Back in June, against the usual carping about Iowa and about caucuses, I wrote my quadrennial defense of the Iowa caucuses as an imperfect element of an imperfect nominating system. Usually by this point in the cycle, the complaints have subsided before reaching a crescendo on Caucus Night (February 3) if the results displease people with microphones and bullhorns. But hating on Iowa is sharply evident this week thanks to the vocal unhappiness of candidates who aren’t doing so well there and their considerable resentment of a candidate who is: Pete Buttigieg.
The New York Times amplified the latest round of kvetching:
And Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said Iowa was “not reflective of the United States” and “not reflective of the Democratic Party.” He called for the state to lose its spot at the front of the presidential nominating calendar.
Even the candidate vying with Buttigieg for the lead in Iowa is feeling some heat, though she hasn’t let it drive her into saying something stupid:
Senator Elizabeth Warren demurred when she was asked at a forum in South Carolina whether the order of the early-nominating states should change because Iowa and New Hampshire were “two of the whitest states in the country.” “Are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?,” she said. “I’m just a player in the game.”
The question asked of Warren is clearly related to the hypothesis that Mayor Pete — who was actually in the lead in Iowa, according to a new Monmouth poll of the state — is getting an undue advantage from the order of states because of his weakness among the minority voters who begin weighing in after Iowa and New Hampshire. Meanwhile, candidates who rely heavily on minority voters (basically, the minority candidates plus Biden) are struggling as the bitter winter weather of Iowa and New Hampshire approaches. Ron Brownstein suggests the field may essentially be bleached by the honky hordes of the first two states:
[W]hile all Democratic campaigns expect nonwhite voters, especially African-Americans, to play a central role in picking the nominee, they could be choosing only among white candidates. That will happen if poor performances in preponderantly white Iowa and New Hampshire effectively winnow out the race’s leading candidates of color: African-American Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Latino former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, and Asian-American entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Blaming the weakness of minority candidates on the pale complexion of the Iowa and New Hampshire electorates, however, doesn’t explain their poor performance in polling in more diverse states. Castro has never polled better than 2 percent in Nevada. And in Monmouth’s October poll in South Carolina, where a clear majority of Democratic primary voters will be African-American, black candidates Harris and Booker were at a booming 6 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
In any event, as Nate Silver argues, you can get a better sense of where the race stands by looking at the four early states — those whose early order is protected by national party rules — as a unit:
Taken collectively, polls in the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — tell almost the same story as national polls: Biden leads, Elizabeth Warren is in second, Bernie Sanders is in third, and Buttigieg is still a fairly distant fourth.
Trouble is, Iowa results have typically affected candidates’ standing in New Hampshire, and both have affected subsequent contests. That’s exactly why candidates like Booker and Harris, whose most important state is South Carolina, have gone all in on Iowa, hoping to duplicate Barack Obama’s two-cushion shot in 2008.
Obama’s solid win over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards that year should have dampened the idea that Iowa Democratic caucus-goers only have eyes for white candidates. For that matter, Iowa leaders supported the expansion of the protected early-state tent between the 2004 and 2008 elections to include the more diverse Nevada and South Carolina and would likely be amenable to other accommodations in the future as long as they didn’t threaten the state’s first-in-the-nation status.
A shift away from caucusing is more problematic for Iowans, since it would trigger New Hampshire’s state law requiring it to hold the very first primary. That conundrum is a reminder to those demanding a more “rational” nominating system that there really is no national system at all but instead a calendar of state-party-run caucuses and state-government-run primaries, with the national party influencing the order and the rules of participation by sticks and carrots but not running the show. A big push from the DNC did help reduce the number of caucuses from 10 in 2016 to just three (Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming) this year, and Iowa Democrats have labored to provide alternative caucusing arrangements that are more convenient to people who work on Caucus Night or have mobility issues. (Unfortunately, a plan to allow caucusing by phone fell prey to hacking fears, and we’ll have to see how well the backup plan for “satellite caucuses” works out).
In the end, presidential candidates fearing the wrath of Iowa and New Hampshire leaders (and voters) and those states’ willingness to adapt and cut deals to keep their position have maintained the traditional calendar. It will take more than halftime complaints about the rules and the refs to change it all. And in the meantime, if Iowa and New Hampshire give Buttigieg more of a lift than he deserves, there will be plenty of opportunities later in the year to bring him right down to earth.