Iowa Democrats are no longer guaranteed a place at the front of the presidential nominating calendar after a panel of Democratic National Committee members voted Wednesday to effectively strip them of their coveted first-in-the-nation status.
The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to adopt a plan that will require Iowa Democrats to proactively make the case they should be reinstated to their long-held position.
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina currently have waivers from the national party to hold their nominating contests before the rest of the country. The plan removes all four states from that early voting window and requires them — along with any others that want to hold early contests — to apply for a new waiver.
The committee will evaluate those applications and restructure the early nominating window in a way that members say will be more reflective of the modern party and its current values.
Those values, which are outlined in the resolution adopted Wednesday, include a state’s diversity, its general election competitiveness and the “feasibility” of holding an early contest.
Iowa’s likelihood of being reinstated under that criteria appears tenuous, though Iowa party officials say they plan to make their pitch.
“Iowa will absolutely be applying to be in the early window and we will look forward to enthusiastically making our case,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement. “The Iowa Democratic Party will also be engaging with numerous stakeholders all over Iowa to explore substantive changes to the caucuses that would make them more straightforward, transparent and accessible, addressing concerns that some members of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee have expressed.”
Unlike many primary elections, Iowa’s caucuses are run by the major political parties. Any changes the Democrats ultimately make would not affect the Republican caucuses, which have the support of the national Republican Party.
More:Who won previous Democratic, Republican Iowa caucuses?
All states must reapply, but DNC plan takes clear aim at Iowa’s caucuses
Up to five states will be selected to participate in the early window, and the written plan gives no preference to states that have previously held that position.
But even as other early states such as New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina must reapply for the right to hold their own early contests, the committee has made clear during multiple public meetings that its focus is on dislodging Iowa from the leadoff spot.
“I will say it right now, caucus states are going to be a hard sell for me,” committee member Mo Elleithee said during the meeting Wednesday. “I will say it right now, states that don’t offer some form of diversity are going to be a hard sell for me.”
Wilburn said in the statement to the Register that Scott Brennan, Iowa’s representative to the committee, voted against the resolution, “because while it does provide an opportunity to bring Iowa’s case before the committee, it is clear that some members appear to have pre- judged an outcome with respect to caucuses.”
More:National Democratic leaders distribute proposal requiring Iowa to apply to hold its caucuses
A previous version of the resolution approved Wednesday would have required states to show they could hold a “fair, transparent and inclusive primary” — a clear shot at Iowa, which is the only early state to hold caucuses.
The final version of the resolution is less explicit. In describing the “feasibility” of holding an early contest, the plan says the committee will consider whether a state can hold “a fair, transparent and inclusive nominating process.”
“Let’s be perfectly clear, in my mind this means no traditional caucus states in the early lineup,” committee member Elaine Kamarck said.
The committee briefly discussed making it clear in the language that it would favor primaries over caucuses but ultimately decided against it.
Iowa’s Democratic caucuses drew intense criticism in 2020 when the party could not declare a winner amid deep concerns about the accuracy of its results. There have been concerns in past years about fairness and transparency because the Democratic caucuses use an arcane and intricate system of awarding state delegate equivalents to determine a winner rather than using a simple tally of votes.
The DNC has formally been pushing states away from caucuses since the adoption of a report from the Unity Reform Commission after the 2016 election.
The resolution adopted Wednesday notes the committee has “concern about the role that caucuses play in our nominating process” and supports “continuing the paths of reform initiated by the Unity Reform Commission.”
Iowa should know its fate by July
The committee now has seven days to transmit information to state parties telling them how they can apply for a waiver. Once they receive that information, states must submit a letter of intent to apply by May 6 and a completed application by June 3.
The committee will announce its decision within six weeks of the application deadline. It has scheduled meetings July 8-9 and July 13-15 to make its final decisions.
That means Iowa will likely know its fate by the middle of July, though it may not be sealed until a final vote of the full DNC, which is scheduled to meet in late summer or early fall.
Committee chair Jim Roosevelt Jr. said the committee would be unlikely to publicly disclose the rationale behind its final choices.
“I think we’re intending to end the debate rather than begin it at this point,” he said.
As part of the application process, the committee has agreed to hold four virtual public hearings. They are scheduled for May 5, May 16, May 25 and June 1. Though anyone can attend the hearing, the committee members will select a range of speakers who request to participate.
Before the committee announces its final decision, it will invite some states that submitted applications to publicly present their case to the committee and answer questions. Those states will be chosen at the “sole discretion” of the committee.
Some states, including Michigan and Nevada, have reportedly already begun lobbying the committee to be considered.
Does Iowa have a chance of keeping its caucuses first-in-the-nation?
The deck appears stacked against Iowa. For months, committee members have been vocal about their desire to move away from Iowa.
“The status quo is not an option,” committee member Lee Saunders said during the group’s March meeting. “That status quo is unacceptable.”
Democratic presidents have a vast amount of sway over the process. But President Joe Biden is unlikely to be a staunch defender of Iowa following three losses in the state’s caucuses — most recently in 2020.
Biden has yet to personally weigh in on Iowa’s place on future calendars, but his sister, former campaign manager and confidante Valerie Biden Owens, said recently that she supports moving away from Iowa.
There is also dissent at home. In Johnson County, one of the state’s biggest Democratic strongholds, the local Democratic party has passed a resolution that supports ending presidential preference caucuses in favor of primary elections.
And in a March 2020 Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Iowans showed an increased willingness to move to a presidential primary over a caucus, even if it meant forgoing their first-in-the-nation status.
According to the poll, 47% of Iowans said it would be better to switch to a primary — up from 39% who said so in February 2017. The percentage of those who said it would be worse to switch to a primary fell from 43% in 2017 to 30% in 2020.
But Wilburn expressed optimism.
“As we saw from President Biden’s recent visit to a rural Iowa community, Iowa Democrats are excited and focused on rebuilding the national Democratic brand in small towns,” he said. “It’s critical that Iowa continues to have a voice in the presidential nominating process so that candidates can meaningfully connect with a grassroots infrastructure that includes working families and a diversifying rural America.”
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.