Jan 10, 2024 - Politics & Policy

After historic gaffes, Iowa caucuses struggle to stay relevant

A photo of a woman holding an Iowa caucus sign.

Guests listen to an opening prayer at a campaign event hosted by former President Trump in Coralville last month. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Few expect surprises from this year's Iowa caucuses, which are the first in decades without in-person Democratic participation, and which former President Trump appears to be dominating.

Why it matters: While the 50-year-old event has historically skyrocketed lesser-known candidates to a national foothold, there are strong signals that the state's first-in-the-nation process has been forever diluted, Iowa political scientists tell Axios.

Reality check: This year's caucuses do remain nationally relevant for one reason: the order in which the non-Trump GOP candidates place behind the former president, potentially signaling a campaign deathblow for those who fall short.

Flashback: Both parties have experienced embarrassing historic fumbles during Iowa's "accident of history" caucuses.

  • Mitt Romney was initially named the Iowa GOP winner in 2012 until re-canvassing showed Rick Santorum had won 34 more votes.
  • Technical glitches for weeks left no clear winner in the 2020 Democratic caucuses, leaving Pete Buttigieg unable to fully capitalize on his victory.

What they did: The Democratic National Committee removed Iowa from its early contests last year at President Biden's request, also amid criticism about the diversity of the Iowa electorate. Biden placed fourth in the 2020 caucuses and fifth in 2008.

  • Iowa Democrats are using mail-in ballots this year and won't release results until Super Tuesday.

Be smart: Iowa has been growing redder. In 2022 the GOP swept its congressional seats and most statewide offices.

And the first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses are unlikely to return, political analyst Charlie Cook and political science professors Kedron Bardwell at Simpson College and David Peterson at ISU told Axios.

  • "That's one we'll never get back," Bardwell said.

Threat level: While Iowa Republicans have vowed to retain their first caucus status, Gov. Kim Reynolds' recent presidential endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could mean a new threat, Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, tells Axios.

  • Trump, who was defeated by Ted Cruz in the 2016 caucuses, could advocate for a nominating shakeup, and his voice could be especially influential if he's reelected in November, Hagle said.
  • "You never know what's going to happen. We saw what the Democrats did when Biden wasn't happy with Iowa."

The bottom line: With just one party participating in the previously-unmissable Iowa caucuses, their influence appears to have been permanently diminished.

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