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The Elbert Files: Forget the caucuses


It’s time to move on. 

The Iowa caucuses didn’t help or prevent Joe Biden from being nominated and elected in 2020. They also did not prevent the nomination of Donald Trump or help him in any significant way to be elected president. 

The simple fact is both men lost on caucus night in Iowa. 

Biden did quite poorly, coming in fourth with support from only 16% of Democrats who attended caucuses in 2020. Pete Buttigieg with 26%, Bernie Sanders also with 26% and Elizabeth Warren at 18% finished ahead of Biden. 

Trump did somewhat better four years earlier. But true to form, he verbally assaulted the Iowa caucuses after receiving support from 24% of Iowa Republicans on caucus night in 2016, placing him behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 28%. 

Neither Biden nor Trump, who are the nominal leaders of their respective parties going into 2024, has a vested interest in keeping the Iowa caucuses at the front of the nation’s presidential nominating contests. 

At a national level, Democrats have finally figured that out. 

Iowa Republicans, guided by the perpetual boosterism of party Chair Jeff Kaufmann, have not. Nor do they need to.

As a result, Republicans will once again be at the front of the nominating pack in 2024, and Kaufmann is doing all he can to make sure the Democrats are there too. 

There’s a reason for that. 

Democrats should not fall for Kaufmann’s fawning support, because in addition to rarely making a difference in presidential elections, the caucuses have arguably caused real harm to the Iowa Democratic Party.

By focusing much of Iowa’s top Democratic talent on presidential campaigns, the party has allowed itself to become largely irrelevant in state and local politics.

And that benefits Republicans. 

How else do you explain the fact that Iowa Democrats have turned over all but a handful of congressional and statewide offices to Republicans since 2010. 

For many years, instead of working to develop strong local and state candidates, Iowa Democrats channeled too much of their effort and attention to presidential campaigns. 

As a result, long before Democrats got to the fall elections, the party’s best and brightest talents were splintered between a dozen or more national campaigns during the four most recent  contested caucuses. 

Not all who backed losing candidates returned to the fold with smiling faces and energy in the fall. For many, having a political resume that included helping a Democratic presidential candidate was more important than electing a state senator or county supervisor in the fall. 

Today, few of those campaign aides have much to show for their caucus organizing efforts. 

Out of 10 contested caucus seasons between 1972 and 2020, only one Democratic candidate went on to become president, Barack Obama in 2008. 

In four other contests, Iowa Democrats favored the candidate who eventually won the nomination – Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. But in half of the 10 contests, the favorites of Iowa Democrats were also-runs at convention time. 

Iowa Republicans’ influence is not much better. In eight contested caucus races, they supported only one man who became president, George W. Bush in 2000, and two others who eventually won the GOP nomination – Gerald Ford in 1976 and Bob Dole in 1996.

GOP chief Kaufmann and others argue that Iowa’s role is not to select presidents or even nominees, but to narrow the field.

To that I say, horse feathers.

Any state can do just as good a job of narrowing the field.

Every candidate who has run on either ticket since 2000 knows that the real purpose of the Iowa caucuses is to get campaigns to take the “ethanol pledge” of support for Iowa’s chief agricultural export. 

But there is little follow-through after the election.

So let’s forget the caucuses and have a primary. 

Few outside the media, who love the bump in advertising, will notice or care.

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