Midwest: So Long, Iowa

The Democrats have abandoned Iowa. The party leadership, at the urging of Pres. Joe Biden, has kicked the Hawkeyes to the curb, replacing their caucus with South Carolina’s primary as their first contest in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Strictly speaking, this is probably just symbolic. In the 10 meaningful caucuses since 1972, Iowa has picked the eventual nominee six times and they’ve picked the president three times. (There were three years when there was no meaningful primary because the incumbent president was a Democrat running for a second term.) The first time that there was a viable Black candidate, Barack Obama in 2008, the state picked him over the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. The bottom line is that I don’t think Iowa has been out of synch with the party as a whole or that moving the first contest to South Carolina will make much difference in terms of who ultimately wins the nomination or the presidency.

But it is, perhaps, important symbolism since South Carolina is more racially diverse. One out of four South Carolinians is Black while only 4% of Iowans are. The national Black population stands at 13.6%. So, you could argue that the Democrats have overcompensated, choosing an unusually Black state over an unusually white one. On the other hand, Black voters play an outsized (though decreasing) role in the Democratic Party, so it makes sense in that respect.

As a Democrat, I’m okay with the change because South Carolina, and Black voters in general, are intensely practical. The most moderate viable candidate in the 2020 primaries, Joe Biden, is President because South Carolina’s Black voters, led by Rep. James Clyburn, rescued him. Joe Biden finished fourth in Iowa in terms of the number of delegates he received, though the process itself was a mess, another reason Democrats give for giving up on the state.

As a matter of fact, I would be eager to place the future of the Democratic Party in the hands of rank-and-file Black voters and take it out of the hands of college educated white liberals. Black voters are more in tune with general election electorates.

But as an advocate for the Midwest, I lament the move. I’m for anything that promotes the center of the country, anything that forces the coasts to pay some attention to us. Iowa, for all its faults, did that. Candidates and the trailing national media were forced to visit the state for four years (which is ridiculous in itself — campaigns are way too long).

Reliable numbers are surprisingly hard to find, but the direct economic impact in Des Moines alone, and just for the last week leading up to the caucuses in 2020, was said to be $11.3 million. I would think that if you looked at the whole four year cycle and tried to count the value of all the free publicity, the impact would have to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But what was really important was that candidates and the national media had to confront cornfields and snow. They had to consider issues that were important to Midwesterners, though I have to admit that I don’t really care about ethanol. (In fact, it’s an environmental net negative.) Still, anything that made these folks touch down anywhere between New York and Los Angeles was a good thing. Now it’s gone.

If the only thing that mattered to Democrats was winning (I confess that’s all that matters to me), then what they would have done was schedule the first primary for a cluster of Midwest states beyond Iowa — say, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. That’s because they have to win those states to win the presidency. Iowa is now a solid red state. So, a good test for any candidate would be how they perform in the Upper Midwest.

No matter. The Democratic Party is now all about identity politics, to the exclusion of any other consideration, including winning elections. And, working under those unfortunate constraints, South Carolina is probably better than Iowa to lead things off. For the party, it’s not the best thing to do, but it’s a better thing to do. For the Midwest, it’s a big loss.

Welcome to Midwest, an occasional Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s best to be in the middle? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Midwest: So Long, Iowa

  1. Seeing that the first primaries winnow out candidates, yes, the first primaries should be in the states critical to winning the overall election. Those states have been in the Upper Midwest, PA, GA. It’s like a trial run for the candidates, instead of a contest of who can be the most self-righteous. Plus, changing the order regularly only makes sense. Why should the same states always get to do the winnowing?

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  2. As a native Iowan, I’m kinda glad that the Democrats are kicking us to the curb. Iowa is not even close to being demographically representative of the rest of our country and it’s someone else’s turn to give it a shot. South Carolina is as good a choice as anyone. I only hope that our octogenarian president decides to hang it up soon so that there is a meaningful primary in ’24. By the way, thanks for choosing the logo of Iowa’s more liberal university. After all, it’s the Hawkeye, not the Cyclone, state.

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  3. Dave – I agree with you that this schedule change now relegates the Midwest to flyover status. Truth be told, the prominence that Iowa had in the process helped ensure that our country’s agriculture sector (and all of the incredibly important research associated with it) got noticed. It’s not good to have an entire region of the country bypassed in favor of the coastal and Sunbelt population centers. The country and our political process will suffer for it.

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