RIP Iowa Caucuses
Plus, an interview with Julián Castro
This week’s newsletter is about the history and the legacy of the Iowa caucuses. For the story, I spoke with Julián Castro. Paid subscribers can listen to the whole interview below.
Iowa became the first in the nation in the presidential nominating process entirely by accident. But last week, that status was quite purposefully taken away.
Before 1968, Iowa held its presidential caucus in the middle of the nominating cycle. And which state went first wasn’t really considered important.
But all of that changed after the Democratic National Convention of 1968. The convention was held in Chicago in August that year at the International Amphitheater. The war in Vietnam was in its 13th year and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April. The nation was blistering with dissent, grief, and rage. President Lyndon B. Johnson had been re-elected with an overwhelming majority, but his support of Vietnam had enraged Americans. And Johnson could read the room and had announced he would not seek re-election. But by stepping down, Johnson left a power vacuum into which poured all the fear, anger, and outrage of the nation.
Into this churning void stepped South Dakota Senator George McGovern. Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s bid for the presidency was backed by Johnson. Eugene McCarthy, a milquetoast Minnesota senator, had won New Hampshire’s delegates. Robert F. Kennedy had also announced his candidacy, but he was assassinated on June 4 after winning the California primary.
The face-off at the convention was brutal and bitter. Anti-war protestors called the Yippies, frustrated with the hawkish establishment candidates, nominated a pig who they called Pigasus.
A week before the convention, protestors filled Chicago’s Lincoln Park. They had prepared for pushback, but they didn’t expect the full brutality of the Chicago Police Department. Directed by Mayor Richard Daley, the protestors were beaten and hosed. For four days, police battered the protestors, many of whom were students who had been radicalized by the violence of the Vietnam War.
The convention itself was also chaotic, hampered by anti-war protests. Daley responded by calling in the National Guard. And the chaos was televised.
Americans watching the brutality learned to be afraid, not of the police, but of the anarchy of the younger generation, the one protesting the war and pushing for civil rights. That fall, Americans would elect Richard Nixon.
And the Democrats would look at the aftermath and try to clean it up with rules and procedures. The bureaucratic answer to law and order. And with those reforms came a revamping of the presidential nomination process, one that would offer more transparency and accountability.
Given the new load of paperwork required, Iowa political leaders realized they’d need more time to make copies. Working with only a mimeograph machine, they pushed their caucuses to the spring, hoping that would give them time to process all the information.
And honestly, then, no one cared who went first. It was all procedural.
But it was a New York Times journalist, R.W. Apple, known as Johnny Apple, who made the caucuses what they would become. Apple was that kind of newspaperman who existed only in a certain era. His own paper described him as having “Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites.” Meaning he was a curmudgeonly, cigar-chomping man who bent the rules. In search of a story, Apple went to Iowa looking to break the story of who would be the presidential nominee. It’s cliché now, but then, Apple took the time to interview people in diners, and he learned the mind-numbing intricacies of the caucus process. Apple even set up a phone tree with local party leaders so he could call the results first. And this was how Apple was able to report in 1976 that a little-known peanut farmer from Georgia just might have a chance.
I think about how this myth of Iowa was made. Was Carter able to make it because of shaking hands in Iowa, or was it Apple’s coverage? Would Carter have won if Apple hadn’t reported that he could have? After all, if it’s in the New York Times, then it has to be real? Right? Or was Carter always going to win because Iowa was the place that made politicians grovel and grouse for a vote? Does the story make the writer or does the writer make the story?
In an interview on C-SPAN, Carter recalled how Apple made Iowa Iowa. “It was not until Johnny Apple, New York Times, went out in the countryside in Iowa and talked to people—you know, teachers and policemen and I guess bartenders and others. And he sized up what we already knew about Iowa and wrote a headline in the New York Times…that I might come in first.” Other reporters, Carter said, “were lookin’ at me as comin’ in fifth or sixth, because they very seldom got out of Des Moines.”1
In 1980, the Republicans got in the game.
