Monday, January 25, 2021

Iowa, Democrats and 2024

Yes, it is still true that no one really wants to talk about 2024 right now. Yet, there was NPR, in the wake of Jaime Harrison's election as DNC chair, with a story over the weekend discussing Iowa's chances of retaining the first-in-the-nation caucuses in the next cycle. 

And while FHQ will agree that it is probably too early for most, it is also true that this question is not new. Iowa's place at the front of the primary and caucus queue comes up to varying degrees every four years. And with each passing cycle, Iowa, not to mention New Hampshire (and since 2008, Nevada and South Carolina), continue to hold down their privileged positions. But the Iowa-in-2024 question specifically is not new either. That question was agitated into prominence before the results were even clear in the 2020 caucuses. In fact, the world continues to wait for an AP call in the race that never came. 

Those snafus understandably brought out caucus opponents and small-d democracy advocates, but there was enough blame to go around. It was not just Iowa. Nor was it specifically the caucus system. The DNC also played a role in doing its (continued) due diligence around the security of the problematic smartphone app that fueled the issues. However, the confluence of issues, in the abstract, seems like a potential inflection point in the generation-plus long history of the caucuses in the Hawkeye state. And if not that, then a fitting bookend to a process that has come to be seen as outdated in a state, the Democratic electorate of which does not exactly conform to the current make-up of the broader Democratic Party.

But as an exhausted electorate shies away from talk of another electoral cycle on the heels of a marathon 2020 blitzkrieg, the question remains: What will come of Iowa's caucuses in 2024? Fitting though the bookend may have been after 2020 and however outdated the caucus process may seem, there still remain some institutional factors that will help Iowa maintain its position or make it more of an uphill climb to replace than some think. Again, it is more complex than: 
Step 1: the caucuses are bad 
Step 2: ???? 
Step 3: Iowa suddenly has a primary and/or it is later in the primary order.

In the days in early February 2020 after the caucusing had stopped in Iowa and the count continued, FHQ penned a piece at the Monkey Cage outlining some of the institutional barriers to changing the early calendar. While most of it holds up reasonably well, things have obviously changed in the months since those Iowa caucuses that may or may not influence that previous outlook. But first things first: a quick review of those institutional barriers. 

First, Iowa Democrats are not likely to go quiet into that good night. The party is likely to argue that the DNC is better with the devil they know than the one they do not. In other words, even with its supposed warts, Iowa is still a safer or more certain alternative than some other state. A cost-benefit analysis version of that argument would be something along the lines of, "The start up costs elsewhere are potentially more 'expensive' than dealing with the 'tweaks' Iowa Democrats would employ to improve their system." Yes, one's mileage may vary on the true balance between those two ends of the ledger. 

Second, the DNC plays a role in all of this as well. In fact, the national party is the group to whom Iowa Democrats would be pitching the argument above. And it is there -- at the national party level -- where things have evolved the most over the last eleven months. While it is clear that there will be a robust discussion over the next two years around Iowa and the others among the early state group, it is not yet clear where things will end up. 

National parties like certainty, but they also want to at least appear sometimes to be responsive to needs if not problems within the presidential nomination process. It was, after all, inter-cycle commissions that both created and eliminated superdelegates in the nomination process. In a global sense, both moves were made by a party sensitive to the balance between the interests of the party elites and those of the grassroots in the nomination process. But a more narrow view holds that the party was merely righting a perceived wrong from the previous cycle. 

The perception of an Iowa problem is very real at the outset of the 2024 invisible primary and there will definitely be pressure to make a change based on 2020. But long term, the DNC will again look to what the proper balance should be and whether a change is prudent. 

