Every four years—indeed, only every four years—the American political establishment descends on Iowa to sample the local hospitality and take the temperature of public opinion. Several months of watching Washington’s most elite mimic unaffected Midwesterners and stomach deep-fried everything culminates in the dead of winter when Iowans perform the inscrutable ritual of caucusing for president. In the last decade or so, this has produced utterly unrepresentative results, all while tormenting those dispatched to endure it. It’s a wonder that the prominence of the Iowa caucuses has lasted for as long as it has.
The salad days may, however, be coming to an end. Last week, the Biden White House recommended (and the Democratic National Committee voted to affirm) a plan to retool the presidential nominating calendar, which will sideline the Iowa caucuses. It’s hard to blame Democrats. In 2020, the Hawkeye State somehow took 24 days to certify its vote. The arcane process of surveying “state delegate equivalents” ensured that no media outlet could project the results, and the chairman of the DNC called for a recanvas. In the end, after irritating the nation for the better part of a month, Iowa voters backed Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders—in that order. The party surely believes its revenge is justified.
Because this is revenge it is just as hard to begrudge those who bitterly perceive themselves to be on the business end of it. As Iowa has drifted further and further into the Republican column on both the state- and district-wide levels, progressive activists in the Iowa have exerted increasingly disproportionate influence over the caucuses (to the vocal frustration of their fellow Democrats in the state). Progressives are understandably vexed by the diminution of a platform they’ve come to dominate. They see this as a power grab by moderate elements in their party who want to see more diverse states and primary elections displace white, midwestern progressives as their party’s kingmakers. They’re right.
Writing in the New Republic, author and columnist Walter Shapiro observed that the Biden White House’s effort to “ensure that voters of color have a voice” in the party’s primary process involves the added advantage of elevating the very voters to whom Joe Biden owes the presidency. “Biden has created a template beyond 2024 to lessen the odds that future versions of Bernie Sanders will get liftoff in the early Democratic primaries,” he wrote.
Shapiro’s observation about the Democratic Party’s effort to rein in its insurgent progressives was echoed by the architect of one of those progressive insurgencies: Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, Faiz Shakir. “Progressives performed well in the state, in part because Iowans engaged deeply in getting to know the candidates and the arguments that they were making,” Shakir wrote for the New York Times. While he conceded that stripping Iowa of its first-in-the-nation status is overdue, the White House’s plan to move South Carolina up to the head of the line gives away the game Democratic establishmentarians are playing. “It is way more ideologically and culturally conservative than our party and our nation,” he wrote. “And the state is not trending in any way toward the Democratic Party.”
To a certain degree, the progressive narrative is correct. The activist left is a victim of its own success, and they’re being punished for it. But, as Republicans learned when they tried to retool their presidential primary calendar, today’s victories sow the seeds of tomorrow’s defeat for all.
In 2012, Mitt Romney emerged the GOP presidential nominee only after a divisive and unnecessarily long primary race that dragged on well into the spring. Rep. Ron Paul, who in that quaint age was the GOP’s most embarrassingly fringe presidential candidate, overperformed in the delegate count by virtue of the number of states that divvied up their delegates proportionally to the total vote. To avoid giving another populist candidate that kind of leverage, the Republican National Committee reformed the process. There would be more “winner-take-all” and “winner-take-most” states, and the calendar would be frontloaded with delegate-heavy states (which tended to be population centers with local Republican Parties inclined toward moderation). Thus, the party’s “frontrunner” wouldn’t have to wait until May to pivot to the general-election campaign.
It all made sense on paper. But then Donald Trump got into the race. Ultimately, it was Trump who benefited from the accommodations provided to the race’s “frontrunner.” It was Trump who maximized the advantage of having a base of support on the coasts, and it was Trump who took the GOP’s “winner-take-all” states for all they were worth. The law of unintended consequences, it turns out, is not subject to a vote of the Republican National Committee.
Maybe this will all work out for the institutional Democratic Party. If it follows the DNC’s recommendations, the old calendar will be so scrambled that our assumptions must go with it. But plans as elaborate as these rarely survive first contact with actual voters, and no one knows what the political landscape will look like in 2024 and beyond. A progressive candidate that looks and acts more like the Democratic Party’s voters can benefit from the new calendar, whether the party’s greybeards like it or not.