The Iowa Caucuses

A Historical Look at the Iowa Caucuses

As the first two contests of the 2016 campaign season, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries will receive disproportionate attention from the media. Actually, "disproportionate" is a bit of an understatement—according to the political scientist Richard M. Perloff, those two states will account for slightly more media coverage than all of the other 48 states' primaries combined. A win in either state will be seen as an important triumph (at least, for anyone not named Hillary). A loss will lead to pointed questions about a candidate's viability (especially for anyone named Hillary). Are these responses correct, though? Let's start by looking at Iowa.

First, a bit of history. Iowa has been holding caucuses since achieving statehood in the 1840s. For more than a century, those caucuses took place squarely in the middle of campaign season, and were of relatively little interest outside the state. Then, in 1968, the Democratic National Convention devolved into a violent fiasco. A great many Democrats were unhappy with the ultimate nominee, the liberal Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. In response, the Iowa Democratic Party moved its caucus to the beginning of the campaign season in 1972, hoping to impose more "order" on the nomination process and to make sure the nominee was the "right type" of candidate. The Iowa Republican Party followed suit in 1976, and Iowa has led off the campaign calendar ever since.

So, what kind of candidate is the "right type" for Iowa? Well, the state is overwhelmingly white and middle class, with a high rate of home ownership. It skews conservative on the whole, such that Iowa's Democrats are relatively centrist (but with some populists) and its Republicans are fairly right wing. Like most voters, Iowans have a geographic bias, resulting in a preference for candidates with ties to the Midwest. Perhaps most importantly, the state's two largest industries are agriculture and renewable energy. Iowans are thus very, very supportive of the $4 billion in ethanol subsidies they receive from the federal government each year so that they can (inefficiently) turn corn into fuel.

As the table below shows, Iowa Democrats have bestowed their blessing upon their party's ultimate nominee five times in nine contested races since 1972. Two misses since the 1970s can be explained entirely by geography; the voters preferred Tom Harkin, a native son, over Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992, and Dick Gephardt, a neighbor from Missouri, over the New Englander Michael Dukakis in 1988. Barack Obama's win in 2008 may seem an anomaly, given his ethnicity, but he was strongly pro-ethanol at a time when Hillary Clinton was regularly denouncing the subsidies (17 different times from the floor of the U.S. Senate). She has conveniently changed her mind on that question, and that—coupled with the fact that none of the other Democratic contenders are Midwesterners— will help her in 2016. Nevertheless, Iowa Democrats also have a populist streak, so social democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has a decent shot at it in 2016. In 1972 and 1976, uncommitted delegates to the DNC beat the eventual nominee.

On the other side of the aisle, the dynamic is a bit more interesting. In the first few elections after the calendar change, the Iowa caucus held little significance in Republican politics. Gerald Ford did not bother to visit the state in 1976, nor did Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Gipper did make a single visit in 1984 as a courtesy to Iowans who felt "snubbed," even though there was no caucus that year. George H. W. Bush followed Reagan's lead in 1988, visiting once, while Bob Dole—another Midwesterner—and Pat Robertson spent a great deal of time and money connecting with Iowans. The result was a humiliating, distant third-place finish for Bush 41, followed by newspapers wondering what had gone wrong since he won the state in 1980, and speculating that he would not be able to overcome the "wimp factor." Bush bounced back, of course, but 1988 taught an important lesson, particularly to second-tier candidates: For some campaigns, the Iowa caucuses present an opportunity to be exploited.

Today, of course, presidential hopefuls spend so much time in Iowa that they might as well have their mail forwarded there. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) has already made 16 visits this year, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has made 15, Donald Trump has made 11, and no one in the Republican field has made fewer than six. Simply being present is not enough, however. A candidate also has to have a way to connect with voters. The two easiest are to be a Midwesterner, or to be a "values conservative," though Iowans also have a taste for those who would simplify the tax code.

The most difficult hurdle to clear is Iowa's complicated caucus process. For a thorough explanation of how the caucuses work, see this site from the Des Moines Register. The short version is that voters from each party gather in each of Iowa's 1,700+ precincts and try to reach consensus on a candidate. An extremely well-organized campaign with a strong ground game can impose itself upon the process, but this takes a great deal of time along with extensive resources.

