DNC pulled the plug on the virtual caucuses in August of 2019, five months before the caucuses. And according to the state party review, the DNC did not approve Iowa’s proposal for a technology vendor to develop the reporting app until October, about three months before the caucuses.
“What didn't work was not solely the responsibility of the Iowa Democratic Party,” Price said. “There were a lot of people involved in this process — the DNC being one of them. And I think that any conversation going forward needs to acknowledge that fact.”
Republicans link arms with Democrats
Proposals for phasing out Iowa and the caucuses have circulated for years, though they’ve failed to gain substantial traction. They include condensing the carve-out calendar of four early states and requiring Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to hold their nominating events on the same day; holding a national primary rather than starting in a single state; and rotating which state begins the process.
But it’s difficult to reach a national consensus, though, as other states have jostled to carve out their own preferential treatment.
Price said other issues are at play as well, including state laws in Iowa and New Hampshire that say their states hold the first caucus and primary events of the nation.
“What I don't think folks fully recognize is the different elements that go into this process — the balance that exists between us and New Hampshire, us and the DNC, us and the two other early states beyond New Hampshire, the laws that we are under here in Iowa,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces here that go into this, and you start tugging at a thread and the whole thing comes crashing down.”
Though Democrats are at the center of the conversation over reconstructing the nominating process, Republicans, without an incumbent president in office, are likely to be the focus of any 2024 primary action.
Iowa Republicans — recognizing that their fates are largely intertwined with those of their Democratic counterparts — plan to do everything they can to help make the case for Iowa’s caucuses to lead off the nominating process. The Republican National Committee has not discussed changing its process, Kaufmann said following the party’s winter meeting in January.
At that meeting, Kaufmann sat down with the Republican Party chairs in each of the three states that follow Iowa on the current nominating calendar — New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina —to form an alliance aimed at preserving the status quo.
Kaufmann said he’s prepared to hold Republican caucuses in Iowa in 2024 with or without the Democrats if necessary, though he concedes that would be more difficult.
“I just hope that isn’t a bridge we have to cross,” he said.
Iowa Democrats on the State Central Committee elected state Rep. Ross Wilburn to take over as chair of the party late last month. Wilburn is the party’s first chair who is Black, and he told reporters he will focus on highlighting the diverse voices within the party as part of his efforts to retain the caucuses and refute claims the state does not reflect the diversity of the nation.
A spokesperson for the party said Wilburn has already connected with Harrison and Ken Martin, who is a DNC vice chair, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees. Wilburn is scheduling meetings with chairs of the New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina Democratic parties, and he has "traded voicemails with Chairman Kaufmann on working together with the Iowa Republicans on this issue," the spokesperson said.
“I look forward to working with Harrison and folks here in Iowa so we can always make the case that Iowa should be first in the nation,” Wilburn previously told reporters.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa caucuses: A year after collapse, stage set to decide their future