Should the Iowa caucuses be first? Well ... it's complicated. 'We are being tested,' one Latino leader says.
The Iowa caucus is sure to be competitive this year. But what makes caucuses different from primaries? Des Moines Register
The five-a-side soccer tournament was what drew 160 mostly Latino Iowans to a high school gym in east Des Moines on one of the coldest nights of the year. But first, the gathered fans would have to sit through a presentation on how to caucus and, more importantly, why they should.
Luis Gomez, a DACA "dreamer," kicked off the evening, telling his immigration story and describing the power of participating in the political system. Moving fluidly back and forth between English and Spanish, Gomez seemed to bridge the divide between those new to Iowa and those who have been Hawkeyes since birth. After his speech, a handful of younger attendees moved to the opposite side of the gym for a caucus training in English, while most stayed to listen to the same instruction in Spanish.
The event, thrown by the Bernie Sanders campaign, was part of the senator's well-documented push to reach Latino voters. But, more than just courting caucusgoers, the tournament was a no-strings-attached way to engage a minority community that may not have felt welcome before in the Iowa caucus process.
“We want to do events that are fun (and) create community where families can come and participate and learn,” Sanders’ Iowa state director, Misty Rebik, said as the tournament kicked off.
This scene, of Latinos immersed in the Iowa caucus experience, is one you won’t see on the late-night shows playing corn and tractors and flyover country for laughs. But even though events like this are more common in the 2020 cycle, it’s an Iowa caucus experience that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should.
And it's a good example of how Iowa caucus events should look if the Hawkeye state is to keep its first-in-the-nation status.
For some of you, my use of “if” probably feels a little premature. And sure, the charges levied against Iowa’s mostly white population and the caucus system’s inherent inaccessibility become editorial board and blogger whipping posts every four years.
But this cycle, more than ever before, the Iowa caucuses on the Democratic side are under attack. With then-candidate Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, hosting town halls and accepting interviews to deride Iowa’s role, and Mike Bloomberg skipping the early contests to flood airwaves in Super Tuesday markets, it's clear we're being watched and scrutinized.
“We are being tested,” Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ Iowa chapter and former Castro supporter, said of the climate around the caucuses this year. “We are being asked to prove that everyone is represented in the caucus. As an Iowan and a Latino, I don’t mind amplifying my voice to say we need to do a better job, and that we also need to be invited to the table by our fellow community members, and we need to be treated fairly and equally.”
Keeping a tight grip on the Iowa caucuses’ prime position on the political calendar is one of the only points our two state parties agree on, and Democratic and Republican leaders regularly join forces to fight off naysayers. Tourism and economic development leaders are just as lockstep in their devotion to keeping our inaugural status.
As someone with one foot in and one foot out — I’m not originally from here, though I count myself an Iowan now — I find myself arguing the question of whether we should be first, ping-ponging between each side’s claims.
Pro-Iowa: Iowa has an engaged body politick that after decades of grooming has come to understand how to judge the mettle of the candidates seeking the highest office through the all-powerful hand-shaking and baby-kissing and gas-station-pizza-eating that make up our beloved “retail politics.” It's a structure that can support handfuls of contenders crisscrossing a state that through its relatively small area and cheap airtime can give everyone, even underdogs, a fair shake at snatching the crown. And Iowa is an important stand-in for the voice of middle America, agriculture and our country’s ability to feed itself.
Anti-Iowa: The diverse voices making up more and more of America aren’t shaping the conversation in a state that, at the time of the last census, was 90% white. The framework of the caucus, a throwback to New England town meetings where neighbors gather to debate for hours in hopes of finding consensus, is inaccessible to, well, most people.
So as the national media descended upon us and my texts began to blow up from “[name of person] with [name of campaign]!” I set out to figure out if one side is actually right.
Or if there could be a middle ground.
Did Iowa force out Booker, Castro and Harris?
With a wind chill of below zero, the block party had to be held in the small back community room at Urban Dreams, a social service organization focused on lifting up at-risk youth of color. Despite the freezing cold, the bright cornbread and fresh chicken were as hot as the mix of pop and R&B pumping throughout the speakers as a markedly diverse crowd settled in to watch U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota make her pitch for the presidency.
