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The Case for Iowa

By: Jon Lauck
December 26, 2011

A review of Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents, by Christopher Hull; 
The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, by Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford; and
Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process, by David P. Redlawsk, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan.

Lying in the heart of the Midwest is Iowa, known as the "purest of prairie states," which through happenstance and tradition has become the launching pad of most American presidential campaigns. Over the years, commentators and analysts have rebelled against Iowa's "first in the nation" status, but their objections seem increasingly obsolete. Political scientists are now beginning to recognize the value of Iowa and cite common-sense and fairly obvious reasons for maintaining Iowa's first-to-vote status.

In advance of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, which propelled Barack Obama toward his historic victory, Georgetown University professor Christopher Hull published the smart and persuasive Grassroots Rules, which reviews many of the debates about the Iowa caucuses, albeit using a somewhat repetitive pattern of rhetorical questions. Hull is impressed by the grassroots nature of the caucuses, Iowans' civic virtues, and the state's wealth of "social capital," a measure of civic attentiveness and participation made famous by political scientist Robert Putnam. Despite the importance of the Iowa caucuses to the presidential selection process, Hull notes the paucity of scholarship on the organization of caucus campaigns.

This shortage of research has been partially remedied by two new books: the third edition of Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford's The Iowa Precinct Caucuses (2010), and David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert, and Todd Donovan's Why Iowa?(2010) Winebrenner, a retired political scientist from Drake University in Des Moines, had published his first account of the caucuses in September 1987 in advance of the lively 1988 Iowa caucuses, and for the recently released third edition, authored most of the book's chapters. Among the rather select group of scholars who have published books on the Iowa caucuses (until now, these books have included only Christopher Hull's Grassroots Rules, the three editions of Winebrenner's book, and an edited volume by political scientist Peverill Squire), the Winebrenner book is a well-cited classic. With close-to-the-action analysis, it discusses the events that converged to make Iowans the first to vote in 1972 and made the caucuses a more prominent event in succeeding years. Most of his chapters focus on the unique twists and turns of each of the quadrennial caucuses.

Winebrenner, however, does little to address Iowa's history beyond briefly mentioning that the caucus system was adopted in 1846 as a product of the Jacksonian democracy of the early 1830s. In a chapter added for the third edition, the book does discuss Iowa's political culture, but this refers to contemporary attitudes on present day issues of perceived importance, not to the origins and historical developments that make Iowa unique. Although he reviews polling on the death penalty, gay marriage, abortion, and other hot button issues, he also notes, more interestingly, that Iowans are patriotic and self-deprecating and that they genuinely like their state and its small town orientation. He explains that "Iowa political culture fosters the idea of limited government," that the "work ethic and individual self-reliance are still firmly entrenched in the Iowa political culture," and that public service and citizenship are "viewed as the duty of citizens" of Iowa, but he does not explain why.

Winebrenner does not focus on the more important point-that Iowa is a good and decent place and thus a fine and reasonable location for the first test of presidential candidates. He notes that Iowa's "politics are clean and competitive," that the "state is politically competitive and the political arena is fair and open," and that "Iowa is located in the geographic middle or center of the nation, and its people are politically, economically, and socially moderate." Iowa's small-town nature fosters community and the state is characterized by high literacy rates and low crime. He also notes that many Iowans are politically independent and that voter turnout is high. In 2008, 99% of Iowans were registered to vote, compared to 74% of Americans nationally. Winebrenner concludes that in "indexes of citizen participation, Iowa consistently ranks high among the fifty states, which is further evidence of the strong moralistic influence in the state's political culture." Thus, he makes the case, perhaps inadvertently, for Iowa's privileged status primarily based on the seriousness with which Iowans take politics and their overall democratic spirit.


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In contrast to The Iowa Precinct Caucuses's air of doubt and foreboding, Why Iowa? straightforwardly endorses the Iowa caucuses, albeit with qualifications. In the end, the authors advance the unremarkable theses that "rules matter," meaning that campaigns tailor their approach with an eye towards promoting the grassroots organization necessary in a caucus setting. They define grassroots politics as candidate-voter meetings, campaign visits to Iowa, and canvassing through phone calls, e-mails, mailings, and candidate visits. Barack Obama was the victor in Iowa, they argue, because his grassroots organization was geared towards a caucus system, and that his strong fundraising helped finance his organizational efforts. In other words, in terms of grassroots campaigning, organization and money reinforce each other.

Moreover, they also note that the sequential nature of the presidential nomination process is important: the outcome of the first state's primary has an effect on subsequent contests. This sequential impact of Iowa as the first state in the nation to vote is explained by noting that successful candidates then appear more "viable" to voters in following contests.

Why Iowa? proves its theses but, importantly, also provides substantial evidence demonstrating Iowa's democratic nature and justifying Iowa's first-to-vote status. In their study, the authors find that caucuses favor grassroots campaigning and promote thoughtfulness among voters. This process in turn improves the candidates by forcing them to "build effective organizations, spend time in living rooms and VFW halls, and engage in retail politics, meeting voters face to face." This is in contrast to the primary system, wherein candidates can depend much more on the advantages gained by money and television advertising. Furthermore, the authors argue that the caucus system requires, "a kind of campaign that seems part of a bygone era, but which ultimately strengthens successful candidates and provides more information about all candidates, not only to Iowans but to all voters." The Iowa caucuses also foster a broad participatory effect by "identifying party supporters and bringing them into the system." In 2008, for example, half of caucus-goers were first timers, and previous attendance records for both parties were shattered, showing that the caucuses were not dominated by party elites, but by ordinary Iowans. Finally, the socioeconomic profile of caucus-goers in 2008 was the same as registered Iowa voters generally, showing that the caucuses were again demonstrative of ordinary Iowans, and not dominated by party elites or political activists.