It wasn’t just Carter who made his name in Iowa. It was Apple too. The caucuses became just as much a media circus as they were a political one. And at some point, there was no difference between the two. So many reporters have come through Iowa, made their names covering the caucuses, and then left. So many politicians too. The caucuses became a symbiosis of sound and fury, all signifying the myth we love to tell about America, the fields, the farms, the rural white people. Americans loved the story of ourselves that we told every caucus cycle and reporters love to repeat it, even when that story became more fiction than fact.
But in 2020, the myth of the caucuses fell apart. Julián Castro was one of the first people to say it out loud. The former mayor of San Antonio and the youngest member of President Obama’s staff, Castro suggested in November of 2019 that more diverse states should go first in the nominating process. He made his comments on MSNBC. He told me in an interview that he hadn’t intended on criticizing the caucuses, but he was asked and so he answered.
While he enjoyed his time in Iowa and thought the retail politics were a huge bonus, it seemed undemocratic to have so few people have such a large impact on who gets to be president.
Political leaders in Iowa responded by circling the wagon and defending the myth of the caucuses. That they were a place where retail politics prevailed. “Those who put in the work of true retail politics — answering tough questions from educated voters, showing up at local events and making themselves available to average Americans — can and will do well,” wrote then Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price and Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann in a joint editorial.
But that wasn’t true. Not exactly. And it was being born out on the ground. A diverse field of candidates were having a hard time finding a foothold among the largely white voters of the state.
The caucuses became a symbiosis of sound and fury, all signifying the myth we love to tell about America, the fields, the farms, the rural white people. Americans loved the story of ourselves that we told every caucus cycle and reporters love to repeat it, even when that story became more fiction than fact.
There were other warning signs too. Kate Payne at Iowa Public Radio reported on early problems with the app. I took the online caucus training and was concerned that the changes to the caucus process were going to turn the confusing mess of the caucus into more of a confusing mess. I wrote about it in a piece subtly titled “The Iowa Caucuses are Going to be a F*cking Nightmare.” I wrote about accessibility issues and so did many other people. The caucuses require an in-person commitment for several hours. And despite the media circus, very few Iowans actually participate. In 2020, only 176,569 of Iowa’s 613,899 registered Democrats attended. Writing in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, retired journalism professor Dick Haws noted2, “Never have so few been so wooed by so many for so long.”
I remember the lead-up to the caucuses, and I felt like I was being gaslit. I was in meetings where I raised concerns about the app and the caucus math and was told it would be OK. I remember phone calls with national journalists where I warned about the problems — an untested app with complicated instructions, being handed to people in rural areas where cell phone and wifi coverage was spotty at best, and the backup was a math equation so complicated that I, who had taken the caucus leader training twice, didn’t understand it.
But the party continued to hold the line. It was fine and things were fine and would be fine. Some journalists held this line too.
But it wasn’t fine. It was famously not fine at all.
It was a complete disaster.
But the net result was that the party needed to reform the process. Reform is hard when there are so many people who benefit from a broken system. And so many complicated rules and outsize egos are involved. For example, one of the reasons that the caucuses couldn’t move to a primary was because New Hampshire holds the first Democratic primary in the nation and would have been very put out if Iowa jumped ahead. Additionally, Iowa has a whole economy around the caucuses, hotels, media outlets, special interest groups, and even local party leaders benefit from the quadrennial corn orgy.
Even though very few Iowans participated, so many people benefitted. Local business owners were wooed by people in power. County supervisors pulled away from the drudgery of deciding who has to pay for flood mitigation and whisked away in a limo to speak in front of large crowds. A local journalist, now on CNN, asked for their insight on the electorate of Pottawatomie County. But in the end, the fact that so few people had such an outsize impact on who gets to be the party’s nominee didn’t seem fair. Iowa doesn’t have a monopoly on retail politics. And we shouldn’t have a monopoly on the presidency.
Last week, the National Democratic Party put forward plans to have South Carolina go first. Iowa Democrats put out a petulant statement saying they’d still hold their caucus first, but it will be hard to hold that line and not look like children who’ve been denied yet another cookie when other children haven’t even had one yet.
