Iowa Democratic Caucuses

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Ras Smith (D - Waterloo) and John Deeth, a Democratic activist from Iowa City, discuss potential changes to the Iowa Democratic Caucuses and where Iowa may end up on the road to the White House. 

Moderator Kay Henderson is joined at the Iowa Press table by Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

Iowa Press | Episode
May 13, 2022 | 27 min

Transcript

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Iowa democrats are fighting to keep the presidential caucuses first in 2024. We'll talk to two democrats about what changes their party should consider on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 13th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Just to bring you up to speed in case you aren't up to date on what is happening with the Iowa Caucuses. The Republican National Committee has ratified a calendar for the 2024 presidential nominating process that keeps Iowa's Caucuses first. On the democratic side of the ledger, not so much. The Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee has asked states to apply to be among the early states to go at the front of the pack in 2024 when their party is selection a presidential nominee and Iowa's Democratic Party earlier this month has submitted an application, a letter of intent, if you will, saying that they intend to make the case that Iowa's Caucuses go first. But that rules and bylaws committee I referred to has made it clear that the hurdles may be too high for the Iowa Caucuses on the democratic side to continue.

Henderson: Our guests today attended caucuses in 2020. Ras Smith is a State Representative from Waterloo and he is currently in his sixth year in the Iowa legislature. He also worked on Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign before the caucuses and stayed on and worked through the general election.

Smith: Thanks for having me here.

Henderson: You bet. Our other guest is John Deeth, he is from Iowa City and he is a Democratic Party activist that has been in the room organizing caucuses, if you will, dating back to 2004. Welcome to you both.

Deeth: Glad to be here.

Henderson: On the other side of the table are Brianne Pfannenstiel. She is the Chief Politics Reporter for the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So, gentlemen, let's back up first here and sort of set the scene and talk about those 2020 caucuses. First, just from each of your perspectives and what you experienced. Ras Smith, we'll start with you. You're in the Waterloo area. What was Caucus Night 2020 like for you?

Smith: It was amazing. I think for me, one, I had the benefit of walking across the street to go to caucus and that is a privilege not everybody gets but I think we'll talk about that a little bit later. But for me to see the energy, to see the fact that folks were knocking on doors, to see the diversity in our caucuses, to see the camaraderie, neighbors getting together, having conversations about what is important to them. It was something that as an Iowan I hold dear and look forward to hopefully being able to do it again. And so it was a great experience. It had its challenges but overall I felt as though in Waterloo we had a very successful night.

Murphy: Who won at your precinct?

Smith: At our precinct, unfortunately Bernie won.

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Smith: But I was working on it.

Murphy: John Deeth, you're in Johnson County. Tell us about your caucus experience in 2020.

Deeth: I was at a caucus on the University of Iowa campus. We had 765 people check in, roughly 700 of them had to register to vote for the first time. We weren't even started until close to 8:00 p.m. We didn't get out of there until I'd say 10:45 p.m. By that time the 760 had dwindled down to just 20 who were remaining to talk about the platform and elect the delegates. It was loud, it was crowded, it was confusing and it wasn't even the biggest precinct in our county. So, I think one of the most important things that the Iowa Democratic Party has to do is to take the overcrowding issue in some of our urban precincts seriously. The average caucus goer in 2020 was in a room with 191 people. That's a pretty full grade school gym. And we had a lot of caucuses who were bigger than that. 17 counties had a caucus that was bigger than that 191. And most of the people who were attending just want to vote and go home.

Murphy: Where are most of your, most of the people there -- you were on campus, were most of them students?

Deeth: Most of them were students, yes. It was good to see people participating. But as the hours dragged on they were getting more and more frustrated.

Murphy: And who won that one?

Deeth: Sanders won and Buttigieg got delegates. Sanders had the most.

Pfannenstiel: And John Deeth, you have been one of the most outspoken Iowa democrats about kind of changing the caucuses, moving away from caucuses, even if it means losing first-in-the-nation. What is the key reason that you think people should understand about that argument?

