Dems & GOP Confident Iowa Stays First


After a difficult election cycle for Democrats nationwide the Iowa Democratic Party has started the healing process. IDP kicked off the left road to the White House last February in churches, schools and union halls all over Iowa. It was a photo finish. Bernie Sanders was barely upset by Secretary Clinton in a margin so small that liberals nationwide complained like a referee decision determined the winner of a football game. Another national critique was that Iowa’s population is mostly homogenous and lacks the diversity of the country.   Notwithstanding the fact that by November the state usually votes the national trend.

Despite the critiques of Iowa’s systems many of the candidates vying for Chair of the IDP are confident that Iowa will keep its First In The Nation Status.

Kim Weaver from Sheldon Iowa just came off the trail after attempting a long shot campaign against Congressman Steve King. Jim Mowrer who challenged King in 2014 transitioned into the IDP chair race.  He ended up scoring one of the vice chair positions after Senator Gronstal whipped the vote for the establishment favorite, Dr. Andy McGuire. Weaver hopes to win the top spot this time.

She stated “I support Iowa being first in the nation and don’t anticipate any changes that would threaten that status. I believe that the first in the nation status is important for both Democrats and Republicans.”

Another candidate stated, “I have tended to disagree with various doomsayers who think that right now we’re teetering on the brink of loosing our status.

“At the same time, the DNC certainly COULD decide that caucuses are inherently un-democratic and, in essence, bar them all.

“I don’t think the current fluid situation within the DNC is such that a major decision is likely to be forthcoming, which means that we should be safe through 2020.”

A third candidate, Robert Krause, has been a fixture in Iowa Politics since his Election to the State House at a very young age. He stated “First In The Nation is very important to Iowa Democrats.   Also I think it is something we [with Republicans] can agree on. We are in the process of incremental reforms to make the Iowa Caucuses more accessible and more transparent. They are generally honest, but if elected, I will scrutinize the visibility of procedures with the goal of guaranteeing results integrity. Within the national party it is an institution that would be hard to replace. A good substitute would need several election cycles to break in, and the internal fight over who would replace Iowa would be tremendous”

The Iowa Democratic Party launched a Caucus Review Committee last year for a deep dive into the process and make recommendations. One of the preliminary recommendations was increasing absentee participation. But removing in-person participation is a risky move for both state parties. The fact that candidates have to come to rural Iowa counties and “press the flesh” to motivate activists to turn out on a cold winter evening is what sets it apart from primaries. Expensive TV buys and direct mail drives to turn out absentee voters give candidates a big advantage in primaries; this system shifts the focus of picking our next president from grassroots activists to super donors. Iowa is only assured the first caucus. Absentee participation makes our system more reflective of a primary. New Hampshire gets the first crack at that nut.

Republican National Committeeman, Steve Scheffler said, “Iowa and New Hampshire have a great working relationship in the RNC and understand we are in this together.  It’s similar to the relationship between RPI and IDP.  Although our state parties disagree on many things we try and work lock step to keep the privilege of going first with our respective national parties. Both state parties believe that Iowans are uniquely attuned to actively and thoughtfully evaluating the presidential contenders. Participation is good. Our media markets are not cost prohibitive. And our folks have a lot of patience against voter fatigue during long politics cycles.

“President Elect Trump is supportive of RPI’s place on the calendar. I don’t think that the DNC would stop caucuses in favor of primaries but it would complicate RPI’s privilege. I feel good about our standing but but it’s not something we can take for granted.”

When asked about the impact of IDP changing its system to be more like a primary Kevin Hall, the Communications Director for the Iowa Secretary of State said, “If they do a primary we lose First In Nation.  It’s a New Hampshire state law that their Secretary of State can move their primary to at least seven days before any similar election. We get to go first now because we’re doing a caucus, not a primary.”

The IDP established Tele-Caucuses in 2016 to enable military members and registered voters living abroad to participate by phone.

Not wanting to be outdone and understanding that military voters tend to favor Republicans the State GOP established an additional precinct that military could use to vote through the Internet.

Although participation by military in the GOP caucus was minimal in 2016, this system opens up potential for compromising the Iowa Caucuses. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act enables active military to change their State of Legal Residency by showing an intent to eventually relocate to a state. One way to show intent is to register to vote. They can quickly do this through the Federal Voting Assistance Program. Any active military member could become an Iowa Resident for a day in order to participate in the Hawkeye state’s contest. There are nearly 1.5 million Active Troops and it would not take many to change the outcome of the caucuses. Although intent would seem dubious if they quickly changed their residency afterwards the damage to the neighborhood caucuses would be done.

The two state parties typically avoid criticism of the opposing team understanding that giving attention to mistakes put the status of both at risk. In the 2012 GOP caucuses, over 120,000 ballots were recorded. US Senator Santorum pulled off a Cinderella-story upset by running a low budget, local campaign by only 34 votes. However a mix up with the touch-tone reporting system resulted in a declaration for the wrong victor. A slow return of the precinct records for certification caused further scrutiny. IDP did not engage in the criticism.

In 2016 both parties teamed with Microsoft to create and train precincts on the use of a phone application that enabled the precinct recorders to view and verify results before they were sent. In the evening after caucuses a snow storm shut down roads and highways all over the state. RPI was still able to get their couriers through the deep snow to all 99 counties and certify their results in less than 48 hours.

When Senator Sanders was narrowly upset by Secretary Clinton in a race that was nearly even many national observers complained about tie-breaking methods used at precincts and jumped on any opportunity to challenge a mistake. RPI remained quiet.

The next Democratic Party Chair will be responsible for implementing the recommendations of the Caucus Review Committee. The candidates for the position seem to have a sober understanding of the issues that could harm our carve-out status and a desire to keep us first.

The Republican Party of Iowa leadership team of Chairman Jeff Kaufmann and Co-Chair Cody Hoefert is assured after a great cycle for the GOP. Regardless of whether the next Democratic chair is a political establishment fixture like Mike Gronstal or an upstart field organizer like Derek Eadon, the new leader will have outspoken support from the veteran GOP leadership team in protecting the caucuses.

For the next four years both Democratic and Republican leaders are confident our position is secure in the short term. And just like IDP refrained from criticism as RPI did a turnaround between 2012 to 2016 the new chair will receive the same courtesy from Chairman Kaufmann as Democrats do the same in 2020.
–John Thompson of Jefferson is a graduate of West Point and Harvard University. He is a candidate for State Treasurer and serves on the State Central Committee for the Republican Party of Iowa.