The Democratic National Committee may have dethroned the Iowa caucuses as kingmaker in its presidential nomination process, but Iowa voters still have the power to crown Republican presidential candidates or threaten their ambitions in the White House.
That’s why Tim Scott, a Republican U.S. Senator from South Carolina, made an election cycle visit in 2024 to the state in mid-April 2023, just hours after announcement he had created a presidential exploratory commission. It’s also the reason former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was in the state on April 13, two weeks after announcing his presidential bid.
Scott and Hutchinson know that for Republicans, the road to the White House begins in Iowa.
They are not alone. Announced candidates, including former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, as well as candidates who have not officially announced such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also made the trip to Iowa.
The state gives hopeful presidential candidates a location to test their messages and campaign skills early in the campaign process. And candidates with limited resources can meet Iowa voters face-to-face and forego expensive advertising campaigns to bolster their views.
I’m a emeritus professor of political science at Iowa State University, where I started working in 1970 and watched the Iowa caucuses evolve. I have written books on the subject, including the textbook “US government and politics today, which I co-authored with Barbara A. Bardes and Mack C. Shelley II. I can see the primaries facing a major challenge this year as the Democrats in Iowa may defy the DNC and continue to hold their primaries first.
Iowa wasn’t always first
The Iowa primaries have been a tradition since 1846. Before 1907, both parties in the state selected all their candidates, not just the president, through the caucus system. Iowa held a presidential primary in 1916, but it went back to the caucus system the following year because the primaries were expensive and none of the leading candidates ran.
But the state’s modern-day nomination contest that earned it the status of first in the nation was largely an outgrowth of the chaos of the Democratic National Convention of 1968 in Chicago.
The convention was marred by violence during the Vietnam War, labor disputes, civil rights, racial strife and an unfair presidential nomination process. Party leaders decided that the primaries and primaries needed to become more inclusive, fair, and open, so they created the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1972 to investigate underlying problems in the party. The commission released a report outlining reforms that reduced the power of party bosses and mandated a process of primaries or caucuses where ordinary citizens, including women and minorities, would have due process to select delegates.
The commission’s report noted, “The face-to-face confrontation of Democrats of every persuasion in a periodic mass meeting leads to healthy debate, major policy decisions, … reconciliation of differences and realistic preparation for the fall presidential campaign.” While this was a reference to convention, it was also exactly what caucuses have done.
At the same time, Iowa Democrats, dissatisfied with the state’s caucus systemforced state reforms that included keep district and state conventions separate. For logistical and planning reasons, modern primaries were supposed to start in January, rather than May, when they were held. The first time the Democrats in Iowa held a January primary was in 1972. The Republicans did the same in 1976.
That year, a little-known candidate, Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, won the Iowa Democratic Party primary and eventually the party’s presidential nomination and then the presidency. Then the competition took on a new meaning. Candidates from both political parties saw the benefit of campaigning in the state, and the Iowa caucuses became a political must-do for anyone seeking their party’s nomination for president.
Now both a tradition and a requirement for politicians seeking notoriety and name recognition, the caucuses provide candidates with a lot of media exposure early in the process.
All Republican campaigns begin in Iowa
For decades, Democrats and Republicans have held their primaries on the same night, a week before the next event in the primary season—the first primary in the country, held in New Hampshire. That plan enabled candidates and party leaders to make maximum use of the massive media attention that’s always part of the Iowa caucuses. Republicans are sticking to that plan and will hold their first presidential primary in Iowa on February 5, 2024.
But in February 2023, the DNC pulled Iowa from the early election agenda, saying it wanted states that nominated early to reflect the party’s ethnic diversity. Instead of Iowa and then New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the new Democratic lineup makes South Carolina the first state. Next are Nevada and New Hampshire, then Georgia and Michigan. Many Democrats also lost faith in the Iowa caucuses after the results of the 2020 presidential primaries were significant delayed due to reporting issues and technical issues.
But the DNC may not get the final say on the calendar shakeup. The schedules for both the Iowa and New Hampshire primary are imposed by their state lawsand Democratic and Republican party leaders in both states pushed back the DNC calendar shakeup, citing those reasons.
Iowa election codes specify, for example that the state’s primary be held “no later than the fourth Monday in February of any even-numbered year” and that Iowa hold its primary “at least eight days earlier” than any other state’s presidential nominee.
In the meantime, New Hampshire electoral law provides that the “presidential primaries will be held on the second Tuesday in March” or seven days before any other state presidential nomination race. Under New Hampshire law, only the Iowa primary is allowed before New Hampshire.
Iowa Democrats could ignore the DNC’s nomination calendar and hold their primaries early. But if Iowa Democrats ignore the calendar change, the Democratic Party could issue sanctions, which may include Iowa loses half of its delegates.
Now, in what appears to be a losing effort to keep the Iowa primary as the first presidential nominating contest, The Democrats in Iowa are pushing a plan that would allow them to hold caucuses mostly by mail. That would address the inclusiveness and accessibility that national Democrats want. But it seems certain that the DNC wouldn’t accept that as a reason for Iowa to bypass the revised calendar that doesn’t have Iowa first. The Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans, as well as the New Hampshire Democrats, say that voting by mail for Iowa Democrats amounts to a primary, which under New Hampshire state law means New Hampshire goes first.
It is a mess.
No matter how the Democratic presidential nomination calendar plays out, Republicans stick to Iowa first.