Deeth: Well, I think that we need to put Iowans first and make sure that every Iowan has access to the process. First has been good to me, it has been good to the people at this table. I have personally had the opportunity to meet four presidents. Most Americans don't get that. But first doesn't do you a lot of good if you don't get to vote. We run into people, mandatory overtime where they can't attend, child care issues, they can't drive at night, they can't handle the noise and the crowds. I was talking with my friend Sue Dvorsky, who you all know, the former state party chair. She was having issues in 2020 with her father. He had never attended a caucus before, he wanted to go to one for the first time to support a candidate he really believed in, the candidate who eventually was elected president. He wanted his daughter, who was an expert, to go with him. She couldn't do that because she had to be on the other side of town in her own precinct. So we don't have the kind of family helping family, people helping each other out that we do have in an election. Again, my goal is to see a presidential primary. I'd like to see democratic legislators introduce a bill for that. I'd like to see rules and bylaws openly say, no more caucuses, primaries only. The reality is that is going to be hard to pass because Iowa republicans aren't interested in changing. So in the short-term, Iowa democrats need to focus on the changes that we can make on our own to improve the process.

Pfannenstiel: But democrats across the state have a very different experience as we just heard. They see it as a party building exercise. So why should democrats across the state kind of cave to what Johnson County believes is best?

Deeth: Well, there's different problems in different areas. If you go to the smaller counties you have a spread thin activist base where the same people have been running the caucuses for 30, 40 years. They need some help in making things happen. In the larger counties, the caucus night experience does active damage to our organizing. First and the caucuses are different things. The year before is great. The candidates are coming in, the organizers are organizing. But the caucus night experience what happens is the organizers have undersold how hard it is going to be to attend because their job is to get people there. The newcomers show up, their ties are to the candidate and not the local party. The first thing the local party has to tell them is stand in line for 45 minutes and then wait in the corner for 3 hours if you want to vote.

Henderson: Well, John, let me ask Ras Smith, did you overhype the caucuses as one of these organizers? Were you derelict in your duty?

Smith: I don't believe so. I would say I love the process of building towards the caucuses. I'm not in love with the product. And that is not to say the outcome, but the product of caucus night. I think what John is talking about is the process, the nuts and bolts, the structure how we operate, which needs much changing.

Henderson: So, should you just have a straw poll like the Iowa Republican Party does?

Smith: I don't agree because for me what I saw was, and when I say I'm not in love with the process, I saw the work that was put in to make the caucuses inclusive. We talk about all those folks who had to register to vote, that is a good thing, or register to participate, that's a good thing. We want to build that energy. I saw folks whose first language is not English participating in our caucuses and I know what went into that. I know that for the Biden campaign we had more stations for National Black Voter Day than any other state, 17 sites in Iowa for National Black Voter Day. That is something that doesn't happen without the caucuses. And so I don't believe we were derelict in our duty, I believe that we motivate and energize people to participate and show up, but we have some work to do on the structure to make sure that the caucuses are inclusive, attainable, accessible and run smoothly.

Murphy: One of the other criteria that the national party has set out and resetting its presidential nominating calendar is the diversity in states. Ras, I know you've heard about this and the criticism that Iowa is 91% white and it's not reflective of the electorate. What is your response to that specific criticism, especially since that's not something -- democrats can change X, Y, Z in the process, it's a lot harder to change the demographics of the state -- so what is your response to that?

Smith: I would say tell Waterloo that we're not diverse. But outside of that, Iowa is unique. If you look at some data we have three states that are in the worst places to live for people of color in the nation, sorry three communities. We have Davenport, Bettendorf, Waterloo, Cedar Falls and the Des Moines area, the worst places to live for people of color. But we also have places like Cedar Falls, which are some of the best places to live in the nation for people. Seven miles apart. If you want to be the President of the United States come and see about that dichotomy in that small sample size. We don't offer that many other places. And I believe that is extremely important because the caucuses, our goal was to bring diverse voices to the table. And so I think we need to branch and expand our definition of diversity as well. It doesn't mean just people who are black or white, folks with disabilities, those whose first spoken language is not English. We have a lot to do to branch out when it comes to making sure that our party as a whole is inclusive and diverse and I think the caucuses are low hanging fruit, that's easy to grab at.

Henderson: Your party chairman, Ross Wilburn, earlier this month made the argument that there should be a consideration for geographic diversity as well.

