Drake Political Review | Let's Talk Politics

The Loss of the Iowa Caucus As We Know It: Dead Dems Walking?

Is the decision by the Democratic Party to pull out of the Iowa caucus the final nail in the coffin of a dead swing state?

Shaken. Rocked. Grinded to a halt. And so the children of the corn did scream. The era of Iowa holding the first in the nation primaries, known nationally as the Iowa caucus, has come to a close. At least, for the Democratic Party.

What Happened to the Caucus and Why Does it Matter to Iowans?

After President Biden’s announcement in February to grant South Carolina the official first-in-the-nation Democratic primary status, Iowans may have been stumped, but this transition seems to have been penciled in for a couple years. With the Democratic Party’s presence in the Iowa caucus coming to a close, the separation of the parties in the once first-in-the-nation primary state proves that the cessation and growing partisanship between the Republican and Democratic Parties is anything but weakening its firm grip. 

It should be noted that the Republican Party will continue holding their primaries in Iowa. Ron Desantis and former President Donald Trump both held conferences in Iowa back in March in an attempt to tease support for their upcoming (or in Desantis’s case, probable) presidential runs. Now that Republicans are the lone party in the Iowa caucus, their stage in the coming years will be wider with even more eyes focused on them to see how they’ll handle the pressure of being in a new, uncultivated field.   

Caucus season has been a contributing factor to Iowa’s identity for years, crafting a meaningful personality for a state so often overlooked in national political affairs. Without that distinction, what separates Iowa’s corn from Nebraska’s? The answer it seems, for the time being, is a growing amount of conservative policies and legislation. 

For much of its existence, Iowa has held the reputation of a flip state, a place for turning heads and changing minds. Elections were usually a toss up, teetering between the smallest fraction of votes. Iowa went for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election by only 12,000 votes, but Barack Obama held an almost 10% advantage and flipped the state blue in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential election. 

The Republican Response

Since then however, Iowa has become a state synonymous with granting their electoral points to the Republican Party, with Donald Trump successfully holding nearly 10 percentage points over both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in their respective election years. Slowly growing into alignment with red states in the South, Iowa no longer has any Democratic representatives at the national level, and Gov. Kim Reynolds, a member of the Republican Party, supports bills brought forth by the Republican  majority at the state level.  

Wes Enos, the deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn, said that the decision by Democrats to pull out of Iowa won’t necessarily change people’s voting patterns, but it will affect how voters will interpret their platforms. 

“[Democrats are] going to undermine their ability to get a real grassroots candidate with a good message that is outside of a national norm, to get any sort of traction or attention whatsoever,” Enos said. “I think it will hurt their overall message. I don’t know if voters necessarily are plugged in enough to be able to really impact that, but I think it will impact your overall ability to build a message that actually resonates with voters.” 

Enos also went on to specify that there is a real benefit for the Republican Party to continue utilizing Iowa as their first primary setting: the financial advantage. 

“You can’t run an effective primary campaign in a state like Michigan with expensive media markets like Detroit. In Iowa, a candidate who is largely unknown, but has a message to get out there, can get into Iowa,” Enos said. “They can build an apparatus, they can build an audience for their message, and they could become a national figure who can compete with billion dollar candidates across the country by being able to get their message out in a market where that message can penetrate.”

And in terms of the ground gained by the Republican Party in recent years, Enos says that Iowa Republicans are running with it. 

“[Republicans are] building organizations and strong apparatuses within the various counties. They’re getting out there, being aggressive in messaging, and I think you’re going to continue seeing more of that,” Enos said. “I see a lot of successes that we’ve had over the course of the last few years continuing forward. I don’t see a lot of changes to what we’re going to do. Just because what we’ve done has been so successful up to this point, we can refine it, we get better at it, but it’s going to be very similar to what we’ve already been doing.”  

Democrats Dig In

As Iowa Republicans have gained ground in the past few decades, the Democratic Party has pulled back. The decision to leave Iowa by President Biden affirms this. Given these indicators, Iowa State Rep. Sean Bagniewski, a Democrat representing District 35, wasn’t surprised by the party’s departure from the caucus. 

“I was expecting it for some time. Even before the caucus mishaps, Iowa had been under the microscope for at least the last 20 years, and the case was getting harder to make to keep the caucuses,” he said.

Despite understanding the decision, Bagniewski said the DNC’s follow up action for future primaries didn’t make as much sense.

“If you’re going to make a big change to your primary and caucus calendar, you should make sure that all the legal pieces are there before you make that announcement,” he said. “We’re in an awkward situation where the DNC has chosen these states, the DNC decision conflicts with state law, and now you’re kind of in limbo again. I don’t think it’s a good luck for the DNC.” 

Regardless of the rise in the conservative agenda in Iowa, Bagniewski says that the already definite partisanship between the parties has not been affected by this shift in the caucus wind. 

“I don’t know that anybody in Iowa chooses to be a Democrat or Republican based on the caucuses or presidential visitors,” Bagniewski said. “I think most people think it’s a great thing to have in Iowa, it helps our economy and helps get some attention, but I’m a little pessimistic that the idea of the caucuses being here or not, renew that pledge for people’s party registrations.”

With Rita Hart as the new lead chair for the Iowa Democratic Party, Bagniewski has high hopes that she will be able to steer Democrats towards a new organized and grassroots future, now without the attention that the Iowa caucus usually brings. 

“[Rita Heart] brings a lot of strengths in that she was a candidate for state office, she’s a farmer, she’s a teacher, she’s a county chair, and then she ran for lieutenant governor in Congress as well. She just checks a lot of boxes, and I think is a really good post-caucus Chair for us to have,” he said.

Organizations like the Democrat-organized New Iowa Project are working to expand the liberal agenda by using the method of voter registration and grassroot organizing popularized by Stacey Abrams, the founder of the voter activist channel Fair Fight and former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia. The New Iowa Project’s motto is, ‘Iowans working to build a bluer Iowa over the next decade.’ 

Bagniewski, as one of the founding members said, “I think the big question is, now that the [Iowa caucus] is gone, will Iowans organize more, or at least Iowa Democrats? Will we organize more? And I hope the answer is yes. I’m committed to being part of the answer of yes. So, we’ll see what happens five or 10 years from now.” 

As it does every year, Iowa’s corn will continue to grow, and especially during caucus season, its greenery will take on new heights. Though Iowa Democrats are gearing up for a long, drawn out battle, the fields seem all but poised to be painted red.