Monday, May 9, 2022

Let's Talk About Iowa

If there is one thing that can pull FHQ out of a posting hiatus that has lasted more than a year, then it is a potential shake up to the presidential primary calendar. So here we go. 

In recent weeks there has been renewed chatter surrounding Iowa's continued presence not only among the early presidential primary and caucus states but at the front of the queue within the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination process. This is nothing new. It happens in some way, shape or form every cycle within one or both of the two major parties. Yet, some cycles see a much more muted, almost perfunctory discussion. 

This is not one of those cycles. 

Some within the broader Democratic Party network have raised legitimate concerns about how well aligned Iowa, much less its smaller caucusing electorate, is with the increasingly diversifying Democratic Party. And folks were saying those things before the Democratic caucus debacle in the Hawkeye state in 2020. With that added layer, Iowa quickly came back into the crosshairs and has not really left.

The sentiment remained in some quarters of the broader party to do something about Iowa, but the process had not caught up with it. Unlike in cycles when there is clearly an open Democratic presidential nomination process (or after a very competitive one), the Democratic National Committee has had no commission to deal with any real or perceived issues from the previous cycle ahead of 2024. It is that very sort of commission that in the past would have considered (or reconsidered) the pre-window early states on the calendar in the year immediately following the presidential election. Its recommendations, if any, would then be handed off to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) for its consideration during the first two-thirds of the midterm election year. 

That is where the process is now (sans preceding commission dedicated to some real or perceived nomination problem). Sure, there were Iowa and process discussions in 2021, but not to the degree that they would have been had there been a commission. Still, all of this is currently occurring well within the regular rhythms of the national Democratic Party rules-making process. 

So, what is the DNCRBC considering with respect to Iowa and the 2024 presidential primary calendar now that it has entered into one of its intra-cycle busy seasons? 

It is multifaceted, but as has been reported since the DNCRBC met at the winter DNC meeting in Washington, DC in early March, there is a proposed framework that would require the four traditionally early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- to make the case before the committee as to why they should retain those positions. The proposed draft framework also describes the the criteria by which the DNCRBC would evaluate those waivers requests; placing particular emphasis on diversity (racial, geographic, unionization, etc.), primaries over caucuses, competitiveness in the general election and feasibility of holding an early contest. And this is not exactly about putting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina under the microscope. The intent is to open the waivers process up to all states and territories. But the natural reaction has been to deem the whole thing the opening salvo in the demise of the Iowa caucuses at the head of the Democratic presidential nomination line. 

Again, that is a natural reaction. Iowa may check a geographic diversity box. It is (rural and) the midwestern representative among the traditional early four states. But it is not nearly as racially diverse as the broader Democratic Party, has caucuses (written into and protected by state law) and not a primary and is decreasingly competitive (and favoring Republicans) in presidential general elections. However, Hawkeye state Democrats retain an important building block in any of these discussions: it has for half a century now and can reasonably hold an early contest.

But in any resulting cost/benefit analysis, the odds seem stacked against Iowa and its Democratic caucuses. In fact, at the the March 28 virtual DNCRBC meeting, every member who spoke, spoke in favor of the working draft resolution. Granted, the word Iowa was never uttered, but its position was was hinted at a number of times by members who strongly advocated for more diversity in the pre-window period (Maria Cardona, Mo Elleithee, etc.) and others who echoed points raised in recent discussions in public meetings about the Democratic Party not being beholden to tradition or as member Leah Daughtry said in the latest virtual meeting, "a calendar from 50 years ago." That is all very hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Ahem, Iowa.

But let's take a step back now that the resolution opening up the process has passed and 20 states and territories (including all four traditionally early states) have filed petitions for waivers to hold contests in the pre-window period with the DNCRBC and look at this from a different perspective, one that does not instantly veer off into "Iowa's doomed!" territory.