A group of Somali men and women who drove in from Minnesota held up their phones to film the senator's stump speech. A man who was a dead ringer for Chris Farley’s superfan character sat next to the daughter of a civil rights leader. Questions focused on big issues — health care — but asked for specific takes — like how she would combat the high maternal mortality rate among African American women. The night before, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was asked what she would do to curb the rising number of African American girls, some still in middle school, being trafficked in the Midwest.
This block party was one of a dozen that Urban Dreams has held in conjunction with the NAACP Des Moines branch and fellow social service nonprofit, Creative Visions. The goal of these parties, said Urban Dreams President Izaah Knox, is to bring candidates into the community and have them address members’ particular issues.
He winces as I ask how he feels about the anti-Iowa argument that our state isn’t diverse enough to have the first say. “You’re talking to a black man right now,” he says, adding that he finds it “disrespectful” when outsiders question Iowa’s role.
“It’s disrespectful because we have people of color in Iowa that have real issues,” he said. “And, first off, we're one of the worst places in the country for people of color, so our issues are even more intensified than some of the other issues across the country.”
I ask Ako Abdul-Samad, a state legislator and a giant in Iowa’s African American community, the same question as he’s trying to make a quick exit for another event, and he tells me that Iowans cannot allow outsiders to define diversity for us.
“What happened with Castro, a former presidential candidate, is he narrowed it down to race,” Abdul-Samad said. “I think when people narrow it down to race, they do a disservice to the whole country. Diversity is people with a disability. Diversity is those with different sexual preferences. Diversity is, yes, people of color. Diversity is women.”
Just before the holidays, Julián Castro claimed that continuing Iowa and New Hampshire’s premier roles in the nominating process was “actively diminishing the voices of African Americans and people of color.”
Democrats can’t “complain about Republicans suppressing the votes of people of color,” a statement from his campaign read, “and then begin our nominating contest in two states that hardly have people of color.”
Since dropping out, Castro has endorsed Warren and campaigned for her across Iowa. Multiple emails to Castro’s team to discuss his previous comments were not returned.
In general, the idea that Iowans would not vote for Castro or U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California or Cory Booker of New Jersey because they don’t look like the bulk of the state’s residents is a “fallacious, flawed” argument, said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.
“To say that, you know, somehow Iowans are biased and that they're the reason that these people of color were not able to get any attraction is just not true,” she said, adding that the trio’s poll numbers were also low in the more diverse early states of South Carolina and Nevada.
“Believe me, if Booker thought that he was going to do well in South Carolina, he would've stayed in the race, right?" she said. "If Kamala Harris thought that she was going to do well in Nevada, the neighboring state to California, or even if she thought she was going to do well in California, she would've stayed in the race.”
The Obama factor often cited
For entrepreneur Andrew Yang, the only person of color with any legitimate hope of securing Iowa delegates, watching Booker, Harris and Castro drop out has been “jarring” and “disappointing.” But he doesn’t lay the end of their candidacies at the feet of Iowans.
“Iowans have demonstrated that they will support people from different backgrounds and different experiences,” Yang told me while chomping on a breakfast of leftover potato chips. “I mean, we all know that Barack Obama would probably never have been president if Iowans had not gotten behind him in 2008, and that's not that long ago.”
Obama comes up a lot when you get people talking about Iowa’s whiteness and the caucuses. His rise is the No. 1 response from Iowans trying to make the point that though we aren’t diverse, we can be trusted to vote for diverse voices.
"You're looking at the fifth-whitest state in America that sent the first African-American president out of here,” Abdul-Samad said. “How do you question the diversity? You know, how do you question the fairness?”
Standing in the "First in the Nation" exhibit at the State Historical Museum, curator Leo Landis points out that back in 2008 the junior senator from Illinois won Iowa, but California, Texas and New York — all states much more racially diverse than ours — went for Hillary Clinton. And then, in 2016, Iowa caucused for Clinton, the female candidate and former secretary of state, over Sanders — albeit with a narrow margin.
Historically, it's not that Iowa doesn’t support African Americans or women, Landis says. It’s that Iowans support candidates who are “well organized and have good messages,” no matter their race or gender.
“A candidate who may not look like the majority of Iowans has done, historically, OK,” he said. “I mean, Shirley Chisholm in 1972, the first African-American woman to publicly declare a candidacy, gets some support in the 1972 Democratic caucuses. She had just declared (so) people weren't coming in hard, but there are delegates for Shirley Chisholm reported out of the Register after the 1972 caucus.”