Smith: I would agree. I think that the caucuses, and for democrats specifically because that's kind of where we're focused at, Iowa is representative of the population that democrats are trying to win back. And so if our candidates can't come through here and understand how to speak with Iowans, how to meet folks where they are, good luck winning. And so for me you'd be hard pressed to go to D.C., grab 10 politicos and say, which one of you didn't cut your teeth in Iowa? You'd be hard pressed to find any of them that said they didn't. And so for me I think that we have a culture here, a history here that takes the caucuses seriously. That's not to discount John's challenges. I think those are all appropriate. But to do away with the caucuses I think would be a mistake.

Pfannenstiel: John Deeth, kind of following in that same vein, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann has made this argument pretty explicitly that if national democrats move to kill the Iowa Caucuses it's a slap in the face to rural America, it says that national democrats don't believe that voters here are worth courting. And as Iowa tries to build up its party, tries to win across the state, don't you think this is a place that democrats need to show they can win?

Deeth: Yes I do think this is a place we need to show that we can win. Look, President Obama won Iowa, the caucuses were his big breakthrough. He won the state twice. Looking at other progressive democrats, Tom Harkin won for many decades here in Iowa. It's not that democrats can't win in Iowa. We do need to make the best case that we can. We're not as diverse as most states are, but what we are is we're a state that is full of people who used to vote for democrats, who democrats need to win back if we're going to have a solid path to 270 electoral votes, if we're going to have a chance of maintaining control of the U.S. Senate. The question isn't that we shouldn't be first, the question is the voting process. It's not about caucuses, it's not about first-in-the-nation the year before, the problems we're having are with caucuses the night of and we need to take some steps to reform that so we're a more inclusive process.

Pfannenstiel: There are 18 states that have put out waivers saying that we want to be included as an early state. We think we can do what Iowa does. I'd love to hear from each of you, starting with John Deeth. What would you tell these states about what it takes to be first-in-the-nation?

Deeth: Well, we have a good tradition of Iowa voters taking the caucus process seriously. We have a good tradition of organizing on the ground. You can't just transplant that into a state that doesn't have that kind of tradition. We're also a small state that doesn't have mega media markets. I'm having trouble imagining a presidential process that starts in New York, the most expensive media market in the country. If you start with big media markets you're going to have Tom Steyer versus Michael Bloomberg every election. So I think we do a good job at first, we just need to do a better job with our voting process on caucus night.

Pfannenstiel: Ras Smith, what do you think these states don't understand about what it takes to go first?

Smith: I would say don't forget about your people. The beautiful thing about the Iowa Caucuses is that I can have someone who makes $15,000 a year and they can have Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Cory Booker in their back yard with their friends talking about how they are trying to get justice for their daughters that were shot and killed with no end in sight. Those are conversations that you can't forget. And I think for any state that is applying to compete with Iowa, understand that it's going to take time to build that efficacy in the process. Iowans take the caucus seriously because a lot of us have grown up understanding what that means, understanding that I may not be able to cast a ballot, I may not be able to get off work in time, but I can show up to an event, have that conversation with a candidate that they carry from every state after Iowa. And so if you're applying to be a caucus state, take it seriously, because we take it very seriously here.

Murphy: Another issue that is out here is the state law that requires that Iowa hold a caucus. And Ras Smith, as a state legislator, albeit a retiring one, we'll start with you on that. Let's say hypothetically here the DNC does change the calendar and Iowa is not in the early groups of states. We still have the state law that says you have to hold a caucus. What happens?

Smith: Well, laws can always be amended. But I will say that we have to have a caucus, it doesn't say how we have to caucus. And so I think to a lot of John's points and ones that we've talked about here, the structure and the way that we go about doing our caucus business has to be reformed, has to change. I don't think that's a question. I think we all know that there's so much opportunity. And part of me, I'm not objective on this, I'm an Iowan, I'm subjective, I want the caucuses to stay, so I think that should be clear. But I also get the indicator that it's almost gone, that this thing is pretty much out of our grasp is what I feel. And with that being the case, I think now we look at this challenge and opportunity. How do we shift our focus to locally? How do we make sure that we build local government up? How do we ensure that folks on every level don't allow the retail politics that Iowa holds to dear to become extinct because I'm concerned about that. You don't get that in New York. And I think politics is already pretty elitist. If all the exposure you get is on TV, it becomes even more elitist and the folks that get to host those candidates in the back yard, they miss out on that. And so I think we can reform our caucuses to still uphold the law but make sure that they're applicable to what exists today and that would have existed 40 years ago.

