caucuses: Perception becomes reality
Iowa Presidential Politics.com
The Iowa caucuses were boosted from an obscure
local affair into national media attention and political prominence
after a series
of reforms in the Iowa Democratic Party led to the state’s
caucuses becoming the first presidential nominating event in the
Before 1972, the Iowa caucuses were held in the middle of the presidential
nominating process, stimulating little if any national attention. Local political
activists and party leaders dominated the event, leaving the caucuses largely
unnoticed even within the state. Without its current status as the first indicator
of how the presidential candidates are doing, Iowa played a small and relatively
role in the race to the White House.
In The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event,
author Hugh Winebrenner argues that citizens of the state, particularly caucus
not representative of the typical American, with Iowa political participants
being older, wealthier,
more educated, partisan, liberal and ideological than their counterparts in
other states (p. 22). Iowa’s small minority population and its emphasis
on agricultural issues further kept it from being a characteristic state that
might show how
the presidential election would turn out (p. 21).
All of these factors didn’t seem to matter to the national media, however,
when the Democratic Party changed the date of the caucuses to January 24
in 1972, placing them before the New Hampshire primaries on the political calendar.
Suddenly, flocks of reporters and news organizations headed to Iowa, looking
to the caucus results to see how the presidential candidates fared and how
their Iowa showing
might impact their future campaigns.
The Democratic caucus process was not suited to produce clear-cut
winners and losers, Winebrenner said (p. 39). Although voters cast a single
vote for the presidential candidate
of their choice in a primary, caucus attendees are part of a more complicated
process that ultimately determines what percentage of each candidate’s
supporters will be sent to the county-level convention as delegates.
In Iowa’s many precincts, Democratic caucus participants initially group
together with others who support their presidential candidate. If their candidate
doesn’t receive 15 percent of the vote at that site, the candidate is
viable, and his or her supporters will regroup with other candidates’ supporters.
Bargaining is common, with groups often promising supporters of non-viable
candidates county delegate positions if they join a particular group and
give that contender
an impressive showing.
Because of these negotiations and the fact that delegates are subject to a
change of heart between the caucus date and the state and national party conventions,
Winebrenner said the caucuses are not a reliable or valid indication of a presidential
strength (p. 255).
surrounding the caucuses is often misleading but significant
in the nation’s perception of the candidate’s potential
to win the party’s nomination. The media focus on the candidate’s
organization in the state and whether the candidates meet the expectations
that both their
own campaigns and the press have set for them on caucus night.
one of the top three contenders in Iowa has always become the party’s
presidential nominee, so finishing fourth in Iowa could be fatal for a candidate’s
campaign. Failing to meet expectations can be just as deadly, even for candidates
who “win” Iowa
by a surprisingly small margin when a sweeping victory is projected.
Though the Iowa caucuses have been known to break candidates, they have
also been able to make them. Sen. George McGovern’s strong grass-roots
effort in the 1972 Democratic caucuses led to an impressive showing against
Sen. Edmund Muskie, bringing McGovern greater media attention and helping
him to emerge as a strong and viable candidate for the nomination. Meanwhile,
campaign struggled to regain the limelight and prove it was heading in
the right direction.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter reinforced the idea that in a caucus state, a dark-horse
candidate could become the front-runner through extensive local campaigning.
Other than in the South, the former Georgia governor was unknown and not
expected to have significant returns in Iowa. Through persistence and investing
in Iowa, however, Carter was able to capture the state and the attention
the national media, elevating his campaign to a whole new level.
then, presidential candidates have modeled their campaigns after Carter’s,
hoping to capitalize on the media interest that results from putting
a lot of effort
into Iowa and doing well in its caucuses.
The Iowa Republican Party decided in 1976 to move their caucuses to
the same date as the Democratic Party’s, hoping to share in the
media spotlight. Ever since, the parties have agreed to hold their caucuses
on the same day in
order to bring positive attention, economic benefits and political prominence
to the state. Both parties have worked with the Chamber of Commerce,
local businesses and the media to make the most of Iowa’s claim
The Republican caucuses run slightly differently than the Democratic
caucuses. Rather than split into preference groups, Republican caucus
cast a secret ballot for the presidential candidate of their choice.
these candidates are then allocated proportional to the number of votes
that candidate received. Without the 15 percent viability rule that Democrats
have, the negotiations problem is eliminated, but the probability that
may change their mind between the caucus date and future conventions
is just as likely.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have adapted to the media’s
need for clear-cut results. Media outlets, independent groups and even
the parties themselves conduct straw polls throughout the Iowa campaigning
process. The Democratic
Party provides weighted delegate equivalent results to reporters to try
to simplify their outcomes.
serve to document the candidates’ progress
from their first visits to the state to their caucus night turnouts.
In this way, Iowa serves as a testing ground for the contenders to see
have the stamina and resources necessary to advance in their campaigns.
For the most part, the Iowa caucuses have acted as a media event, boosting “winners” to
new political heights, from Carter’s presidency in 1976 to George
H.W. Bush’s nomination as vice president in 1980 (p. 261). Only
once since Iowa has held its caucuses the earliest has the state not
received a significant
When Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran for president in 1992, the press decided
the state’s likelihood to vote for its “favorite son” would
take the drama and importance out of the race.
Recognizing the impact of the Iowa caucuses on the presidential nominating
process, other states have tried to move their primaries forward to
rival the January
event. Though the primary season has been front-loaded, Iowa has still
been able to maintain its first-in-the-nation status.
of the nominating
schedule and success of Steve Forbes’ television ads in 1996,
however, have lessened the potential of an Iowa victory for dark-horse
such as Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996 are prime examples
of how contenders have recovered from losses in the Iowa caucuses
the high but almost necessary cost of television advertising makes
it difficult for a less-financed candidate to emerge as Carter was
able to do.
Even so, the media continue to extensively cover the Iowa caucuses,
considering them the earliest evidence of the progress each presidential
has made in his or her campaign. Though the results are often misleading
unreliable, reporters use them to interpret who is winning and losing
the race, affecting
and the candidates’ chances for success further down the road
The Iowa caucuses, then, are a collaborative effort between the state
parties, presidential candidates and media in which perception,
rather than reality,
is enough to send one candidate packing and another to the White
Shelbi Thomas at [email protected].