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The Iowa Caucus is the earliest indication of how America's voters will choose their primary candidates, but why does Iowa get to go first?
Why Does Iowa Vote First, Anyway?
An American flag is painted on the side of a barn outside Webster City, Iowa.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Since 1972, Iowa has held the first presidential nominating contests in the country. Over the years, the Iowa caucuses have grown in size, scope and importance, sometimes launching underdogs to the presidency or upsetting established political juggernauts.
It's easy to accept Iowa's role in presidential elections for what it is. But in some ways, Iowa should be questioned. The first-in-the-nation caucus state is whiter and more rural than the rest of the country it doesn't really represent America in some fundamental ways. Knowing that, why is Iowa first? And is that fair? But first:
1. What's a caucus?
"A caucus — it's a neighborhood meeting," said David Yepsen, former political writer at the Des Moines Register and an Iowa politico of note. "In fact, the term caucus is thought to be a Native American term — an Algonquin term for meeting of tribal leaders."
A caucus is more than just a vote like Yepsen said, it's a meeting. On caucus night, people gather at hundreds of sites across the state and talk about why they're supporting a candidate. Speeches are made on candidates' behalf, and there's jockeying to persuade other people to support their candidate. The process can sometimes take hours. For Democrats in Iowa, caucusgoers publicly show support for their candidates after the speeches by moving to designated spaces in the space they've gathered. If a candidate does not get at least 15 percent of the room backing him or her, those supporters must go support another, viable candidate. For Republicans, after the speeches, there's a secret ballot, no head counts.
2. Why is Iowa first?
"The really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it's first because it's important. Iowa is important because it's first," said Kathy O'Bradovich, political columnist for the Des Moines Register. She acknowledges that Iowa didn't really happen on purpose.
"It happened after the 1968 Democratic National Convention," she said, which was marred by violence over the Vietnam War and racial tension. "The Democratic Party nationally and in Iowa decided they wanted to change their process to make it more inclusive."
Part of that meant spreading the presidential nominating schedule out in each state. Because Iowa has one of the more complex processes — precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions, followed by a state convention — it had to start really early. (The Democratic Party held Iowa caucuses first in the nation in 1972 the GOP followed suit in 1976.)
And once a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter rode an Iowa caucus win all the way to the White House, Iowa suddenly became a thing.
3. Is it fair?
Just a warning, there's probably no consensus for this.
But here's how Jim Jacobson, a voter from Iowa City, rationalized it:
"Is it fair that Iowa goes first? What's fair in politics? I mean, seriously. Yeah, OK, we're like 97 percent white, and we're really rural, and we don't look like a microcosm of America. But so what?"
Let's take that first thing he points out, Iowa's whiteness.
Officially, non-Hispanic whites make up 87.1 percent of Iowa's population according to the most recent census data.
But J. Ann Selzer, the top pollster in the state, says that's actually kind of OK.
"The idea that because Iowans are white and older, they're going to vote for older white people is not borne out," she said. "In both parties, candidates of color have often done quite well in Iowa. Look at Barack Obama. Jesse Jackson did well. Alan Keyes did well on the Republican side."
Even Jeff Kaufmann, the head of the Iowa Republican Party, kind of says the same thing.
"This is going to be awfully odd, to have a Republican chair suggest you look at what Barack Obama has to say about Iowa," he said. "But I'm guessing Barack Obama has no problem with the diversity that we reflect. And I'm guessing if you talk to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, my guess is that they're not going to have a problem."
But there's another issue of race — not just who Iowans are voting for, but which Iowans are voting. Both parties say they're reaching out more to Latinos, Iowa's fastest-growing racial group. But in West Liberty, Iowa, a town that is majority Latino, NPR spoke with several residents who had no idea what a caucus is, had no intention to vote, and said no one had ever talked to them about any of it. One man thought we were asking him about a cactus.
"Nobody says anything, and nobody talks about it," West Liberty resident Maria Luna said. "And we see nothing, then we're not going to be nothing — and do nothing."
FiveThirtyEight.com found that Latinos make up about 3 percent of Iowa's electorate. The state doesn't track the race of caucusgoers, but in the last general election, Latino turnout was quote low: 25 percent. Several advocacy groups say they plan to change that, however, particularly the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
But the Iowa Caucus Project points out that in general, caucus participation, regardless of race, is usually relatively low. "With the exception, then, of the extraordinary Democratic caucus year in 2008," wrote Dennis J. Goldford, "we can see from these numbers that in the last two Iowa caucus cycles, not unlike earlier cycles, only roughly 20 percent of eligible caucus-goers actually turn out to participate on caucus night."
