Under Fire Again, Will Iowa Caucuses Remain First?

By Scott Conroy - May 23, 2013

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Rubio first demonstrated his early commitment to Iowa when he attended a birthday fundraiser for Branstad in Altoona just days after the 2012 election.

More recently, the freshman senator successfully pushed through the Florida state legislature an effort to move that state’s primary back to March after it had upended the calendar in each of the last two presidential elections by scheduling January voting dates.

Rubio’s stance in this regard marked a noticeable reversal from his 2006 and 2007 position, when he was speaker of the Florida House, to schedule his home state’s primary early in defiance of RNC and DNC rules.

While a cynic (or even a realist) might smell opportunism in Rubio’s recent deference to Iowa, Republican leaders in the state have already taken notice of his implied act of reverence for the caucuses.

“I think it was very wise for Sen. Rubio, if he decides to run for president, to take that issue off the table here in Iowa,” said former state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn. “Because you know how irritated your rank-and-file county chair activists were with Florida in the last two cycles, not with just the pride of Iowa being first, but also there’s a very practical impact in not being able to set our date until after Thanksgiving. It’s something he would’ve been asked about everywhere he went here.”

Olson, the Iowa Democratic chairman, put it even more bluntly: “I won’t vote for Marco Rubio, but I might thank him if I see him.”

RNC Playing Ball

While the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties will set the date of the 2016 caucuses, proposed rules changes in the Republican National Committee over the next year have the potential to upend the nominating process.

In its “autopsy report” released earlier this year, the RNC-affiliated authors urged the party to “strongly consider” a regional primary system for 46 states.

But, providing a sigh of relief for interested parties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the report urged that these four “carve-out” states be allowed to continue voting before everyone else.

The RNC plans to flesh out these initial recommendations through the creation of a subcommittee -- the members of which will be chosen by Arizona Committeeman Bruce Ash, who chairs the RNC’s Standing Committee on Rules -- which will meet several times over the next year before delivering its recommendations to the RNC Rules Committee.

Committee members will then vote on implementation of the recommendations, which could affect the caucuses, during the RNC’s 2014 summer meeting.

In an interview with RCP on Tuesday, RNC General Counsel John Ryder declined to prejudge the outcome of this process. But while he acknowledged that there has long been “a certain level of discontent” toward the carve-out states in general, and Iowa in particular, Ryder was quick to acknowledge the reasons why they have been allowed to retain their advantageous positions.

“We’re well aware of the winnowing out process that is performed very ably by Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “The goal is not to please any particular segment of the electorate but rather to adopt a process that gives us the best chance of having a successful nominee.”

According to the Republican Party’s own statutes, RNC rules take precedence over state party rules and state laws. But that fact has not stopped states from ignoring RNC rules in the past.

Even if either national party did attempt to alter Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties almost certainly would move to jump ahead of any other state that attempted to undo the existing system, daring the national parties to punish them in the months leading up to the conventions.

But a nuclear option of that kind is highly unlikely. The RNC, in particular, has appeared to accept Iowa’s special status and is working to improve the caucuses rather than moving to eliminate them.

The Case for Iowa

At its spring meeting last year, the RNC adopted new rules that would require caucus states like Iowa either to make the results binding for delegates at the convention or to transition to a primary system.

While the binding delegates proposal may largely be contingent on what happens with the state party leadership (Spiker’s term is up in January 2015), the idea of an Iowa primary appears to be a non-starter.

The most glaring reason for that is the New Hampshire law that requires the Granite State to hold the nation’s first primary and Iowa’s longstanding commitment to work alongside its early-state partner in the East to preserve their traditional statuses.

New Hampshire’s proud secretary of state, Bill Gardner, who has held that key position since 1976, would be more likely to move to Vermont than to give up the nation’s first primary, and everyone in Iowa knows it.

Depending on what happens at the national and statewide level over the next couple of years, some of the hoopla surrounding the caucuses may be diminished or altered, but there is little doubt that Iowans will once again have the unique opportunity to make their voices heard first when the nation starts lining up to choose its next leader.

As the Republican Party enters its first presidential cycle in memory without anyone who can lay claim to the “next-in-line” title, Iowa likely will pose a challenge to any early front-runner with the money, stature, and national support to earn that title.

And, once again, it will offer an opportunity for the little guys like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who won the last two GOP caucuses but ultimately fell well short of making it to the convention.

“In some areas of Iowa, a big event is 20 people,” said Matt Beynon, who was a spokesperson for Santorum during his unlikely 2012 victory. “You saw the candidates who can talk to voters, relate to voters, think on their feet, and have a grasp of the policy issues do a lot better in the process. If the primary process were just about money, it would’ve been Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney.” 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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