The Calendar and Common Sense Conspire Against the Iowa Caucuses
There has been this nagging feeling about this election cycle that is now starting to come more and more into focus: that the Iowa Caucuses, despite their traditional hype and run-up, might not be that big a deal this coming year.
In fact, you can now put a date on the calendar to express it. Or rather several dates.
The Super Bowl, unofficial holiday that it is, will be played on Sunday, February 2nd. Nancy Pelosi has invited, and President Trump has accepted, her invitation to deliver the State of the Union on Tuesday, February the 4th before a joint session of congress that will — and Lord, hear our prayer on this one — be coming off just-concluded impeachment proceedings. An event already built to be a political and media circus will be cranked to 11 for the president to either pronounce his exoneration or decry why that foregone conclusion hasn’t happened yet. Three days after that, the New Hampshire Democratic debate will occur on the 7th prior to that state’s primary on the 11th of February. It will be followed in quick succession by the South Carolina debate and primary thereafter. February is going to be a busy month.
And sandwiched between the real Super Bowl and the yearly political and media Super Bowl that is the State of the Union, is the Iowa Caucuses.
Since the 1970s, Iowa has hosted the country’s first nominating contests, with a singular ability to make or break White House hopes. Yet with less than three months to go, the state’s pre-eminent position — and the caucus process itself — is once again taking heat.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said this week — to an Iowa reporter no less — that the caucuses were not “representative.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren demurred when she was asked at a forum in South Carolina whether the order of the early-nominating states should change because Iowa and New Hampshire were “two of the whitest states in the country.” “Are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?” she said. “I’m just a player in the game.”
And Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, said Iowa was “not reflective of the United States” and “not reflective of the Democratic Party.” He called for the state to lose its spot at the front of the presidential nominating calendar.
A spotlight on the people reshaping our politics. A conversation with voters across the country. And a guiding hand through the endless news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.
In Iowa, fretting about the caucuses is a quadrennial tradition among Democratic and Republican officials alike. But at a time when leading Democrats have made the fight for ballot access, voting rights and diverse representation core principles, their marquee presidential contest offers none of those elements.
The reason that concern is spilling over and being directed at Iowa, and will be redirected at New Hampshire three minutes after the Hawkeye Cauci shuts up shop for its three year hibernation, is the “party of diversity” is uber sensitive to three old, rich white people and Pete Buttigieg making up their top four candidates. Even though that group contains a progressive woman, a Jewish socialist, the first US President of color’s VP, and an openly gay man, that isn’t the sort of diversity electoral data mavens fret over. Some of those optics and concerns are probably overwrought by the chattering class; after all, Iowa did go with then-upstart Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton to kickstart the former president’s historic election. But with much more diverse Nevada and South Carolina right behind Iowa and New Hampshire, keeping the totality of the Democratic coalition engaged and excited is going to be a must. A Super Tuesday of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia on the third day in March is probably going to wrap this primary season up for all intents and purposes, and if not the following Tuesday of Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Washington primaries and North Dakota caucuses will. If we are really unlucky, this might linger till Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio primary on the 17th of March.
But that’s it. We will know who is going to win by then. Ninety days or so from now our long national nightmare will be over, so that the hot new freshness of the next national nightmare of Trump vs Democrat TBD 2020 can begin.
By calendar, by situation, by circumstance, by the continuing changing of how things are done, there is one conclusion to draw after a year of candidates, media, pundits, and commentators casting their gaze at the Hawkeye State. And since the ins and outs of party politics means Iowa and its at-best chaotic caucus system isn’t going anywhere, folks who need to produce content will turn to the easier to explain lack of diversity in the first two states as compared to the rest of the primary calendar. So the fretting that always comes with “why are we doing this” think pieces will be supercharged by the dynamics of the moment and the dawning realization that being an early outlier to the eventual results is going to be very noticeable in a highly contentious election cycle. The parts of all those problems adds up to one conclusion:
In 2020, Iowa doesn’t matter very much.
Sorry. Fine folks, lovely part of the country. Politically, for the 2020 election cycle, we as a nation are going to get a really poor return in time invested in Iowa. Winning means less than half a news cycle and a really cool Wikipedia entry folks will look up on their phone when cheating at bar trivia. If that.
The “It’s not diverse enough” arguments are unfair; after all Iowa cannot wave a magic wand and change their social demographics. But they are a factor in data-driven political strategies. Much has been made of Joe Biden’s “firewall” of minority support in South Carolina, but that is because there is a lot of truth to it. African-Americans make up nearly two-thirds of the primary voters in South Carolina, and the former VP has been very strong with them and the overall lead in that state. Contrast that to Pete Buttigieg, who is leading in several Iowa polls and may well win there, but is clocking a zero with the African-American demographic in the Palmetto State.
That isn’t a misprint. Zero.
That number will no doubt come up if the Mayor of South Bend, IN, does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he isn’t coming from off the page to challenge in South Carolina. But the Mayor also angered the leadership of that constituency with what he says was a misunderstood rollout of his “Douglas Plan” and what the folks in South Carolina that took offense called “six steps backwards” toward their consideration of the candidate. Then factor in the progressive Gordian knot of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders eating up the support the other would need to overtake Biden, and that they are far behind Joe both collectively and individually in the same data points, and you have the makings of a decisive win.
There is the argument that Iowa can change everything for a candidate, that winning there can propel an also-ran straight to the White House. Most who think that point to President Obama’s win there, and then the massive shift in support in South Carolina to him that turned into an electoral tsunami sweeping presumed nominee Hillary Clinton away and the Illinois Senator to two terms in the White House. Anyone arguing that is going to happen here will have to explain which of these candidates is even in the same galaxy as Barack Obama, because they are not. Not even close. Granted, anything can happen between now and February, but we have 10 months of campaigning since the current leaders all entered the race, and this field’s performance speaks not to its strength in numbers but in its weakness to produce anything more than a flawed and questionable candidate to go up against a sitting president and what is shaping up to be historic fundraising numbers for the Republican side.
“Anything is better than Trump” will be the reply to that last sentence from our friends who desperately want the president sent back to Mar-A-Lago for good. I hear it every time we have this discussion. But that isn’t happening by default. There is no magic bullet that is going to remove President Donald J. Trump from behind the Resolute Desk. If that is your desired outcome, you are going to have to run a candidate against him, and win.
In the present environment and with all the factors and circumstances considered, the candidates with a chance to win Iowa might not even be positioned to last past March, let alone win the Democratic Primary.
It almost makes you wonder if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic powers that be scheduled the State of the Union for the night after Iowa on purpose. After all, why curb stomp your party’s first 2020 electoral victor by giving the all-consuming gravitational well of media that is President Trump wall-to-wall prime time coverage unless you were trying to minimize the result?
Some things just don’t make sense. Politics rarely do; that is why it’s called politics not “things that make perfect sense” or why we call them caucuses instead of “waiting around while a bunch of people makeup and change their mind in the most disorganized way possible.”
But it just is that way. Like the Iowa Caucuses, which will remain for the foreseeable future. But for this cycle, let us stop pretending they matter more than they probably will. After all, there is football and made-for-TV political theater bracketing it. Tough time slot to thrive in.
Sorry Iowa. Better luck in 2024.