So, low turnout in an already small state Iowa has a population of about 3 million people. And Iowa is very rural, at a time when an increasing amount of American voters these days live in or around big, urban areas.
"When we get to the general election next November, about 45 percent of the vote is going to come from places that I call big cities or urban suburbs," said Dante Chinni, director of the American Communities Project at American University. "That's a lot of the vote. There are none of those [major cities] in Iowa."
Given those numbers, he says, a state like Georgia might be more ideal. "First of all, you have diversity, a much more diverse state [in Georgia]. The other thing that Georgia has is — it has Atlanta."
When you look at states that have that mix — more racial diversity and a mix of rural and urban, there are actually a few options.
"Pennsylvania is a very good option. Colorado is an interesting state. My home state of Michigan Ohio's a really good one," Chinni says.
NPR's Asma Khalid analyzed and indexed the demographics of each of the 50 states compared with the national averages and found that Illinois might be more appropriate based on factors like race and income.
But if you look to bigger states for more diversity, you could end up with a caucus state that's actually too big. Iowa is small enough for every candidate to make his or her way all across the state and advertise on the cheap. Small candidates can compete with the big dogs in Iowa from Day 1. It would have been much harder for Carter to win a California caucus than one in Iowa.
4. Are Iowans better at this?
Over time, one of the reasons people have come to support Iowa being first has come to be the people of Iowa themselves.
"The real reason we're first in the nation now is because of what we do. We take this real seriously," says Andy McGuire, head of the Iowa state Democratic Party. She says Iowans contest a candidate like no one else and that they've had literally decades of experience in figuring out how to grill candidates one on one.
"You know, we ask really good questions. We ask follow-up questions," she said. "We look them in the eye like I am you right now. It's real. It's one-on-one vetting of candidates. Are you for real? Not a TV spot, not money — what's in your heart?"
Whether you believe that Iowa voters are better at this or that they deserve the privilege more, it probably doesn't even matter. Yepsen says we're stuck with Iowa.
"Iowa's first because of inertia," he said, laughing. "Most people in the country don't like this process." But he says no one can agree on what else to do. Should the first nominating contest move to another state, the same questions raised about Iowa would just be shifted there. And when you're trying to find the state that's the most representative, you could fall down a rabbit hole: Which state has the most diversity of industry? Which state has education levels that most mirror the country? Which state has the most reflective ratio of things like union membership, or church attendance? You could go on .
Others have proposed alternative primary systems (which Danielle Kurtzleben broke down here).
And say both parties agree on a viable alternative to Iowa, or even a different system altogether (one-day national primary?), Iowa might fight like hell to keep its favored spot. Being first gives Iowa lots of attention to issues Iowans care about, and it's a really, really big boost to the economy to have hordes of campaign reporters and campaign staffers staying in your hotels, eating at your restaurants, and buying ads on your television stations.
5. Putting Iowa in perspective
With all of this, though, it's important to put Iowa in perspective. Iowa is first, and in some ways, yes — you could see that as problematic. But as several experts pointed out to NPR, Iowa doesn't actually pick the president. And it's not supposed to on its own. They all said that Iowa's role is that of a winnower it's there to start narrowing the field of presidential candidates. And if you look at it that way, maybe it all seems a little more fair. Iowa is not the be all, end all. Iowa alone is not a kingmaker. Iowa is only the start of a long journey. Iowa is just first.
Why Does Iowa Get To Go First?
The Democratic contenders are gearing up for Monday’s tightly contested Iowa caucus, the first step toward picking the party’s presidential candidate. Why do Iowans always get first crack at determining who’ll run for the White House come November?
Iowa’s electoral prominence started as a fluke. In the late 1960s, the Iowa Democratic Party ruled that at least 30 days had to pass between the caucus and the district conventions (for which the caucuses select delegates), plus another 30 between the district conventions and the state convention (where Iowa’s delegates are officially selected). The purpose of the ruling was to allow enough time to work out convention details, like the printing of pamphlets and the staffing of sites. The 1972 Democratic state convention was scheduled for May 20, which meant the latest the caucus could be held was Jan. 24. It thus supplanted New Hampshire as the first contest on the road to the White House, a distinction the Granite State had held since 1920. George McGovern took advantage of this peculiarity by campaigning hard in the state. His surprisingly strong showing there—he came in second to Edmund Muskie—created a fair amount of media buzz and helped propel him toward the Democratic nomination.
