The debate over whether the Iowa caucus should be the first test for presidential hopefuls is not new, as the issue bubbles up every election cycle. What has been a bit different this time around is that candidates who are seeking to win in Iowa are also willing to step up and say: Maybe something is wrong. In the past, this issue was danced around by editorial boards, party insiders, and voting rights advocates. To have presidential candidates themselves, including front runners, debate whether or not Iowa should be first signals a change in the calculation of how important the Iowa caucus is to these campaigns.
Since the 1970s, Iowa has been first. But since the 1970s, many things have changed. Once viewed as a state small enough for campaigns to start and grow in, the attention and tourism Iowa receives, as well as the airtime and candidate resources, dwarf the state’s comparative size in electoral votes. Do candidates spend this much money, generate this much tourism revenue, or buy this much airtime in, say, Mississippi or Tennessee? No.
The debate over Iowa being first has changed over the years and now presents Democratic leadership with new challenges. How does a state that is not representative of the Democratic base benefit from being first in the nation?
The answer is simple: It shouldn’t.
In disputing this theory, a Des Moines Register editorial argues that Iowans are just used to “candidating,” meaning that they get personal time with the candidate and that is more important than money spent. Isn’t that nice? Candidates spend tons of personal time in one state, paying attention to the direct issues of one state. Despite the thought that “it isn’t about money,” the truth is that money is spent—and often, that money isn’t spent inside of Iowa. Candidates have ads created on the east or west coast. They hire staff they know and trust who are often from out of state. While Iowa benefits from the tourism, my past experience tells me that the number of out-of-staters who staff the campaigns in Iowa far exceeds local hires.
The benefit to Iowa, however, remains significant. Its oversized impact on the direction of the presidential race as well as the benefit of “candidating” can influence political campaigns and provide a testing ground for policy positions.
On Tuesday night in a town hall, Julián Castro was asked to defend his position on why Iowa should not be first. The Des Moines Register covered it by pointing out he did not back down.
On Tuesday night, the Democratic presidential candidate made sure to clarify: criticizing the process isn't about changing 2020. It's about changing the Democratic Party for the future — a conversation he knows comes with risks, Castro said. It isn't just "sour grapes" because he may not win Iowa or New Hampshire, he said.
"I'm 45 years old," he said. "If it’s a catastrophe to bring this up, if I ever wanted to run again in the future, the same thing applies. So I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to bring this up, and I do, because it needs to be said."
The argument that Castro makes should not fall on deaf ears. Until Andrew Yang qualified for the December debate, there were no persons of color who had qualified. Cory Booker and Julián Castro are both on the outside looking in.
During the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission, one of the things I heard repeatedly from members on both sides was that the end goal was to make sure people had the opportunity to vote, to open up the process, and to work to maintain voting rights. This call from all members is an important one, and was celebrated by every single member of the DNC, in public and in private.
The fight for voting rights is a fight that happens everywhere, in districts that can be deep red or districts that are bright blue. The party has said that we care about the intent to vote everywhere, and that persons of color have their voting rights protected, especially following discriminatory practices by Republicans. This drive for voter rights and building a better process for voters makes holding the Iowa caucus followed by the New Hampshire primary questionable. Iowa (91% white) and New Hampshire (93% white) just don’t reflect where the party is today.
During Democratic National Committee events, even guests attending from Iowa as observers and former officials pointed out that if Iowa were to go for Trump in 2024, it would be apparent that its value to a Democratic candidate would be minimal. Some argue that today: How much time does a Democratic candidate invest in Iowa in the general election? Do any of our candidates have it on their list of battleground states in a general election?
The New York Times addressed the issue this way:
After touching off the latest round of Iowa pearl-clutching with a vigorous denunciation, Mr. Castro has continued to speak out against the primary schedule. It has become one of the few avenues for his struggling campaign to receive attention.
“We can’t as a Democratic Party continually and justifiably complain about Republicans who suppress the votes of people of color and then turn around and start our nominating contest in two states that, even though they take their role seriously, hardly have any people of color,” he said.
This issue has been debated for years inside the Democratic National Committee. Very few other states will in any way defend the Iowa caucus going first. Those state officials also are not very willing to go on the record saying that, fearing that could cause their future support of a candidate or work for a candidate to be—you guessed it—damaging to a candidate in Iowa.
Because Iowa is insistent on remaining first, it is difficult for members of the Democratic National Committee to come up with a solution that could actually work. One joke i’ve heard more than once is that the debate around the Iowa caucus is part of the reason why some develop a taste for good liquor.
The change in the Iowa caucus can happen for the party, and it should happen. In order for that to be true, however, one thing must happen first: The Democratic candidate must win the general election in 2020. By doing so, the 2024 caucus becomes a non-factor, and gives a sitting Democratic president more opportunities to make the call for change. Without that power on the side of change, it is incredibly doubtful there will ever be movement on this issue.
If we truly want a diverse system with better voter representation, we should fight for it. Democratic candidates should be brave enough to at least say we should reconsider the slotting of the entire primary calendar.
If we shrug our shoulders and refuse to consider change in the process, the only thing we guarantee is that no change will ever happen.