Iowa Democratic Party Caucus still happening, but with notable changes

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The U.S. presidential campaign season is in full swing. The race for the White House officially begins next week, when Iowa will again lead the nation with a caucus process that began in 1972. 


This year, however, at least for Democrats, things will be different, as nothing is really at stake since no presidential candidate will be selected during the event. 


The overhaul of the Iowa Democratic Caucus was in response to tumult in 2020, when the process failed to declare a winner. In the aftermath, the Democratic National Committee, in a plan blessed by President Joe Biden, shifted the map of the primary season, essentially removing Iowa from first-in-the-nation status and effectively giving it to South Carolina, which will hold its primary Feb. 3 and be the first event that will actually select a candidate. 


While Iowa will continue to hold the first caucus, it won’t select a candidate. It will instead function as a regular meeting with routine business, discussions about proposed resolutions for the national convention and elected unbound delegates. 


As chair of the Clayton County Democrats, Brian Bruening stated, “it will be more like an off-year caucus, which has significantly smaller attendance.” 


Bruening looks at it as a trial run at this point, mostly because it’s a noncompetitive presidential year for the Democrats. Although Biden isn’t running unopposed, as Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips are also in the race, the outcome, for all intents and purposes, is a forgone conclusion. It makes this year’s caucus more of a “going through the motions” situation, with the idea to demonstrate that Iowa is able to handle a nontraditional type of caucus moving forward, Bruening said.


Instead of selecting a candidate at the Jan. 15 caucus, Iowa Democrats will vote for a party nominee through a mail-in voting process that begins Jan. 12 and concludes on March 5, with the winner announced on Super Tuesday. 


The most immediate impact of the change means that, on the Democrat side, Iowa is no different than anyone else. As Bruening put it, “we’re just participating along with everyone else. We’re on the same playing field.”


However, the change in the primary calendar has a trickle down effect, and sheds attention on an issue that has long been a concern of Bruening’s, namely that the state party has neglected statewide elections in favor of pouring all its attention into the presidential campaigns, the loss of which could hinder the progress of state races for Democrats in the future. 


Not to mention, with no candidate being selected, there is little motivation for Democratic candidates to visit Iowa, which not only brought money into the state and local municipalities, but attention and donations for candidates up and down the ballot. 


It also brought media attention on a grand scale, and it meant Democrats had people on the ground, engaging with voters and sending out volunteers and other campaign operatives to rally the base. That has been nonexistent this year, at least when it comes to the Democrats. 


The other impact has been in how “bewildered” Democratic voters have been by the entire situation and portends a bleak future for Democrats in the state in terms of winning elections. This has been evidenced by recent election results, with Republicans firmly in control of the legislature and especially by the fact State Auditor Rob Sand stands alone as the only statewide-elected Democrat. 


“Four years ago, when we were doing the caucus, there were a lot of people who were engaged and wanting to participate and we had caucus leaders and all that stuff. Now, it’s nothing like that, there’s literally none,” Bruening said.


As a result, expectations for the caucus are somewhat low, since there’s a general lack of excitement. In past presidential cycles, Bruening explained that, in just precincts, over 140 people could show up on the low end. In non-election years, the entire county might have 45 to 50 people attend the caucuses, and that’s the number Bruening expects will be the case this year. 


What exactly will be done at the caucus, which will be held at the Keystone AEA in Elkader? Well, general party business like electing members to the central committee and possibly having candidates show up to speak, though Bruening indicated none had planned to as of yet. 


Perhaps the most noteworthy thing that will take place at the caucus is the opportunity to submit resolutions which will be sent to the county convention. From there, they could potentially make their way onto the party platform during the DNC Convention later this year. 


Bruening anticipates two topics will be the focus during the caucus: education, specifically vouchers and book banning, and environmental issues, notably water quality. 


While it’s not a replacement for selecting a candidate, this provides an opportunity for local Democrats to express their concerns and get them on the party platform. 


When it comes to the future, while some voices in the Democratic party in Iowa, like IDP Chair Rita Hart and Scott Brennan, an Iowa Democrat on the rules and bylaws committee, have suggested things could be changed or even reverted back to the way it was. Bruening simply stated, “that horse is already out of the barn. It’s done and we’re not going back.” 


The horse out of the barn isn’t just the loss of Iowa’s status as first in the nation, but the presidential preference cards that will be used for selecting a candidate. Bruening understands the idea behind the preference cards, calling it a noble idea that strives to be as inclusive as possible because it allows everyone to participate, since it is done through the mail. It’s not without its own set of complications, though. 


Receiving a preference card is a cumbersome process that requires individuals to go online to the Iowa Democratic Party website to request a preference card before Feb. 19 and return it with a postmark no later than March 5. 


“There’s a lot of steps along the way where people can drop out of the process,” Bruening said.


Not to mention, the need to have access to the internet or even know how to use it is a hindrance, specifically for the elderly or disadvantaged, leaving what’s supposed to be a more inclusive system feeling less so. 


There’s also the issue that information is not being disseminated widely enough, meaning there is a possibility Democratic voters aren’t aware of what they need to do to vote. 


Informing them is falling completely on people like Bruening at the county level. One of the main ways that’s being done is through social media, which again presents the barrier of internet access. In previous years, caucus news was unavoidable due to the media attention and exposure, but this year is quite different. 


“It’s a noble attempt at fixing a bad situation, but it is not going to, I think, end up being as representative as they want it to be,” Bruening said.


However, Bruening is optimistic that, when this is all said and done, the DNC will refocus its efforts on running candidates up and down the ballot to make Iowa more competitive for Democrats in statewide races. 


“The silver lining of this is that, hopefully, the priorities of the Iowa Democratic Party turns to getting candidates on the ballot, even in rural areas, even in places where a Republican has won for the last 50 years. We still need to have people on the ballot and that should be our focus. When you’re running for somebody in your community, or you’re volunteering for somebody in your community who you know, that’s how you get people engaged,” Bruening said.


Despite the change to the caucus, Bruening still encourages people to participate, especially if they are a delegate to the county convention. Don’t forget: it provides one of  few opportunities to discuss issues people feel are important in the county. 


“If there are things that you feel like aren’t being addressed, this is your absolute opportunity to do it and then you can make sure your voice is heard,” Bruening said. 


The 2024 Iowa Democratic Party Caucus is on Monday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m., at the Keystone AEA in Elkader. People must be in line or signed in by 7 p.m. to participate.

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