PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

2 years after the debacle at the Iowa caucuses, Democrats eye changes to the calendar

Supporters of then-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg prepare to caucus for him in the gym of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. The caucuses were marred by issues and no winner was named.
Chip Somodevilla
/
Getty Images
Supporters of then-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg prepare to caucus for him in the gym of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. The caucuses were marred by issues and no winner was named.

Two years after the major meltdown of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, national party members who set its presidential nominating calendar sound like they still want to change the process up in the future, citing longstanding criticisms of the caucuses.

On Feb. 3, 2020, a smartphone app meant to streamline the process for the Democrats' presidential contest failed and no winner was named. The call for the Iowa caucuses to lose their first-in-the-nation status grew louder in the aftermath.

A reminder about caucuses: They're much different from a primary. The state party runs them, and people gather at a set time on a cold winter night in high school gyms or church basements. For Democrats, caucus-goers have to move around the room to show support for their candidate.

John Deeth — who serves on the executive board for the Johnson County Democrats, the Iowa county that votes most reliably for Democrats — won't say Iowa should lose its place on the calendar, but he's done standing up for the caucuses.

"The first thing that we tell [voters] to do is stand in line for 45 minutes, then go stand in the corner for three hours so that you can vote," Deeth said. "They come out of there with a terribly, terribly negative impression of the local party."

The criticisms of caucuses are nothing new: They're cumbersome, they can be hard for people to attend and they're time consuming. Some other states have recently moved away from caucuses. The app fiasco in Iowa only added to the call for changes — and add on top of that the inability to socially distance in a crowded caucus during a pandemic.

Party members discussed changing up the calendar during a virtual meeting of Democratic National Committee officials over the weekend.

"Any hint of suppression, or exclusion, whether intentional or incidental, we need to look at and make sure that we are not guilty of the same things that we are accusing the other side of," said DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee member Yvette Lewis, of Maryland.

Lewis said the total trajectory of the 2020 primary race changed in South Carolina when voters of color delivered a win for Joe Biden. That was after he finished fourth and fifth in the two much less diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Deidre DeJear, seen here in a 2018 file photo, is a Democratic candidate for governor who backs the Iowa caucuses.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Deidre DeJear, seen here in a 2018 file photo, is a Democratic candidate for governor who backs the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa does have Democrats who defend the caucuses. Deidre DeJear, who's running for governor this year, says Iowans know how to vet candidates on important issues.

She said she's knocked on doors for campaigns in other states. "But I knock on that door and I say, 'Hey, you going to come to this event tonight?' [and they say] 'Oh, I don't do politics,' " she said.

DeJear was the state campaign chair for now-Vice President Harris's unsuccessful presidential bid, which she disbanded in 2019. DeJear says the Iowa caucuses should stay first on Democrats' nominating calendar.

"Do we need improvement in the caucus process? Absolutely," DeJear said. "Do we need to expand the electorate and get more people there, whether they be folks that just can't commit because of the time or they be folks that can't access it because of a disability or anything else? Yeah, we've got to rectify that."

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn says he has work to do in educating the DNC after the meeting last weekend. Wilburn is the first Black chair of the state party and also a state lawmaker from Ames. He says the party can't just move its caucuses because of a state law.

"They made it seem like it's a choice, well you can choose," Wilburn said. "It's not a choice; it's an Iowa code here."

And Republicans, who have not shown the same interest in changing their calendar, control state government in Iowa.

Wilburn said it's all still a discussion and no decision has been made yet.

"There's this expression: It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," Wilburn said. "Well, maybe it's a 10k because we're in 2022, and they've started their conversations."

But with President Biden's approval ratings down and his party fighting to hold on to thin majorities in Congress this midterm, national Democrats will have to decide how much they want a debate over the calendar on their hands.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio