The DNC’s debate qualifications— and not the elimination of the virtual caucus — is breaking the Hawkeye State’s hold
Ever since 1976 when Jimmy Carter’s used the Iowa caucuses as a stepping stone to a successful Presidential nomination, the State has been playing an outsize role in selecting the party nominee. While Iowa is not represetative of the rest of the country demographically (it’s both whiter and more rural), it’s prominence in the Presidential primary system thanks to 1972 reforms by the DNC mean it has been influential in selecting candidates for the past several decades.
While there have been discussions over the years of reducing Iowa’s importance, any attempt at outright reform has been met with stiff opposition. Iowa has codified into law that the caucuses must be the first event, and the DNC has protected that privilege by signalling any State that attempts to threaten that order will have the number of its convention delegates reduced.
Which is why it’s all the more ironic that the single biggest blow to the Iowa Caucus system in years is a direct result of the DNCs new rules set up to determine which candidates get to participate in the debates. In attempting to address criticism it unfairly promoted Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 election, and not be seen as exerting undue influence over the process, the DNC scheduled two nights of debates for the first two debates to accomodate the many 2020 presidential candidates. Recognizing the need to narrow the field in the fall, the DNC announced that to qualify for the third debate candidates would need to reach 2% in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and have at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in a minimum of 20 states. Candidates quickly realized the easiest way to raise a large number of small dollar donors was to appeal to popular national issues through targeted online advertising, and not by focusing on ethanol policy. While Democratic presidential candidates are still likely to attend some 3,000 events and spend millions of dollars to infuence the Iowa caucus outcomes, the DNCs new rules will have narrowed the field of potential candidates well before the Hawkeye State can have its say. And as we have seen, the net effect of these changes has been a lack of traction moderate candidates.
The guidelines to make the debate stage will have more impact that any reform attempts to the actual caucus system such as absentee ballots and increased virtual participation (as has been proposed for 2020, but currently is being scrapped by the DNC over election interference concerns). While the guidelines won’t fully fix the fundamental problem, which is that Iowa and its preferences are given far too much influence over the nominating process, they are the first major reform to successfully create an incentive for a national audience, and mute the outsize importance of the moderate voter in Iowa in decades. That’s a welcome change that is long overdue.