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How caucus critics could dethrone Iowa

Despite the debacle this year, it won’t be easy.

Bernie Sanders supporters watch the candidate speak at the Ceder Rapids field office on February 3, 2020.
Jeremy Hogan/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

If Democrats really wanted to change Iowa’s placement on the primary calendar, the decision would be up to a familiar body: the Democratic National Committee.

In theory, the party could make a simple change to the rules during a review process it does at the end of every election cycle. But practically, this would require the committee to make a hugely controversial political decision, even as the push to dethrone Iowa continues to grow.

In recent years, more and more people have called out the state for being too white and too inaccessible. And following the disaster this week, those calls have only gotten louder. “This will probably be the last caucus we’ll have to worry about,” longtime Iowa journalist David Yepsen tweeted Monday night.

Whether this visceral response will translate to an actual calendar change, however, isn’t clear.

Under the current DNC rules, no state except the first four — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — is allowed to hold its primary until after “the first Tuesday in March.” The early statuses of those four states, meanwhile, are explicitly protected in the rules.

“The Democrats could change their rules fairly easily for 2024 and no longer give Iowa an exemption, which in effect would mean that Iowa would need to schedule a contest — a caucus or a primary — when the window opens, which happens on the first Tuesday in March in 2020,” Virginia Tech political science professor Caitlin Jewitt tells Vox. A DNC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But this decision would face a ferocious response from Iowa Democrats, who’ve shown they’ll throw down to keep their first-in-the-nation status. Iowa state law requires that the caucuses take place at least eight days before any other nominating contest.

Precinct caucus at the Drake Fieldhouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

To change the existing setup, the DNC would have to pressure Iowa to adhere to a new calendar, something it could do by threatening to strip the state of its delegates.

The tactic has been used before. During the 2016 Republican primary, a number of states tried to jump the line and the Republican National Committee said it would cull a state’s delegates significantly if it did, a move that would reduce its impact on the final outcome of the nomination process.

These methods worked. “The penalties the [Republican National Committee] devised for 2016 — the so-called super penalty — kept states in line behind Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other carve-out states,” says Josh Putnam, the founder of Frontloading HQ.

The DNC, however, hasn’t instituted major changes to the primary calendar since 2008, when it selected Nevada and South Carolina to join the batch of early states in order to make the calendar more representative. Whether the committee would be interested in taking this on again after 2020 is an open question.

How the national parties have enforced the calendar in the past

The way the primary system currently works, states have quite a lot of leeway to determine their placement in the calendar.

“There’s never been a controlling legal authority when it came to the nomination process,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala tells Vox. “States have a good amount of freedom to set the dates of their primary, and so forth.”

This flexibility was evident this cycle, as states including California and North Carolina decided to move up the dates of their primaries to “Super Tuesday” on March 3, in order to have more influence on the process.

In the past, some states have attempted to jump to the front of the calendar, mostly unsuccessfully. To prevent them from doing so, the DNC and RNC have penalized those that try to mess with primary timing.

In 2008, for example, both Michigan and Florida shifted their primaries right after those of Iowa and New Hampshire in defiance of DNC rules, in a bid to shape the outcome of the race. Michigan held its primary on January 15, while Florida did the same on January 29.

Joe Biden supporters wait for caucus results in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The DNC and RNC punished both states. At first, Democrats stripped Florida and Michigan of their delegates at the national convention, though the party later compromised and ended up counting half the delegates. Republicans, too, stripped the states of their delegates. Both parties urged candidates to skip campaigning in Florida and Michigan as well, though not all followed this guidance.

Party threats of punishment were seen as warning shots, but didn’t exactly deter these states.

“Prior to the 2012 nomination, the RNC announced that any state violating its timing rules would lose half of its delegates to the National Convention,” Jewitt says. “Despite this penalty, Florida, Michigan, and Arizona held earlier-than-permitted contests, deciding that the benefits outweighed the penalty.”

States, after all, do see notable gains from being earlier on in the race: They get more media coverage, campaign spending, and general influence on the nomination.

It’s possible Iowa could take a similar tack. Even if the DNC decided to change the calendar, there’s the chance that Iowa would refuse to abide by the policy.

And the tried-and-true disincentive — penalizing the state’s delegates — might not be particularly effective, since Iowa only has 41 delegates, or about 1 percent of the total national haul. Instead, the state might be willing to withstand the pushback from the DNC in exchange for maintaining the first-in-the-nation position it has held since the 1970s.

Putnam also notes that it’s unlikely Iowans would ignore their state law on the matter, but he added that there aren’t apparent penalties if they were to do so.

The main way to get Iowa to follow new rules could ultimately be through pressuring the candidates.

If the DNC penalized candidates for campaigning in the state, and they avoided it, that would likely shift media attention and resources elsewhere. Even then, because of how much buildup there’s been over the Iowa caucuses for years and years, it’s not certain that things would change.

“Iowa could still be first even with penalties,” says Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “Some candidates may still feel the compulsion to campaign here, because it’s Iowa.”

A few alternatives, briefly explained

There is precedent for the DNC to overhaul the primary calendar: In the 2000s, for example, the party added South Carolina and Nevada as early states in order to ensure that voters of color played a larger role at the start of the voting process.

As Cameron Peters has written for Vox, a few ideas have been bandied about as potential alternatives to Iowa going first including 1) a national primary, when every state would vote on the same day; 2) a new state like Illinois going first, since it’s more representative of the country; and 3) frontloading the calendar, with more states holding earlier primaries and reducing Iowa’s influence as a result.

David Steinrueck and Kelly Wilkins embrace as they wait on caucus results at Sen. Bernie Sanders’s caucus night campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Matt Rourke/AP

Identifying an option besides Iowa would be one of the challenges to making this change, Putnam says. “There are always questions about Iowa,” he notes. “But the heavy lift for not only Democrats but both national parties is [figuring out] what the alternative to Iowa is.”

The RNC’s position on the matter is seen as another complicating factor, since both parties currently use a similar primary schedule — which can be logistically easier to manage for the states putting on these elections.

Right now, it’s too early to say whether the recent debacle in Iowa is enough to convince Democrats to completely change the system. Years of tradition and expectation have been built into the existing primary calendar, and it’s possible the party will be content sticking with the schedule, as flawed as it may be.

“What may save Iowa’s status, if it is even possible,” says University of Northern Iowa political science professor Christopher Larimer, “is that if Iowa is not first, then who is?”

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