DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Hi-Vee Hall in Des Moines erupted in cheers in 2008 when a young senator from Illinois hinted at the incredible possibility of the feat ahead: “Our time for change has come!”
Iowa, which is overwhelmingly white, appeared to fuel Barack Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, as if to ratify his position as the nation’s first in the presidential nominating process.
But in the half-century arc of the state’s odd clubs, Obama’s victory proved remarkable. It turns out that all the other Democratic winners were also candidates.
The caucuses and their outsized importance were largely an exercise in mythmaking, that candidates could win their way to the White House by meeting voters in person where they lived, and that honest, civic-minded Midwesterners would fight valiantly on winter cold that sometimes they stand for hours to discuss issues and literally stand up for their candidate.
As the caucuses unfolded, the shortcomings became apparent. First among them: State Democrats botched the 2020 count, leaving an embarrassing mess. But there were more. Since 2008, the political makeup of the state has changed dramatically, from a reliable swing state to solidly Republican. And as the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of diversity, its lack in Iowa left the state with little reason to lead.
“We’ve been going down this road for a while,” said Joe Trippi, who managed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s victorious Iowa campaign in 1988, adding “2020 is a backbreaker.”
A branch of the Democratic National Committee voted Friday to remove Iowa as the front-runner in the presidential nominating order and replace it with South Carolina starting in 2024, a dramatic reversal championed by President Joe Biden to better reflect the party’s deeply diverse electorate.
Caucuses were once a novel attempt to expand local participation in national party decision-making, but this remnant of 19th-century Midwestern civic engagement simply hasn’t been able to keep up with the demands of 21st-century national politics.
“Times have changed and maybe it’s time for this nominating process to change,” said Emily Parcell, Obama’s Iowa political director in 2008.
For much of the nation, the caucuses were a quadrennial curiosity, seen on TV footage framed by snow-covered cornfields, a reminder of the summer before candidates clumsily sampled a menu of fried foods at the Iowa State Fair or stared at a life-sized butter cow.
The seeds of the myth were etched into the national narrative in the 1970s by a cadre of political writers, mostly from Washington, who followed Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Arizona’s Mo Udall, Idaho’s Frank Church, and the obscure Georgia governor Jimmy Carter to the cafe, the VFW lobby, and living rooms.
Their stories offered glimpses of unusual civic responsibility, citizens who met with the candidates, often several times, and a willingness to survive the winter night that was eating them.
Despite the lore, Carter didn’t actually win Iowa. He received more votes than his rivals, but more participants chose “uncommitted”. Early voting was not even binding and was actually just the first step in the process of choosing a national delegate that was finally determined at the state convention a few months later.
Having a contest where the rules don’t allow for no winners was an early sign that the arcane process would one day become a key point in the argument against keeping Iowa first.
But in 1976, a legend was born. An underdog could create momentum in the New Hampshire primary.
Richard Bender, the architect of Iowa clubs, never expected his work to become a national spectacle.
“We knew this was a story. And we knew it was a first, and it was fun,” Bender said. “But when we did it, we didn’t realize it was going to be huge. In a sense, it was an accident.”
Caucuses are not elections, but party-run events, run by local Democratic officials and volunteers, a concept that has long troubled outsiders.
Like Iowa’s Republican caucuses, which remain first in the 2024 GOP presidential order, Democratic caucuses are open only to voters who list a party affiliation when registering to vote.
Iowa first moved its caucuses from spring to winter before the 1972 campaign and added a presidential election to the agenda to invite more participation in an era of turmoil.
Young activists, like the then 25-year-old Bender, felt a lack of anti-war voices as the Vietnam War dragged on.
In 1972, antiwar outsider Eugene McCarthy finished stronger than expected in a low-turnout affair so poorly covered by the media that a handful of national reporters in attendance crowded into an office at state party headquarters in Des Moines.
But it sparked heightened attention that would eventually celebrate and caricature Iowa, build and bury candidacies, and ultimately reveal structural problems that would lead to the clubs’ demise.
“There was a kind of romanticism of neighbors coming together to make this important decision. There was something healthy about that,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“They took on a sort of mythical importance and over time became a bit of an industry,” said Axelrod, who also advised the campaigns of the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon in 1988 and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in 2004. “Some of that sanity is gone. ”
One landmark, Cronk’s Cafe in Denison, has served as the backdrop for countless campaigns. It is now closed. The old bar in the Savery Hotel, where candidates would often stop for a drink, has been renovated. And candidates, strategists and national news personalities now tend to favor the indulgent 801 Chophouse in the towering Des Moines skyline.
Likewise, campaigns have evolved from testing more provincial interests to national trial runs.
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt won the 1988 Iowa caucus on a local economic populist message aimed at solving the financial crisis affecting Iowa farmers.
Sixteen years later, Iowa has become a battleground over the Iraq War, the dominant issue that has vexed Democrats nationally.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean roamed Iowa anonymously before potential rivals voted in 2002 to authorize military force in Iraq. The following summer, he jumped into favored Iowa as an anti-war voice. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s comeback victory signaled a priority for national Democrats to nominate a combat veteran with national security credentials to challenge wartime President George W. Bush.
Four years later, a showdown between Democratic national favorite Hillary Clinton and upstart Obama would complete the transition from the low-profile campaigns of the 1970s to a national referendum on the party’s direction.
With each cycle, Democrats’ criticism of Iowa as unrepresentative of the party has increased, reaching a disastrous peak on caucus night in February 2020.
A smartphone app designed to calculate and report results failed, leading to a phone backlog that prevented the party from reporting final results nearly a week after the Feb. 3 contest.
The Associated Press was unable to announce a winner after irregularities and inconsistencies marred the results. Frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were denied the full measure of momentum ahead of New Hampshire eight days later.
“I think we all look back and recognize that it was the death knell,” said John Norris, who ran Kerry’s 2004 Iowa campaign and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988.
“The huge rise of social media, it opened the door for people to criticize it; every flaw, every criticism of Iowa is magnified now,” Norris added.
In desperation, Iowa Democrats proposed a vote-by-mail caucus. The change would throw out the very core of the caucus campaign, organizing at the local level punctuated by contact with candidates, Trippi said.
“Money and celebrity will be more important at a time when money and celebrity got us to where we are today,” he said. “Perhaps we should wonder how long they lasted.”