Murphy: And that gets a little bit I think of what John you were talking about earlier is there is a difference between a caucus and a presidential precinct caucus when you're casting votes. Let me ask you again, Ras, there are some within your party, former Congressman Dave Nagel maybe being the most prominent, who have suggested if the national democrats move us, let's still do a caucus, let's still cast our votes for president and tell everybody what happened and let the national party do what it may, including possible not seating Iowa's delegates at the national convention. What do you think to that proposal if it gets there?

Smith: Well, I think a lot of those decisions and conversations are left up to Chairman Wilburn. For me, I'm supportive of our party and what we need to do going forward to advocate for the caucuses. I think in its current form that is helpful. I'd have to get more information about that to make a more informed suggestion. But I think it's a little heavy handed potentially. But at the end of the day, you know me, I'm not against going against the grain if we have to.

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Murphy: What do you think about that, John Deeth?

Deeth: Well, there is a risk if we do decide to go rogue and break the calendar. One of the problems is that democrats and republicans going on the same night, that is kind of important because it keeps people from potentially going to both caucuses. There's not really any punishment that can be invoked in 2024 because the real reward of first is having the candidates come and my expectation is President Biden will be running for re-election so we're not going to have a lot of trips to the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City from President Biden. The issue is going to come up in 2028 when the nomination is going to be open. And what we saw in 2008 you may remember Michigan and Florida both broke the calendar rules, DNC sanctioned the candidates and said, you can't campaign in those states. In 1996, Louisiana, the republicans jumped the calendar, the national press dismissed the results and ignored them. So, if you're first but you have no candidate visits, potentially no delegate seating and no national media attention, then what is really the point of first?

Murphy: I hear professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University in my head saying, first is only important because the media decided it was. And that's what you're saying.

Deeth: Exactly.

Henderson: Ras Smith, final question on the caucuses and then we have a couple of questions about other topics. Go figure. What does Joe Biden think? He was here.

Smith: He was here.

Henderson: What signal does that send? He went to New Hampshire too.

Smith: I couldn't tell you what the President thinks about the caucuses. I can tell you from a team perspective though, we invested a lot of energy making sure that we were as inclusive as possible. We took the caucus process seriously, having some inkling about where we'd end up at the end of it, knowing that there's indicators that you see, there's polling that you see, but it didn't change our order of operations, it didn't change the fact that we went to places like Scott County and talked to folks who had recently regained their opportunity to vote and let them know that, going to places like Sioux City and talking to folks, ensuring that we're mixing it up and talking to rural Iowans, urban Iowans, and showing that all of our struggles are similar. And so for me, I think the President's perspective on caucuses I'm hopeful leaning towards Iowa staying first. If I had any ability to lean on that I probably would. I don't think I have that much clout to be honest. I'm sitting here with you all today doing Iowa Press and not in D.C. at the White House. But I'm hopeful that it remains in a favorable light regardless of the outcome.

Henderson: As I mentioned at the onset, you're serving in your sixth year in the Iowa House of Representatives. As Erin just mentioned, you're retiring. One of the reasons you're retiring is you launched a campaign for Governor last summer and you suspended it, ended it at the end of the year. Why?

Smith: I think for me it was a moment where I had to reflect and understand maybe my significance in the Democratic Party, but bigger than that our future, where we're going. I mentioned that I feel like politics are becoming more elitist. Think about this, for instance, we have folks who are buying new homes, moving to new districts to run for a job that pays $25,000 a year. We would likely have a dozen races that cost six figures, maybe half of those --

Henderson: For the legislature?

