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DNC Rejection of Virtual Iowa Caucus Stirs Questions About N.H. Primary Status

The Democratic National Committee has been putting pressure on the state of Iowa to make their caucus more accessible to voters.

This led Iowa officials to roll out a plan for a new virtual caucus. But the DNC confirmed last week it would reject the plan.

With changes to the Iowa caucus on the horizon, there are fears surrounding New Hampshire’s reaction, given the Granite State’s history of fiercely protecting its first-in-the-nation primary status.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Rachel Stassen-Berger, politics editor for the Des Moines Register, about how this might affect New Hampshire.


(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

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Rachel, can you start by explaining why Iowa came up with the new caucus plan in the first place?

Absolutely. As you mentioned, the DNC said to Iowa and other caucus states that, frankly, the caucuses by themselves are not accessible enough. You know, you have to be at a specific place at a specific time, on a specific night. And there are people who can't make those things work for them and therefore are shut out of the process. And so Iowa and Nevada and other places said, okay, we'll try to work with this. And so they came up with this virtual caucus plan, which in Iowa essentially would have let people call in and caucus over the phone, makes different selections for their presidential preferences. And the DNC, you know, had some doubts that system would work, frankly, because they didn't think it would be secure enough. And so now we're sort of waiting for the next step in that.

And of course, in years past, in caucuses, the numbers have been very close, haven't they? So this is a concern, isn't it?

Absolutely. They have been close. There's been a couple years, both on the Republican side and the Democratic side, where every single vote counted. Every vote mattered as it does in democracy all the time. But obviously, there's another glitch in this, and that's in your home state, which is Iowa has always had the first caucus and New Hampshire sort of let us slide very kindly saying, well, that's fine because we have the first primary. That means that if Iowa wanted to, for instance, do absentee ballots, there's a lot of people have said, well, why do this whole virtual caucus thing. Just do absentee ballots for caucuses. Well, I would imagine there'd be some objections in New Hampshire then, because they say, well, absentee ballots look an awful lot like a primary and we have the first primary.

Right. And so it becomes this kind of, you know, battle of definitions, I guess.

Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, frankly, your state and my state here have constantly battled about those definitions and sort of have a negotiated peace right now. You know, so Iowa gets to be first, according to New Hampshire, because it's a caucus not a primary. And anything that looks a little bit too much like a primary, I think would rattle some cages.

Yeah. When the news came out last week that the DNC had rejected Iowa's new caucus plan, there was chatter among political insiders that Iowa might have to just bite the bullet and switch to a primary. How realistic is it, though, that Iowa could go that way?

I would not say that for 2020 it is at all likely that it would make the wholesale switch to a primary. You know, there are a lot of Iowans who say the caucus process, while it might not be the most accessible, it is something that is really special.  You know, across the state there are hundreds of locations where neighbors do gather with neighbors. They make their case face to face. They hear from the candidates. It's a drawn out process. There's this whole complicated realignment where you have a first choice and you have a second choice depending on viability. But it's something that makes Iowa's special besides being first. It actually is a grassroots process more, some say, than a primary would be. So I don't think they're close to giving that up for 2020. But, you know, here in Iowa, there have been questions about, well, what happens in 2024? Because we're always looking at the next contest as well.

And New Hampshire is fiercely protective of that first-in-the-nation primary status. We do have a law that says our primary needs to happen seven days before any "similar election." During the process that you've been going through in Iowa, did you hear from officials who were concerned about triggering that primary scheduling battle with the Granite State?

Absolutely. That's been some of the talk on the ground here. And so that's why, you know, the absentee ballot idea for a caucus is not so appealing because of New Hampshire's law. You know, and there have been years, although it's happened less this past year, there have been years where Iowa and New Hampshire have sort of battled back and forth. And New Hampshire has been a little loose with its date until they're absolutely sure that they can be first. And so it's been a long standing process where both of our states have fought very hard to be first.

And frankly, we've seen the results of that in the presidential campaign this year. You know, we in Iowa have topped over 1,000 candidate presidential candidate events already this year. We expect that to go perhaps up to 3,000 before our February caucus, and you in New Hampshire have had about 750 candidate events so far. And so candidates really do pay attention to these states that are first. And that's very important for the identity, frankly, of both of our small states.

[2020 N.H. Primary Candidate Tracker: Where and when to see the candidates]

So what happens for the candidates themselves? What happens for those event if something were to change in Iowa?

So what a lot of the campaigns have told us is, look, you know, we knew that the DNC hadn't yet approved this. And so we were just acting like the rules that we believe are the case are going to continue forward. They're still expecting and our Democratic Party chair here in Iowa fiercely said last week, 'we will be first.' We will be a caucus state on Feb. 3. That will happen. And so I don't know how much of that changes.

The other sort of thing to understand about the virtual caucus, as complicated as it was, is that it only counted for 10% of the total delegates equivalence here in Iowa, which is still significant if it is close. But it was not the 90% of people who show up in those gymnasiums, in those church halls, in this community centers, sometimes in barns and other places to talk with their neighbors about who they prefer for president. And so we haven't seen any abatement at all of, you know, candidates showing up here. We'll have several big events in the state. Today, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee will probably meet and on a conference call officially decide the virtual caucus is no more. And the Iowa Democratic Party will react to that, and we may see some new developments even yet this week.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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