The Iowa caucuses play a crucial role in the elections. They must remain as they are. – Chicago Tribune
The Democratic National Committee is debating a significant change to its nominating schedule, which would likely ban Iowa’s current first caucus. This change will solve nothing and will weaken the party’s nomination system.
Iowa voters are representative of those the DNC needs to attract, and the caucuses are superior to a primary in choosing a candidate who can win the presidency.
The party nomination process that leads to the selection of a presidential candidate is not an election. It is a party selection process. The goal is to find the best candidate to win the general election.
I’m a transplant from Iowa. Prior to my arrival, like most Americans who live out of state, I viewed Iowa’s caucus system with skepticism. Having now spent more than two decades in the state, I appreciate the unique value that Iowa adds to the presidential nomination process.
The most significant criticism of the Iowa caucuses is that Iowa is not demographically representative of the Democratic Party. It’s true. But that never stopped Iowans from supporting various candidates. Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris (and Republicans Alan Keyes and Herman Cain) had more support in Iowa than they had initially garnered in national polls. Iowans came to support the first woman to win a major party nomination in 2016 and a gay candidate in 2020.
In fact, research has found that Iowa’s Democratic caucuses are ideologically representative of Democrats nationwide. As a Midwestern state with significant post-industrial rural areas, voters in Iowa also share the concerns of states that recently decided general elections — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Prioritizing voters’ interests in these areas helps Democrats select candidates who can win.
The DNC’s proposal would allow states to apply to become one of the top four contests, with priority given to states that hold primaries. The proposal may have been born out of good intentions, but it would only exacerbate the worst aspects of US presidential campaigns. The election will become longer, more expensive, more publicized and less personal, favoring well-known and well-funded establishment candidates.
In contrast, money and name recognition are less advantageous in the Iowa caucus system. Campaigns need to win champions who will be their spokespersons on caucus night. This is not achieved by stump speeches.
Instead, for candidates to compete in a caucus, interacting with voters is an essential skill. Candidates must field voter questions at town halls, kitchen tables, dinner parties, church potlucks and manufacturing plants. Time and effort are more important than money. Candidates with smaller bank accounts and less name recognition can compete in the Iowa caucuses if they have a strong message and work ethic.
Another disadvantage of a primary is that candidates can win by garnering support in more populated areas and ignoring voters in sparsely populated areas. It does not serve the best interests of the Democratic Party. Democrats must influence voters outside cities to win a general election. To be successful, the party must nominate candidates who also appeal to some rural, peri-urban and suburban voters.
Caucuses distribute voting power more evenly geographically. Successful candidates in Iowa cannot focus only on the most populated areas of the state. They must build a strong network of supporters in farming communities, industrial towns and cities.
For these reasons, a caucus is superior to a primary in narrowing the first pool of candidates to those who can win a general election. Iowa’s unique advantage over all other states is decades of experience running a caucus system. Iowa has well-established county-level parties in each of its 99 counties. These county parties are the grassroots organizations that organize events and forums for candidates to meet voters. Iowa’s county-level party planners are enthusiastic and experienced volunteers who cannot be easily duplicated.
For these reasons, the Iowa caucuses allow for a level playing field where a little-known candidate without a large bank account can gain momentum. A wide range of ideologies and interests can influence the selection of a Democratic candidate capable of winning the general election.
Additionally, the Iowa caucuses remain one of the last places people gather to discuss political issues. It may seem chaotic or inefficient (it certainly can be), but we need spaces where we meet face to face to resolve political disagreements in a structured and productive way. In an atomized, polarized, distracting and distrustful political environment, the Iowa caucuses provide a rare moment when people come together to make decisions about the future of our democracy. It is special and deserves to be preserved.
The 2020 Democratic caucus debacle was not representative of the long legacy of the Iowa caucuses. Rather than continuing to undermine the state’s unique contribution to the nominating process, the DNC should work alongside the Iowa Democratic Party to address these issues and ensure that changes can be successfully implemented.
Rachel Paine Caufield is a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
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