As the 2020 Democratic Primary’s first contest looms, the political world has descended on Iowa. As it does every four years, the midwestern state of three million has become the epicenter of the political universe—even the ongoing Impeachment trial in the United States Senate has failed to upstage it.
The caucuses have a long and storied history, rising to their current national status in 1976 when Jimmy Carter campaigned heavily in the state and eventually carried his strong showing to the White House. The caucuses are complicated, steeped in tradition, and require substantially more effort than your traditional primary or general election contest. However, our country has changed drastically since the late 70s, and holding a caucus in Iowa is no longer a defensible way of beginning the Presidential nominating contest. As our nation has gotten more and more diverse, Iowa hasn’t kept up, and the caucus itself has revealed itself to be an elaborate way to suppress the voices of marginalized Americans.
On the evening of Monday, February 3 at 7:00 p.m., Iowans will filter into one of the 1,678 caucuses happening at the precinct level all across the state. Rather than casting a vote and heading home, caucus-goers physically stand in the corner of the room with people who support the same candidate they do. Well-organized campaigns will have trained “precinct captains” while other volunteers who organize their candidate’s corner hang up signs, hand out stickers, and attempt to convince undecided caucus-goers to join them in their corner.
Caucus-goers are bombarded with different views and attempts to sway their support in what can be an extremely chaotic process. “First alignment” occurs next, which is when all the candidates’ supporters are frozen and counted. All candidates who receive less than 15% of caucus-goers in the room are considered “non-viable” in that precinct and will receive no delegates. Any non-viable candidates’ supporters, along with anyone who remained undecided in the first alignment, then re-align to candidates who are viable. A second tally of the room is then taken, and this final count is reported to the county Democratic Party, corresponding to the number of delegates awarded at a national level. In stark contrast to a traditional primary system, this process usually takes around two hours, demanding a significant time commitment from caucus-goers.
The results of the caucuses on Feb. 3 will have substantial ramifications around the rest of the country, and it is the first chance candidates have to demonstrate true electoral strength. Traditionally, the saying has been that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” which means that a candidate must be among the top three finishers in Iowa to have a shot at actually winning the nomination. Though that conventional logic may be in doubt this year, there is no denying that the caucuses have a unique ability to both winnow the field and change a campaign’s momentum going forward. Indeed, despite the Iowa Caucus awarding just 41 of the Democratic primary’s 3,979 delegates (a hair over 1%), the sophisticated primary model created by Nate Silver and 538, a leading polling amalgamator, ranks Iowa as the second most important day in the primary. It is second only to Super Tuesday, which will occur on March 3 and award 41% of the primary’s delegates. The Iowa Caucus even ranks ahead of primaries occurring on April 28, which will account for 21.5% of the total delegates awarded.
The caucuses have rightly come under fire during this primary cycle, with candidates Julián Castro (who has sinced dropped out and endorsed Elizabeth Warren) and Mike Bloomberg (who is not contesting Iowa) criticizing the first-in-the-nation caucus, and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, which occurs this year on Feb. 11. They have criticized how the first contests will be taking place in states that lack the diversity of the base of the Democratic Party or the country as a whole. Iowa and New Hampshire are both over 90% white, and neither rank well in NPR’s ranking of states’ similarity to national demographics. Placing these two states at the front of the primary calendar every four years gives white voters disproportionate access to the candidates and a disproportionately large say in selecting the President at the expense of the voices of people of color.
The caucus structure itself also deserves criticism. It is inherently ableist and classist, serving as a complicated form of voter suppression. In early January 2020, I had the chance to spend a significant amount of time campaigning in Iowa. I talked to hundreds of people, and one of the most disheartening elements of the experience was to hear how many people will simply be unable to attend a caucus. The caucus takes several hours on a weeknight, and many people will have to work, will be unable to get childcare, or will be physically unable to make it to the caucus because of age, disability, or illness. A traditional primary voting system, where one can vote early, absentee, or any time during the day on election day mitigates these problems substantially.
Beyond my own anecdotal experience, this voter suppression bears out in the numbers. In the 2016 Democratic Primary, 171,109 Iowans caucused and 250,983 New Hampsherites voted. If this seems off, it is; in Iowa, there are a total of over 1.3 million voters who were eligible based on their registration to caucus for a Democrat, whereas in New Hampshire there were less than 700,000. Despite having double the amount of registered Democrats and Independents, Iowa had a substantially lower turnout than New Hampshire only a week later. The difference in these numbers results from the lack of participation by working-class and disabled voters in a system not designed to accommodate them or their needs. The problem isn’t isolated to Iowa, either; the Democrats in Nevada, American Samoa, Guam, Wyoming, and the Virgin Islands will all hold caucuses with similar elements of voter suppression.
I hold immense respect for the people of Iowa and all of the people who have been organizing there leading up to the Feb. 3, and I criticize no candidate or organizer for trying with all their might to win the caucus. Indeed, I am deeply hopeful that it will be my preferred candidate who comes out on top! However, the next time Democrats hold a nominating contest—whether it be in four or eight years—the party and the country would be better served if the campaign’s crucial first stages take place somewhere more diverse than Iowa, and involves no caucus at all. The Democratic Party owes working-class people, disabled people, young parents, people of color, and all other groups currently suppressed by the caucus a better system. In a democracy, access to voting is key. In 2024 or 2028, Democrats must get rid of the caucus, rearrange the primaries, and transition to a system that allows diverse voices to be heard.