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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Iowa-New Hampshire Duopoly May Survive After All

I am an inveterate student of the Iowa Caucuses, so news this week about the 2024 presidential nominating processes fascinated me, as I explained at New York:

On February 4, 2020, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses suffered a meltdown when results could not be tabulated and reported on Caucus Night. This perfect storm of dysfunction fed a lot of preexisting discontent about the privileged position of the not-terribly-diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. It looked like a change in the process, or at least a toppling of Iowa, was inevitable.

As late as this past autumn, that was still the prevailing mood in the Democratic Party, as the Washington Post reported:

“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.

“Now the day of reckoning for Iowa Democrats is fast approaching, as the national party starts to create a new calendar for the 2024 presidential nomination that could remove Iowa from its privileged position for the first time since 1972, when candidates started flocking to the state for an early jump on the race to the White House.”

But now, as a disappointing year for Democrats comes to an end, Politico explains that the impetus for changing the nominating process has ground to a near halt:

“Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

“Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

Even if DNC members were strongly in favor of changing the nominating process, there are a lot of obstacles to wholesale reforms. For one thing, the national parties do not control what individual states decide to do; there isn’t a “system” in place but rather an interlocking set of decisions by state parties and legislatures. The most common form of nominating contest is a state-funded primary, which typically requires bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures and usually involves a common date for both parties (anything else would be deemed an inefficient waste of tax dollars).

If Democratic Iowa critics had their way, the state would replace the caucuses with a primary that would be held later in the year. But the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature is perfectly happy with the status quo, and, in fact, there is no evident interest among Republicans anywhere (including the party’s 2024 front-runner, Donald Trump) in a “reformed” nominating process. This is evidenced by the fact that Iowa’s GOP chair has been designated to lead the national-party committee that sets the calendar. And if Iowa did try to stay first but shift to a primary, New Hampshire has a state law that empowers and requires the secretary of state to move the Granite State’s election date back perpetually to head off any rivals for the first primary. Nevada has already bid for first place (it is currently third) in the process by junking its caucuses for a primary and scheduling it ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. But New Hampshire will fight for its primacy, and it’s unclear if the national party really wants to adjudicate fights between the states.

It’s possible that residual anger at Iowa among Democrats over its non-diversity or its 2020 meltdown could lead to a simple national-party veto on Iowa going first. Short of creating a state-funded primary, Iowa Republican legislators would have no leverage over that sort of decision. The national party could also try to force Iowa Democrats to abandon caucuses, though in the absence of legislative action, the only option would be a party-funded so-called firehouse primary, so named because financial considerations usually mean that polling places would be limited to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses.

Iowa Democrats could also take some of the heat off themselves by simplifying the caucus process to make a recurrence of the 2020 fiasco far less likely. Iowa Republicans, after all, just show up, hear a few announcements, eat some cookies, and vote for their favorite presidential candidate before going home. Moving to that sort of process instead of the complex system of candidate thresholds and affinity groups and “votes” measured in multiple ways might boost participation while making the results much easier to tabulate and report.

In the end, the decision to stand pat or try to change the system may come down to how interested Joe Biden is in changing the calendar or the procedures by which particular states elect national-convention delegates. Biden is famously not invested in the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly; he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020 and then began his comeback with second place in Nevada and a big landslide win in South Carolina. Some of his closest party allies are those who think more diverse states should weigh in first.

Biden, however, obviously has other fish to fry and doesn’t need any additional intraparty drama at present. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly win the nomination no matter which state goes first, second, third, or 35th.

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