President Biden is not a big fan. Former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is openly opposed. And elsewhere in the Democratic inner sanctum, disdain for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus has been rising for years.
The caucuses’ reputation has been damaged by high barriers to participation, a dearth of racial diversity, the rightward drift in the state’s electorate and a leftward drift in the Democratic participants. The state party’s inability to count the results in 2020 only deepened dismay in the party.
Biden, who handily won the party’s nomination in 2020, noted the lack of diversity in the caucus during the campaign — “It is what it is,” he said of the calendar — and called his fourth-place finish in the state a “gut punch.”
“We have to be honest with ourselves, and Iowa is not representative of America,” Perez said Friday in an interview. “We need a primary process that is reflective of today’s demographics in the Democratic Party.”
Others in Biden’s extended orbit have come to similar conclusions about the caucuses, for varied reasons.
“It is not suited to normal people, people that actually have daily lives,” South Carolina State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of that state’s Democratic Party and a longtime Biden ally, said of the caucuses. He described the laborious process of participating, over multiple hours, in person, on a weeknight, as far more restrictive than the requirements of a new voter law in Texas that Democrats universally oppose.
“I just think the caucus process as it exists in Iowa is not suitable in 21st-century America,” he said.
Those views are broadly held among party officers, even though Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina party chair, says no decisions have been made. He intends to “let the process play out,” according to a statement to The Post. That process will be controlled by Biden and a small group of his allies, following the party’s tradition of granting the sitting president control over party decisions.
The first step took place Saturday, when the party met to accept a slate of at-large members and committee assignments that had been put forward by senior Democratic officials, in consultation with Biden aides. The number coming from Delaware, Biden’s home state, will bump to five from one, and the number of members from Washington D.C., will rise from 15 to 20, which has angered some state parties that are losing representation.
A subgroup of those members, who sit on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, also were be confirmed. That group, little changed from the past cycle, has been charged with setting the calendar, with an expected decision as soon as the first half of next year, according to people involved.
“Given the unrepresentative nature of the electorate, the caucus procedures that make it virtually impossible for many people to participate, and the disaster in reporting this year, it’s hard to see how anyone can make the case for keeping it first with a straight face,” said one Democratic strategist involved in the calendar conversations, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
Another Democrat put Iowa’s situation in even more stark terms: “Iowa had no friends before the 2020 race, or it had very few friends. And it certainly doesn’t have any friends after the 202o race.”
In 2020, the Iowa caucuses kicked off the presidential nominating contest on Feb. 3, after enjoying months of bus tours and advertising attention from the candidates. New Hampshire held the first primary on Feb. 11, followed by two more racially diverse states, a caucus in Nevada and a primary in South Carolina.
Leaders in Nevada, with the support of former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D), recently changed state law to transition from a caucus to a primary and schedule the date on the first Tuesday in February in a bid to increase the state’s importance. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a longtime Biden ally, has like Reid been critical of the demographics of New Hampshire and Iowa. Ninety-one percent of Democratic caucus goers in Iowa were White in 2020, according to entry polls.
Among the possible solutions is a party ban on allowing convention delegates to be nominated in any early caucuses in the 2024 cycle. Perez has advocated allowing multiple states, possibly including South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire, to vote on the same day, forcing campaigns to split their early campaign resources more broadly in the early parts of their campaign.
There remains broad concern about giving larger states too much say in the party’s decision, as Democrats say they do want to allow for a process that encourages meeting with voters and gives less-well-funded or known candidates a chance to win on their merits.
“Iowa’s position is really in danger. On the other hand, I have got to say, when you look at the early states, you can’t have a big state. You don’t want people to be priced out,” said Jeff Weaver, a presidential campaign adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “With California, Texas, Florida and New York as the first four, you would know who the nominee is before you even started.”
None of that means pushing Iowa to the side will be easy. Attempts by DNC commissions in 1978 and 1981 to change the date of the Iowa caucuses ultimately failed.
A state law in Iowa requires the parties to hold their nominating caucuses at least eight days before any other state caucus or primary, and the state law in New Hampshire requires that its primary be at least a week before any other state. Republicans, who control government in both states, have made clear that they plan to stick to tradition for their party in 2024.
Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann has been put in charge of the Republican National Committee’s calendar planning process for 2024, all but ensuring that the state remains first in the nation for the GOP. Former president Donald Trump has repeatedly voiced support for the state’s role.
Kaufmann said in an interview that he is hoping to bring the Democrats along with him.
“Setting Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus has always been a bipartisan job,” Kaufmann said in an interview.
Iowans note that the DNC can threaten state party leaders, and deny states that do not follow the rules representation at party conventions. But in the past that has not guaranteed cooperation, especially if candidates disregard the party rules as well.
“They can tell us we can’t go, but they can’t stop us from going,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chairman, who has been fighting for the state’s position in the calendar since 1981. “You cannot stop us from running an unsanctioned process.”
Perez says he believes enough has changed in the party that a candidate for president would be unlikely to buck the party rules to campaign in Iowa, given the intent of the rule change.
“If you are a candidate for president in today’s Democratic primary system and you see a party that is trying to reflect the demographics of the party, and you are a candidate who wants to defy that, you do that at your own peril,” Perez said.
Iowa Democrats are nonetheless scrambling to make their case to the rest of the party, offering to change some of the procedures that complicate the caucus, including the requirement that candidates get at least 15 percent support in any single meeting to be viable. Those changes could cause problems with New Hampshire’s secretary of state, Bill Gardner, who has long threatened to jump Iowa in line if the state’s process looks too much like a primary.
“The question is, What kind of lipstick can you put on the pig? How much can you make a caucus look like a primary, or vice versa?” said one Iowa Democrat.
Iowa has also taken steps to contest the claim that it lacks diversity, electing its first Black party chairman, state Rep. Ross Wilburn, and a Black vice chair, June Owens. Nagle argues that the state should be judged not by the racial and ethnic diversity of its voters, but by the fact that those voters supported the candidacy of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, and first female Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
“There is no question that we have hard work to do, but Democrats across the country have hard work to do,” said Wilburn, who also noted that Iowa boasts a growing immigrant population. “The deck is not stacked against Iowa.”
He said he has been speaking with the chairs of the other early-state parties about how to proceed. Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, and Trav Robertson, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, both said it was too soon to know what would happen to the 2024 calendar. They said they would wait for the official process to begin.
“I’m not ready to put my flag down yet,” said Robertson.
One lingering stain on Iowa was its inability to count the results of the caucuses in 2020. A new system that recorded initial ballot preference exposed long-standing problems in the complicated math calculations involved in the party meetings, and a smartphone app designed to report the result failed to function as planned on caucus night. Iowa party chairman Troy Price resigned as a result of the debacle.
The Iowa Democratic Party later commissioned a report on what went wrong, which placed blame on the Democratic National Committee for delaying the state party’s ability to prepare for the caucuses and for adding a layer of supervision that contained its own coding errors, which delayed reporting. National party officials, meanwhile, blamed the bungle on the state party.
Nagle also warned that if Biden backs away from Iowa, he would be breaking his past promises to keep supporting the state’s position. Nagle said he spoke with Biden in 2008, during a car ride from the Waterloo airport, where Biden told him he would continue to support Iowa going first.
The Biden campaign also signed a pledge, as a condition of speaking at the state’s 2019 Liberty and Justice Dinner, promising “to keep the Iowa caucuses first-in-the-nation beyond 2020,” according to a news release at the time from the Iowa Democratic Party.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.