Iowa Democrats navigate a new future with no caucuses

After being knocked from first-in-the-nation status, Iowa Democrats look for a way to regain ground in the swing state. Newly elected chair Rita Hart looks to get more Democrats elected in the state and reclaim lost battles.


Gabby Drees

Reporters interview Democratic candidates Liz Mathis and Christina Bohannan at a fundraising event at the Sutliff Farm & Cider House in Lisbon, Iowa. Mathis is pursuing a seat in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House while Bohannan is pursuing a seat in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House. Bohannan and Mathis spoke about polarization in politics, education, abortion rights, and healthcare at the event.

After the Democratic National Committee approved a new primary calendar for the presidential nomination process, Iowa Democrats must navigate a new future without their first-in-the-nation spot and the attention, donations, and organizing that come with it.

Iowa Democrats, which have a new party chair at the helm, are now focusing their fight on winning elections in the swing state that experienced a red wave in last year’s midterm elections. But they face an uphill battle after Republicans swept almost every branch of the Iowa government and Iowa’s congressional delegation.

Democrats rearrange the calendar, Iowa loses its spot in the early window

The new calendar has replaced Iowa with South Carolina as the state to lead the 2024 presidential primary elections.

In June 2022, Iowa Democratic leaders spoke at the Democratic National Convention Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting and proposed changes to make the Iowa caucus more productive,  including implementing a primary ballot and mail-in or drop-off voting. Despite Iowa Democratic leaders’ efforts to keep Iowa as the leading state in the presidential primary process, the DNC voted in January to move forward with the new calendar.

Ed Cranston, the chair of Johnson County Democrats, said many Iowa Democrats were disappointed after changes to the party’s primary didn’t sway the vote.

Despite the DNC calendar, Iowa still has a chance to hold its first-in-the-nation status, Iowa State University Political Science Professor Steffen Schmidt said. He said Iowa state law dictates Democrats must hold a county political convention before any other state. However, Iowa Democrats will likely have to wait until Super Tuesday to pick their presidential hopeful.

Iowa law states that Iowa’s political parties must have a county political convention before any other state, not presidential preference votes. Schmidt said some other states are also unable to change their state primary laws.

Georgia’s Republican leaders and New Hampshire’s laws block efforts to move the calendar forward. Both states missed deadlines to make changes to their state’s primary elections.

National Democrats’ main argument against keeping Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status include the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among Iowa voters, especially with the state’s large share of rural voters.

With the new calendar starting in South Carolina and ending in New Hampshire, the Midwest voter population is not represented, Cranston said.

Republicans already seized on the change to share a message that Democrats are overlooking Midwestern voters.

“They’re giving middle America the middle finger,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, tweeted on Feb 4.

Despite the DNC’s changes, Iowa held onto its leading nomination spot in the Republican National Committee calendar.

“The DNC has decided to break a half century precedent and cause chaos by altering their primary process and ultimately abandoning millions of Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.

In the 2020 election cycle, President Biden won in South Carolina primary but lost in Iowa.

Schmidt said the new calendar is a sign of Biden’s dislike for the Iowa caucuses, which indicates conflict between Biden and the DNC. Biden has not officially announced whether he’ll seek reelection for president in 2024.

The future for the Iowa Democrats

Former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart was voted to serve as the new Iowa Democratic Party chair. Hart came into the role after the party suffered major losses in the November midterms.

“As I have explored taking on this role as chair in the last month, I have been clear from the very beginning that we need a team approach for Iowa Democrats to start winning elections again. Everyone has a part to play,” Hart said in a news conference.

Hart said her main goal as party chair is to increase the number of Democrats elected to office.

“I think it is so important that we are working together for Iowa’s best interest,” Hart said. “… I think this is one of the places where Republicans and Democrats are working together, and I appreciate that.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, a Democrat from Coralville, said Hart’s enthusiasm to get more Democrats in office is what the party needs.

Schmidt said Democrats have no leverage in the Iowa Legislature, which he said explains the number of conservative bills being passed in the current session.  Notably, there was a stalemate last year in the Legislature over Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to divert taxpayer dollars toward private school tuition assistance. But this year, the bill quickly sailed through the 2023 Legislature as the GOP expanded its majority.

The new calendar is only for the next election. If Hart is successful, Linn County Democratic Party Chair Bret Nilles said  Iowa has potential to become a swing state.

Looking toward the upcoming elections, University of Iowa Democrats President Nikša Poleksić said he hopes the calendar is a motivation for the Iowa Democratic Party to take campaigning more seriously.

 “I think it just comes down to finding better methods of campaigning and organizing,” Poleksić said.

The legacy of the Iowa Caucus

Nilles said the Iowa caucuses are ideal for sorting out the stronger candidates within the party. The caucuses have been crucial in determining the outcome of the 2000-16 presidential elections, according to The New York Times.

Although Biden did not win Iowa during the 2020 election cycle, the Iowa caucuses played a major role in the election of former President Barack Obama.

“If it hadn’t been for him winning the Iowa caucuses, he would never have gotten the nomination and never have become president,” Schmidt said.

The removal of Iowa from the top of the presidential nomination process means Iowans will not have easy access to Democratic presidential candidates.

Poleksić said he doesn’t see Iowans getting a high level of access to national candidates because of the calendar change.

“I don’t foresee it having great effects,” he said.