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A divided approach to primaries could be chaotic for voters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

But if some Democrats are ready to shove Iowa down the list, Republicans are not. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Plenty of Republicans have been in Iowa since the 2020 election, raising all kinds of questions about who might be thinking about the White House. So you'll hear this a lot from local press.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 2024 is right around the corner, considering a presidential run?

MASTERS: Former Vice President Mike Pence got one of these at the Iowa State Fair this summer. Here's how he answered it.

MIKE PENCE: After the first of the year, my family and I will do as we've always done, and that is reflect and pray on where we might next serve, where we might next contribute.

MASTERS: This has been a commonplace political strategy for decades here - make inroads with potential donors and organizers and get in front of likely Iowa caucusgoers, people like Janet Gastineau, who was at the Iowa State Fair back in August. She was in the varied industries building when Pence was taking shelter from a thunderstorm. She was surprised and happy to see him there.

JANET GASTINEAU: I think he did a great job. And I love the way he handled things on January 6, meaning protected himself, but he wasn't willing to go that extra step that Trump wanted him to do.

MASTERS: Do you think the Republican Party needs to kind of be done with Donald Trump?

GASTINEAU: Yes, I do. Yes. But Pence could easily fill those shoes.

MASTERS: Iowa's caucuses have been at the front of the line for both major political parties for the last half-century. Last week, the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to kick Iowa out of that early window, giving South Carolina the first primary, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day. Georgia and Michigan would follow. One of the loudest supporters for the Iowa Democrats caucuses remaining. First is Jeff Kaufmann. He's chair of the Republican Party of Iowa.

JEFF KAUFMANN: This makes no tactical political sense to poll Iowa. It's just a matter of pure ideology, ideas trumping something that is inherently an activist and action-oriented endeavor.

MASTERS: Kaufmann also chairs the panel that makes recommendations for the RNC calendar. They're sticking with the status quo of starting in Iowa and then New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. He says this order has lasted partly because the two parties have worked together in the early states. Former President Donald Trump announced he's running for a third time. Trump's pretty popular with Republicans here, but Kaufmann says the party won't pick favorites.

KAUFMANN: If I'm going to sit here and criticize the national Democrats on behalf of my state, well, I need to also be neutral in action and in word if I'm going to save the caucuses in 2028.

MASTERS: But the parties stand to enter new territory with two different calendars. In 2024, Democrats will likely have a non-competitive first primary in South Carolina if President Biden runs for reelection. Rachel Paine Caufield is a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. She says President Biden has a major competitive advantage in the DNC's proposed map.

RACHEL PAINE CAUFIELD: It takes a lot of money to run across a lot of states at the same time. So I suspect that this favors establishment candidates, candidates that can amass huge war chests of money. But it really does, it unleashes a whole bunch of new legal and logistical questions about where resources will be deployed.

MASTERS: And with the president suggesting the DNC rework its calendar every four years, which states go first could be a lot more of a political calculation than an ode to tradition. One thing looks certain, though. Republican presidential hopefuls will be at that starting line in Iowa in 2024, even if Democrats are trying out a new course.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.