Smith: For the legislature. Maybe half of those will be over $500,000. Maybe one or two, maybe even three will come to a million dollars for a job that pays $25,000 a year. It seems like a privileged profession and I don't think that either party, either side is really reflective of what is necessary for the people. I made a comment in gest that when I was leaving the legislature, it's not me, it's you. And I feel like the process has changed. I feel like we're not echoing the voices of the people. You can't retire from public service. It's a lifestyle choice. And so for me I'm going to continue that lifestyle choice buffering local governments from the impact of what I believe is a Governor who has it out for Iowa, who seems to be gutting our state from the inside out, who doesn't seem to care about the people of the state anymore. And so for me I'm not running for the legislature -- to rebuild local government so that we can withstand the assaults that we're seeing from the legislature and hopefully getting out of there any day now.

Pfannenstiel: Ras Smith, what is next for you? You're working with the Mike Franken campaign for U.S. Senate. What do you expect in your life of public service?

Smith: For me I'm going to continue to advocate for those who I feel as though need assistance in raising their voice, not to be their voice, but to help them amplify their voice. I'm always going to be advocating for what I believe is best for Iowa. This is home for me and me and my wife just re-established roots and bought a new home which is not in a legislative district to run for something else, it is to be able to recommit to this state and do the work for my community and making sure that Iowa is a place where all people can feel welcome, where they can come as they are, be valued for who they are and contribute to the great state of Iowa regardless of our differences and use those opportunities to build a better state.

Murphy: John Deeth, there is an election coming up here, we're in an election year, the primary is just a few weeks away. Early voting actually starts on Wednesday. As someone who helps administer elections in your county, there's also some new laws on the books that are going into effect this year and most significantly have significantly restricted the early voting period. What are you most concerned about as you look ahead to this upcoming election and making sure that everybody who wants to and casts a ballot has it counted?

Deeth: Well, my big concern is that that mail out period has shrunk to only 20 days. I'm already having people come up to my counter at the Johnson County Auditor's Office, it used to be I could have just voted them right there, but they're leaving town right about now, we're going to have to send their ballots to places out of state, we can't control the post office, the post office doesn't move as fast as it used to, I'm not sure some of those ballots are going to get back in time. And that breaks my heart as someone who went into a career wanting to help people vote, I want to help people vote and the laws are making it difficult.

Murphy: So, and we have just a couple of minutes left, what is your best advice for someone who is planning on voting early in this election?

Deeth: My best advice would be to vote early in person, try to avoid mail unless that is your only option. The auditor's office are open weekdays, they're going to be open on Saturday the final weekend. Our office is going to have some Sunday hours as well and some satellite sites that were petitioned. We used to be able to schedule those sites on our own, now we have to wait for the public petitions to come in. But we have a good set of voting opportunities in our county and I hope in most counties.

Pfannenstiel: We're going to have each of you play election analyst for a little bit. You're each in a different congressional district. Ras Smith, you've got incumbent Ashley Hinson competing against State Senator Liz Mathis. How do you see that race playing out for the democrats right now?

Smith: Well, I know both candidates pretty well. I came into the Iowa legislature with Congresswoman Hinson. Unfortunately, I think she has changed a bit. I'm going to put all my support behind Liz Mathis. I think she's a great candidate, I think she's working extremely hard to unseat Congresswoman Hinson and I think she will.

Pfannenstiel: And John Deeth, you've got incumbent Mariannette Miller-Meeks competing against State Representative Christina Bohannan. How do you see democrats doing in this district?

Deeth: I like Christina's chances, never count her out. She decided to take on a 20 year incumbent and beat her in a primary two to one. She is working very, very hard across the whole district and I really like her chances.

Henderson: We have about a minute left. Let's return to your job as a state legislator. In 30 seconds, how will this session end? It is now hung up on this proposal that Governor Reynolds has made to provide state scholarships so that about 10,000 students can attend private schools.

Smith: My hope is that it ends disappointing for the Governor. I hope it ends with vouchers being set aside, continuing public education being funded at a higher level, democrats exhausted from watching republicans fight amongst themselves.

Henderson: Well, thank you both for joining us and talking about the caucuses. And I can guarantee you viewers who are catching this show that this is not the last conversation we'll have about the Iowa Caucuses. You can watch Iowa Press over the air at 7:30 on Friday nights and Sundays at noon or catch every episode online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.