DES MOINES, Iowa — The Hy-Vee Hall ballroom in Des Moines erupted in cheers in 2008 when the youthful Illinois senator hinted at the improbable possibility of the feat ahead: “Our time for change has come!”
That Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, would propel Barack Obama’s rise to become America’s first Black president seemed to ratify its first-in-the-nation position in the presidential nominating process.
But in the half-century arc of the state’s quirky caucuses, Obama’s victory proved to be an outlier. All other Democratic winners turned out to be also-rans.
The caucuses and their outsize importance were largely an exercise in myth-making, that candidates could earn a path to the White House by meeting voters in person where they live, and earnest, civic-minded Midwesterners would brave the winter cold to stand sometimes for hours to discuss issues and literally stand for their candidate.
As the caucuses have played out, the flaws have become glaring. First among them: The state’s Democrats botched the count in 2020, leaving an embarrassing muddle. But there were more. Since 2008, the state’s political makeup has changed dramatically, from a reliable swing state to solidly Republican. And with the Democratic Party increasingly becoming a party of diversity, Iowa’s lack of it left the state without much of a rationale for leading the way.
“We’ve been headed this way for a while,” said Joe Trippi, who managed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s winning Iowa campaign in 1988, adding “2020 broke the camel’s back.”
The Democratic National Committee’s rulemaking arm voted Friday to remove Iowa as the leadoff state in the presidential nominating order and replace it with South Carolina starting in 2024, a dramatic shakeup championed by President Joe Biden to better reflect the party’s deeply diverse electorate.
The caucuses were once a novel effort to expand local participation in national party decision-making, but this vestige of 19th century Midwestern civic engagement has simply been been unable to keep pace with the demands of 21st century national politics.
“The times have changed and maybe it’s time for this nominating process to change,” said Emily Parcell, Obama’s 2008 Iowa political director.
To much of the nation, the caucuses were a quadrennial curiosity, seen in TV shots framed by snowy cornfields, with a reminder piece the summer before featuring candidates awkwardly sampling the Iowa State Fair’s menu of fried food or gazing at a life-sized cow carved from butter.
The seeds of the myth were etched into the national narrative in the 1970s by a cadre of political writers, mostly from Washington, who tracked Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Arizona’s Mo Udall, Idaho’s Frank Church and an obscure governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, to cafes, VFW halls and living rooms.
Their stories offered a sheen of quaint civic responsibility, citizens meeting candidates, often several times, and a willingness to brave a bone-chilling winter night for them.
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Despite the lore, Carter did not actually win Iowa. He received more votes than his rivals, but more participants chose “uncommitted.” The early votes weren’t even binding and were actually just the first step in a national delegate selection process ultimately determined at the state convention months later.
Having a contest where rules allowed for no winner was an early sign the arcane process would one day become a key point in the argument against keeping Iowa first.
But in 1976, the legend was born. An outsider could generate momentum heading into the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary election.
Richard Bender, an architect of Iowa’s caucuses, never expected his work to become a national spectacle.
“We knew this was a story. And we knew it was first, and that was fun,” said Bender. “But we didn’t realize when we did it that this was going to be huge. In a sense, it was an accident.”
The caucuses are not elections, but rather party-run events, conducted by local Democratic officials and volunteers, a concept that has long bedeviled outsiders.
Like Iowa’s Republican Party caucuses, which remain…