Iowa Democrats Question Their Identity Without First-in-the-Nation Caucuses

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Every four years since 1972, Iowa has stolen the national spotlight as presidential aspirants infiltrated its coffee houses, parades, living rooms, high school gyms, community centers and the pork-grilling pavilion at the state fair.

But after 50 years of being politically first-in-line — the site of caucuses that have been the Democrats’ initial contest on the presidential nominating calendar — one of the most idiosyncratic and consequential pageants in American elections has come to its likely end.

Democratic Party officials are preparing to make South Carolina the first nominating state of 2024, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire, Georgia and then Michigan, in a radical shake-up announced Thursday. The move, backed by President Biden, was aimed at giving voters of color a more powerful voice in the party’s presidential process.

Iowa’s dethronement, which was not unexpected, has inspired a rush of emotions in the state — mourning, regret, nostalgia, reflections on Democrats’ weakening grip on the Midwest and a kind of who-are-we-now bit of soul searching.

“We’ve always joked, If Iowa doesn’t have the caucuses, are we Nebraska?” said Mike Draper, the owner of Ray Gun, a quirky T-shirt store in Des Moines frequently visited by candidates and their staffs. His description of the caucuses was not quite political, yet fairly apt: “It’s like the dork Olympics.”

“Every four years, it really is one of the most exciting things,” he added. “You so rarely see Iowa on the news. It’s surreal to be here, where nobody ever notices.”

A T-shirt in the store read “Just Trying to Get Some Ranch,” a deep inside-Iowa political reference to a viral video of a young woman who in 2019 pushed past Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York campaigning in an Iowa bar, all in pursuit of salad dressing. Mr. Draper said the store paid the young woman “licensing checks every quarter” for years.

The caucuses are what started Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama on their roads to the White House, and where generations of party operatives and political journalists cut their teeth as a state that ranked no more than 30th in population became, for a time, the center of the political and news universe. That era’s seeming demise came as an increasingly diverse party, prodded by Mr. Biden, sought a kickoff state more representative than nearly all-white Iowa, and as Iowa has plunged off the map of general-election battlegrounds.

“I love Iowa, but like all great love affairs it is very complicated,” said Lis Smith, who was senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg, whose razor-thin victory in the 2020 caucuses was not announced for nearly a week, after a chaotic counting snafu that helped taint Iowa in the hearts of many national Democrats.

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Democratic activists in Iowa, including county chairs whose counterparts in other states live quiet, anonymous lives, were already regretting the loss of all that future attention.

“It is amazing, out of the blue I’ll get calls from Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren,” Bret Nilles, the Democratic chairman of Linn County, said, remembering the 2020 cycle. “In 2018, the day after the election, I got a call from Eric Swalwell,” he said, referring to the liberal California congressman who briefly explored a presidential run. “He just wanted to say hello and say he might be in Iowa.”

Ordinary Iowa voters also basked in the attention of presidential hopefuls, whose long and frequent sojourns in a largely rural state led to an intense style of retail politics, one with no real equivalent elsewhere in America.

Ms. Smith, who also worked for the 2016 presidential campaign of Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, said campaigning in Iowa was “a truly magical special thing,” with candidates who may be powerful governors, senators or billionaires brought face-to-face for hours with average citizens.

“At a morning event, they’ll ask about your 10-point rural policy plan,” she said. “At lunch they’ll grill you about mass incarceration. In the evening you get grilled about the war in Yemen.”

“It’s a process that has been good for American politics,” she added, “but also really good for American politicians.”

Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, whose 2020 presidential campaign contested the caucus results that put him in second place, said he supported making the more diverse Michigan the first Midwestern state to vote in the primary calendar. But he said there was a reason Iowans took the responsibility to weigh candidates so seriously.

“It has to do with them being in the front of the line for so long,” Mr. Weaver said. “It became part of the culture.”

Iowa’s caucuses provided some of the most indelible moments in American electoral history.

In 2004, Howard Dean’s surprise defeat in the Democratic contest elicited a defiant cry, the “Dean scream,” which became perhaps the first viral meme in U.S. politics. Describing the importance of his 1980 victory in the Republican caucus, George H.W. Bush drew from sports to invoke the “Big Mo” that Iowa imparted, now a campaign truism. In 1976, a victory in Iowa transformed a little-known former governor of Georgia from “Jimmy Who?” to the overnight party front-runner, and eventually led to Mr. Carter’s election.

Caucus defenders in Iowa have argued with the Democratic National Committee ahead of the reshuffling of the nominating calendar that while Iowa may lack racial diversity, its rural voters are a key constituency in the party’s coalition. To retreat from Iowa, their argument went, was to abandon a part of the middle of America dominated by white voters without college degrees, whom Democrats need to win back.

“If there are people who want to retreat because they haven’t had success or because there hasn’t been recent success in a state, then how do we continue to improve our ability to win everywhere?” Rob Sand, the Iowa state auditor, said.

Mr. Sand was the sole Democrat to survive in statewide and federal elections in last month’s midterms. Democrats lost their last member of Congress from Iowa, Representative Cindy Axne. Tom Miller, a Democrat who has served nearly 40 years as the state attorney general and seemed invincible, was also defeated.

As recently as 2014, Iowa was represented by Senator Tom Harkin, a progressive stalwart who introduced the Americans With Disabilities Act. The state twice voted for Mr. Obama. Yet it lurched more forcefully to the right than any other U.S. state. Thirty-one counties that voted for Mr. Obama in 2012 pivoted to Donald J. Trump in 2016. Mr. Biden failed to win back any of them in 2020.

Explanations for the partisan reversal run the gamut from the economic distress of lost industrial jobs, to latent biases Mr. Trump enabled, to a broad malaise in rural areas that have been hollowed out by young people’s leaving.

“The Democratic national message really isn’t resonating in those counties,” said Mr. Nilles, the party chairman of Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids, the state’s second-largest city.

In Des Moines, the area around Drake University has been a hotbed of Democratic political activity for years. The campus was the site of nationally televised Democratic debates on the eve of recent caucuses. The nearby neighborhood of Beaverdale was such an organizing powerhouse it was known as Obamadale.

And because every Iowa political story must feature a diner, this one will end at the Drake Diner.

The Drake has long been a favorite handshaking stop for candidates, as well as a meet-up spot for operatives and reporters, who traded gossip over chicken-fried steak and eggs beneath a band of red neon and a clock that urged, naïvely perhaps, “Don’t Worry.”

At lunch hour on Thursday, years of political memories hovered over the booths and the counter.

Kate Small, a longtime server, said that after Hillary Clinton dropped by in 2008, a photograph of her and Mrs. Clinton ran in The Washington Post. Scott Ford, a retired seed salesman and lunchtime patron, said he attended the state’s first Democratic caucuses in 1972 as a Vietnam veteran. When the nominee, George McGovern, ran on amnesty for draft evaders, Mr. Ford crossed the aisle to become a Republican.

Tyger Nieters said Mr. Obama had dinner at the home of one of his father’s clients. “It’s a very cool thing that makes us special,” Mr. Nieters said of the caucuses.

Mr. Nieters is a registered Republican, whose party plans to keep the Iowa 2024 caucuses the first in the nation. But he, too, declared himself “very upset” by the Democrats’ move to leave the state.

“You know everyone’s watching Iowa at that point,” Mr. Nieters, who runs a youth soccer program, said of the caucuses. “We feel like we’re actually having an opinion in this giant nation.”

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