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Why is Iowa first?

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(Left to right) Edmund Muskie in 1980, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1976. These three figures had different trajectories after doing well in the newborn Iowa Caucus. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

It’s a question that’s been asked with increasing frequency over the past four decades: Why does Iowa go first in the presidential nominating process? Is it because the state is a unique repository of American values? Or because Iowans are remarkable judges of character? As flattering as those explanations may be, neither is correct. The reason Iowa goes first is because of the limited number of available hotel rooms in the Des Moines area in 1972.

Iowa had been using a caucus system for most of the 20th century, but after the 1968 election, during a national push to reform how parties chose their presidential candidates, significant changes were made to how the system worked. The idea was to take power away from party bosses and open up the selection process to average people.

Among the reforms the Iowa Democratic Party adopted was a requirement to issue advance notice before each of the four stages of the nominating process — the process that starts with caucuses and ends with the state party convention. (The caucus selected delegates for the county convention, which selected delegates for the congressional district conventions, which selected delegates for the state convention, where the final decision regarding candidates was made.) Thus, the timing of the state convention would determine the date of the caucus.

And the state party convention, like any other convention, needed hotel rooms for its participants, which are more scarce in the summertime. Party officials had to work around what was available. So, instead of holding the caucus near the middle of the primary season, as was the custom, the caucus ended up being scheduled for Jan. 24, 1972.

That made the Iowa Caucus the first candidate contest in 1972 (at least for Democrats; Iowa Republicans didn’t launch their caucus until 1976). The primary in New Hampshire, the state that traditionally voted first, was held March 7 that year.

“It was not a plan [to increase Iowa’s political significance], and in 1972, it made no difference,” David Redlawsk told the Washington Post in 2012. Redlawsk, the principal author of Why Iowa?, is a political science professor at the University of Delaware and a leading expert on the Iowa Caucus.

In 1972, “undecided” won the caucus, finishing slightly ahead of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and winning 36 percent of the vote.

Four years later, things were much the same. The caucus was held in January again, for the same reasons it had been in 1972. “Undecided” won again, with 37 percent of the vote. But one thing did change that year, and it ended up shifting the way the rest of the country thought about the Iowa Caucus.

In 1976, Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia claimed victory in the caucus, even though he finished nine percentage points behind “undecided.” But more importantly for the future of the Iowa Caucus, Carter made his “win” a major talking point in his campaign. He said the vote in Iowa was compelling evidence that he was a serious national candidate, despite the fact that few people outside of Georgia knew who he was.

Whether or not that’s true, Carter went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Suddenly, political pundits started talking about the strategic importance of Iowa.

In 1980, Iowa went first again — this time it wasn’t an accident—and a Republican tried to repeat what Carter had done. George H.W. Bush of Texas (by way of Connecticut, Maine and Washington D.C.) actually won the GOP caucus, beating Ronald Reagan and five other Republicans. Like Carter, Bush claimed it meant he had wide appeal to voters. Or rather, “Big Mo.”

“Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels,” Bush said about the other Republican candidates after he won in Iowa. “What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.”

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Bush, it turned out, didn’t have Big Mo. He only won eight primaries after Iowa. Ronald Reagan crushed him in the contest for the GOP nomination, and then offered Bush the consolation prize of the vice presidency.

But even if Bush didn’t have Big Mo, the Iowa Caucus did after 1980. Its role in presidential politics had gone from unplanned to unavoidable. Candidates from both parties come to the state, eager for a win to show they are serious contenders with big momentum. Which is why hotel rooms in the Des Moines area are always full of members of the media on Caucus Day.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.


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