WASHINGTON, D.C. — National Democratic leaders have drafted a proposal that could significantly reshape the party’s presidential nominating process and put an end to Iowa’s prized first-in-the-nation caucuses — a tradition that has shaped presidential politics and boosted Iowa’s place in the American spotlight for the last half-century.
A draft resolution, obtained and corroborated by the Des Moines Register, would set new criteria for early-voting states that favor primaries over caucuses and diversity over tradition.
If the proposal advances, it would upend the party’s presidential nominating calendar by requiring states to apply to hold their nominating contests before the rest of the country and expanding the number of early voting states to as many as five. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which currently lead off the process, would not necessarily be given preferential consideration over other states that apply.
The Democratic National Committee is holding its annual winter meetings in Washington, D.C., this week, and the panel that sets the nominating calendar, the Rules and Bylaws Committee, is scheduled to take up the issue Friday evening.
It will be “a broad discussion not reaching, as far as I expect, any final conclusions,” Committee Co-Chair James Roosevelt Jr. told the Register.
The conversation follows disastrous 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses in which technological and logistical failures coalesced, preventing the party from declaring a timely winner. The caucuses’ ugly conclusion undermined more than a year’s worth of organizing and campaigning that preceded it, stoking renewed calls to move the nation toward primaries and replace Iowa as the first state to cast its presidential preferences.
Iowa and national Democrats remain at odds over which division of the party was most at fault. An audit commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party found the national Democratic Party “aggressively interjected itself” into the 2020 caucuses, slowing and complicating the process on caucus night. DNC staff members declined to be interviewed for that audit.
What would change under draft proposal?
Currently, the DNC’s rules say that no state can hold a presidential primary or caucus before the first Tuesday in March. Iowa has long been exempted from that practice, holding its contest up to 29 days before other states. Iowa is followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which also are exempted as part of the early window of voting.
Under the draft proposal, all four states — and any others interested in jumping before the rest — would need to seek new waivers to hold an early nominating contest. Up to five states would receive waivers, though the proposal does not say whether the states would all vote on the same day or whether their votes would be staggered as they are now.
If the resolution passes, it wouldn’t prevent Iowa from applying for a waiver; nor would it directly eliminate caucuses. However, it would make the “ability to run (a) fair, transparent and inclusive primary” one of its core considerations in the waiver process. Iowa is required by state law to hold presidential caucuses.
Other considerations would be a state’s diversity, “including ethnic, geographic (and) union representation,” as well as the state’s general election competitiveness.
Ninety percent of Iowa’s population is white, and a Republican, former President Donald Trump, carried the state by 8 percentage points in 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.5% of Iowans are members of unions.
Mo Elleithee, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, outlined those same priorities during the group’s January meeting. “Three of the four current early window states satisfy at least two of those criteria,” he said then. “One does not satisfy any of them, at least in recent years.”
Though Elleithee did not directly name Iowa, the subtext of his comments was clear.
According to the draft proposal, the DNC’s rules committee would outline the application rules and procedures for state parties by April 15, 2022, and it would give them at least 28 days to complete and submit applications to win a place at the start of the calendar. A subset of state parties would be invited to make public presentations to the committee.
The proposal also calls for the committee to hold at least three virtual public hearings so party members could share their views on the primary process. The committee would “announce the results of its evaluation” within six weeks of the application deadline.
The draft resolution states that the committee “will execute this process in the most transparent, open and fair manner feasible and commits to providing adequate, clear and timely notice on major milestones and requirements.”
Caucuses have been core to Iowa’s political identity
Iowa has been the first state to weigh in on presidential contenders ever since it convened a series of living room meetings across the state in January 1972.
The status is more than symbolic. Standing alone as the first arbiter of presidential aspirants ensures presidential candidates of every persuasion travel to the state in droves, trying to woo supporters. For a solid year, Iowa becomes the center of the political universe, and Iowans — who often withhold their coveted support until the final hours of the contest — become the most influential people in politics.
Only after Iowans have winnowed the field do candidates move on to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and beyond.
It’s unclear how Iowa Democrats will respond if the resolution advances. Some state party members have said it’s time for the state to let go of its hold on the process, while others say they can fight to hold first-in-the-nation caucuses even without the DNC’s blessing.
The Iowa Republican and Democratic parties have long worked in tandem to hold their separate nominating contests on the same night. Iowa Republicans have been vocal supporters of their Democratic counterparts when it comes to the caucuses. But they’ve also made clear they intend to hold their first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2024, even if Iowa Democrats do not.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann was appointed to lead the Republican National Committee panel overseeing the GOP’s calendar review. He told the Des Moines Register in February that the committee considered possible modifications to the party’s presidential nominating process but it will not recommend changes to Iowa’s caucuses or to the early nominating calendar.
“I strongly believe that the continued health of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is linked to both of our parties being able to start our presidential nominating process right here in Iowa,” Kaufmann said in February.
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