Here's Why the Iowa Caucuses Are First — And Why That's Unlikely to Change

Here's Why the Iowa Caucuses Are First — And Why That's Unlikely to Change

After years of flesh-pressing, fundraising and breathless speculation, the moment has arrived. On Monday night, Iowa will have its say in the first-in-the-nation caucuses, kicking off the presidential nominating process and shaping the narrative for the contests that follow.

And with the arrival of the Hawkeye State's caucuses comes the quadrennial question: Why Iowa?

More specifically, why should a state that's 92.1% white, largely rural and sharply polarized between progressive activists and hard-core conservatives consistently enjoy its sacrosanct position on the political calendar, particularly amid growing national diversity and the increasing urbanization of American life?

How we got here: Iowa's privileged position dates back five decades.

Riven by divisions over the Vietnam War, the party's 1968 convention in Chicago witnessed violent clashes between police officers and anti-war demonstrators. Following the nomination of pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey despite growing anti-war sentiment, there was a groundswell of support in the Democratic Party for reforming the nominating process and making it more open.

Through the 1960s, state primaries played only a small role in selecting the parties' nominees. The real battle came at the parties' summer conventions, where wheeling and dealing often led to considerable suspense, but at the expense of a more open and democratic nomination process. After the Democrats' 1968 defeat, a commission headed by Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Rep. Donald Fraser of Minnesota drew up a set of reforms to give ordinary delegates a greater role in the Democrats' nomination process. The goal, as political scientist Scott Piroth put it, was to ensure that nominating contests were no longer mere "beauty contests."

Enter the 1972 Iowa caucuses. Giving their state newfound relevance — but likely not realizing how they'd reshape the nomination process for decades to come — officials in the state's Democratic Party moved to place Iowa's caucuses before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. They did so in part because Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa was seen as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, and Hughes supporters figured that if Iowa had its say first, that would give the senator a boost, according to David Yepsen, who was a reporter and columnist for the Des Moines Register for 34 years, and is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Hughes opted not to run, but another anti-war Midwesterner did: McGovern, who'd helped shepherd the party's post-1968 reforms. McGovern and his campaign manager Gary Hart, later a senator from Colorado and two-time presidential candidate himself, saw Iowa as crucial to their hopes of upsetting the establishment frontrunner, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.

"They had this idea that we should go to Iowa and make a splash," Yepsen told Mic

"Uncommitted" actually came first that in 1972, with 35.8% of Democratic caucusgoers choosing not to decide on a candidate, with Muskie close behind at 35.5%. But McGovern's strong 22.6% showing changed the contours of the Democratic race, Yepsen said, and helped Iowa retain its coveted position.

"The national political community said, 'What happened in Iowa was telling us something,'" he said. "It told us Muskie was weak. It told us about the power of the anti-war movement."

McGovern parlayed his impressive showing into later victories, ultimately clinching the nomination but going down to a landslide defeat to incumbent President Richard Nixon.

Jimmy who? Things turned out a bit differently for a little-known former Georgia governor four years later. 

When Jimmy Carter entered the 1976 Democratic primary race, his chief opponent was obscurity; the punchline at the time went that the peanut farmer's name was actually "Jimmy Who?"

But as McGovern's 1972 bid attested, Iowa was a proving ground for long-shot candidates, and Carter worked assiduously to court the state's Democrats, calculating that a win in the state could vault him from virtual anonymity to the highest office in the land.

"Carter was, at the beginning, literally at the bottom of the heap," Michael Mauro, Carter's driver in the Hawkeye State and later Iowa's secretary of state, recalled in a podcast about the history of the caucuses with Des Moines Register reporter Jason Noble. "He put together a networking campaign across the state with ... not very much money and [would] just go and meet people on a personal, one-to-one basis."

Meeting Iowa Democrats at their farms, in their living rooms and in small diners, Carter became a known entity in the state — known enough to come within 10 points of "Uncommitted" on caucus night. The final tally: "Uncommitted" won with 37.2%, followed by Carter at 27.6%, Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana at 13.2% and Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma at 9.9%.

"It sort of builds on itself," Yepsen said, recounting Carter's path to victory over his Democratic rivals and then President Gerald Ford. "He went the distance. This unknown guy wins Iowa and then becomes president." Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) followed a similar path in 2008.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation status hasn't been lost since the days of bell-bottoms and disco balls.

In jeopardy? Given the state's relative demographic homogeneity, there is no shortage of calls for the state to be dethroned from its exalted perch. And given that Monday night's caucuses may well go to anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump or Ted Cruz on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, some speculate that Iowa's status could be imperiled if it sets those candidates on the path to their parties' nomination this year.

Don't count on it, Yepsen told Mic.

It's true, he said, that the Democratic and GOP caucuses are both dominated by the most fervent elements of the parties' bases — in part because the state is polarized between conservative, rural areas and more educated metropolitan areas like Des Moines and Iowa City, and also because participating in a caucus meeting requires more time and commitment than simply filling out a secret ballot. That aids very liberal and very conservative candidates, Yepsen said, but sheer "inertia" is likely to keep Iowa right where it is.

"I've heard that every four years: 'This is the last time, they'll do away with it,'" he said. "Historically it goes something like this: Inertia keeps Iowa first. Everybody hates Iowa — 'it's too atypical, why them, they're not special' — but the country cannot agree on an alternative. If you move it to another state, then that state assumes exaggerated importance."

What's more, Yepsen told Mic, even losing candidates have a vested interest in maintaining Iowa's unique role.

"Losing candidates will have a political infrastructure there," Yepsen said, pointing to candidates like former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who finished a strong second in the 2004 Democratic caucuses and beat Hillary Clinton for second place there four years later, never having kept his eye off the state. Should Cruz lose the state to Trump and mount a second White House bid in 2020, Yepsen said, he'd likely benefit from years of ties to evangelical leaders and conservative groups in the state. 

But not all candidates have parlayed past Iowa success into future triumph. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the winners of the GOP caucuses in 2008 and 2012, are both running this year, and they're averaging only 3.1% and 1.1% support respectively, according to the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls.

Of course, the Trump candidacy dramatically reshaped the race, upending the best-laid plans of candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who briefly led the polls in the Hawkeye State but dropped out in September amid dismal debate performances, a plunge in the polls and anemic finances. 

Favoring large, raucous rallies over meet-and-greets in diners, Trump hasn't run a traditional Iowa campaign. But even the billionaire tycoon has had to adapt to Iowa's campaign mores, Yepsen said, noting that he's held several smaller, less flashy events as the caucuses have drawn near.

Will it matter? So what will Monday's results tell us about who will emerge victorious in November?

Perhaps not much, as figures compiled by ABC News show. Since 1980, George W. Bush is the only non-incumbent Republican to win Iowa and then go on to capture the presidency, while Obama is the only non-incumbent Democrat since Carter in 1976 to win Iowa and then the presidency. 

Among Republicans, only Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996 won Iowa in contested nomination battles and then went on to secure the GOP nod. Democrats who win Iowa tend to have better luck down the road. Since Carter's nomination, only Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) in 1988 and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 1992 have won the caucuses but then lost the nomination. 

This much is clear: Americans will wake up to a new set of facts on Tuesday morning. But amid an election season that's already ranked among the most unpredictable in recent history, Iowa will only mark the beginning of what may be a topsy-turvy journey to the party conventions this summer.

And you can count on this: Four years from now, the eyes of the nation will once again be trained on the pastoral fields of Iowa.