DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats in the Hawkeye State are feeling divided about what’s likely to be a demoted status in the 2024 presidential contest, with some hoping to find ways to salvage parts of their most cherished political tradition.
The Democratic National Committee’s move to knock Iowa from its perch as the first-in-the-nation caucus — a point of pride among Iowans for decades — has inspired mixed reactions from Democrats on the ground, with some validating calls for more diverse states to go earlier and others defending the merits of preserving their historical prominence.
As Republicans begin to barnstorm the state, Democrats there are coming to terms with the reality that politicians from their side of the aisle will have few reasons to make the trip, leaving residents somewhere between dispirited and cautiously optimistic.
“It is very important to many, many people,” said MD Isley, a Democrat from Des Moines and regular caucusgoer for progressive candidates. “The loss of it on the Democratic side is very painful, and it’s painful to watch.”
Democrats here see the state slipping further into GOP territory, and the caucus shakeup further amplifies the divide. Iowa’s become redder as local and national Republicans have made inroads in general elections and as Democrats have publicly shown a desire to downgrade the state’s importance when choosing their presidential nominees.
Some liberals see the changing caucus dynamics as an indication that the national party is setting its priorities elsewhere, including targeting areas they believe more accurately represent the country’s national composite.
“I do have concerns about appropriate representation of the population, so I do understand and personally support why there would be movement in a different direction outside of Iowa,” Isley said.
“I’m personally not bothered by it, but I do understand and empathize with others that are sorry to see it go,” he added.
Some Democrats, including young voters and other liberals who are typically heavily engaged in the process, say it’s good for the party to move away from overemphasizing a small state with mostly white residents.
They support the values of representation and inclusivity the party is hoping to prioritize again in the next cycle, following President Biden’s commitment to creating a vastly diverse administration.
“It would be sad to see the Iowa caucus go away; however, I do support letting other states and more diverse places have their first pick at a presidential candidate,” said Dennis Bowen, a 32-year-old student at Des Moines Area Community College and registered Democrat.
“We’ve had the caucuses now for about 50 years, and so it’s always good to get other perspectives,” he said.
A big part of the caucus process is to allow White House aspirants from different backgrounds to have opportunities to rise in the nominating ranks, especially those who are less likely to receive as much attention or significant funding elsewhere. Likewise, it’s a chance for residents to see who might be the best to propel the country forward, even if they’re less nationally known.
In recent Democratic cycles, some candidates with nontraditional bonafides have done surprisingly well in the caucus, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist, and more recently, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who’s now serving as Biden’s transportation secretary.
Sanders and Buttigieg offered something fresh for a party seeking to revamp its image at critical moments. Although Sanders narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016, his economic populist pitch attracted droves of supporters, while Buttigieg in the next cycle gave off a youthful and sensible perspective in the eyes of many voters.
In 2024, the caucus process is expected to be vastly different, not only because Democrats aren’t likely to have an open primary — Biden, although he hasn’t officially launched a reelection campaign, is thought to be the presumptive nominee — but because Iowa Democrats are going to be more muted.
In downtown Des Moines, many Democrats understand the tradeoff. They see the value of having others go ahead, but also don’t want to feel left behind after leading the process for roughly a half-century.
The proposed changes have also raised some economic concerns. Residents say the state gets a boom each election when Democratic candidates come to campaign, and the additional eyeballs on their cities and towns help change misconceptions about what the state represents.
“It’s really disappointing to see it go away because we really care about it, and it’s obviously a really good thing for our state with revenue and tourism as well,” said Heather Plum, an Ankeny resident who caucuses regularly for Democrats.
“Iowa is very often considered a flyover state,” she said after lunch at Bubba, a southern comfort restaurant. “We really are a hidden gem. That is the loss for me. It’s a spotlight on Iowa.”
The expected shuffle has caused some within the party to explore other ways to stay in the broader national discussion, even as they’ve come to accept that South Carolina, the state that helped Biden win a victory in the 2020 primary, is scheduled to take their place.
Last week, Iowa Democrats wrote a memo to the DNC asking for a monthlong extension to work out their preferred place in the lineup and also asked for mail-in ballots to be allowed in the caucuses, something Republicans are actively lobbying against in the state.
“I am committed to holding the most inclusive and accessible caucuses in Iowa history,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart wrote in her letter to the DNC.
“Folks who work third shift, people with disabilities, and parents of young children should have a voice in Iowa’s presidential nominating process,” she continued. “I look forward to posting our Delegate Selection Plan for public comment soon.”
Waiting for his meal at Bubba with other political enthusiasts, Isley said Iowans are right to acknowledge the “very valid concerns” over potential losses of economic opportunities that may emerge as a result of moving the caucus.
But like other voters here, he suggested it’s about keeping a forward-looking eye on the future of the party and putting things into perspective.
“We are a large nation of many people,” he said, “and the process should be representative of all.”