early and often

The Iowa Democratic Caucuses As We Knew Them Are Finally Dead

Joe Biden on Iowa Caucus Night in 2020. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The death rattle of the hallowed First-in-the-Nation Iowa Democratic Caucuses took a while to subside. But now it’s done. Yes, Iowa Democrats will still get together in precinct gatherings on January 15, the same day when Iowa Republicans caucus to formally launch the 2024 Republican nominating contest. But thanks to a national party mandate insisted upon by President Joe Biden, there will be no presidential preference balloting at the Democratic caucuses. A separate, mail-in ballot process will culminate in the announcement of the results on March 5, Super Tuesday, safely outside the “early state” window Iowa once dominated, and in the midst of a cascade of votes that will confirm Biden’s nomination.

Iowa’s defenestration from the early-state window was caused by three interrelated factors that came together to overcome the first-in-the-nation tradition. First, Democrats have moved decisively to outlaw caucuses as a method for awarding national-convention delegates, compared to more open and inclusive primaries. Second, Iowa was deemed far too unrepresentative of the country demographically to maintain such a highly influential position on the nominating calendar. And third, the last Democratic Caucuses in 2020 were a huge mess with the state party unable to report the results on Caucus Night (though arguably national party mandates helped make that happen). You could add as a fourth, decisive factor: Biden’s poor performance in Iowa en route to his nomination and election; certainly the White House owed the state no favors.

As Politico reports, Iowa Democrats hope their cooperation in what is after all an uncontested nomination contest in 2024 will give them a chance at reentering the early-state window in the future, albeit not likely in its old premier position. And as the Des Moines Register notes, the state party’s surrender eliminates a collateral threat to Iowa Republicans who might have faced a calendar challenge from New Hampshire if Iowa Democrats conducted something that looked like a primary before the Granite State’s event (which by state law must occur first).

Now the only apparent troublemakers left in the presidential nominating arena are New Hampshire’s Democrats, who have no choice but to follow state law and conduct a presidential primary on January 23; the DNC has demanded New Hampshire give way to the vastly more diverse South Carolina as the first primary state and vote instead on February 6, the same day as Nevada’s primary. The Republicans who control New Hampshire’s legislature have refused to play ball, leaving their Democratic counterparts to hold a rogue event that will cost New Hampshire at least half its delegation to the Democratic convention in Chicago next year, while creating the possibility of an embarrassing upset of President Biden, who won’t participate in a primary that defies his own calendar rules.

Most recently, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has significantly reduced the risk of that happening by indicating he plans to withdraw from an allegedly “rigged” Democratic nominating contest to run as an independent, leaving Marianne Williamson as Biden’s only foe with any significant support. To be safe, New Hampshire’s Democratic leaders are planning a Biden write-in effort.

No matter what happens in New Hampshire, though, the whole show in Iowa on January 15 will be on the GOP side of the partisan divide. Republicans, after all, aren’t that hung up on diversity and are still okay with caucuses and highly unrepresentative delegate award systems. Meanwhile, sad Iowa Democrats may well feel their caucus traditions on January 15 like a missing limb.

The Iowa Democratic Caucuses As We Knew Them Finally Die