The Democratic National Committee has officially stripped Iowa of its first-in-the-nation spot in the presidential nominating process, potentially making it easier for candidates to avoid addressing agricultural and rural policy priorities in future elections.

The South Carolina primary will now be the first Democratic contest in the race for the party's 2024 nomination, which is set to take place on Feb. 3. New Hampshire and Nevada will follow three days later, and Georgia will vote fourth on Feb. 13.

Iowa has held the first spot on the Democratic caucus and primary calendar since 1972, drawing presidential hopefuls to the largely rural state to pitch their policy proposals. Analysts and media from outside the state would look to candidates' performances in Iowa as an indicator of how candidates would fare as they traveled through the rest of the country.

The caucus's location in an agriculture-heavy, Midwestern state spurred many of its major nominees to include regional policy issues in their campaign platforms, giving national weight to topics like ethanol. Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman worries Democratic attention may shift away from issues important to farmers and rural residents of the Midwest.

“What we lose without having a Midwest agriculture state in the caucus rotation is that connection with candidates as they're developing their policies right from the get-go,” Lehman told Agri-Pulse. “If you don't have a strong commitment to rural voters early in the nomination calendar, a lot of farm and rural issues don't get the full attention they deserve.”

The Democratic National Committee's decision to move South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Georgia to the front of the line was spurred, in part, by a push for more diversity within the nominating process. President Joe Biden called for the DNC in a December letter to “ensure” voters of color have a voice in choosing their nominee “much earlier in the process.”

“This calendar looks like the Democratic Party, and it reflects the diversity of America,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said of the new calendar in a release.

The problems Iowa Democrats had in running the caucuses in 2020 also may have factored into the party's decision. Low turnout, logistical problems and delays in counting the results were seen as a disappointment by national Democrats.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn had promised to reform how the state caucuses operate and offer more options for participation in a letter to the national party last year. He said in a press release that the new caucuses will be a simplified vote-by-mail process to increase accessibility and derided seeing a “characterization of the caucuses that does not reflect the historic reforms we proposed.”

Aaron_Lehman_IFU.jpgAaron Lehman, Iowa Farmers Union

Lehman said the Iowa caucus date previously encouraged candidates to have face-to-face interactions with Iowans. He feels the state will instead become a quick campaign stop in the future, with candidates attempting to win through quick speeches and radio and television ads.

“The candidates put a lot of thought into it, they put a lot of research into it, and that doesn't even begin to touch on just the face-to-face experience that the candidates had with Iowans,” he said. “Those qualities are lost in the nomination process if we do not prioritize a Midwest farm state like Iowa.”

One unanswered question for Iowa is the impact of a state law that requires caucuses to be held “not later than the fourth Monday of February of each even-numbered year” and at least eight days earlier than other states.

University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle told Agri-Pulse that there may be ways for the state's Democratic party to work around the law. The Iowa Democratic Party could, for example, still elect delegates to the county conventions and do other party business on the day of the caucus. They could potentially arrange for mail-in ballots for presidential candidate selection to be completed at a later date, as long as they held the official “caucus” beforehand.

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“Our law says that we have to have the caucuses, but the way the law is written does not require any kind of presidential preference poll,” Hagle said. “As long as Iowa Democrats do the party business on the approved caucus day, they satisfy state law.”

Iowa will still continue to be first on the Republican party's caucus calendar, which means Republican candidates could continue to campaign in the state.

Hagle calls Iowa a “purple state” due to a large number of independent voters. Results from the 2020 primaries, however, showed pluralities within smaller, rural counties who voted Republican, he said.

Hagle said the caucuses were previously one way that Democrats were able to reach some of the Iowans in those areas, and their removal could hinder future efforts to reach these voters.

“I think its gonna hurt them (the Democratic Party) in the long run, in terms of party building,” Hagle said.

Ron Rossman, an Iowa organic farmer who has hosted visits from John Edwards and Elizabeth Warren in previous election cycles, said national Democrats have “chosen to largely abandon rural America.” 

“That's already been happening for quite a while, but this is another nail in the coffin,” he told Agri-Pulse.

Monte Shaw, the director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, called the Democratic caucuses an “important tool” for the agricultural industry to connect with lawmakers about policy issues, but said their loss “is not the end of the world.” While Shaw is glad that Republicans chose to keep the Iowa caucus first, he said farmers and the biofuel industry will have to work harder to reach Democrats.

“I hope that the Democrats can find a way to keep Iowa in a prominent role, if not this time, then certainly in four years,” Shaw said. “It's a long time until then. Different people will be in charge of the calendar then.”

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