Iowan politicos also enjoyed the spotlight, and the state’s Democrats made sure to select yet another early caucus date in 1976—as did the Republicans for the first time. That year, a little-known Georgian named Jimmy Carter ran away with the caucus, winning more than double the number of caucus votes earned by the runner-up, Birch Bayh. The landslide victory put the peanut farmer on the political map and helped create the folksy image that eventually earned him the presidential nod.
To preserve its kingmaker role, as well as the economic boon of hosting thousands of campaign workers and journalists, the Iowa legislature added a section to the state code that mandates that the caucus be held eight days prior to any other caucus or primary. The secretary of state’s office has also been active in lobbying the DNC and RNC to preserve Iowa’s unique status, arguing that the state’s relatively small size makes it an ideal testing ground for presidential hopefuls. In 1999, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver formed the Iowa First-in-the-Nation Caucus Commission to aid the lobbying cause. The effort seems to be working: This year, the DNC is requiring that all primaries and caucuses be held between February 3 and June 8—save for New Hampshire, which can hold its primary seven days earlier, and Iowa, which gets a full 15 days to jump the gun.
New Hampshire tends to take a dismissive view of the interloper (“The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents,” is the way then-Gov. John H. Sununu put it in 1988). But lots of other states are openly jealous of Iowa’s privileged status and gripe that it’s wrong to place such power in the hands of a state whose population (94 percent white) and economy (primarily agricultural) don’t square with the rest of the nation. Florida’s Democratic party discussed holding a straw poll in December, a meaningless exercise that nonetheless might have stolen some of Iowa’s thunder. But the DNC frowned on the idea, and the state party relented.
Explainer thanks Peverill Squire’s Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process and the Iowa Caucus Project.
'Caucus': A Curious American Word
What to Know
A caucus usually refers to a gathering of politicians working towards a common goal. The origin of the word is distinctly mysterious with theories varying that include deriving from "caulker's meetings" (meetings between ship workers), deriving from the Native American word caucauasu, which means "one who advises," and even a rather unlikely origin of the word being an acronym.
Caucus is making its quadrennial appearance at the top of the lookups, as voters in Iowa cast the first ballots in the U.S. presidential election. The caucus is an important part of every U.S. presidential campaign, but the word can also refer to any group of people, usually politicians, who gather together to work towards some shared goal. Despite its significance, no one is completely sure where the term comes from—but it's definitely American.
Along with a few far-flung US island territories, only four states are still using the caucus system, with its two-part voting rounds and 15% "viability" cut-offs, to determine their Democratic presidential nomination contests. Iowa, of course, went first. We know how that turned out. Now it's Nevada's time in the spotlight (or, perhaps, the barrel).
— Anthony Zurcher, BBCNews, 23 Feb. 2020
We have been trying to figure the origin of the word caucus since shortly after we first began using it. The earliest written evidence of the word is found in an advertisement in the Boston Gazette from May 5th, 1760:
And the said Committee of Tradesmen, do hereby exhort their good Friends, the Members of the old and true Corcas, who have from Time immemorial been zealously affected, to our ancient Establishment in Church and State, to behave at the ensuing Town Meeting with the usual Steadiness, and like honest Freeman to vote for WHOM THEY PLEASE.
Discerning readers will have noticed that, in the above text, the word caucus is cleverly disguised as the word corcas. One of the reasons that establishing the etymology of the word has been so difficult is that it many of the early users of it spelled it in different ways. John Adams, for instance, wrote in his diary in 1763 of having learned of meetings of the "Caucas Clubb".
Probably the first person to suggest an etymology for the word was John Pickering, who in 1816 published a book titled A Vocabulary, or, Collection of Words and Phrases , Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. Pickering made the claim that the word originated in Boston (which may well be true), and that it was a shortened and corrupted form of the phrase caulker's meetings (caulkers were men who worked in the shipyards, water-proofing the hulls of ships). The suggestion has been reprinted in a large number of dictionaries, until well into the 20th century.
In 1872 Dr. J. H. Trumbull, an early specialist in Native American philology, suggested that the word might be derived from the Algonquin word caucauasu, which has the meaning of "one who advises". This is certainly a possible explanation, except that there has been a lack of any significant evidence since 1872 which would support it. Several dictionaries have sneered at this theory.
