‘Calendar chaos:’ An uncertain future for Iowa Democrats

After the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to upend Iowa’s first-in-the-nation, Iowa Democrats reflect on what it could mean for the future of the party.


Wyatt Dlouhy

Members of the audience cheer as Pete Buttigeig takes the stage at the Bell Center following the closing of the polls on Monday, February 3, 2020.

Liam Halawith, Politics reporter

Iowa Democrats are uncertain of future party organization following the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel vote on Friday to upend the early presidential nominating calendar ahead of the 2024 presidential primary.

Many states, however, are bucking the DNC’s new calendar, including Iowa and New Hampshire, which have laws on the book requiring the state to maintain their current positions in the nomination calendar. Other states like Georgia, which was moved into the early calendar on President Joe Biden’s recommendation, prefer their current primary positions.

On Biden’s recommendation, the committee voted to make South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia, and Michigan the new early voting states. The new calendar must be approved by the full DNC but is expected to pass in early 2023.

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement Dec. 1 that Iowa Democrats would have to comply with state law,  even it means losing their delegates.

The Rules and Bylaws committee included expanded penalties in the regulations passed on Dec. 2 that include automatically stripping half of a state’s delegates if a state holds its primary election outside of the designated voting window or without a waiver from the DNC.

The new regulations include provisions allowing for further action by the national party chair in the purview of their office.

Along with penalties for states that violate the DNC’s schedule, the Rules and Bylaws Committee passed penalties for candidates who campaign in states that violate its regulations. These penalties include not receiving any pledged delegates from that state and giving the DNC’s national chair the power to take any other appropriate steps to enforce these rules.

Iowa Democrats altered the traditional caucus system earlier this year, which has been criticized for lack of accessibility and discouraging participation. They moved to a mail-in ballot system that would require Iowans to choose one candidate for president, removing consolidation from the process altogether.

Wilburn said Iowa Democrats would submit their presidential nomination plan to the DNC early next year and address compliance in subsequent meetings.

Timothy Hagle, University of Iowa political science professor, said getting all of the states to agree to this new calendar will prove quite difficult for the DNC, which will likely receive pushback from Republicans when trying to enforce this new calendar.

Hagle said moving a state’s Democratic primary will likely result in Republicans moving their primary election calendar around to fit the DNC’s new proposed changes. This is because state-run primary elections are expensive, so having the Republican and Democratic primaries on different days would double the cost for the states.

The DNC could run into similar issues enforcing Iowa’s shift in the schedule, with Iowa law requiring the parties in the state to elect delegates and party committee members at party caucuses before any other state nominating contest, Hagle said. However, the statute, Iowa code 43.4, does not specify that parties must do presidential preference polling at these meetings.

DNC Decision, midterm results highlight issues

Iowa Democrats suffered tangible losses in the midterm election last month. After losing two Iowa Senate seats, eight Iowa House seats, and two statewide offices, the Democrats are losing ground in the state. Some Iowa Democrats are taking a critical look at how they organize and turn out the vote in hopes to reverse the trend.

Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, said keeping Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is not a solution to Iowa Democrats’ problems.

“No amount of national attention will do the work for us. As Iowa Democrats, our focus and direction must be clear,” Zabner said in a tweet on Dec. 2. “Whatever happens with the caucus won’t change our goals for this state and we won’t let ourselves be distracted.”

Zabner pointed out Iowa Democrats must use traditional organizing methods, such as community-based organizing and door-knocking, to reach Iowa voters.

“I’m so proud of all the activists here in Johnson County who are already starting to build the infrastructure we need for better performance in 2024,” Zabner added.

Hagle said Iowa’s political parties are aided by their first-in-the-nation status in the presidential nominating cycle. Along with the national candidates’ grassroots organizers, money, and activists follow.

With those resources, local activism is emboldened, and local candidates can organize on the coattails of national candidates, Hagle added.

Scott Brennan, former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and the IDP’s current representative to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws committee, said the party’s decision to remove Iowa from first in the nation will affect Iowa Democrats’ ability to organize.

Brennan also said Iowa Democrats need to improve at grassroots organizing to regain their status in the state.

“We’ve got hard work to do. We have to get out and talk to people in rural areas,” Brennan said on Nov. 18 on Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press.” “We need to get out, and we need to sell what President Biden has done. We need to tell people that the federal government is here to help people and it helps Iowans, and we’ve done a terrible job of telling people that.”

Brennan said the midterm election resulted in one of the most diverse groups of representatives the Iowa House has seen. Brennan added these young, diverse legislators will be key to energizing Iowans.

“Leader Konfrst has 16 new members. There are lots of folks out there that are energized and ready to do the work that we need to do,” Brennan said.