Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Caucus Changes, Part 1: Primary Problems

One advantage of being a mere hobbyist blogger rather than a professional writer is that I have no deadlines. I write when I feel like it. And for the issue of changes in the Iowa caucus, I decided I needed time to think more than I needed to be fast, and there will be a long wonky post once I think it all through.

But before I dig into that I'm going to look at and set aside, for now and for the sake of argument, the question of switching to a primary, because some of the national reactions were "just have a primary."

While most of the first reactions to the Iowa Democratic Party's proposed caucus changes (which I will discuss in detail in two more posts) has been positive, more than a few people have responded in our Twitter feeds with JUST HAVE A PRIMARY. Some of these are sincere, and some are anti-Iowa trolls. (Daily Kos in particular has had a grudge against Iowa ever since 2004 when we tanked Howard Dean.)

The Scream was AFTER, and less of a problem than, the Disappointing Third Place.

After a lot of thought I, too,  have come to the conclusion that the Iowa caucuses have gotten so large and unwieldy that they cannot function as a "town meeting" to "build the party," and are instead a de facto election, with difficult rules, conducted by amateurs and volunteers. So philosophically I'm inclined to switch to a primary, even at the cost of First In The Nation.

First, of course, is the issue. In a complicated game of semantics and standoffs, two states have been "first" for the last 40 years: Iowa with the first caucus and New Hampshire with the first primary. Every move Iowa makes - and by "Iowa" I mean the political leadership of both parties - is with one eye on New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has a pitbull devotion to his state's law that New Hampshire "shall" have the first primary "or similar contest." (How is one state's law in any way binding on the other 49?)

Personally, I'd like to confront this head on. Schedule a primary before New Hampshire. Or concede the flaws in caucuses and concede First, but lobby for another slot in the early states like second or third - as a primary.

That's not happening this cycle. The leadership of both parties is committed to some version of the status quo standoff.

But what if the Democrats weren't? What if Iowa Democrats decided we actually want to switch to a primary?

Well, that's still a non-starter - because the Republicans have full control of state government.

That's the fundamental problem for people who would like the Democrats to tell states no caucuses, primaries only. Election law is mostly state law, not federal law, and the Democratic Party cannot tell Republican run states what to do. Each state has its own political culture, and some states, like Iowa, have a caucus culture. Other states are worried about money and have caucuses because the parties pay for those (in most states, primaries are government funded, though parties are billed in a few places).

Democrats have used that as an excuse before in different situations. When GOP-run Florida moved its 2008 primary date up to January 31, in violation of the rules of both parties, Democrats moaned and cried and said they couldn't do anything (even though Florida Dems, most of all Iowa caucus hater Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were willing junior partners). And, in the end, they and Michigan got away with it with no penalties, because they are big swing states.

But, hypothetically, if we wanted a primary, could Iowa Democrats persuade Iowa Republicans?

I've worked with local Republican activists a lot, both in my election office job and outside of work on caucus issues. The Johnson County Democrats and Republicans have a good relationship on caucus issues (as long as we avoid policy issues) and we team up to work on them.

My GOP activist friends are understanding and sympathetic to the reality that the Democratic National Committee rule changes, requiring caucus states to provide some sort of absentee system, are forcing Iowa to change.

But they are concerned that any monkeying with the system we have risks First. What I hear from Republicans is: "if you have absentees, that makes it not a caucus." And they are worried that THEY will lose First on their side because of rule changes on OUR side - because when it comes to First it's about the states, not the parties.

No one is pressuring or forcing Iowa Republicans to change their process. The accessibility and disenfranchisement issues that that drove the DNC to push for caucus changes simply don't resonate as much on the Republican side.

So Iowa Republicans would rather stay safe and keep what they have, and feel no need to do Democrats a favor by switching to a primary... which the Democrats aren't asking for anyway.

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