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“A total mess”: Critics call for an end to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status

The Iowa caucuses are making the case against themselves.

People wait for results at a caucus night campaign rally for Joe Biden in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
John Locher/AP

Whatever the final outcome of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, one thing is clear: The whole thing was a disaster. Journalists, analysts, and other election watchers were expecting to get some results Monday night — and as of Tuesday morning, we still have nothing, in large part due to technical issues.

Now some politicians and pundits are latching onto the mess to argue why Iowa shouldn’t keep its status as the first state in the nation to select a presidential nominee, particularly if it’s going to keep doing this all through a caucus system.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) summed up the case: “I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting.”

Former presidential candidate Julián Castro, who has long been critical of the Iowa caucuses, blasted the process: “It’s a mess. What we saw out there and heard about are, consistently, errors in the way that this process was done, whether in the initial phase or the realignment. Inconsistencies in how it was done across precinct sites, caucus sites. It is a total mess.”

And MSNBC analyst Steve Kornacki summarized the situation: “Iowa’s outsize role has faced attacks for decades, along with periodic failed attempts by other states to take the first-in-the-nation slot. But criticism has been louder than ever this past year, and now those critics may have the ammunition they need to kill it.”

Kornacki’s tweet actually led to a response from President Donald Trump, who seized on the confusion to attack the Democratic Party and to suggest that he — as the leader of the Republican Party — can somehow influence how Democrats select their presidential nominees.

“It is not the fault of Iowa, it is the Do Nothing Democrats fault,” Trump tweeted. “As long as I am President, Iowa will stay where it is. Important tradition!”

Even before Monday night’s mess, the Iowa caucuses were heavily criticized. They require people to show up at a gym, stay there for hours and hours, publicly argue and campaign for candidates, and eventually group up in a lightly regulated system to select a nominee.

It’s a system that inherently disfavors people with disabilities, people who work night shifts, people who don’t have a lot of free time, people who don’t have consistent transportation, and just about anyone who for whatever reason can’t make it out to a school gym for hours on a Monday night. Unsurprisingly, turnout at the caucus is consistently much lower than it is in other types of elections.

Yet Iowa has managed to remain the first state to vote in the Democratic and Republican presidential primary elections since the 1970s. There’s no good argument for Iowa’s caucuses going first — other than respecting tradition — but it’s how things have worked for decades, in part because efforts to change the status quo (like Louisiana’s 1996 attempt) have failed spectacularly due to political and legal pressure.

But now, issues of fairness aside, the whole process isn’t even effectively doing the one thing it was supposed to do: give us election results. So some people, from lawmakers to pundits, are calling for change.

As Eric Levitz put it for New York magazine, “There is no reason why the most politically engaged and/or time-rich citizens of America’s 31st most populous state should have the power to veto presidential candidates before anyone else in the country has a say. And yet, few of Iowa’s bitterest critics ever dreamed it would subject the country to something like this.”