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Despite the overwhelming evidence presented in Why Iowa? showing the democratic nature of Iowa and its caucuses, misgivings about the justification for Iowa's prominent place in the nomination process have often been expressed, especially by coastal critics who question Iowa's representative-ness. Winebrenner notes, for example, that Iowa has a strong agrarian cast and that it has fewer minorities than other states. In response to this critique, Redlawsk's new analysis of the 2008 vote found that caucus-goers were demographically similar to non-caucus-goers; that Iowa is economically similar to the rest of the country; and that Iowa is "essentially the most average of states." The charge of activist domination occasionally leveled is also questionable. In 2008, caucus-goers said they were drawn by "candidates and issues" and 75% said they were not "particularly active in their party." Why Iowa? notes that 95% of respondents to the authors' telephone survey said they caucused because it was "the right thing to do," meaning their participation was fostered out of a sense of civic duty. The caucuses also forced candidates to interact with the voters. In 2008, 56% of caucus-goers had actually met a presidential candidate.

Though Iowa is quite representative by several measures, pure equivalence as a standard is impossible since all states have particular dynamics and dissimilarities in their political culture. It is better to ask whether or not the process is open and fair, which few observers-if any-have questioned in regards to the Iowa caucus system. This openness, the state's demonstrated democratic qualities, and the strong sense of civic obligation, make Iowa as good a place as any to start the presidential selection process.

The early history of the modern Iowa caucus also helps make the case. The Iowa caucuses were elevated to their current status largely by accident-because the 1972 national Democratic convention was held early, in July, and because the law required the various stages of the Iowa caucus process to be separated by thirty days. As a result, Democrats in Iowa had to hold their 1972 caucuses in January. This early schedule naturally caught the attention of presidential contenders.

The results of the Iowa caucuses since 1972 point to several contradictory conclusions: underfunded upstarts can, at times, get a boost and go on to win the nomination (George McGovern and Jimmy Carter); underfunded upstarts can get a boost out of Iowa and loose the nomination (Gary Hart and Mike Huckabee); hard work and extensive time on the ground can produce a victory (George H.W. Bush and Dick Gephardt); frontrunners can be toppled or seriously weakened (Ed Muskie, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton); perceived establishment candidates can perform well (Walter Mondale and Bob Dole); regional connections can benefit a candidate (McGovern, Mondale, Gephardt, Paul Simon, Dole, Obama); knowledge of agriculture can help a campaign (McGovern, Carter, Dole, Gephardt); late surges can happen (Lamar Alexander, John Kerry, Obama); and perceived electability can aid candidates (Alexander and George W. Bush). On the latter, one study concludes that "Iowa activists were primarily concerned with nominating a winner," belying claims about the ideological purity of caucus voters. The broader conclusion about caucus results is that they are inconclusive: any candidate can emerge the victor and the results are unpredictable. In an open process where candidates travel the state, meet voters, work hard, debate their opponents, and grapple with contingencies, one should expect nothing less.


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For people in Iowa, perhaps more than in other states, a candidate's pedigree and prejudices are relevant, and can play a role in the electoral outcome. Hillary Clinton's contempt and snobbery in the 2008 election was surely detectable, and may have lead the former frontrunner to her distant third place finish. Being from a rural, neighboring state seems to help a candidate's chances, which may give credence to the critics of the fairness of Iowa, but it also gives a political voice to the Midwest in campaigns which are often focused on the coasts. Long-time Des Moines Register reporter David Yepsen noted that "[o]ne pattern that appears to be developing in the Iowa caucuses is a preference for Midwestern, or at least rural-oriented candidates. George McGovern of South Dakota, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Richard Gephardt of Missouri have all done well in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. But so did that Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter." Yepsen recently noted that "politicians in the Midwest know how to campaign to people in the Midwest. The audiences demographically are much the same."

Presidential candidates from the prairie Midwest may have enjoyed somewhat of a regional advantage in the past, but Carter (twice), George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Kerry make this much less than an iron-clad rule. Even if, however, the Midwestern candidate advantage were true, this would be acceptable, since it would be good to give the Midwest a loud voice in the presidential selection process, especially in an age in which the coastal media dominates the cultural and political discourse. As Why Iowa? notes, the Iowa caucuses force coastal media elites to visit "Middle America, a place that many have never visited." Iowa serves as a proxy for the wider Midwest and helps to make the presidential selection process more representative of the interests of Middle America. Iowa bears the weight of this representation burden well, as demonstrated by its record of civic obligation, open elections, and fair politics. The historian Dorothy Schwieder says that Iowa has "a sense of rootedness...that implies stability, permanence, and continuity; there is also a centeredness that connotes balance in both perspective and behavior. At the same time, Iowans are not known for showiness, glitz, or hype." Iowans have a healthy sense of place, unlike some transient, coastal Americans. The historian Laurence Lafore once noted that "Iowans always speak of themselves as Iowans."

This sense of grounding contributes to the decency of Iowa's political culture. The political scientist Samuel Patterson says the "dominant Iowa political style can be described as highly pragmatic, non-programmatic, cautious, and moderate", while the historian Joseph Wall properly concluded that the state could "boast proudly of the golden mean that is Iowa." Iowa is a good state, in other words, to begin the process of choosing the president of the American republic.