The Caucus: The Importance of Being Iowa



The Iowa Caucus is just days away. It’s that time when we admit that the American political system is somewhat mind-boggling.

It is apparent that Iowa is about political party mobilization at the local level. Beyond polling, it is also the first time we formally hear about voter choice in the presidential election.

Yet these qualities don’t clearly justify the hype of Iowa. So, what’s the deal? How can a state with a mere six electoral votes be so important to the trajectory of the general election?

I came upon several useful resources on the importance of being Iowa, a state that maintains a dominant – some say outsized position – in our thinking about the front runner in U.S. presidential elections.

It all started with a peanut farmer from Georgia.

Democrat George McGovern was the first to take Iowa seriously in his 1972 presidential campaign, but it was an underdog peanut farmer from Georgia – Jimmy Carter – who forever cemented the importance of Iowa in the presidential nomination process:

“the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign saw the Iowa caucuses as an opportunity to make a splash and to get media attention for a little-known southern governor. When Carter did better than expected by coming in second to “uncommitted,” his path to the presidency was launched, as was the mythology of Iowa as an important initial test of any would-be presidential candidate.”

This bit from the “Iowa Caucus Rules” chapter in Why Iowa: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process is a helpful primer on the history, process, purpose, and challenges of the Iowa Caucus. It will give you flashbacks of being in Political Science 101 but is a handy tool in understanding the identity of this strange political event.

Winners and Losers

The media would have us believe that whomever is leading in the polls will win in Iowa. And whomever wins in Iowa, will win everywhere else. Even on Mars.

But that’s not always the case. A chart of previous years’ results shows outcomes all across the board.

There have been instances in which the Iowa winner became the party nominee and eventually won the White House:

2008: Barack Obama led the Democratic Iowa Caucus with a delegate strength of 37.6% and won the White House with 53% of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes.

2000: George W. Bush led the Republican Iowa Caucus with a delegate strength of 41% and won the White House with 47.87% of the popular vote and 271 electoral votes.

But there have also been instances in which someone other than the Iowa winner made it to the White House:

1992 Democratic Caucus – Bill Clinton came in 4th place but still won the nomination and was elected president with 43% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes.

Tom Harkin 76.4%
Uncommitted 11.9%
Paul Tsongas 4.1%
Bill Clinton 2.8%

1988 Republican Caucus – George Bush came in third place but took the nomination and the White House with 53% of the popular vote and 426 electoral votes.

Robert Dole 40,661 37.4%
Pat Robertson 26,761 24.6%
George Bush 20,194 18.6%

1980 Republican Caucus: Ronald Reagan came in second place to George Bush, but it was Reagan who the Republican Party nominated and won the White House with 51% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes.

George Bush 33,530 31.6%
Ronald Reagan 31,348 29.5%
Howard Baker 16,216 15.3%

What’s clear from this quick and rough analysis is that the Iowa Caucus isn’t exactly a king-maker. That’s a myth, according to political scientist Peverill Squire, the author of the pointedly-titled “The Iowa Caucuses 1972-2008, A Eulogy.” He writes:

“There was some resentment among political observers around the country that a small, demographically unrepresentative state like Iowa got to play such a large role in deciding who would be president. Some even labeled Iowa a ‘king maker.’ A review of the historical record shows that the decisions made in the caucuses were very important in deciding both parties’ nominations. But it also reveals that Iowa alone never selected the nominee in either party.”

Getting Rid of Excess Baggage

I’m with Squire. Iowa does not select the nominee. And thank goodness for that. It’s a state that doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the United States: of its 3.1 million residents, 92.1% are white. This means that none of the issues minorities care about will get full billing by the candidates. For a contest that is under such microscopic scrutiny and maintains a special importance in American politics, it should at least succeed in being representative.

But where Iowa is helpful is in getting rid of excess baggage – or as politicos call it, “winnowing the field.”

According to Squire, “Importantly, the second- or third-place finishers also reaped benefits if they managed to exceed media expectations. Thus the critical role that Iowa played in the nomination process was to winnow the field.”

A poor showing in Iowa forces low-performing candidates to drop their presidential bids before they went too far down the rabbit hole.

For the Republicans and the 2016 bid for the White House, Iowa will thus prove critical, as there are still 31 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination. Only 8 candidates remain participating in the debates. Iowa won’t get rid of the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, but it may have endgame implications for candidates like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

On the Democratic front, there is very little winnowing to be had. There are fifteen candidates in total, but only three left participating in the debates: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley.

According to Nate Silver, Hillary Clinton has an 79% chance of winning Iowa based on state polls, national polls, and endorsements. This shouldn’t be surprising given Clinton’s wealth of experience and prominence on the national and international stage throughout her career. Meanwhile, the until-recently obscure Sanders is at 20% and O’Malley at a little over 1%.

No doubt the results in Iowa will mean the beginning of the end for O’Malley. For Clinton, Sanders, and the Republican frontrunners, it means the race begins. At least Iowa calls the beginning of the race, if not the end.

Read More:

Iowa Caucus History – Iowa Public Television

Why Iowa Matters in Presidential Elections – U.S. News & World Report

How Jimmy Carter Revolutionized the Iowa Caucuses – The Atlantic

Primary Politics by Elaine C. Kamarck

Why is the presidential nominating system such a mess? – The Brookings Brief

Why Do Iowa Caucuses Matter? Because Everyone thinks they do. – Vox

Photo Credit: By User:Piotrus (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



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