The next explanation offered came in 1889, when the editors of the Century Dictionary suggested that the word might come from the Late Latin word caucus, a drinking vessel, “in allusion to the convivial or symposiac feature of the Caucus Club.” This is probably a sneaky way for that dictionary to say that the members of the Caucus Club were fond of drinking.
The most recent, and probably least plausible, explanation for the origin of caucus comes from 1943, in a letter sent to the journal American Speech. The letter-writer claimed to have seen evidence in the papers of John Pickering (the man who was responsible for the "caulker's meeting" etymology) that the word caucus was an acronym, based on the initial letters of the last names of six men: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, a second Urann, and Symmes. This explanation has not gained much traction.
Most dictionaries today will offer a handful of these explanations, not committing to any, or will simply say that the origin is unknown. So for the time being we can treat these theories about this word as the linguistic equivalent of the field of presidential candidates we meet at the caucuses: there are more than we need, some are better than others, and rarely do we find ourselves satisfied with any.
Why Iowa? A history of the first-in-the-nation presidential contest
For five decades, the snowy cornfields of Iowa have yielded a crop of future presidents. And many Iowans are proud to be the first in the nation to vote in the presidential primary season.
"We're proud of having it first here," Anita Schmitt told CBS News correspondent Ed O'Keefe. "We do our homework. We go to events. I've been to see Warren. I've been to see Buttigieg. I've been to see Klobuchar, Steyer."
And just how much does Iowa matter to those candidates? Back in the 1970s, CBS News' Roger Mudd said, "It will be a psychological break for some of them. It will be probably a disaster for others."
Appropriately, it took a farmer to put Iowa on the political map. "I thought we'd come in first," said Georgia's Jimmy Carter in 1976, "but to come in two-to-one ahead of the next candidate was a very gratifying thing."
Jimmy Carter campaigning in Iowa in 1976. Democrats in the Hawkeye State have a pretty good track record at predicting their party's presidential nominee.
And without even spending the week before the caucuses in Iowa. "I haven't been in Iowa in several days," Carter told Mudd.
But by the '80s, the Hawkeye State had become a "must" stop on the way to the White House, leaving the loser to come up with creative excuses. As Ronald Reagan said in 1980, after coming in behind fellow Republican George H.W. Bush, "Well, if I had to lose one, I'm glad it was a straw vote and not a primary."
2020 Democratic Primaries & Caucuses
Four years later, Democrat Walter Mondale cleaned up in Iowa, partly because, as CBS News' Bruce Morton explained, "Over two-thirds of Mondale's voters said they were for him because they said he could beat Ronald Reagan."
Iowa hasn't always picked the winner. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was asked by a reporter, "Any second thoughts about what happened?"
Fewer than half of Republicans who finished first here went on to win the GOP nomination, but more often, Iowa Democrats do get it right, picking all but three of the eventual nominees &mdash even when the rest of the country didn't know to expect it. After Howard Dean won in 2004, his presidential dreams screeched to a halt.
But four years later, Iowa Democrats did place their hopes in change. "You have done what the cynics said we couldn't do," Barack Obama told his supporters.
Des Moines resident Tracy Murphy, a Bernie Sanders organizer, hopes it can happen again. But even as she dispatched Sanders volunteers from her home, Murphy wondered whether this weight should fall on her state.
"I love the popularity of being first in the nation," she said. "I love all the attention that we get, but at the same time, I don't think that it should be a 'play favorites to Iowa' all the time, and sometimes maybe somebody else should get to be first."
Participating in primaries became newly important after the chaotic campaign of 1968. In 1972 the Democrats gathered in Iowa to give this form of politicking a serious try.
Their goal? To excise the ghosts of 1968 and to make Richard Nixon a one-term president. (They would fail—Nixon’s sweeping reelection victory gave him every state but Massachusetts.)
And in fact the election of 1972 contained significant echoes of 1968. Three of the candidates, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern, had decided to run again. “Run” is a tricky word here. Of the three, only Eugene McCarthy had participated in the primaries. Humphrey joined the race in April, too late to participate, and McGovern didn’t join the campaign until after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
(This time, there would be no Kennedy in the race. In July of 1969, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy would run for president in 1980, unsuccessfully.)
