Why the Iowa Caucuses Are So Important

Why the Iowa Caucuses Are So Important


This was Iowa caucus night back in the mid-1970s. And these are members of the national media covering the voting. It was so unusual to see national media in Iowa back then that people actually paid to watch them. “The Democratic Party charged $15 a head for people to watch the media watch the people.” See, in previous years, Iowa’s caucuses just hadn’t attracted national attention. “There are 3,000 frozen media members in downtown Des Moines …” Just over a decade later, Iowa is the place to be. “… It’s Iowa caucus night. Let’s party.” [shouting] The caucuses are now a key part of the presidential election cycle. “Bush, 57.” They’re the first chance to see what kind of support candidates have among voters. So how did we get here, from caucuses that only Iowans seem to care about to the national spectacle we see today? Turns out, a lot of it was accidental. For most of Iowa’s history, its caucuses were dominated by political insiders. There was little room for input from rank-and-file members. An historian writing in the 1940s put it like this: “The larger number of party voters were deprived of a voice.” But the old ways start coming to an end in 1968. The country’s in turmoil, and so is the Democratic Party, mostly over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Basically, the party establishment wants to handle things one way, and many rank-and-file members have other ideas. All this comes to a head as the Democrats hold their national convention. Protesters gather outside. So do police. Inside, the mood is also tense. All this division leads the Democratic Party to rethink the nomination rules to include the voices of all party members in the process. This is how we come to the moment when Iowa becomes key to electing a president, basically by accident. First up, how Iowa became first to hold a presidential contest. It starts with new rules to give everyday members more of a say. So by 1972, winning Iowa now involves four stages. Iowans choose their top candidates, first at the precinct level. These are the caucuses at the heart of this story. But technically, there’s further voting at the county, congressional district and state levels. The new rules make things a lot more inclusive, but this creates new delays. Committees need to be formed, and everyone needs to have up-to-date party materials. The problem is, the state party only has an old mimeograph machine to make copies of all this. It’s really slow. So because of an old machine and a bunch of new logistics, the party decides it needs at least a month between each step to do it all. The national convention is set for early July, so you’d think that the state-level convention would happen about a month before, in June. Except, the party can’t find a venue that’s available to hold everyone. That little detail helps push everything earlier in a chain reaction. See what’s going on here? The precinct caucuses now have to happen early in the year. The party chooses a date that makes Iowa’s the first presidential contest. The New Hampshire primary has been the first kickoff contest since the 1950s, but Iowa Democrats aren’t necessarily looking for national attention. They just think it’ll be fun to be first. Still, attention is what they get. The story begins with George McGovern. “People didn’t know much about the Iowa caucuses. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in them.” He’s the long-shot candidate. He’s been at the bottom of national polls. “He often walked the campaign trail alone, little known by the voters.” Most people think this guy, Edmund Muskie, is going to be the big winner in Iowa. “That challenge is great, but we can meet it.” Then comes caucus night. As the people vote, state party officials gather at their headquarters. Richard Bender is one of them. “And we had about 10 or 12 press people show up. These press people included one guy, Johnny Apple.” Johnny Apple, a 37-year-old political correspondent for The New York Times. Iowa’s Democrats aren’t ready to publicize the results right away. They hadn’t expected much demand. According to Bender, only Johnny Apple asked for them that night. “I happen to be fascinated with such things, so I made it my business, beforehand, to understand it.” Bender sets up a phone tree to gather results from across the state. He adds them up himself with a calculator. And the next day, Apple’s article helps swing the national spotlight onto the caucuses. He’s got quite the story to tell. Muskie’s won, but just barely. Not the runaway win people were expecting. And McGovern comes in a strong second. No one expected that, either. The reformed caucus rules helped a long-shot candidate rise to the top. And because this is happening so early in the election now, and because Apple’s article gives the results national coverage, something else happens. “That got picked up by some of the national news shows.” “The Democratic front-runner has been damaged in Iowa.” “And wow, all of a sudden, we were being paid attention to.” McGovern eventually wins the Democratic nomination. “I accept your nomination with a full and grateful heart.” He loses the presidential election, but some haven’t forgotten what those early caucuses did for McGovern, including Georgia’s former governor, Jimmy Carter. Three years later … “There was a major headline on the editorial page of the Atlanta Constitution that said, ‘Jimmy Carter’s running for what?’ [laughter] And the ‘What’ was about this big. [applause] I’m running for president.” … Carter heads to Iowa before any other Democratic candidate. He’s got no national profile. “He didn’t have hordes of press following him around. It was a very lonely campaign.” Washington pundits call his candidacy laughable. “I remember when we couldn’t find a microphone.” “Jimmy Who?” becomes a catchphrase. Carter’s own campaign film plays it up. “Jimmy who?” “I don’t know who he is.” But as long as Iowans come to know him and like him, Carter bets that the media will start paying attention, just like with McGovern four years earlier. Carter campaigns as locally as possible. One day, he learns that he’s been invited on a local TV show. “And I said, that is great. I can’t believe it. I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, ‘Do you have any favorite recipes?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, recipes?’ He said, ‘Well, this is a cooking show.’ Well, they put a white apron on me and a chef’s hat. That was my only access to TV when I first began to campaign in Iowa.” His opponents are in Iowa, too, but they spend far less time there. Carter wins. “Surprisingly top of the class after his win in a somewhat obscure race in Iowa against the others.” “You can’t tell until we go to the other 49 states, but it’s encouraging for us.” A year later … “I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear —” … he becomes the 39th president. Now we need to head to 1980 because we haven’t talked about the Republicans yet. Here’s the state’s Republican chairman that year. He’s asked why Iowa’s caucuses have become so important. “I think because Jimmy Carter got his start in Iowa in 1976.” The Republicans in Iowa are keen to copy the Democrat’s success, and one candidate in particular gets inspired by Carter’s underdog win: George H.W. Bush. He’s running against Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and others, and he’s near the bottom of the pack. “Your name isn’t really a household word, but Ronald Reagan can —” But Bush goes big in Iowa. He gets a surprise win. It’s a far cry from just months before. “I was an asterisk in those days. And my feelings got hurt. And now, I’m no longer an asterisk.” Bush is now the third underdog to get a boost from the caucuses. The next morning on CBS, he distills the essence of this new Iowa effect. “We will have forward, ‘Big Mo’ on our side, as they say in athletics.” “ ‘Big Mo?’ ” “Yeah. Mo — momentum.” Bush loses to Reagan, but becomes vice president. And the desire to capture the “Big Mo” from Iowa has only grown, thanks in large part to Iowa’s embrace of being first, and the media storm that descends every four years. That’s despite the fact that most candidates who win … “This is a job interview.” … don’t become president. Plus, many point out that the state’s overwhelmingly white population doesn’t reflect the country’s diversity. “I actually think that we can find places that represent that balance of urban and rural better.” But the race to get the “Big Mo” out of Iowa persists because it’s the first chance to upend expectations, and put political fates in the voters’ hands.



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