And to be honest, I'm almost surprised I haven't seen this cynically posted in some dark corner of social media somewhere. That cynical spin would go something like this: "Well, the DNC is talking about shaking up the early presidential primary calendar, but they ultimately won't do anything." And that would inevitably be followed with something about the establishment DNC working to maintain the status quo. Look, that may be out there and I missed it. [Sometimes those repeated arguments levied almost as an involuntary reaction no matter the problem get monotonous. And yes, some may say the same thing about some of the arguments I've made in this space for more than a decade and a half.]  

To even potentially make that assumption -- that all the DNCRBC is doing now is paying lip service to possible calendar change -- misses the point of what the DNCRBC has actually done in 2022. Iowa's caucuses may end up back at the front of the line, but the Democrats in the state will have had to work harder and to start that work in earnest earlier than they done in most past cycles. 

Here is what I mean. In most recent cycles, Iowa Democrats would not have to have anything formally assemble anything for the next cycle until putting a draft delegate selection plan out for public comment. And that typically occurs in the spring following the midterm election before formal proposals are due to the DNCRBC for review at the beginning part of May. In the context of the 2024 cycle, the normal procedure would maybe have Iowa Democrats talking about change at this point in the cycle -- and maybe even about significant changes -- but it would not necessarily have the urgency as it does in right now in 2022 given the direction the DNCRBC has taken things with the recent passage of its resolution. 

Of course, there was going to be urgency for Iowa Democrats after 2020 anyway, but the DNCRBC has manufactured additional external pressure by 1) making the four traditionally early states petition for waivers (rather than entering a new cycle with them mostly assuming things would carry over as they have done during the post-reform era and especially since the period after 2008), and 2) making them compete with other states for one of up to five early slots on the calendar.

Iowa Democrats now have to have something while not necessarily formal to present to the DNCRBC this summer, something that is nonetheless concrete with respect to how the state party is going to remedy the issues of 2020 and meet the new criteria laid out by the committee. That is within the next month or so and not by early May of next year as has been routine in the Democratic process. That is no small thing. 

The addition of that simple bureaucratic step in the process may indeed yield the same early primary calendar slate, but it has created a real set of incentives that very well may lead to real changes that move the same early states closer to broadly shared party goals. No, if Iowa and the remainder of the early four states hold their positions for 2024, that will not do much to further the work of the Price commission (which added Nevada and South Carolina to the early states for the 2008 cycle) in terms of diversity, but it would likely push things toward another DNC goal that has arisen in the time since: increased participation. Iowa Democrats may call their contest a caucus in 2024, but it will have to function at the very least like something akin to what Iowa Republicans do or move to something that is more primary-like in some ways to better accommodate increased participation. Because the gathering/caucusing and realigning (not to mention the use of state delegate equivalents) may very well (have to) be a thing of the past in the Iowa Democratic delegate selection process at this point. 

Look, this is not a post where I am arguing for Iowa's continued inclusion as the lead-off state in the Democratic process. There are a number of recent (and lengthy) Twitter threads where I have offered some ways in which Iowa Democrats could change their process (and to place into context the extent to which Iowa results are discounted in the Democratic presidential nomination process anyway). Instead, this post is intended to point out the changes the DNCRBC has already put in place. Even if the beginning of the calendar remains the very same as it has by rule since 2008, the added step is potentially significantly beneficial with respect to changes in the direction of broader party goals. 

And besides, the 2024 presidential primary calendar is not going to remain the same anyway. The DNCRBC has kind of quietly accounted for that already. Even if this new process yields the same four states in the pre-window, the committee still has the option of upping their number to five. That is not a cop out on the part of the committee. While simply adding a fifth state would potentially provide a very concrete example of change, the process of upping the ante on the traditionally early four states should also lead to positive examples of changes in their state-level processes. 

Part of the 2024 calendar may look the same at the beginning, then, but at least part of it is likely to change. 

Follow FHQ on TwitterInstagram and Facebook or subscribe by Email.

See more on our political/electoral consulting venture at FHQ Strategies.