Partly because of Iowa’s historical openness, Yang cautions against making too much of a certain form of diversity or experience. It’s not a good approach, he tells me, to say, ‘”Hey, this group of Americans can’t possibly make a determination based upon something that they might not have experienced directly.’”
“I have more confidence in Iowans and Americans than that,” he added.
Are the caucuses really open and participatory?
While Iowa’s lack of diversity is a regular knock on the process, the reality is that attack hasn't moved the needle in decades.
But the newer anti-Iowa platform that the caucuses are inaccessible is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the state’s first-in-the-nation status, said David Redlawsk, a political scientist and co-author of the book, “Why Iowa?”, which looks at the Hawkeye state's role in the process.
Based on the idea that debating issues among neighbors and coming to consensus is uber-egalitarian, the modern Iowa caucuses were created precisely to take power from the centralized party — the smoke-filled room where it happens — and give it to the people, said former U.S. Rep. Dave Nagle, a former party chair, vehement supporter of the caucuses and head of the panel charged with reviewing complaints after the 2016 contest.
“I think that's still true,” he said. “Your platform is still drafted at the precinct level, the lowest common political denominator … so I think in terms of the party structure, it’s as open as it's ever been.”
Or it’s as open and participatory as democracy can get — in theory.
To be a part of the caucuses, voters must be at their appointed place at 7 p.m., they must stay there — often standing, for long periods — and they most likely will be asked to move around a gym or a community room or wherever they’ve gathered.
By any measure, one would be hard-pressed to say that the caucuses are truly accessible to some people in need of a physical accommodation. But since the Democratic party has trended toward "radical accessibility and radical transparency," you have to think even more broadly about access and consider those who are shift workers or caretakers or those with children, Redlawsk said.
“It used to be if you needed an absentee vote in a primary or general election, you had to have an excuse,” he said. “You had to have a good reason under state law, and you would have to apply well in advance. Many states have eliminated that.”
Mix that culture of “no excuse” early voting with the physical barriers, and the pressure on the caucuses is only going to grow, Redlawsk said.
Given the number of changes the party has made to become more accessible — including adding an early check-in option, hosting satellite caucuses, planning carpools to caucus sites, and ensuring accommodation requests are met — the party seems to understand the importance of this point and to be responding to it.
Even as he supports the caucuses vehemently, Nagle said one of the major recommendations of the commission he chaired was to see accessibility barriers overcome as “expeditiously" possible.
“We're moving as quickly as we possibly can in that regard,” he added.
But is the process really broken?
When talking about the Iowa caucuses, many non-Iowans speak as though the winner of this one contest will be the president. But that’s not the role of Iowa, nor the role of the three other early states.
We are winnowers, slowly narrowing the field as the parties get closer to the nominee.
In fact, in many modern primary seasons, the nominee wasn’t even anointed until after Super Tuesday.
“In fact, it really took until right before the nominating conventions," Kedrowski said. "So no matter where a state fell in the calendar, every state had a significant role to play in terms of choosing their party standard-bearer."
Back at Urban Dreams, Abdul-Samad has a simple question for the people who want to remove Iowa from its primary position.
“Why fix something that's not broken?” he said. “Can we improve? Yeah, we can improve. Does it hold a candidate’s feet to the floor? It does, and we need to be able to do that.”
So where are we left? I think we’re left in some odd, purgatory-like middle ground.
When you consider the structural hurdles and the tsunami-like ripples of washing Iowa’s date from the calendar, it seems to me there is no need to peel an orange with an ax.
Or, not yet.
But no longer will the reflective, “We’ve always done it this way,” be acceptable reasoning to keep the caucus process. While the Democrats have made some changes, they can't rest on that laurel. We have to stop thinking of the caucuses as a finished portrait in need of minor renovations and think of them as a photograph slowly developing in liquid chemicals — the full picture is still forming, not yet in dynamic color.
The pain points have been clearly and repeatedly pointed out this cycle, and we must listen seriously to the voices requesting change. And we must invite everyone to the table.
So, roll up your sleeves, Iowa, there’s work to be done — and we've got four years to do it.
Miriam Arias of Telemundo contributed to this story.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She can't caucus, but encourages you to do so. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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