elections

Despite Iowa’s Caucus Meltdown, the Old System May Survive

The 2020 Iowa caucuses debacle seems like it happened a long time ago. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

One year ago today, Iowa’s Democrats caucused in the first step of their party’s 2020 presidential-nomination process. As is now clear, state’s party officials were nervous heading into the night of the caucuses because of new reporting demands imposed on them by the national party, a new (the first ever) remote-caucuses process, and because they had doubts about the technologies being deployed to tabulate the results. And during the event, the overburdened, volunteer-run caucuses results reporting system broke down, leaving furious campaigns and pundits with nothing to talk about.

As I reported at the time from Des Moines, there was a palpable sense of mourning the following day amid widespread predictions that the meltdown would cost Iowa its privileged — but much-criticized — position in the nominating process.

Little did any of us political junkies know that the country was about to experience traumas that made the Iowa-caucuses reporting debacle the smallest of small potatoes. Even in terms of the Democratic presidential nominating contest, Iowa (along with its co-privileged first primary in New Hampshire) wound up being largely irrelevant, as the nomination was won by a candidate who finished fourth in Iowa (once the votes finally were tabulated) and fifth in New Hampshire.

In any event, the fateful presidential cycle of 2020 has now given way to its successor, and the parties are beginning to look ahead to 2024. Given everything that happened in the past year, everything’s on the table, including a return to the status quo that looked kaput after the last caucuses, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

At a time when bipartisanship is in short supply, Democrats and Republicans are united in Iowa behind defending the state’s political golden goose: the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses …


Members of both national parties are already strategizing about how to structure the 2024 nominating contests, a formal Democratic National Committee review is under way, and potential Republican presidential candidates are likely to spend time in Iowa and other early states this year.


Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa chairman, said he plans to meet soon with his newly elected Democratic counterpart, Ross Wilburn, and pledged bipartisanship in trying to keep both party caucuses first. “We will stand shoulder to shoulder in this fight,” he said.

One option for maintaining Iowa’s position as a protected “early state” (there are four whose status have been recently protected by both parties: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would be to switch from a caucus to a primary (as Nevada is already planning to do in a bid to enhance its own status). But that would require action by the Republican-controlled legislature and an expenditure of taxpayer dollars in a state where the parties have controlled and financed the presidential nominating contest dating back to 1972. Worse yet, New Hampshire’s law requiring its secretary of State to take every necessary measure to ensure that its primary remains first is a problem for Iowa and for Nevada – it’s largely why Iowa has stuck with having a “first-in-the-nation caucus” for so many years.

A wild card in the national deliberations is new DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, who, as nominations-process expert Josh Putnam explains, may not approach the primary calendar unprejudiced:

[N]ewly elected DNC chair, Jaime Harrison does hail from South Carolina. That could mean an effort to strip out contests that were not representative to the broader party (like the three states that preceded South Carolina on the 2020 Democratic primary calendar). But it could also translate to a maintenance of the status quo if the delegations from each carve-out state’s party to the DNC sees benefit in coalescing. 

Traditionally, presidents have a huge influence over their own party’s rules for the nominating process. In Joe Biden’s case, it’s hard to overestimate how much he owes to South Carolina Democrats, who saved his bacon after poor performances in the three earlier contests and put him on the road to the White House. And any national deal to subordinate the “early states” could depend on the kind of bipartisan agreement that won’t be easy, particularly given the many uncertainties impacting the field for the presidential race in both parties. Yes, Iowa haters may use the experience of 2020 and the state’s (and equally white New Hampshire’s) unrepresentative nature to push for a new calendar. But so long as the four early states hang together, it’s a lot more plausible now than it was a year ago that the political class will again be spending many wintry days and nights in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2023 and 2024.

Despite Iowa’s Caucus Meltdown, the Old System May Survive