Why Does Iowa Vote First, Anyway?

Jan 29, 2016
Originally published on January 30, 2016 9:44 am

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.

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