David P. Redlawsk: Did Iowa matter?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David P. Redlawsk is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa and Director of the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll.]

Well, it’s been four weeks since the Iowa Caucuses. I considered writing my analysis of the caucus results immediately after it was over, but in retrospect I am glad other things intervened. Of course a month still doesn’t provide that much perspective, but given the pace of this year’s nominating contest, I think we have a pretty good amount to go on right now.

So, did Iowa matter?

That’s the big question around here. For all the attention, hoopla, excitement, and crowds, what did Iowa mean in the end? There’s been some debate in political science circles over the years about this question, and the best recent summary of it is to be found in Christopher Hull’s new book, Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents. While I take some issue with some of Hull’s analysis, overall he argues that Iowa has become more important recently due to its role in providing online momentum (e-mentum, he calls it). Overall he makes a good case that grassroots politics is the name of the game in Iowa, and that Iowa results impact the rest of the nomination process.

Well, what about 2008? On its face it looks like Iowa did NOT play much role in the actual crowning of frontrunners. Granted Barack Obama did win Iowa, but at the moment much of the smart money is on Clinton winning the nomination, and she was third in Iowa. As for the Republicans, it appears to have been all downhill since Iowa for Mike Huckabee. So it’s hard to argue Iowa coronated anyone. It is however clear that Iowa did some of its traditional weeding out – Biden and Dodd immediately, Richardson soon after. And maybe Iowa can claim credit for disposing of Giuliani who was leading in the earliest 2007 Iowa polls, but who abandoned the state – a strategy that clearly did not pay off for him.

Did anyone get a bounce? There is some argument to be made that it’s not about winning, but about beating expectations in Iowa that actually matters. Perhaps McCain, who also abandoned Iowa, did this, getting 13% and tying Fred Thompson who actually did campaign in the state. And Obama’s margin of victory – 8% - probably surprised some. So maybe there’s a little bounce out of Iowa this time.

In the end though I would argue that Iowa did play a huge role this year – the role was defined by the fact that 38% of this all but white state voted for a black man for president. For those who worried that Iowa is not representative of the country, this seems repudiation. If Obama can win a state like Iowa, who’s to say he can’t win elsewhere?

But this isn’t what I’m focused on – instead I would argue that what white Iowans voting for Obama simply did was make it ok for African-Americans to also vote for Obama.

After Obama won Iowa, we began to see the shift in South Carolina.

During 2007 anecdotal evidence out of that state suggested that African American voters were concerned that Obama would not be electable nationally, that a black man could not win the presidency. At that stage Clinton was picking up the majority of support from this community. But come January 3, 2008, and an Obama win in one of the whitest states in the country, things shifted, and shifted rapidly. In the end of course Obama won 80% of the African American vote in South Carolina, and I think he owes some (maybe a lot) of it to white voters in Iowa.

One last point about Iowa – not only do I think we gave a bump to Obama, but we gave a bump to the whole country. Iowa caucus turnout was huge, about 37% of registered Democrats (counting registration number after people registered on caucus night) turned out, as well as about 20% of Republicans. For Democrats this was twice the number of the next largest turnout, while Republicans were up about 50%. Following Iowa turnout like this has been seen from one state to another, with primary/caucus turnout records broken state by state. Voters in Iowa were engaged, and voters all over the country appear to be following suit.

Did Iowa matter – I think so, but not necessarily in all the traditional ways. Now we get to sit back and see what the nearly two dozen states going on tomorrow, on Super Tuesday, have to say. It’s been an exciting run so far!

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