Because of the potential for the caucuses to be "gamed" by the right candidate, Iowa has seen some rather anomalous results on the Republican side since the 1980s: wins for Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, top three finishes for Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Ron Paul. None of these individuals had any hope of being nominated; most were done by the time Super Tuesday was over.

One thing that Iowa does fairly well is separate the wheat (corn?) from the chaff. Minor candidates with little money and less name recognition hope that if they trudge through the snow long enough they will catch lightning in a bottle. It happened to Rick Santorum in 2012 and to Mike Huckabee in 2008, so it does happen. But if the lightning hits some random distant lightning rod instead, minor candidates often realize the show is over and drop out. With 17 Republicans in the mix this year, if all of them last until Feb. 1 (unlikely) it is doubtful that all of them will even make it to New Hampshire the following week. Although its predictive record is not stellar, Iowa does serve a useful function in convincing the candidates that have no chance that indeed they have no chance.

Next February, then, the remaining second- and third-tier candidates who fare poorly in Iowa will likely see their campaigns wind down. Meanwhile, those who survive and thrive—Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and Donald Trump currently seem the likeliest possibilities—should still be viewed with skepticism, until they demonstrate that they can win a contest less subject to gamesmanship.

In the tables below, the eventual nominees are shown in boldface type. The fourth column, "Prediction" indicates whether Iowa got it right or wrong concerning the nominee. In summary, for the Democrats, Iowa got 5 out of 9 right and for the Republicans the state got 3 out of 7 right. So on February 2, 2016, when you hear pundits braying that so-and-so is the clear nominee because Iowa says so, take it with a grain (or better yet, a bushel) of salt.

Year Iowa Dem Winner Runner(s)-Up (Minimum 5%, except as noted) Prediction?
2012   No viable opposition  
2008 Barack Obama (38%) John Edwards (30%), Hillary Rodham Clinton (30%) Right
2004 John Kerry (38%) John Edwards (32%), Howard Dean (18%), Richard "Dick" Gephardt (11%) Right
2000 Al Gore (63%) Bill Bradley (37%) Right
1996   No viable opposition, so no caucus was held  
1992 Tom Harkin (76%) [Note: Paul Tsongas (4%), Bill Clinton (3%)] Wrong
1988 Dick Gephardt (31%) Paul Simon (27%), Michael Dukakis (22%), Bruce Babbitt (6%) Wrong
1984 Walter Mondale (49%) Gary Hart (17%), George McGovern (10%), Alan Cranston (7%) Right
1980 Jimmy Carter (59%) Ted Kennedy (31%) Right
1976 Uncommitted (37%) Jimmy Carter (28%) Birch Bayh (13%), Fred R. Harris (10%), Morris Udall (6%) Wrong
1972 Uncommitted (36%) Edmund Muskie (36%), George McGovern (23%) Wrong

Year Iowa GOP Winner Runner(s)-Up (Minimum 5%, except as noted) Prediction?
2012 Rick Santorum (25%) Mitt Romney (25%), Ron Paul (21%), Newt Gingrich (13%), Rick Perry (10%), Michele Bachmann (5%) Wrong
2008 Mike Huckabee (34%) Mitt Romney (25%), Fred D. Thompson (13%), John McCain (13%), Ron Paul (10%) Wrong
2004   No viable opposition, so no caucus was held  
2000 George W. Bush (41%) Steve Forbes (30%), Alan Keyes (14%), Gary Bauer (9%), John McCain (5%) Right
1996 Bob Dole (26%) Pat Buchanan (23%), Lamar Alexander (18%), Steve Forbes (10%), Phil Gramm (9%), Alan Keyes (7%) Right
1988 Bob Dole (37%) Pat Robertson (25%), George H. W. Bush (19%), Jack Kemp (11%), Pete DuPont (7%) Wrong
1984   No viable opposition, so no caucus was held  
1980 George H. W. Bush (32%) Ronald Reagan (30%), Howard Baker (15%), John Connally (9%), Phil Crane (7%) Wrong
1976 Gerald Ford (45%) Ronald Reagan (43%) Right

-- Zenger