February 28th, 2011 by ChiConservative
“The Action begins in Iowa. It’s where everything starts for everyone.”- George H. W. Bush
In a little less than a year from now, Iowa voters will flock to one of the 1,784 caucus precincts in the state to take part in a tradition stemming all the way back to the 1840s-the selection of a nominee for President of the United States. This is where it all begins. Candidates will have given dozens of speeches and shaken thousands of hands. Staffers and volunteers will have searched every nook and cranny of the state looking for new supporters to add to their army. But the strength of one’s organization is made manifest on that day as voters choose who they want to lead the country over the next four years.
But why do we start in Iowa? And why is it so important?
Since 1846 when it first became a state, Iowa has used its caucus system to elect its presidential nomination delegates. However, Iowa leading off the nominating process is actually a recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Democratic Party pushed the Iowa caucus back to January to allow more time between the caucus and the party’s national convention. Four years later, the Republican Party, after noticing how much attention and coverage the caucus received, followed suit and made Iowa the first stop on its schedule.
For many years the caucus system as a whole was used as the preferred method of choice in the nominating process. However, this changed after the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. And many party leaders got together and established the “McGovern-Fraser Commission” to implement reforms that would include more people in the process and not just party bosses and insiders. As a result, we began to see a dramatic shift from caucuses toward more “open” primaries, especially when the Republican Party, once again, followed in the Democrats’ footsteps and adopted similar changes.
Today, only 9 states still have the caucus system in place, and 41 states have either split caucus/primary systems or just primaries.
What is a Caucus and what is the Process?
A caucus is general term used for a political group or gathering. The Iowa caucus involves a process where, on the day of the election, voters go to a designated location (whether it be a school, town hall, or library) in one of the state’s 1,784 precincts and voice their preference for their party’s nominee. Registered members of each party are allowed to attend their party’s meeting. It’s not the same as a primary where voters simply show up and go into a booth and cast their vote. A caucus functions quite differently and the process typically lasts much longer.
The process for the Iowa Republican caucus is actually fairly straightforward. Voters go to the designated location within their precinct where participants will plead the case for their particular candidate to try and attract people who are weakly committed or truly undecided. After all the campaigning is done, each person is then given a blank sheet of paper where they write down the candidate of their choice and place it in a ballot box. So, in a sense, it sort of acts like a “quasi-primary.” They then select delegates to go on to the county convention, where they then choose delegates for the district convention, and then new delegates are chosen for the State Convention, and then ultimately the National Convention. Delegates are technically considered unbounded, but tend to reflect the results of the caucus.
Does Iowa Produce Presidents?
There are some analysts who look down on the Hawkeye State and don’t feel that a state of 3 million people deserves the enormous attention that it gets every Presidential cycle. There’s also the belief that the nature of its caucus system only drags out voters who are the most active (which often represents the extremes of both parties) and thus, its participants represent views that are not in line with the majority of Americans. The question then becomes: does the winner of the Iowa caucus take that new momentum and capture the nomination and ultimately the Presidency?
If we look at a few examples from the last 40 years, the results are mixed.
In 1972, the ultra liberal George McGovern took a surprising 2nd in the Iowa Democratic Caucus. However, he was able to take this result, in addition to an unexpected 2nd in New Hampshire, to capture the party’s nomination-only to be trounced in an epic landslide by Pres. Nixon. Four years later, an unknown governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter basically made Iowa his 2nd home and surprised many when he won the Iowa caucus. His win gave him increased exposure and familiarity, which enabled him to also win the New Hampshire Primary. He then captured the nomination and defeated a weakened Gerald Ford for the Presidency.
Four year later, another unknown candidate named George H.W. Bush followed Carter’s strategy and placed a primary importance on Iowa and campaigned tirelessly throughout the state. His efforts were aided by the fact that Reagan, following the awful advice given to him by his campaign manager John Sears, campaigned for only a total of 40 hours in the state. Bush seized the opportunity and pulled off an incredible upset, besting the front-runner Reagan by 2%.
