May 25, 2024


Law, This Is It!

Letting Go of the Iowa Caucus

9 min read
Letting Go of the Iowa Caucus

My father was a registered independent for most of my childhood because he resented having to choose. But choosing was not hard for my mother. She was an MSNBC devotee, a liberal Pennsylvania transplant who took her adopted role as an Iowa Democrat seriously. She wanted me to take politics seriously, too.

Which is why, on a freezing January night in 2000, Mom zipped up our coats, buckled 7-year-old me into our white Toyota Previa, and drove us along five miles of gravel to the nearest town: Danville, population 919. It would be my very first Iowa caucus, with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore vying for the Democratic nomination. Mom thought Bradley had more personality, so she stood, with me at her side, in his corner of the Danville Elementary School gymnasium. When Bradley was considered not “viable,” per caucus rules, Mom walked us over to Gore’s group, and he was soon declared the winner. Mom recounted all of this recently; I remember little from that night, except the outlines of bulky puffer jackets and a general tingliness at being the only kid in a room full of adults doing something that seemed important.

Accuse me of harboring a pro-caucus bias and you’d be right; I love them and I always have. A caucus is like a primary, but not: There’s no secret ballot. You demonstrate your preference for a candidate by physically moving your body to a different chair or another corner of the gym. Only a few states do it this way, and “this way” looks different everywhere.

After that night in 2000, Mom took me with her at each opportunity. Every four or eight years, we held hands and navigated icy sidewalks after dark. We explored student-less school hallways and cozy church luncheon rooms. We stood under basketball hoops and listened to neighbors argue about candidates as though their opinions really mattered, because that night they actually did.

Over the past half century, Iowa’s prominence in politics became part of its identity—something the state was known for besides its acres of corn and millions of hogs. Iowa doesn’t have any major-league teams to root for, or the kind of glittering cities that draw visitors from all corners of the world. But the caucuses helped make Iowa special—and on the national political stage, they made it relevant.

Still, it’s possible to hold two truths in tension. The caucus is part of Iowa’s identity, and deeply rooted in my own, yet the process has never really been fair—not to many Iowans, and not to other Americans. So, even though I felt a sharp pang of sorrow earlier this month when President Joe Biden suggested that my home state should give up its spot on the early-voting roster, I wasn’t surprised. Most Iowans have seen this day coming. Some are more prepared than others.

Thanks to the caucus, I never thought it was strange that I’d met Barack Obama twice before I turned 20. Nothing seemed shocking about Newt Gingrich showing up to speak at the restaurant where my parents have happy hour on Fridays. I was only slightly unsettled to discover that my high-school friend was having a summertime fling with a political reporter I knew from D.C.

For 50 years, these meet-cutes and history-making appearances have been normal, tradition. Iowans heard Howard Dean make the animalistic roar that supposedly ended his campaign. They sheltered in place with Elizabeth Warren during a tornado. They watched Fred Thompson rolling around the state fair in style, and bore witness to John Delaney’s sad ride down the Giant Slide.

Iowa’s prominence in the process dates back to the 1970s, when the caucuses helped put George McGovern, and later Jimmy Carter, on the proverbial map. State law requires that Iowa holds its caucuses eight days before the first primary happens, hence the quadrennial Iowa–New Hampshire pairing. Most people know this by now; it’s the process they don’t get—the appeal of the thing. The magic.

That’s how many Iowans see the caucus: a messy, intimate project that represents politics in its most sublime form—a dose of pure democracy smack-dab in the middle of Iowa’s fields and farms. I’m not sure about all that. But the caucuses are intimate. You discuss electability with your legs wedged beneath a lunch table designed for children. You look your neighbor in the eye and tell him why he’s wrong. On a school night! During one of his first-ever caucuses, my father, sitting at Senator Bernie Sanders’s table, was approached by a neighbor from Hillary Clinton’s. “Didn’t you hear that Sanders was a conscientious objector?” the man asked. Dad replied that he didn’t realize it was a liability for a presidential candidate to have a conscience. I remember thinking that this was a good comeback.

As a sophomore in college, I viewed the caucus as a noble process, probably because I was reading a lot of Hannah Arendt for class. The German philosopher wrote often about the polis—from which politics is derived—and in The Human Condition she defined it as “the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together.” The caucus, I thought. How romantic. But at the time, I was unaware—being young and able-bodied and generally self-absorbed—that caucuses don’t allow all people to act and speak together.

Mailing in your candidate preferences has never been an option in the caucuses. And many Iowans are not free at seven on a weeknight in January or February. That includes people working shift jobs, people working late, people with little kids, people with relatives to take care of, people with disabilities, people who don’t drive at night, people who have important plans, people who are simply out of town. Over the summer, state Democratic officials, in a bid to keep their place, finally did propose an absentee option. The DNC was apparently unimpressed.

