Is 2020 the Last Year That Iowa Will Go First?

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Troy Price, the head of the Iowa Democratic Party, said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that it’s a conversation that happens every four years: Does Iowa deserve to hold the first presidential nominating contest?

This time, though, the critique comes after a stunning crackup of the state’s prized caucuses.

Democratic officials who have long contended that Iowa is unrepresentative of voters nationally seized on the chaos of Monday night — partial results were not reported until late Tuesday afternoon — to argue that the state should not hold pride of place, reviving the criticism that its older, majority white population distorts Democrats’ vision of themselves as young and diverse.

In Iowa, party leaders grimly contemplated the end of a four-decade run in the national spotlight with a borderline gallows humor.

“It almost gets to the point of three strikes you’re out,” said Bret Nilles, the Democratic chairman of Linn County, whose population is second biggest in the state, referring to a bipartisan history of earlier caucus blunders in 2016 and 2012.

The collapse of Democrats’ ability to report the results in a timely way, at what was meant to be the kickoff of a momentous drive to defeat President Trump, left the party open to Republican taunts that Democrats were hopelessly disorganized, unable to mount a credible challenge to the president or to govern.

“It’s not the fault of Iowa, it is the Do-Nothing Democrats fault,” Mr. Trump tweeted, while in the next sentence he defended Iowa going first. For Republicans, the state’s 90 percent white population with many evangelical Christians embodies the party base.

Leah D. Daughtry, a member of the Democratic National Committee, which sets the rules for the party’s nominating contests, said the chaos would move more fellow committee members “to get on the bandwagon” to change the system.

“As my Momma said, there’s a good reason and the real reason,” Ms. Daughtry said. “The good reason is it was a debacle last night, but the real reason is Iowa is just not representative of what the country has become and of the Democrats as a big-tent party.”

While it is now open season on Iowa in the wake of Monday night’s tabulation disaster, any decisions on replacing the state at the front of the D.N.C.’s presidential nominating calendar won’t be made for several years.

Rules for the party’s 2024 primary aren’t likely to be set until 2022, when there will be a new party leader and after scores of D.N.C. members have faced their own re-election bids at home.

The existing D.N.C. rules, which for the first time required Iowa to record and report its raw vote totals for the initial and second alignments, were enacted in August 2018 at the behest of Bernie Sanders supporters.

The party chairman, Tom Perez, helped lobby D.N.C. members for months for reforms, which included convincing states that held caucuses to flip to primaries. Several, including Washington, Nebraska and Colorado, did so.

States like Iowa that still choose to hold caucuses are required to report raw vote totals and create a paper ballot backup system. The intent was to make the process more transparent after Sanders supporters questioned the 2016 Iowa results, in which the Vermont senator finished less than a percentage point behind Hillary Clinton.

“Iowa in 2016 escaped this same fate solely because there were no numbers released with headcount and realignment,” said Larry Cohen, a Sanders confidant who helped write this year’s presidential nominating rules. “There were huge irregularities with disparities between headcounts done in the rooms and delegates awarded.”

Aides to Mr. Perez declined to make him available for an interview about Iowa’s delayed caucus results. He did not respond to text messages or return phone calls.

Besides drawing a harsh light, once again, to Iowa’s lack of diversity, the collapse of the state party’s reporting system also highlighted how caucuses could be less democratic.

A caucus system “limits and restricts opportunities for people to vote,” Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois complained, effectively disenfranchising poor and working people who do not have time to attend.

He suggested that caucuses be abandoned and that Democrats revamp their nominating process.

“As I watched that on television last night, I thought to myself, How many folks at the end of a workday, picking kids up from day care are likely to show up at the caucus? Not many,” said Mr. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman, expressed sympathy for Iowa Democratic officials working with an unwieldy and new system for reporting results, though he criticized Iowa’s head-of-the-line status on other grounds.

“Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire as the starting-off states are very representative,” Mr. Hinojosa said. “It puts a lot of candidates, particularly candidates of color, at a disadvantage at the early stages in terms of meeting some of the requirements to participate in the debates, which kind of creates almost an impossible situation for them.”

Reacting overnight to the breakdown of reporting results, Kurt Meyer, the party chairman for Mitchell County in northeast Iowa, said gloomily in a text message: “Unforgivable … unbelievable … and undoubtedly fatal to FITN,” using the shorthand for “first in the nation.’’

Other Democrats in the state and nationally came to Iowa’s defense. A longtime member of the party’s national committee, Bob Mulholland, a California political activist, said he had received several emails on Tuesday from fellow committee members asking “Should Iowa remain first?”

Mr. Mulholland’s response: Absolutely. He said a majority of committee members favored Iowa — and New Hampshire — remaining at the front of the nominating parade. “I see a lot of people beating up on Iowa,” he said, adding that “the Challenger exploded in minutes but we kept up the space program.”

There is also the question of, if not Iowa, then who goes first?

“It’s time to open up our process to a basket of states that is representative of the party and the country,” said Terry McAuliffe, who has served as Democratic National Committee chairman and Virginia’s governor.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, who was one of the Democratic Party’s leading donors before his 2018 election, had a more concrete proposal.

“Illinois has all the best features of America, with its urban, suburban and rural regions, tremendous demographic diversity,” Mr. Pritzker said Tuesday. “I look forward to working with other elected officials and the party to change the calendar so that Illinois’s primary comes first in the nominating process in the 2024 presidential election.”

There is no question that many voters around the country, and the Democratic Party’s activist base, resent Iowa’s role. Reactions on social media were brutal.

But changing the current system, which dates to the 1970s, is more difficult than some might imagine. A Democratic president whose rise began in Iowa — Barack Obama was the most recent — would have no appetite for dinging the state where it all began.

Christopher Reeves, a national committee member from Kansas, who favors rotating the first nominating contests among states, said that although some agreed with him, many members of the committee were nostalgic for a political era before social media nationalized campaigns. “There is a larger older group of members within the D.N.C. who are committed to retain what they think of as the majesty of the Iowa caucus,” he said.

Democrats’ Iowa problem is also tied to a New Hampshire dilemma. New Hampshire state law enshrines that it will hold the first presidential primary. So calls to switch Iowa to a primary — far less prone to reporting glitches — run afoul of New Hampshire’s insistence on going first. Ms. Daughtry, who was chief of staff to Howard Dean, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, recalled New Hampshire’s secretary of state threatening to schedule its primary on Thanksgiving if necessary.

“Until there’s a will within the party to say to Iowa and New Hampshire, ‘you can go early but if you do, you won’t have delegates,’” nothing will change, Ms. Daughtry said. “You’ve got to have the will to say that and the backbone to make it stick.”

Donna Brazile, a former chairwoman of the national party and a member of the rules committee that makes such choices, said it was premature to discuss the next nominating race in 2024.

“Iowa has a special place in my heart and I cannot simply call for abandoning the process until I know more,” she said. “One day at a time.”

Trip Gabriel reported from Dubuque, and Reid J. Epstein from Chicago and Washington. Jonathan Martin and contributed reporting from Washington.

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