Was 2020 the end of the Iowa caucuses as we know them? After Monday night’s debacle — in which fewer than 2 percent of Iowa caucus sites reported results as an apparent consequence of technical difficulties and “inconsistencies” in the results — many commentators (including us) asked just that. Even Iowans are starting to wonder whether the caucuses are the best way for their voices to be heard.
Brian Vogel, a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren who was among the few who stayed until the very end of the caucus at Iowa City’s Precinct 21, said the caucuses felt like a relic of a past era, when a few dozen neighbors would gather in a living room to hash out which candidate to support. “There was a lot of bickering and talk of policy and lobbying back and forth,” he said. But that didn’t really happen at his precinct. Only a handful of the 800 caucusgoers there eventually switched sides, and many people left after the first round of voting. “It feels like we’re at a point where it’s more logical for us to cast a ballot,” Vogel said. “If all of us were to just walk through the door and make marks for our preference and leave, the results would have been basically the same.”
There’s evidence that many Iowans actually prefer a change. A September 2019 poll, conducted by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom, found that likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa were split on switching to a primary. Forty-four percent said that it was more important for Iowa to hold a primary “so everyone can vote, even if it means Iowa would no longer” vote first, while 42 percent said it was better for Iowa to go first “even if it means not everyone who wants to can participate on caucus night.”
Indeed, switching to a primary probably would mean Iowa would no longer be the first state to vote in presidential nominating processes. That’s because New Hampshire has a stranglehold on holding the first primary in the nation; there is even a state law that the New Hampshire secretary of state pick a primary election date that is at least seven days before any “similar election.” Iowa’s party elders might be unhappy about their state’s loss of influence over the primary process, but rank-and-file Iowans might not actually care that much about voting a little later in the process.
And after the bad headlines generated Monday night, it would hardly be surprising if scrapping the caucuses becomes even more popular. Some caucusgoers seemed pretty comfortable with the idea that Iowa might exchange its first-in-the-nation status for a process that was less time-consuming and more flexible. “It’s a point of pride, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for Iowa to caucus first anyway,” Matt Bailey, a Cedar Rapids resident who caucused for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said before the chaos unfolded Monday night. “I think most people here understand that it’s not the right setup anymore — in terms of the complicated and time-consuming nature of the caucus itself, and the fact that we go first.”
Even before Monday, the caucuses were already under fire for being undemocratic: Many people cannot afford to take a few hours off in the evening to go caucus; they present accessibility challenges to people with disabilities; until this year, there was no option to vote absentee (and this year’s option was still pretty flawed); and there is no option to vote a secret ballot. At a campaign event over the weekend, a couple named Jeff and Melissa1 explained that only one of them would be caucusing Monday night because Jeff, who has a shift job, couldn’t get out of work. Melissa, meanwhile, said she would be caucusing with their 1-year-old baby strapped into his carrier. “It’s really not ideal, because it’s way past his bedtime, but I don’t have another option if I want to caucus,” she said.
The Iowa Democratic Party did take some steps this year to make the process more open by adding a handful of satellite caucus locations at places like assisted living facilities and hospitals, or scheduling them earlier in the day. About two dozen people showed up to caucus at the Cedar Rapids Public Library on Monday afternoon, and many of them seemed relieved to have an option that didn’t involve hanging out in a crowded room for several hours that evening. “I was really upset because I have to work this evening and didn’t think I was going to be able to caucus,” said Jill Martinez, a longtime caucusgoer. She said the satellite caucus felt very different than an ordinary caucus — smaller, and more informal — but that wasn’t a problem. “Honestly, I’m glad to have skipped the crowds.”
There are other reasons, too, why Iowans might appreciate a switch to a primary. Lisa Lower, who attended the Cedar Rapids satellite caucus, said midday Monday she didn’t caucus back in 2016 because she was leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders but didn’t want her Hillary Clinton-supporting friends and neighbors to know. “I hate caucuses,” Lower said. “Voting is a very, very personal activity. I just am not comfortable basically being naked in front of my neighbors, saying, ‘This is who I’m voting for.’ That’s why we should just have a primary like everyone else.”
Of course, there are still Iowans who see the caucuses as an important vestige of a truly democratic process, and they will likely fight to keep them. “In Iowa, a caucus is about consensus-building with your neighbors and it’s participatory,” said Dave Tingwald, a precinct chair in Iowa City, as he and other volunteers waited Monday night to phone in their results. “I think it’s incredibly healthy for democracy. It gives ordinary people access to their government.”
And ultimately, the decision whether to scrap the caucuses in the next presidential race will be made not by ordinary caucusgoers, but by party elites — which means it may not even matter if a majority of Iowa voters support a switch. Frustrations seem likely to continue to build, but Iowans still might find themselves back in a high school gymnasium in four years, waiting for the next caucuses to begin.