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Why Iowa may lose its first-in-the-nation status

The technology issues, the coin flips to pick a winner and all of the other major snafus during yesterday’s Iowa caucuses make it likely that either the caucuses will be replaced by a primary in 2024 or Iowa will lose its first-in-the-nation status, or both.

There has been increasing pressure over the last few election cycles to do away with caucuses entirely due to the ways in which they are not accessible for many voters, including voters with disabilities and parents of small children. There has also been increasing criticism among Democrats of the status of Iowa as the first state to vote given that the state is so unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and the Democratic Party in particular. The state is mostly white and the largest city of Des Moines has only about 200,000 residents. 

The failure to report results in a timely manner fits with these other criticisms and will likely lead to the demise of the Iowa caucuses. Virtually no one is happy with today’s situation, leaving little in the way of a constituency to defend the caucus rules at the national convention. 

Iowans will do everything they can to defend the current system, given the money it brings to the state parties and the attention to issues important to Iowans. But they will have a hard time finding allies if no party faction sees a benefit in the caucus process.

History only carries so much weight and bucking tradition is a lot easier when it can be connected to a vivid failure like what we are seeing now. Officials in larger states like Illinois are already stepping up to make a claim for first primary status. Those (in both parties) raising questions today about legitimacy show us that caucuses aren’t just outdated — they may be too risky. 

This may be a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. But the delayed results scramble the usual post-Iowa press narratives, which are the key way in which the Iowa caucuses matter to the larger process. Iowa awards very few delegates and will probably not be competitive in the general election. But all eyes are on Iowa each cycle as these are the first actual votes after a year or more of campaigning, debates and advertisements.

The story that emerges from Iowa, rightly or wrongly, often frames all of the primary coverage going into New Hampshire the following week, which then frames the next stage of coverage in a snowball effect that can quickly end viable campaigns. For example, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s infamous scream after his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses doomed his campaign in 2004.

Sen. Barack Obama’s first place finish in Iowa in 2008 catapulted the relatively unknown candidate to the top of the Democratic field that year, providing him with a lead he would not relinquish.

With the lack of results in Iowa overnight, the candidates have scrambled to try to establish themselves as the winners. As results come in today, we’ll see if this blunts or limits the usual influence of Iowa’s results. This could ultimately be a good thing for the presidential nominating process because Iowa results are weighted much too heavily in the primary process for both parties.

What has happened in Iowa is just a technical screw-up, and not some malign plot. But it is evidence that caucuses are probably unworkable in our contemporary online, instant news cycle environment.

Sam Nelson is an associate professor of political science at The University of Toledo.

Tags Barack Obama Caucus Howard Dean Iowa Iowa Iowa caucuses United States presidential primaries

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