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Iowa’s Caucuses Survive For Another Election

DES MOINES, IOWA - FEBRUARY 04: A sign is displayed outside Iowa Democratic Party headquarters February 4, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. The announcement of the results in the Iowa presidential caucuses have been delayed after “inconsistencies” were found late Monday night related to the app used to count the votes. The state Democratic Party said that the results will be manually verified before releasing. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - FEBRUARY 04: A sign is displayed outside Iowa Democratic Party headquarters February 4, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. The announcement of the results in the Iowa presidential caucuses have been delayed after “inconsistencies” were found late Monday night related to the app used to count the votes. The state Democratic Party said that the results will be manually verified before releasing. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)
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A lot of Democratic party actors really, really, really hate the Iowa caucuses — and they especially hate that the caucuses are the first delegate-selection event on the presidential-nomination calendar. Given that the state party thoroughly botched the job in 2020, failing to report the results on the night of the vote, many thought that this was finally the end of the line for Iowa.Well, not so much. It appears that Democrats will face the same basic calendar in 2024 they have for the last few cycles, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina going in that order, followed by what will likely be a large Super Tuesday-type event. Nothing is certain yet, but if Democrats are backing away from major reforms now it’s pretty unlikely they’ll happen.Why? The biggest reason is what I’m tempted to call an Iron Law of Politics: The dominant coalition in the president’s party tends to be reasonably happy with the nomination process. That shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, almost by definition the dominant coalition got its way in the most recent nomination, and its interests are likely well served by the status quo. Neither of the two biggest overhauls of the process in U.S. history were enacted by the party in the White House. In the 1820s, out-parties invented and adopted national conventions to replace nomination by congressional caucuses. Then, after 1968, the defeated Democrats replaced the convention system with the modern system, in which delegates are chosen to support candidates rather than to represent state parties, and the convention itself is a formality.As Ed Kilgore points out, another reason that the calendar stays put is that there isn’t really any mechanism to change it, at least short of passing a national law. Iowa itself could back down, but Republicans hold majorities and the governorship there, and they’re reasonably happy with Iowa. Perhaps if former President Donald Trump chose to pick a fight against a state in which he finished second in 2016 he might have a chance, but then again Trump, like President Joe Biden, probably likes an overall system that eventually nominated him. And neither party likes to use up scarce resources in process battles with state parties and legislatures.As for the Democrats: The main complaint many of them have against Iowa (along with New Hampshire) is that it’s unrepresentative of the nation and of the party. This is both true and mostly unimportant. Back in the 1970s, the early states had disproportionate influence over the nomination because the system was new and the parties hadn’t yet learned how to influence it. But in the 21st century, no candidate has won a nomination by camping out in Iowa and ignoring the rest of the map until later. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the nomination easily after finishing in a tie in Iowa and then getting clobbered by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, while Biden managed to win the nomination even more easily despite finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. The candidates who’ve been helped most by Iowa in recent cycles were those who had strengths elsewhere — think John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. Or, for that matter, Trump in 2016, who in finishing second showed the ability to do well in a state far from his home region and one that is typically dominated by Christian conservatives, who at the time were thought to be where Trump was weakest.Yes, Iowa does tend to winnow the field of candidates, but even that now generally happens before the vote is even taken. The truth is that even though delegates are selected in state-by-state contests, the overall nomination battle these days is more national than local, and the results of each state are interpreted in a national context.So Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to stay at the front of the calendar at least one more time. And while it’s arbitrary, it just doesn’t seem to be particularly important. Democrats have plenty of process stuff to work on; they’re being smart if they choose to let this one go.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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