The win propelled Bush’s numbers in New Hampshire and put him ahead of Reagan in most polls in the state. His newfound “Big Mo” would have likely carried him to a victory in New Hampshire had there not been 5 weeks between contests. This gave Reagan just enough time to abandon the Sears playbook to criss-cross the state talking to voters- exercising his unparalled strength as a retail campaigner. And if Reagan hadn’t won New Hampshire, it’s almost certain he wouldn’t have become President.
Lastly, in 2008 Barack Obama shocked the political world when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Democratic Caucus. Though Hillary had been ahead of Obama by as much as 25-30% points in national polls, his campaign knew that if they won Iowa and a few of the other early primaries the national numbers would eventually change. A loss, on the other hand, would almost surely mean the end of his campaign and would only reinforce the feeling of “inevitability” surrounding Clinton’s nomination. Obama’s victory created a surge in donations, a rise in poll #s in New Hampshire, and also kept the super delegates at bay. He went on to narrowly defeat Hillary for the nomination and ultimately won the Presidency.
Though a win in Iowa doesn’t necessarily lead one to a party nomination or the Presidency, a very poor showing will certainly end one’s candidacy. Moreover, it’s impossible for an unknown candidate to afford skipping Iowa, and it’s extremely risky for a candidate with name recognition to do so. As Charles Cook states, “If you look at the last seven presidential elections, 13 out of 14 have gone to a candidate who won either the Iowa Caucus or New Hampshire primary or both.” So overall, the Iowa Caucus is an incredibly important first step in the nominating process and that will likely be the case for many years to come.
Is Retail Politics Still Key in Iowa?
Some analysts today contend that Iowa is becoming less and less dependent on grassroots mobilization and more focused on the use of “wholesale” politics that typically characterizes many large primary states. They point to the influence money plays in politics, the rise of social media, and the increasing role of advertising and commercials in recent elections. In 1996, Steve Forbes spent heavily on ad-buys leading up to the Iowa caucus, yet only mustered a disappointing 4th place finish. He recognized the importance of personal contact and organization and adjusted his strategy to include more time “on the ground.” And in 2000, he finished a strong 2nd behind eventual nominee and President George W. Bush.
Most operatives tend to agree that while new 21st century media tools such as Facebook or Twitter can help spread a candidate’s message and mobilize voters, nothing beats having boots on the ground, a strong organization, and personal contact with the candidate. Sarah Taylor of Freedom First (Pawlenty’s PAC) says that retail politics is still most important and grassroots is “absolutely essential.” Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt says that while these fairly new tools have been particularly effective in recent elections and shouldn’t be ignored, being competitive in the Iowa caucus demands actual face-to-face interaction with voters.
The first big test of a candidate’s organization comes at the Ames Straw Poll. It takes place in August in the year prior to the Iowa Caucus and brings people from all across the state in support of their candidate. Though the results have no bearing on the official Caucus, they can provide a real boost to a candidate’s campaign. Since its creation in 1979, the winner has gone on to capture the party’s nomination 2 out of 5 times, and 3 out of 5 times they’ve won the Iowa Caucus.
The genius Mike Allen of Politico stated recently that it’s a sure sign Governor Palin isn’t running because neither she, “nor anyone on her behalf is courting top donors, early-state activists, or experienced operatives-all of whom are getting locked down, day by day.” His brilliant analysis avoids the obvious: if Governor Palin is planning on running for President, she’s likely not going to be doing most of those things anway.
She’s going to do things her own way, following her unfailing instincts, and implementing her own playbook. Once she does, the state of Iowa won’t know what hit em’ and the other candidates won’t stand a chance.
Important Dates: Ames Straw Poll-August 13th 2011; Republican Iowa Caucus-February 6th, 2012
About the Author Mid 20s, independent, one of the organizers for the Chicago Meet-up, I've run 3 marathons including the Boston Marathon. Try to excel in everything I do. Love to read, a few books that helped shape my philosophy include Witness, The Way the World Works, and Atlas Shrugged. I think Sarah Palin would make a fantastic President.