Iowa Democrats were forced to toss the caucus. They’ll quietly pick a 2024 nominee by mail instead

Mar 2, 2024, 10:10 PM

FILE - Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., celebrates with his supporters af...

FILE - Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., celebrates with his supporters after his victory in the Iowa caucus Jan. 3, 2008, in Des Moines, Iowa. There has been a lot less fanfare for Democrats in Iowa picking their presidential nominee in 2024. Iowa Democrats are headed to the mailbox to send in their ballot this year instead of congregating for caucuses. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — There’s a lot less fanfare for Democrats in Iowa picking their presidential nominee this year, and it’s not only because Democratic incumbent Joe Biden is in the White House.

Instead of congregating for caucuses, a one-night spectacle where community members publicly signal their support for a candidate, Iowa Democrats headed to the mailbox to send in their ballot. The results will be released on Super Tuesday, a slate of primaries and caucuses across more than a dozen states.

The break with five decades of tradition follows chaos that mired the party in 2020 and the reshuffling of the Democrats’ 2024 calendar to prioritize more diverse states. The fallout has disappointed Iowa party leaders and activists, with some feeling jilted by the national party.

Even more, it has left many worried about the deterioration of Democrats’ grassroots organizing and about the prospects for success in a state that has morphed from a purple toss-up into a Republican stronghold over the last decade.

Nancy Bobo, a longtime Democratic activist in Des Moines, was able to vote for a presidential nominee this year by mailing in her ballot even though, for the first time since 1980, she was sick and couldn’t make it to her caucus on Jan. 15. Nevertheless, the change is a “thorn in my side,” she said.

“Yeah, you vote,” Bobo said, but “you lose all that congregating and coming together and discussing issues.”

Bobo, an early supporter of then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign, recounted the record-breaking caucus on Jan. 3, 2008, when so many people gathered at a high school that they were forced to move from the auditorium to the gymnasium.

As a caucus chair for Obama, Bobo was responsible for wooing her peers, especially those who supported candidates that didn’t attract 15% of the room, the Democrats’ threshold for candidates to be considered viable.

“The excitement in the air was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” Bobo said of the 2008 caucus. “I doubt that what we do now is going to have much impact on the national scene at all.”

In the lead up to 2024, the Democratic National Committee decided to reorder the early voting states at Biden’s request, prioritizing diverse voters in states like South Carolina and Michigan over the predominantly white voters in Iowa. Critics, including Biden, have said the caucuses are not representative of the party.

The national party has worked with Iowa Democrats “to ensure a more accessible, equitable primary process” and is providing financial and other resources “to strengthen state party infrastructure,” a DNC spokesperson said in an email.

While more than 200,000 Iowans participated in the 2008 contest that kicked off young Obama’s ascent to the White House, that record-breaking number is a rarity on both sides of the aisle. Even during a contested race, participation in the caucuses is typically a modest fraction of the party’s registered voters.

Past plans to make the caucuses more accessible for voters who are older, have disabilities, work the night shift or can’t get childcare didn’t materialize. And then rushed revisions to the way precinct results were reported — at the party’s behest — broke down on the night of the 2020 Democratic caucuses, leading to a failure to produce a clear, undisputed winner.

“There was a lot of drama in the way we’ve done it in the past,” said Rita Hart, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. “Some person’s idea of excitement and drama is another person’s total and complete chaos. What the Democratic Party needs to really focus on is the excitement, but make sure that it’s very productive.”

While disappointed in the national party’s decision, the Iowa Democratic Party is reimagining the caucuses as an opportunity to reconsider how to encourage people to come “and then engage in the kind of conversations that strengthen us as Democrats,” Hart said.

According to the party, more than 6,000 Iowa Democrats participated in the Jan. 15 caucus, which was focused, among other things, on electing individuals to serve as delegates to the August Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

They received more than 19,000 requests for presidential preference cards, which is higher than the number that participated in the 2012 Democratic caucuses, the last time there was a Democrat incumbent. As of Friday, more than 11,000 had been returned.

Sherry Kiskunas of Waterloo had never actually voted in a caucus before this year. She was recruited to help run the caucus at her precinct in 2012. Before that, she “didn’t even know about them,” she said.

Even before the difficulties experienced in 2020, Kiskunas said caucuses could be messy.

“It wasn’t so bad when I was vice chair because I wasn’t in charge. But when I was the chair, it was horrible,” she said.

She recalled counting and recounting people migrating from one candidate’s supporters to another’s. One year, two precincts in one room added confusion.

“People get impatient, and they want to leave,” Kiskunas said. “I want to go home, too, but the count has to be right.”

The “easy” mail-in ballot allowed her to vote this year. Still, “the party suffers,” she said.

“You don’t have a chance to party build. You don’t have the chance for the interface like we had,” Kiskunas said.

Sara Riley, an attorney in Cedar Rapids, thinks moving away from a caucus format makes sense. She doesn’t think engagement on the ground will diminish; instead, a primary could lead more people to participate.

Riley, who has volunteered hundreds of hours for presidential campaigns, said she doesn’t think that energy goes away just because the method changes.

Even with a different method of voting, returning to the early window could continue to bring presidential hopefuls to the rural, Midwest state that has a more affordable media market. The Iowa Democratic Party has said it agreed to the changes this year only with reassurances that Iowa would be considered for the early set of states in 2028.

But Bobo is skeptical.

“Once it’s gone,” she said, “I think it’s pretty hard to get it back.”

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Iowa Democrats were forced to toss the caucus. They’ll quietly pick a 2024 nominee by mail instead