The Republicans will still have Iowa as the first in the nation for their primary (Republicans hold an in-person primary rather than a caucus). But part of the power of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status was that both parties held their events on the same night. The balance of power has shifted, and everything has changed. But how that change manifests and how that narrative develops, remains to be seen.
Party leaders have warned of dire consequences. Media outlets could dry up. Money and party infrastructure, gone. And yes, maybe for a time. But other states have built thriving organizations and media outlets without them. And maybe having an economy and a political system built on a cycle where people come to make their fortune (political or otherwise) and leave was never a good system anyway. Maybe it’s time to build something more sustainable.
I spoke with Julián Castro about the caucuses. His time campaigning in Iowa and what he hopes the changes will bring.
Paid subscribers can listen to the full audio of our conversation here.
But ultimately, Castro is excited about the changes and hopes it brings a more Democratic process, stating, “My hope is that the Democratic primary calendar, presidential primary calendar, and the rules surrounding it will reflect our values as Democrats. As a party that values as much voter engagement and participation as possible, that reflects the diversity of our party and our country, and also puts the eventual nominee in a good position to win the general election.”
I recall a guest column that was sent to the newspaper where I worked on what was now the final night of the Iowa caucuses as we know them. I was sitting in the newsroom at 1 am, waiting to do a cable news hit, but the MSNBC host eventually bumped me in favor of a more prominent journalist who lived in DC.
While I waited, I read a column from Tim Carty, a resident of Iowa City, who had apparently written the column in frustration watching the news cover the caucus failure. The column was titled, “An Open Letter from an Iowan Who Only Had One Job.” The piece was quickly published ( I think by me? But I don’t remember). The column addressed reports of delays and inconsistencies in the voting results. Carty was seething. “Once the caucus is over, we’re out of the headlines,” he wrote. “Gone. Out of sight. Out of mind. Once every four years the world shines a harsh spotlight on Iowa, expecting immediate perfection and pointing out all the ways we don’t measure up. You mock us for our flaws, our lack of diversity, our folksy kindness and humility. Then you demand flawlessness. That’s. Not. Fair.” That month, Carty’s column was one of the most-read stories on the Gazette website. People in Iowa were grateful; their exasperation had been expressed.
I know whatever comes next won’t be perfect. Each new state will present its own problems and biases. But my hope is that this change forces us to tell new stories about the heart of America, stories that are more inclusive and complex and varied and true.
In 2020, I wrote an in-depth analysis of the caucuses for the Columbia Journalism Review and what it’s like to live here and be written about every four years. I wanted to title that piece “corn humping” per a jokemade to me once. But for some reason, they didn't go for it.
In 2021, Buzzfeed had a deep dive into the disaster of the caucuses. I think it’s very thorough and good, but it doesn’t get to a lot of the early reporting that warned of the issues. (That’s not a criticism of the piece, not every story can do everything.) For another good rundown of the caucuses, listen to Caucus Land by Iowa Public Radio, which is also thorough and good and done by reporters who broke a lot of the 2020 caucus stories. I also liked this run-down from Iowa Starting Line. I disagree some aspects of it. I don’t think the caucuses brought in new activists because people would come and then immediately leave again. And Rynard also argues the caucuses brought national investments. But if those investments were worth anything, the Iowa Democrats would be the most organized state-level party in the nation. And they are not. Sorry, but let’s be honest here. This is just my opinion. But I’ve heard party leaders whisper the same.
And here is a piece from the NYT from 2020 that is a good rundown of the caucuses and the issues that were at play.
And for some flashbacks, here are two pieces I wrote about the caucuses: One before the disaster and one after. And for full transparency, I did write a piece after the caucuses that argued the caucuses would never be taken away because the Democrats can’t reform. I was wrong. And thank the lord.
Correction: An earlier version of this email stated it was Ronald Reagan who was elected in 1968. It was Nixon. My apologies. It's hard to tell crooks apart sometimes.