The History of the Iowa Caucuses

Roundup: Media's Take

Excerpts from David Yepsen's history of the Iowa Caucus, published in the Des Moines Register:

Iowa's precinct caucuses became an early, if controversial, test of strength for major party presidential candidates during the 1970s and 1980s. Other states and critics seek to limit their significance, and Iowa works to resist those efforts.

Since they become nationally significant in 1972, the Iowa caucuses have provided important early boosts to George McGovern in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1976; George Bush in 1980; and Gary Hart in 1984. Caucus losses have slowed many other candidates. Iowa political leaders often say Iowans have the job of reducing the field of presidential candidates for the rest of the nation.

The caucuses weren't always an early test of presidential candidate strength. They became important because, in 1968, the Democratic Party was torn apart by controversies over the Vietnam War. Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes was selected to chair a national Democratic Party commission to open up the party to more people and minority groups who felt left out of the party affairs. The Democrats adopted a series of rules requiring that plenty of notice be given about meetings and that party members be given plenty of time to discuss platform resolutions.

To accomplish this and still hold their state convention in June, state Democratic leaders decided to hold their caucuses in late January. A young campaign manager for an obscure presidential candidate that year was Gary Hart and he decided to exploit that decision. He was the leader of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign. Hart was looking for a way for his candidate to get some media attention before the important New Hampshire primary and thought the vote taken at the Iowa caucuses in 1972 would provide him with that attention. McGovern organized in Iowa and finished close behind Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. That result surprised political reporters and McGovern received his boost of media attention.

This was also an example of the "expectations game" played by candidates in the caucuses. They hope to do better than reporters and politicians expect in order to garner extensive media attention. A finish that was expected, or that was worse than expected, has sometimes proved harmful to a candidate.

In 1975-1976, an unknown former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, expanded McGovern's strategy and campaigned extensively in Iowa and won. After he won the presidency, his Iowa strategy was quickly adopted by other candidates. Carter attributed some of his success to his favorable finish in Iowa.

Also in 1976, Iowa Republicans agreed to hold their caucuses on the same night as the Democrats, primarily to capture some of the media attention. President Gerald Ford's narrow victory over Ronald Reagan in a straw poll in sample precincts was taken as an early sign of Ford's weakness as a candidate.

In 1980, Republican George Bush upset front runner Ronald Reagan for the nomination in Iowa. Reagan and Bush fought a long battle for the GOP nomination. After Reagan won, he turned to Bush as his running mate to heal the party. The two later defeated Carter in the November election. Once again, Iowa was credited with giving Bush an early boost.

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