Humphrey had won the nomination in 1968. It was a tough victory, marred by Kennedy’s assassination in June, the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and Humphrey’s association with an unpopular president, Lyndon Johnson. Still, he’d lost the general election by less than 1% of the vote and wanted another go.
In 1972, the alums of the 1968 election were joined by Edmund Muskie, a Senator from Maine.
Here is the real reason the Iowa caucus is first in the nation
The first and most visible test of candidate support in the 2020 presidential election is the Iowa presidential caucus, which takes place on Feb. 3.
While Iowa does not control who becomes the candidate of each party, Iowans' choices almost always end up matching the rest of the nation.
One of the architects of the modern Iowa caucuses, which began in 1972, wrote that the significance of the caucus was unanticipated.
'Never in our dreams did we realize we would be ‘first in the nation,' nor did we ever expect anyone outside Iowa would pay much attention,” retired Iowa State University engineering professor Richard Seagrave wrote.
Seagrave said that it wasn't political calculation that led to the choice to run the caucus early in the election year. It was the 'immense amount of paperwork” needed to document caucus proceedings with only a slow mimeograph machine that led to the choice of such an early caucus date.
'Remember that we had no ‘user-friendly' computers or high-speed copy machines in 1972,” wrote Seagrave.
The significance of first-in-the-nation placement did not become clear until a barely known governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, came to Iowa in 1976 to test the waters for a presidential run.
That year 'Uncommitted” got 14,508 votes (37%). Carter came in with 10,764 votes (27%), but was declared the winner. He went on to get the nomination and win the presidency. The fact that a relative unknown - spending little money but lots of time and face-to-face campaigning - could win was surprising.
Before the modern system for choosing presidential candidates was invented, the mechanism since 1832 for nomination of presidential candidates has been a national political convention of each party. Voters in each state convention elect delegates to the national convention. A caucus is one way state party leaders pick whom to send, and whom those delegates should support.
Powerful political bosses, such as Huey Long from Louisiana, William 'Boss” Tweed of New York, James Michael Curley of Boston and Tom Pendergast from Kansas City, had the real power in the 19th and early 20th centuries through their political organizations. Bosses offered services - housing, medical care, food, clothing - to people before government services became common.
Pendergast once told The New York Times, 'When a poor man comes to old Tom's boys for help we don't make one of those damn fool investigations like these city charities. No, by God, we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.”
A vestige of that political era lasted into the second half of the 20th century, when the actions of Chicago's longtime political boss, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, led to a profound change in the presidential candidate selection process.
The 1968 Democratic convention took place in Chicago, a city tightly controlled by Daley. His operatives had long seen to it that people voted for Daley and his chosen candidates.
But 1968 was a year of violence related to race and the Vietnam War. Riots disrupted the convention. Mayor Daley used his police force to crush the protests.
Daley then bullied delegates to vote to nominate his favorite candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, even though Humphrey didn't win a single primary election.
All of this was covered live on television. The violence and bias threatened to taint the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party created the McGovern - Fraser Commission in 1968 in response to the events in Chicago. The new rules changed the party's presidential nominating process in an attempt to make them more systematic and transparent, as well as to encourage more participation by minority groups, young people and women roughly proportional to their numbers in states.
It was these reforms that launched Iowa's caucuses in 1972.
In 1976, the Iowa Republican Party followed the Democrats, and they began holding caucuses on the same early date.
That increased the visibility of the Iowa caucuses out of proportion to their actual numeric influence in the nominating convention, where in 2020 Iowa will send only 49 delegates out of the estimated total of 4,594 Democratic delegates.
In fact, the caucuses are in large part a media event, a beauty contest, as scholars Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford have suggested.
A legendary event occurred in 2004, when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who came in third, was cheering on his supporters as he contemplated a national campaign. But a microphone malfunction amplified his enthusiasm. What become known as the 'Dean Scream” tanked his candidacy.
In 2008 a first-term senator, Barack Obama, won the Iowa caucuses, propelling him to a hard-fought nomination and two terms in the White House.
And in 2016, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders almost beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa.
On caucus night, registered Democrats and Republican voters gather at roughly 1,700 precinct meeting places. These have been schools, libraries, churches, fire stations and people's homes. In 2020, Democrats also will have satellite caucuses, some even held overseas.
There are speeches by supporters for each candidate who gather into groups for each candidate. The numbers in each group are counted. For a group to be 'viable,” they must have 15% of the all the participants in that precinct. Otherwise that candidate is declared 'non-viable” and the supporters are asked to join another candidate's group or remain undecided.
