Iowa Democrats split on whether to continue caucus system

Likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa are divided on whether it is more important to continue the state’s caucus tradition as the first test of Democratic presidential candidates or to switch to a primary, according to a new CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

Forty-two percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers said they want to continue the state’s caucus system, which has traditionally made the Hawkeye State the center of the early months of presidential campaigns, even if it means not everyone who wants to can participate. Iowa’s status as the first state where voters weigh in on who the parties will nominate to run for the White House has given it special importance in the campaign as many candidates choose to spend much of their time meeting voters in diners and house parties across a state that demands face-to-face interactions with the candidates.

However, that tradition has been questioned in recent years and now 44% of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa say they’re in favor of switching to a primary, even if it risks Iowa’s status as the first contest of the nominating season. Advocates for a primary argue it would increase access to the voting process because it wouldn’t require hours of participation in the same way that a caucus does.

Voters in Iowa who spoke to CNN after taking the poll saw pros and cons to both sides of the argument, but many mentioned how much they enjoy the ability to meet candidates and the unique opportunity that is provided to them.

“I’ve had the chance to meet just about every presidential candidate throughout my life, since I was 11. That’s awesome,” likely Iowa caucusgoer Allie Paarsmith told CNN. “I know how lucky I am. We just wouldn’t get that sort of attention otherwise, it brings people to the Midwest. It would be sad to see a Midwestern state lose that first in the nation status.”

RELATED: Full poll results

Voters who tend to be more liberal or younger are more likely to prefer a primary system where voting is more accessible — those who say they’re very liberal would rather hold a primary (64%) over a caucus (30%) by a wide margin, and a majority of those under the age of 35 prefer a primary (53% primary, 36% caucus).

Moderate likely Democratic caucusgoers preferred holding a caucus (52%) so that Iowa would remain as the first test for the Democratic Party rather than hold a primary (38%), as did those age 55 and older (47% caucus, 37% primary).

Those who have attended a caucus before were more apt to favor a caucus (46%) than those who would be attending for the first time in 2020 (28%), and men were more likely to favor caucuses (50%) than women (37%).

Paarsmith, a librarian in the greater Iowa City area, said that while she loves being able to meet candidates, she understands how hard it is for some people to have a caucus.

“People work! Especially Democrats work all hours of the day. It really is eliminating a poorer population, typically of color, that can’t attend the caucus because they’re at work or recovering from a 12 hour shift,” she said.

Multiple Iowans expressed their sympathies towards those who can’t take time off, and wanted to make it easier for those people, but weren’t always sure if a primary system would be the solution.

Kevin Cavallin, a moderate Democrat who still hasn’t officially decided which candidate to support in February, is an adamant supporter of the caucus system.

“The problem with that notion is the fact that New Hampshire is the first primary. If Iowa switches to a primary system, that violates New Hampshire and Iowa’s agreement … and to me that’s unacceptable,” he told CNN. “I mean, it sounds selfish, but at the same time, I think the caucus system works. The advantage of Iowa is that it doesn’t cost you a small fortune to campaign here.”

But almost half of those polled disagree. They don’t see the caucus as that important for the state’s sense of identity.

Kelli Sharpe, a 39-year-old liberal Democrat, would prefer a primary.

“I’m actually one of the few Iowans who doesn’t think we should be first in the country. I don’t think that makes sense,” she told CNN. “We’re not very many people, and we’re making decisions for everybody. The primary is much more easy to pull off, it’s simpler, I think that would be a better system.”

Likely caucusgoers who said they turned out in 2016 for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are divided on the caucus question, with 49% in favor of a primary and 44% preferring a caucus, while those who backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 are more firmly in the caucus camp (53% caucus to 39% primary).

Sanders’ backers were part of a movement in the Democratic Party to reform the presidential primary process, which included increasing access to caucuses in states that continue to hold them.

That movement led Iowa’s Democratic Party to propose a new system of “virtual caucuses,” designed to maintain the state’s long-standing caucus system while expanding participation in the process. The proposal was ultimately rebuffed by the DNC because of concerns about security for those participating remotely, and instead Iowa will add in-person satellite caucuses for those who are unable to caucus in their home precinct.

Cavallin, who strongly prefers a caucus, said he still wants it to be better — having a surrogate go in a voter’s place if that person couldn’t caucus or a letter of intent have been mentioned as possible reforms — but what’s most important to him is that people’s voices are heard and the election is conducted fairly.

“It’s important to have the caucus, but it’s also important to get it right,” he said. “I’m not selfish enough to say that ‘I want Iowa to be first no matter what.’ It’s nice that we’re first, but we need to do it right and we need to take it seriously.”

The CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll was conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, September 14 through 18 among a random sample of 602 likely Democratic caucusgoers reached on landlines or cell phones by a live interviewer. Results for the full sample of likely caucusgoers have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

CNN’s Adam Levy contributed to this report