Third, part of that calculus will hinge on what Republicans do with their own early calendar line up. No, there is nothing -- no law or rule whether formal or informal -- that says both parties should have the same early calendar. In fact, they already do not. Democrats place Nevada third in the order and South Carolina fourth while Republicans flip them on their early calendar. Yet, breaking up those first two states in the order across both parties is potentially fraught with disruptions to the current incentive structure. For Democrats to drop Iowa from its current perch while Iowa Republicans retain their position is to give incentive to Iowa Democrats to not only band together with their Hawkeye brethren but to possibly go rogue in 2024 as well. The national parties -- especially the DNC in this case -- would rather deal (relatively) quietly with this now rather than invite trouble later that is amplified in the lead up to primary season later. Of course, dealing with it quietly outside of the spotlight could mean keeping Iowa where it is under the condition that changes are made -- preserving the status quo -- or making a change while threatening to penalize the state party back to the stone age should it go rogue. The former upsets a lot of vocal critics while the latter does not necessarily guarantee compliance. 

But that incentive structure remains more intact if the two major parties can agree, formally or otherwise, to an early calendar order. If both were to hypothetically remove Iowa, then one state party would not have the opening to resist if just one party did. FHQ would not count this as a huge concern -- partisans will argue that no party should listen to or wait on the actions of the other -- but it is a part of the overall calculus on this question. 

Finally, if not Iowa then whom? Who takes the Hawkeye state's place atop the calendar should one or both parties move to replace the caucuses? Again, Iowa will fight for its position and argue that even with the problems, it is a safer bet than some unknown alternative. If the line is long to replace Iowa and the arguments for a replacement are diffuse (other than a not Iowa thread), then the case may be harder to make. Then it becomes a discussion of what the party wants represented at that beginning of the calendar. Defining those goals is no small task for either the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee or the full DNC for that matter. If keeping Iowa (with tweaks) is easier than that task -- and often persisting with the status quo ante is -- then that may go a long way toward answering this question. 

But allow FHQ to close by focusing on the one thing that has changed since last February. Joe Biden is now president. 

Typically those are times when a party will more or less rest on its laurels, carrying over the rules from the previous cycle. But it is not clear that that is what will happen in this case. What tends to gum up the works on primary rules changes in those instances is that the party of a newly-elected, first time president often maintains the rules that got that president to the nomination. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But Biden, as many have noted, did not benefit from either Iowa or New Hampshire. Neither was instrumental in his ascent to the nomination. 

While neither may have been instrumental to Biden's nomination victory, it may be more of a fight (see above) than the party or the president wants to take on. And some of this will be colored by the intentions of the president himself. If Biden opts to run again and the field look clear otherwise, then it could honestly go either way (pending some of the other considerations). The DNC could pull the trigger on a change in a cycle with little to nothing on the line and usher in a new era. Alternatively, it could just leave well enough alone and leave that battle for a time ahead of a more active nomination race. And without regard to how active a forthcoming nomination race will be, the party could also opt to punt on the question. 

But punting may not be an easy option if Biden signals that he will not run for renomination, opening the door to prospective candidates and their surrogates pithing the DNC/DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee lobbying for change. No such overt signal, however, is likely to come before the midterm elections and thus will come after the 2024 rules (including the calendar order) are in place. 

One thing that FHQ is particularly keen to see is how Iowa argues on its behalf. Yes, they will make the obvious play as described above (years of trial and error here are better than going with something uncertain elsewhere). But that may not be where things stop. How much do Iowa Democrats raise the heavy hand of the DNC in the problems of 2020? "But for the issues the national party (rightly or wrongly) raised, we (Iowa) could have pulled off a more seamless set of caucuses across the state." How effective Iowa Democrats are at making that argument and leveraging that against the DNC may go some way toward answering this quadrennial question for the 2024 cycle. 

Regardless, one thing is for certain: There will be a thorough discussion of Iowa's place among the early states and the early line up as well in the months ahead. Whether change is imminent there depends on the desire for change on one hand and the institutional barrier in place on the other. It is easy to call on Iowa to be replaced, but another to actually do it. But as was the case in the time after 2016, the same things were said about reducing the influence of superdelegates. Change happened on that front, but the conditions are different heading into 2024 than they were ahead of 2020. 

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