Expert Commentary

Iowa presidential caucuses: History and popular myths

2008 paper from the University of Missouri on the history of the Iowa Caucuses and popular misconceptions about them.

Since 1972 the American presidential nominating process has begun in the state of Iowa. There are many conflicting opinions about whether or not this tradition best serves the interests of democracy — Iowa’s demographics and rural nature are not necessarily representative of the nation at large — but in any case this history continues to unfold through the 2012 election season.

A 2008 paper from the University of Missouri-Columbia published in The Forum, “The Iowa Caucuses, 1972-2008: A Eulogy,” looks back at the patterns and narratives that have developed over time. The paper — by Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri — was written with the expectation that Iowa’s first-in-the-nation place might soon end, but the historical insights the author provides are still useful to consider.

The paper frames its analysis around six “myths” about the Iowa Caucuses. Its chief insights include:

  • Despite popular notions that Iowa deliberately jumped to the front of the electoral “line,” its first-in-nation status was first scheduled for technical reasons relating to state party rules. That first season the caucuses were obscure enough that George McGovern, the eventual Democratic nominee, finished third after campaigning for less than two days. Theodore White’s famous book, The Making of the President 1972, makes no mention of Iowa.
  • The idea that Iowa is a “king-maker” does not quite reflect reality, and it is more properly seen as a contest that winnows the field, forcing candidates who finish below third (or who don’t meet expectations) to leave the race. However, it is true that between 1972 and 2004, Iowa chose the eventual nominee about three-quarters of the time. For Democrats, it picked six of seven winners through 2008. But for Republicans, it has a more mixed record: The eventual party choice won Iowa only in 1976, 1996 and 2000.
  • An analysis of national Gallup polls prior to each of the Iowa Caucuses through 2004 shows that the state has mostly reflected national opinion when it chooses nominees. “The instances where Iowans opted for candidates without much national support were relatively few and usually for understandable reasons.”
  • Many observers believe that the preserving Iowa’s status has an underlying economic motive, as the contests bring considerable resources into the state. However, the overall gain to Iowa’s economy is less than 1% of the state’s annual economic production in a given year. The caucuses mostly benefit “only the bank accounts of the state’s television station owners, restaurateurs, and hoteliers.”
  • The idea that corn and ethanol subsidies have continued because of Iowa’s position is much more complicated. First, most of that industry is in Republican-controlled rural areas, meaning the corn-related interests mostly matter to the GOP. Moreover, “while most U.S. senators may see themselves as presidential material, only a few of them run for their party’s nomination every four years. Accordingly, there were too few Iowa panderers in any one election cycle to force a policy on the Senate that a majority or more of their colleagues did not support.”
  • Though some critics complain that the caucuses are undemocratic because they only attract the most passionate party activists, the turnout numbers were about 23% of registered voters in 2004. [The Caucuses also saw record turnout in 2008; see further research on that election cycle in Iowa.]

The paper’s author also speculates that, were the nation’s Founding Fathers to see the Iowa Caucuses in action, they might “immediately recognize them as being like the electoral processes they experienced. The Founders were familiar with the idea that voters might in some sense know the candidates from having actually seen them and with the notion that neighbors would gather together and discuss candidates and issues before voting.”

Keywords: presidency, Iowa, New Hampshire

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