By removing the Iowa caucuses as the first stop in picking a presidential candidate, would Democrats be giving up on Iowa? Not at all. The opposite could happen.
It’s true that the Iowa caucuses crowned Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two times each, and the state followed in the general elections. But Iowa went for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, years the caucuses also started the Democrats’ nominating process.
And who did the Iowa caucus goers advance in those losing years? Socialist Bernie Sanders in one and almost in the other. In 2020, Sanders went on to win the last New Hampshire primary before losing another quest for the nomination.
Sanders was Trump’s dream opponent, and Trump all but campaigned for him during the primaries. (Who couldn’t beat someone who posed shirtless while praising Fidel Castro?) The electorates in both Iowa and New Hampshire were heavily weighted toward educated whites, not the working-class whites whom Trump successfully seduced.
South Carolina power broker Jim Clyburn knew he had to step in. There clearly weren’t enough college professors and Brooklyn activists to get Sanders over the finish line. So the civil rights hero threw his endorsement behind Joe Biden, who had then been all but counted out. The tide turned as the Southern states with their large Black constituencies chose the next president.
Biden wants the next nominating process to start in South Carolina followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan. This obviously would help him.
“Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” he wrote, “but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process.”
One wishes his argument were less overtly racial, not that it didn’t make a point. Of greater benefit to Democrats is these voters’ ideology. They tend to be more conservative than the white gentry — something they share with many immigrant, rural, Latino and Asian voters, not to mention much of the white working class.
It’s no small irony that further empowering African Americans to choose Democratic candidates could help the party in general elections. To see how this might work, look north to New York City. Its tough-on-crime, friendly-to-business mayor, Eric Adams, was swept into office on the votes of working-class Blacks and Latinos, also whites sharing their frustrations over growing public disorder. The left-wing candidates went nowhere.
The caucus form of choosing winners, meanwhile, is a mess, as well as undemocratic. In a primary, eligible voters can show up anytime the polls are open, cast anonymous ballots and go home. In the Iowa caucuses, they have to show up on a winter night and spend several hours jostling with neighbors as they show support for one candidate or another.
This setup favors activists who are not deterred by snow, cold or the dark and have the luxury of free evening hours. These folks are skilled in working the intricacies of the caucus process and often aggressive.
Not favored are Democrats who work nights at Walmart, drive an Uber after hours and have little children to care for. And that showed in the turnout.
In 2016, participation at the Iowa caucuses was under 16%, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. By contrast, the New Hampshire primary attracted 52% of eligible voters.
Washington state held both a caucus and a primary that year. Sanders swept the caucus, but in the primary held two months later, the more moderate Hillary Clinton won by 6%.
In changing the nominating process for president, Democrats are becoming more democratic. They are also growing smarter and may reclaim many voters they lost. Democrats are learning how to win.