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While not yet official, it is all but certain: the Democratic National Committee’s rule-making branch has recommended that Iowa be stripped of its “first in the nation status” for the party’s presidential and congressional primaries. The DNC proper is expected to follow through in the coming months.
The move comes in the wake of credibility-killing technical difficulties during the 2020 election, as well as a growing gap in diversity between the party’s base and Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population. The Hawkeye state is no longer a swing state either, just ask any political scientist, or Cindy Axne.
The change is unfortunate for Iowans, who have long enjoyed a status as potential kingmakers for little-known candidates seeking to put their names on the map through steak dinners, disproportionately sized ad campaigns and state fair visits. That said, moving Iowa down the timeline is easily better than the alternatives.
In a bid to keep its first-in-the nation status, Iowa Democrats proposed replacing the Caucuses with an entirely absentee system devoid of deliberation, a move the national party favored, but which ultimately fizzled out. Even before 2020, many have called for increased absentee accessibility, a criticism that is certainly fair, but which can be addressed without upending the entire concept.
Iowa will still go first for the Republican primary in 2024, and many on the right have criticized the move as writing off disenfranchised rural Americans, even if by “rural,” they mean “conservative.”
It’s not a terribly persuasive argument, though. South Carolina is the likely contender for new calendar leader. Overall, the state’s about as swingy as Iowa: mostly red, with rare hints of blue here and there at population centers. It’s not a far-left voting bloc like New York, but a rough representation of the racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse national environment.
As of 2010, about 34% of the state’s population was rural, compared to Iowa’s 43%. Meanwhile, 31% of its population is non-white, compared to Iowa’s 9.9%.
This means the party is trading a 9% negative gap in disenfranchised rural representation for a 21% positive gap in disenfranchised minority representation. On that line of thinking, it’s an easy choice to make once you do the math, especially given that non-white voters tend to vote Democrat, and rural voters tend to not.
In my mind, however, the best reason for Iowa’s first in the nation status was never about the demographics, but about the Caucuses themselves, or more specifically, because of the deliberative process they entail for the state’s Democrats.
I have attended Caucuses before. They’re a tedious take on competitive musical chairs. You pack too many people into a room, then separate them by political belief, then make them talk to the people they disagree with. After a while, you remove a few candidates, and have the stragglers realign, but only following more talking to the friends and neighbors they disagree with.
Repeat until you’re down to however many candidates you have delegates to represent, or until ties force you to make a coin toss on a frustratingly low-resolution camera for the world to see on the next morning’s news.
As of 2020, realignment was limited to two rounds, a change that limited deliberation, but which was necessary to prevent infamous 3 a.m. coin tosses and late night debate marathons.
Make no mistake, the process is perhaps archaic, often difficult to access and a logistical dumpster fire. But it’s also an important and rare political exercise in getting people on the same page.
Too often, politics comes down to a sport of ignoring opposing viewpoints. This has gotten worse since roughly 2008. Blame it on whoever you want, the Tea Party, Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, socialists, "The Media,“ Russian bots, whatever, I could care less.
Caucusing, meanwhile, requires that people not only listen to opposing views, but talk to the folks who have them, and engage them on the same level. In doing so, they can forge a consensus on who the best pick is, even if that pick isn’t everyone’s favorite. This is a good thing to know in a presidential race, when general election appeal is on everyone’s mind.
While ranked choice voting could probably paint a similar electability picture, it would leave no room for persuasion, for talking to fellow community members. Only a thorough back-and-forth ensures that participants think through their opinions beyond heuristics and buzzwords, and genuinely consider what works best for everyone.
Admittedly, this is a romanticized view of the Caucus process. I’m an argumentative person, I coach a debate team, and I therefore place disproportionate value on deliberation, because I find it both democratically valuable and fun.
And there are certainly exceptions. When I attended a 2016 Caucus at the urging of my then-government teacher, the attendees in favor of Sanders and Clinton sat and stared at each other in uncomfortable silence for five excruciating minutes before volunteers declared the precinct a tie. Both candidates got a delegate, but no productive dialogue was had that night, at least, not in my township.
Still, it’s hard to think of another politically relevant event where people are encouraged to hear one another out. Caucus discussions are free of deletable comment rants, unhinged tweet threads, and block/mute buttons for the opposition.
I think having that kind of genuine dialogue makes Iowa a serious contender for first in the nation. But given that it’s not enough to persuade the Democratic powers that be, I’ll gladly take a date down the calendar before I’ll settle for an argument-free primary.
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