Once the viable groups have been declared, a complex mathematical calculation determines how many delegates are allocated to each surviving candidate.
The Iowa caucuses become a tradition
The Iowa caucuses have become a well-watched political tradition because the media devotes so much attention to the candidates' activities in Iowa and then how they perform on caucus night.
Criticisms have emerged. Iowa's small and mostly white population has subjected the caucus to the charge that it is not representative of the nation as a whole.
A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll attests to that concern:
A 57% majority agreed that holding the opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire was a good system 'because it forces candidates to talk directly to voters.”
A 52% majority also agreed that holding the opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire wasn't a good system 'because the two states don't reflect the nation's diversity.”
There is also a concern that caucuses are difficult events to participate in because voters must attend personally and at night. The turnout rate of eligible voters is low, hovering around 10%, while primaries normally have turnout of 35% or more.
In 2020, there is renewed debate about how Americans should select their candidates for president. Caucuses are now generally in disfavor, with many states moving to primaries.
One thing is clear. As American candidate selection evolved from the days of political bosses to today's caucuses and primaries, that process will continue to evolve.
Should the Iowa caucuses come first? A new generation of Iowans has doubts.
It’s been a subject of debate in Democratic circles for years: Should Iowa — the sixth-whitest state in the nation — always be the first to vote for the presidential nominee of an increasingly diverse party? Or should other, less homogenous states get a turn?
During this cycle’s Democratic primary — which initially featured the most diverse cast of candidates in history — the debate hasn’t just been academic. It has actually started to crop up on the trail in Iowa itself.
– AR Produced by Henry Keyser and Molly Hunter
In December, for instance, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro went to Des Moines and told Iowans they shouldn’t vote first.
“I’m gonna tell the truth,” Castro said during a town hall. “It’s time for the Democratic Party to change how we do our presidential nominating process. … I don’t believe the two states that start the process — Iowa and New Hampshire — are reflective of the diversity of the country, or of our party.”
Castro then launched an ad — again, in Iowa — declaring that “it’s time for a state other than Iowa to go first.”
“I completely agree with Julián Castro about the Iowa caucus,” a Des Moines voter named Thomas Lecaque said in the spot.
Meanwhile, there are other signs that actual Iowans are starting to question the Hawkeye State’s first-in-the-nation status — a privilege jealously guarded by local politicians and other leaders for decades.
Roughly a month and a half ahead of the caucuses, Yahoo News traveled to the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City to ask the next generation of Iowans what they think — both about having their state go first and a host of other hot-button issues.
Several young voters agreed with Castro.
“I definitely understand both sides of the argument,” said Michael Aragon, 21, a first-generation Latinx-American born in Iowa. “[But] I definitely think it makes sense to have more racially diverse states caucus first and vote first in the primary because I think it’s more telling of America as a whole.”
“It might not be the most representative state,” agreed Guowei Qi, 21, a Chinese-American resident of West Des Moines whose family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 2. There are “a lot of white people in Iowa.”
“And [it’s] not that I don’t love being a part of it,” Qi continued. “But sometimes I wonder why.”
“A lot of people that are the face of America aren’t even able to attend the caucuses,” added Kaylie Wilson, 22, a white political science major. “So, yeah, I do think there maybe needs to be a little bit of reform.”
The intensifying debate within Iowa may reflect the state’s changing demographics. With a population that remains more than 90 percent white, Iowa boasts a Latino community that has been expanding faster than the state's population as a whole for the past decade. According to U.S. census figures, Iowa’s Latino population has grown by 46 percent since 2009, and projections from Woods & Poole Economics suggest that the Latino share of Iowa’s population will double to 12 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, Iowa’s Asian and black populations have increased by nearly identical amounts since 2009: 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
Not every University of Iowa student concurred with Castro and company about Iowa’s proper place in the nominating process. Defending their first-in-the-nation status, some Iowans who spoke to Yahoo News cited the state’s long experience vetting candidates and the seriousness Iowans bring to bear on the process.
“As an Iowan, I 100 percent think they should continue to be first,” said Carson Kephart, 21, a white biology and environment science major from Cedar Rapids. “I think there [are] some big issues with Iowa being the first in the nation, because [we’re] not super-representative of the nation as a whole. [Yet] to Iowans’ credit, they lack diversity but they don’t lack involvement.”
