The role that the Iowa caucuses play in the determination of the President of the United States started as an accident.
“It’s all Jimmy Carter’s fault,” political science Professor Dennis Goldford said. “It’s not that members of the parties in Washington sat down and said, ‘Here’s a list of criteria and whichever state fulfills the criteria best should go first.’ It wasn’t a rational process like that.”
Caucuses have been around since Iowa first became a state and are used for each party as a type of business meeting, Goldford said. They occur every two years, and party activists attend to discuss issues and select delegates for the next level of the process. The 1,678 precincts select delegates for the county convention, which in turn selects delegates for the congressional district conventions, then for the state party convention.
The Iowa caucuses only began to entertain presidential politics in 1972 when George McGovern, a senator from South Dakota, hoped to gain some traction in Iowa through the caucuses. Though McGovern lost the presidential race to Richard Nixon, his tactics caught the attention of Jimmy Carter’s staff, who at the time was governor of Georgia.
“When he left the governor’s mansion in 1975, he came to Iowa and essentially moved here for 14 months,” Goldford said. “He stayed in the home of supporters, he talked to people with churches and in schools, coffee shops, restaurants, cafes, and such, and nobody paid any attention to this. Low and behold, when people at the caucus expressed a preference for who the party’s nominee ought to be, he came in second [only] to uncommitted [voters].”
Thus, Iowa started to become the state that relatively unknown presidential hopefuls could spend time talking to people to see if they could elicit a response without costing a lot of money. What could have been a one-time fluke was solidified when George H. W. Bush challenged Governor Ronald Reagan and Senator Ted Kennedy challenged sitting Democratic President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in Iowa.
In today’s political climate, the Iowa caucuses aren’t so much about the number of delegates but providing the nation with an idea of which candidates are doing well.
“They’re an indicator of not a polling sample, not a man on the street interview, but what real party activists who are intensely interested and knowledgeable think about their menu of possible choices for their nominee,” Goldford said. “The caucuses essentially are important, not because they elect ‘X’ number of delegates, but because they send that first signal of what real, knowledgeable voters think about the party’s range of possible nominees.”
Not only do Iowans provide a glimpse into feasible presidential candidates, the caucus frontrunners typically become the party’s nominated candidate.
“We are the first tangible results in the presidential nominating process and therefore, everyone looks to us to see how the candidates perform,” Tanner Halleran, Iowa Caucus Project member and Drake Democrats Political Director said over email correspondence. “Iowans are notorious, too, for usually selecting the eventual nominee for the party. This is true even for Barack Obama, while at the time of his campaign in the 2008 cycle, was just a relatively unknown senator from Illinois.”
Being the state to kick off the final leg of the presidential race has its perks. Everyday people can meet presidential candidates over the course of their campaign.
“We become the center of the political universe,” Goldford said. “The caucuses force candidates to talk to individual voters as real human beings, not just as campaign props for photo ops. In the big media states, [you couldn’t] get in to see these people but you can go to the Des Moines Register’s political soap box at the state fair or you can go to any particular event here and say talk to me.”
Since campaigns spend so much time in Des Moines, students and staff are also given the unique opportunity to engage with candidates and the media frenzy that surrounds them.
“My colleagues and I get to talk to reporters from all over the country and all over the world,” Goldford said. “Often times [students] will catch on with campaigns, many on the journalism side catch on with news organizations. There are just tremendous possible connections for Drake students.”
However, not all states are happy with having Iowa as the first to caucus. Over the years, states have tried and failed to jump the queue. Attempts are usually stopped by the threat to lose pledged delegates.
The most common argument against Iowa’s position as first in the nation relies on its demographics. According to the US Census Bureau, Iowa is over 90 percent white. While researching for the latest edition of his book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Goldford found that Iowans still tend to represent ideals that mirror those of the entire country.
“Aside from the fact that Iowans don’t look like the country in terms of diversity, in terms of what issues were important to them, what Democrats saw as the most important issues and the right positions pretty well tracked what Democrats nation-wide thought, and what Republicans thought were the most important issues and positions pretty much tracked what Republicans thought nation-wide,” Goldford said. “People just assume [demographics] makes a huge difference. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but that’s something people need to investigate.”
The argument for diversity has once again been made popular by former presidential candidate Julián Castro.
“There have always been critiques that Iowa is not diverse enough to give a fair chance to all candidates, but this claim is superficial,” Halleran said. “Iowa has been historically progressive with its legalization of gay marriage and early desegregation. For its size, level of citizen engagement, and cost to run a campaign, Iowa is a fantastic choice to be first, and I hope remains so.”
Regardless of Iowa’s demographics, Goldford believes that the power Iowa holds over the election relies on the power that the public gives it.
“There’s a symbiotic relationship,” Goldford said. “Journalists will think Iowa is important as long as candidates do, and candidates will think Iowa is important as long as journalists do.”