Because of their first-in-the-nation position, the Iowa caucuses can change the course of the primary campaign: In each of the past four contested Democratic primaries, the winner has gone on to capture the party’s nomination, and every presidential contender knows that a win in the state can help propel them to broader electoral success. But the voters who determine what happens in the state look nothing like the country as a whole: While about 60 percent of the total U.S. population is white, in Iowa white people make up 85 percent of the population, according to census figures.
“We don’t want just one group’s point of view,” Holly Christine Brown, who is Filipina and the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus, told me. “That’s what you’re getting when you have a state like Iowa go first.” Brown, a 39-year-old from Cedar Rapids, called for an end to the practice in a November letter published in her local paper. “Our country has become more diverse” since Iowa started voting first in presidential primaries, in 1972, Brown wrote in the letter, which was signed by six other activists and party leaders in the state. “If we want to say we have become accepting and welcoming of that diversity, then our presidential nominating contest should reflect that.”
Ibram X. Kendi: The other swing voter
The 2020 primary field was, at one point, the most diverse in history. Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, three candidates of color, have all dropped out in the past two months, leaving the primary race overwhelmingly white. The entrepreneur Andrew Yang is the highest-polling nonwhite candidate left—though he is garnering just 4 percent support nationwide.
While Iowa has been blamed for culling candidates of color from the race, it might also be to blame for limiting who runs in the first place, one activist argued. “One of the criteria for signing on to be a Democratic candidate for president in this country is How well am I gonna do in Iowa?” Reyma McCoy McDeid, a black disability-rights activist from Des Moines, told me. “If we’re talking about a state where, by and large, the political landscape is dictated by an aging, white … voting bloc, that obviously is going to be a hugely mitigating factor in determining who decides to run for president, and who’s considered to be a viable candidate.”
Many candidates’ agendas aren’t in line with what nonwhite voters living in Iowa deem the most important issues, other activists told me. Most of them “don’t center minority voices” or priorities precisely because they have to spend so much energy in Iowa, said Nadia Ali, a Sudanese refugee living in Des Moines and a co-founder of the Iowa Women’s March. “They feel like they have to go after the white working class, then they do outreach later to the minority groups.”