“I feel like we’re setting the path for everybody else,” agreed Neah Howlett, 18, a black freshman studying marketing. “It’s good that we start, I would say.”
On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the current state of the Democratic presidential race going into the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses—a conversation that ended with this debate about the fundamental unfairness of Iowa always going first. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: Every time Iowa comes around, people ask if it’s useful to have this unusual caucus format, where effectively there’s a form of ranked-choice voting because supporters of candidates who get less than 15 percent can shift their allegiance to another candidate, where everyone has to gather and spend an evening together, making it hard to vote and taking up lots of time. And then there’s the question of whether Iowa is the right state to start anything in—it’s so rural, it’s so white.
I go back and forth. Part of me thinks this is a great way to start the campaign, because it’s such a test of enthusiasm, of organizing ability, of regional campaigning. You get higher-information voters who are willing to participate, and that sends a signal to the country: The higher-information people really feel like this guy or this woman is the best candidate. That seems good. It would be better if they did this in Michigan or Georgia than in Iowa, but in general, I’m slightly in favor, despite myself.
Emily Bazelon: I come down really hard on the other side. It’s infuriating that Iowa plays this role, because it’s so white and rural, but it’s also infuriating that the same state plays it every time.
I am so tired of not having my vote count. There is nothing better about the people in Iowa and New Hampshire than the rest of us. We should get our turn, or they should do it on the same day, or something. It’s so drastically unfair.
Plotz: Why don’t they rotate it? Why is it that Iowa, New Hampshire, and now Nevada and South Carolina get this lock?
John Dickerson: It’s a complicated historical thing, but it goes back to local parties and their traditions. If you’re running for office, and you think you’ve got a chance in Iowa, you suck up to the party, and you want Iowa to be the first. Also, you’ve been campaigning for other candidates in Iowa for years, and you’ve been building up chips with the game as it is now played you’ve banked a lot.
I think it would be great if every time they just picked a new state, because there’s a lot of built-in stuff in these states that leads to patterns of behavior that you would want to shake up. You wouldn’t want the local poohbah, who’s really important, to have that much power. You’d want a new poohbah, who had to be freshly convinced.
Plotz: Everyone knows this. Why doesn’t some candidate who everyone knows is going to be a strong candidate say, we’re going to shake it up and we’re going to do it in California first.
Dickerson: John McCain tried a version of that when he didn’t play in Iowa and was nominated to the party by playing in New Hampshire. Others have tried that. There’s not a strong enough candidate to change the system. Also, once you get strong enough, you’d have to be president, and then you’ve got other stuff to worry about.
It would require the electorate to force the Democratic Party to do this. You’d have to have the reform bubble up through the Democratic Party systems, which is how the superdelegates got watered down.
Also, people could just not put so much weight on Iowa. When somebody scores first in basketball, people don’t leave the stadium. They expect a contest in which people shoot additional baskets, and then at the end of the game there’s a score.
Bazelon: I want to go back to your affection for the caucuses, David. It’s a terrible idea to up the cost of participating in democracy. You end up with a smaller group of people and, sure, they’re committed and they’re high-information, but what we should have is a democracy that lowers the barriers so that we hear from as many people as possible.
There’s lots of research from cities that shows that when you have neighborhood groups, local zoning meetings, the people who come are the loudest people, the retirees, the people with time. A political scientist crunched a ton of data in New York state, and it showed that these were people who are older and whiter and more conservative than the communities they came from. And they had a lock on the local process because they were showing up to these meetings. That should not be the test. That should not be what decides policy.
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Iowa Caucus History
Every four years since 1972, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses have helped “hire” the president of the United States. In fact, every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has finished among the top three in the Iowa caucuses – except when Iowa’s own Tom Harkin ran in 1992.
Iowans take this responsibility and privilege seriously. They are engaged and informed. They ask tough questions that force candidates to address a spectrum of issues. Activists in Iowa often raise topics and policy positions that also are important to activists in the national party.
This responsibility and privilege comes again on Feb. 3, 2020, when Iowans will gather in auditoriums, gymnasiums and other places across the state to shape the future of the United States and the world.
Learn more about how the Iowa Caucuses started -- and how they&aposve evolved -- at an exhibit on display September 2019 through February 2020 at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, a block west of the State Capitol.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY RESULTS
REPUBLICAN PARTY RESULTS