The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats move closer to cutting Iowa’s first-in-the nation status for 2024 presidential calendar

The DM38 Precinct caucus begins at the Drake Fieldhouse in Des Moines on Feb. 3, 2020. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Democratic leaders took another step Friday toward ending Iowa’s status as the first state in the party’s presidential nominating process during a sometimes contentious meeting that showed clear support for a new path that would prioritize more diverse and competitive states.

The meeting of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee came to no final decisions, but for the second time this year, a majority of speakers made clear their openness to shaking up the presidential primary calendar to better reflect what speakers described as the party’s values.

“Now is not a time for us as a party to stand on tradition,” said Mo Elleithee, a member of the committee, who has been skeptical of Iowa’s continued place. “Now is not a time for us as a party to stand on status quo.”

He proposed a framework that would prioritize states that commit to hold primaries, demonstrate general election competitiveness and are demographically diverse — three qualifications that do not apply to Iowa, where about 90 percent of the population is White, the state has trended Republican and state law requires a party-run caucus process.

The meeting came amid increased jockeying by early primary states for their place in the order. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) privately met with some DNC officials earlier in the day to pitch the idea that Nevada, traditionally the third nominating state, should become the first primary, according to two people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations. She brought with her a glossy brochure making the case. Rosen’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“I am appreciative of the members of this committee that are willing to look to the future,” said Artie Blanco, Nevada’s representative on the committee. “Our voters are diverse not only in race and economic diversity. We both have urban and rural communities.”

A leaked DNC staff draft proposal, reported Friday by the Des Moines Register, also created significant turmoil before the meeting began, as it laid out a possible path whereby all states would have to reapply for their place in the nominating order, with the party giving preference to states with diverse electorates and primary elections, instead of caucuses.

Iowa’s representative on the committee, Scott Brennan, expressed outrage at the existence of the leaked document, which also discussed adding a fifth state to the early calendar. In recent cycles, Iowa has gone first, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“I feel like I got whipsawed today, and it is not fair. And it is not fair to the people of Iowa,” Brennan said. “I believe that process came about backward.”

Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn issued a more muted statement following the meeting, noting that the caucuses “have evolved” over the years.

“As this process plays out, just as it does every four years, we look forward to working with the DNC and the Rules and Bylaws Committee to explore substantive changes to the caucuses that would make them more straightforward and accessible, ensuring the future success of this proud Iowa tradition,” he said.

The party’s Chairman Jaime Harrison and Committee Co-chair James Roosevelt Jr. began the meeting by reaffirming their commitment to an open process, with no predetermined outcome, despite the existence of the staff document. They announced a series of further meetings over the coming months to discuss the issue.

“There is no prepared resolution floating around out there,” Roosevelt said, before describing the staff proposal as an “evolving memorandum.”

The status of Iowa was imperiled in 2020 by a botched caucus process, which delayed reporting of results and infuriated party leaders, who were already dismayed by the state’s dearth of racial diversity, the rightward drift of its voters and the leftward drift of its Democratic caucus goers. Joe Biden lost the state to Donald Trump by 8 percentage points in 2020, after coming in a distant fourth in the Democratic caucus count.

“We have to be honest with ourselves, and Iowa is not representative of America,” former DNC chairman Tom Perez said after guiding the party through the 2020 cycle.

The Democratic moves could force a split with Republicans. Both former president Trump and the Republican National Committee have signaled that they have no interest in upsetting Iowa’s place as the first caucus, leading some Iowa Democrats to threaten to move forward with a caucus even if the national party disapproves.

“The question is how hard is the DNC going to be on candidates if they set foot in Iowa,” said one prominent Democratic strategist with Iowa experience, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly. “They are coming for the media exposure and the media attention. The reality is if the Republicans have a big expensive caucus, on the day of the caucus every camera will be there.”

During the 2008 cycle, both Florida and Michigan tried to jump ahead of the early state calendar Democrats had established. The party punished those states by initially threatening to disallow their delegates and later agreeing to seat them with only half the voting power. Other early states also came together to pressure candidates not to campaign in states that were ignoring the party rules.

Some Democrats continue to defend Iowa’s place in the process. Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska state party, said this week that she has spoken to several other voting members of the party who are resisting the shift.

“A lot of us do want to protect Iowa and the caucus systems,” she said.

Kleeb was one of about 40 DNC voting members who met Friday morning to organize a voting block of members that seeks to change how the DNC is run and to increase funding that goes to state party organizations, especially in places generally not emphasized because they do not have competitive senate races or swing state status in the presidential election.

The organizers of the group, which hopes to grow in size over the coming months, say the vote later this year on the 2024 nomination schedule could be a point of leverage for their demands.

Besides taking up the 2024 lineup, the committee also briefly discussed whether to continue reforms to the 2020 cycle that barred party leaders, called superdelegates, from casting deciding votes at the nominating convention. Multiple speakers at the committee said they wanted to continue the reform unchanged in 2024. None spoke in favor of a return to the old system.

“We don’t need to open up these old wounds,” said Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

As the party struggles to draft a new calendar, leaders will have to navigate Democrats’ stated preference for state-run primaries. Other states that might try to move up their primaries to replace Iowa, like Wisconsin or Michigan, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, which could limit the ability of Democrats to set a new date.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signed a law last year that would switch his state’s 2024 nominating contest from a caucus to a primary and schedule it for the first Tuesday in February.

Iowa is bound to hold a caucus under current state law, and New Hampshire state law requires the secretary of state to schedule its presidential primary so that it is the first in the nation.

New Hampshire’s representative on the committee, Joanne Dowdell, made a point of noting that her state’s law would continue to be a factor in the calendar.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that some states like New Hampshire have laws on the books,” she said.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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