Five months before the July Democratic National Convention, when there’s still snow on the ground, Iowans traditionally gather across the state in school gymnasiums, community centers and other locations to decide who in their party they support for president.
Some other states don’t have their primaries until June, a month before the national convention. So why does Iowa start so early? More importantly, out of all the states, why is Iowa first?
The answer to those questions involves a little bit of pragmatism, a little bit of political conflict, and, these days, a strong desire to stick to tradition.
Iowa has almost always held caucuses for presidential selection rather than the primary system used in other states like New Hampshire, which is the second state to vote on presidential picks. But it wasn’t always first in the nation.
Roots in the 1960s
After the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, the DNC decided it needed to open up its process to lessen the power of party leaders and involve more grassroots activists. That paved the way for the shake-up that led to Iowa moving to first on the calendar.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Democrats in Iowa said they were frustrated with the state’s caucus system, which they felt was run by party bosses and didn’t respond to grassroots voices and desires.
Changes to address this problem involved holding separate district and state conventions, which meant that the whole caucus process needed to start earlier.
Kathie Obradovich, the Register’s opinion editor, speaking for a video about Iowa’s caucus history, says that “the old story is that they figured out how long it would take to print all the paperwork on their elderly mimeograph machine.”
So Iowa was first.
When did the caucuses become powerful?
The question remained: who cared? In 1972, Gary Hart cared. Obradovich recounts the story: “In the 1972 presidential race, Sen. George McGovern’s campaign was managed by a young political whiz kid named Gary Hart. Hart noticed that Iowa was going to be first in the nation and decided to make a bid here as a way to get (McGovern) a media boost before the New Hampshire primary. It worked.”
In 1976, Jimmy Carter replicated McGovern’s success. The media paid attention paid to his performance in Iowa and it illustrated the caucuses as an important metric of a candidate’s strength. Carter went on to become president.
But Iowa had to fight for its right to be first
However, this first-in-the-nation status wasn’t set in stone.
Prompted by Carter’s re-election loss in 1980, the national Democratic Party theorized that the drawn-out nomination process was more of a hindrance than a help to their party’s nominee. They rolled out new rules that would restrict how early any state’s nomination processes could be held, but still allowed Iowa to caucus first. At that point, it seemed like everyone was happy.
Then, Vermont moved up the date of its straw poll. In response, New Hampshire made its primary earlier. In defiance of the national party, Iowa chose to move the caucuses earlier than its nationally assigned date to maintain the buffer between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
In November of 1983, with the caucuses (whatever their date was to be) soon approaching, state party officials gathered to resolve the disagreement and vote on the official date. Those in favor of the earlier date wanted to preserve both Iowa and New Hampshire’s unique roles in the nomination process. Those in favor of the later date wanted the whole process shortened to help the eventual nominee.
The party leaders voted 20-10 for the earlier date. Iowa’s status as first in the nation was, at least for the moment, secured.
“Today,” Obradovich said, “Iowa caucuses are first-in-the-nation mainly because the state insists on remaining first.”
because of the outsized media attention on Iowa, many candidates build their strategy around it, seeing it as a way to give them a catapult of momentum through the primaries. Barack Obama credits the Iowa caucuses for giving him the initial momentum that propelled him to the White House.
As long as the state is first, it’s seen as the first serious litmus test of a candidate. And as Iowa indicates or influences later success, candidates will keep coming, journalists will keep reporting, and in February, the eyes of the nation will stay on Iowa.
Clare Ulmer is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or at 515-284-8724.
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