The other most common criticism of the caucus is that Iowa is too white to make a decision that sets the political tempo for the rest of the country. Iowans would counter that their state proved to be the launching pad for America’s first Black president, but the point is well taken. In 2020, Biden finished fourth in mostly white Iowa, and it took the Black voters of South Carolina to push him to the front of the pack.

Iowa’s critics were vindicated that year, when the caucus became synonymous with chaos. The actual process went relatively smoothly, but a faulty new app and jammed phone lines disrupted the reporting of the results. That year, I’d invited my boyfriend to come to my hometown while I covered the caucuses. I’d wanted him to be charmed by the quaint small-town-ness of it all; instead, I was embarrassed. The entire state was. That was the final straw. This summer, a Democratic National Committee panel required every state to make the case for going early in the primary season. Earlier this month, with Biden’s support, the committee passed a proposal that would reorder which states vote first: South Carolina would start, and Michigan and Georgia would be part of the first five. Iowa was not on the list.

Long-time party activists are suffering varying degrees of disappointment at the news. Some lean more toward acceptance. “We’ve taken our role seriously. I think that it was probably time to move on,” Kurt Meyer, a retiree who’s led caucuses for years in northeast Mitchell County, told me. “As an Iowan who cares about such things, I’m sorry to see it go … but it’s okay.” Then he chuckled: “It’s like an aging ball player saying, It was a good run and I enjoyed those World Series games, but now I’m ready to watch from the comfort of the den with a drink in my hand.”

Others are left with a bitter taste. They have some arguments in their favor, after all: Candidates with no money can travel across Iowa easily and purchase ads cheaply. The caucus process itself allows people to rank their preferences and enables coalition-building among supporters of different candidates. “I don’t think people understood the nuance that was there, and that might be the party’s biggest failure,” Sandy Dockendorff, a longtime caucus leader in the southeast, told me. The result, she said, is that people in flyover country will feel even more neglected than they already do.

“That’s telling a lot of rural folks—a lot of the breadbasket—that we don’t matter,” Dockendorff said. “That’ll be felt for generations.”

Three years ago, I wrote a story about the Iowa Democratic Party’s plan to offer “satellite” caucuses that would let some people with work commitments or disabilities participate remotely. I was critical of the proposal because it wouldn’t solve all of the caucus’s inclusivity problems. After my article ran, a well-known Iowa labor leader emailed me. “I can tell you really dislike Iowa!” he wrote. The note was short, and I was crushed. My chest hurt. Had I betrayed my state with a single, 1,300-word article? But I think I understand how he was feeling. I get it now.

Americans outside the Midwest may soon forget about the Butter Cow. Iowa will take an economic hit if the state doesn’t go first in the Democrats’ nominating process. The restaurants serving tenderloins and chicken lips to eager-to-please politicians won’t make as much; the hotels and bars frequented by the national press corps will suffer. But the real reason these changes will be hard for many Iowans to accept is that a whole lot of pride is tied up in this thing. I hear it when I’m talking on the phone with my parents, and when I’m listening to people like Dockendorff and Meyer reminisce. Caucus advocates claim that Iowans are perfectly suited for the part because they are a particularly discerning people. I don’t think that’s true. But Iowans do take the role seriously—at least the ones who participate.

Iowa Democrats have invested decades of effort into hosting bright-eyed, young campaign staffers from California and Massachusetts in their homes. They’ve given rookie candidates with few resources the space to make a case and a name for themselves. That all of this might soon be ripped away by a faceless group of people in D.C.—who seem to harbor, if not ill will, then at least a light disdain toward Iowa—is hard to swallow. Identity is a tricky thing.

No one is totally sure what happens next. The DNC will vote on the new order in February, and this summer, states will submit plans for the upcoming election. Iowa will have to decide how to play it. If state Democrats agree to move the caucus, in theory that breaks state law; the state attorney general could sue them. Some party leaders seem eager to say “Screw it!” and hold a first-in-the-nation caucus anyway, which could mean that Iowa’s delegates aren’t counted at the national convention. Candidates who campaign for such an unsanctioned event could face repercussions. But whatever happens, after committee members vote and state leaders draw their line in the sand, the Iowa caucus probably won’t look the same.

I don’t get to decide what the best outcome would be, for the state or for the process itself. But for all of my life and 20 years before that, Iowa has enjoyed a very particular feeling—a heady mix of relevance and attention—that has become enmeshed, irrevocably, into Iowans’ sense of their home and themselves. I learned to cherish that feeling as a 7-year-old. Maybe it’s time for other people, in some other state, to feel it, too. It will be hard to let go.

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