Campaigns

Iowa lawmakers band together with early caucus spot on the line

Democratic chaos raises new questions about whether the state should be first in presidential contest

Iowa voters wait for the start of a Democratic satellite caucus at the IBEW headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

With Iowa’s “first in the nation” status on the line after chaotic Democratic caucuses rocked the presidential primary, Iowa lawmakers in both parties banded together Tuesday to defend their state’s role in the process. 

It took until early Tuesday evening for the Iowa Democratic Party to announce results from Monday’s caucuses. And even then it was less than two-thirds of the tallies because of uncertainty and confusion around a new app used for reporting voter preferences as well as the calculations for allocating delegates.

The partial results showed former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg leading the Democratic field with 27 percent of the state delegate count and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in second place with 25 percent. 

But the results were overshadowed by the preceding night’s chaos, which provided fresh ammunition to those looking to dethrone Iowa as the first place where Democratic voters signal their favored presidential candidates.

The renewed criticism prompted members of Iowa’s congressional delegation in each party to issue statements touting the state’s role in the nominating process.

“The Iowa Caucuses are the foundation of how our parties and our nation select their next President, and generations of Iowa voters know how seriously we all take that responsibility,” Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. 

The trio called the controversy about Monday’s tallies  “disappointing.”

“As Iowan’s voices in the U.S. House of Representatives, we know how important it is that our constituents came together last night to participate in what should be a trustworthy and efficient process, and this deserves to be done right,” they said.

The state’s top Republicans had weighed in hours earlier.

“Iowa’s large population of independent voters and its practice of careful deliberation contributes greatly to the national presidential primary and makes it the ideal state to kick off the nominating process,” GOP Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst said in a statement with Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The statements highlighted not only that the caucuses are a point of state pride but that they are also an economic boost for Iowa as campaigns and the media that cover them converge on the state every four years.

President Donald Trump tweeted that he supported Iowa’s front-runner status, but his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, threw shade on the Democrats, calling Monday’s chaos “the sloppiest train wreck in history.

“It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process,” Parscale said in a statement.

The news release from Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds offered a rebuttal.

“Iowans and all Americans should know we have complete confidence that every last vote will be counted and every last voice will be heard,” they wrote.

Yet  with no results from Monday’s contests to analyze, cable television coverage was saturated with commentators questioning whether an overwhelmingly white and agricultural state that has people express their preferences by gathering in the corners of gyms and firehouses instead of voting on ballots should keep its role as a key presidential gatekeeper.

The statements from Iowa lawmakers appeared to be responding to the new round criticisms, and signaled these lawmakers may be concerned that Iowa’s early-state status is in jeopardy. 

“They’re right to be concerned,” said strategist Doug Heye, who was a senior adviser to the Iowa GOP when Republicans faced their own caucus debacle in 2012. “I would say that concern was already there before last night’s events.”

Both parties have long worked in unison to protect Iowa’s status as the first national contest, said David Redlawsk, a political psychology professor at the University of Delaware and co-author of “Why Iowa?”

“Whether that’s enough going forward is another question,” he said.

Not the first time

This is not the first time Iowa’s early-state status has been questioned amid confusion about the caucuses.

After 2008, Republicans reexamined it but ultimately decided not to change the process.

In 2012, the GOP caucuses were also mired by confusion. After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was initially declared the winner, the state Republican Party reversed course more than two weeks later to declare former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the winner.

And in 2016, an extremely tight race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton raised concerns about the caucus process. That prompted the state party to develop a plan for 2020 to release results from the multiple rounds of voting, a change that contributed to Monday’s delayed reporting of results.

Iowa’s early-state status has prevailed in part because attention on the race quickly shifts to New Hampshire and then other states on the calendar. And also because the national party committees gather to reexamine the primary process long after the caucuses are over. 

“People get outraged and then very quickly move on,” Heye said. “The order of the states still get talked about, still gets debated, but never gets changed."

But the Democratic debate around Iowa’s status isn’t just about Monday’s chaos. Even before voters started heading to the caucuses, some Democratic critics said Iowa was not representative of the diverse party, so its voters shouldn’t get to go first.

Redlawsk also acknowledged that Monday’s events could carry more weight in the debate over Iowa’s status because of those broader concerns.

“I do think this, combined with the other arguments in the Democratic Party about representation and acceptability, increase the chances significantly that Iowa won’t be first in the future, at least of the Democrats,” he said. 

What’s next?

Members of Congress are expected to defend Iowa’s place in the presidential nominating process, but there isn’t much they can do to protect its coveted position.

“This is ultimately in the hands of the Democratic National Committee and the rules committee,” Redlawsk said. 

Whether the DNC has a full-fledged debate over Iowa’s place in the process could depend on what happens later this year.

Redlawsk said that if a Democrat defeats Trump, the 2024 caucuses would likely be uncontested, and therefore a debate over Iowa’s status could be postponed for an election cycle. But if Trump wins reelection and both parties have wide-open nominating contests in 2024, national Democrats could pressure Iowa to at least change its process from a caucus to a more traditional primary, Redlawsk said.

In that scenario, New Hampshire would likely put up a fight to make sure it keeps its “first in the nation” status when it comes to primaries.

“The old battle between New Hampshire and Iowa would be reopened, and I doubt Iowa would win that,” Redlawsk said. 

But Iowans concerned Monday’s events could jeopardize the state’s early status could take some solace in the fact that devising a new process, and choosing which states can choose the presidential candidates first, is a complicated undertaking. That exercise helps explain how Iowa has prevailed as the first caucus state for so long. 

“Part of it, honestly, is no one’s come up with a better approach,” Redlawsk said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.