The 2020 Democratic Iowa caucus will be held on February 3rd. It’s a highly anticipated event that serves as a litmus test for the race. Not only have the remaining candidates been scrambling to earn votes, but they’ve been aiming to grasp momentum. Although Iowa goes first in the primary process, the caucus doesn’t have a stellar record for predicting the next president. Since their creation in 1972 (the Republican Iowa caucus began in 1976), only three times has the winner of the state gone on to secure the White House win. The caucus still garners plenty of attention and scrutiny, especially this year. For democrats, the Iowa caucus is more accurate in predicting the nominee. Every caucus winner since 2000 on the democratic side has become the party’s general election nominee. The first big success who emerged from the Iowa primary was Jimmy Carter, who propelled his victory all the way to D.C. So, how did this relatively small state get dealt with the power to go first in the nation’s primary system? And why?
“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.” — Kathie O’Bradovich, Des Moines Register, 2016
She is the 31st most populous state in the union, between the population counts of Utah and Nevada. Iowa’s largest exports are soybeans, pork, and corn. It is home to celebrities Johnny Carson and John Wayne. It is home to politicians, Herbert Hoover and Henry A. Wallace. Although an eagle is featured on the state flag, the state’s bird is the American goldfinch. Welcome to the Hawkeye State.
What is a caucus? Verbatim Google definition: “(in some US states) a meeting at which local members of a political party register their preference among candidates running for office or select delegates to attend a convention.” Synonym: a meeting.
This is as old-school as it sounds. A caucus is a literal get-together and in-person event where people meet at state precincts. There are 1681 such precincts in Iowa. At a specific time, registered voters gather at their precinct sites and fill the rooms (school gyms, church halls, offices, living rooms). In Democratic caucuses, attendees gather with other voters in these spaces and divide into groups that represent different candidates. In this first alignment, undecided voters may represent a small group as well. The first count is taken by caucus organizers and the magic number to reach is 15%. If a candidate is represented by less than 15% of the attendees at the precinct site, they do not meet the threshold to pick up a delegate (a person sent or authorized to represent others, in particular an elected representative sent to a conference.) On the flip side, a candidate represented by more than 15% is considered “viable.” Members of that group must stay with their candidate.
If a voter’s first-choice candidate was deemed non-viable by result of the first alignment, there are a few options they can choose from. These voters can relocate to another group to support another candidate. They can also try to persuade attendees of other non-viable groups to join them to meet the 15% mark. Lastly, these voters can remain undecided or simply abstain from the shuffling. This is the second alignment.
A final count is taken and every candidate that meets the 15% requirement is given at least one delegate. Obviously, the candidate with more votes is awarded more delegates. Politico’s Beatrice Jin brilliantly summarizes this process: “Using a mathematical formula, the state party calculates how many ‘state delegate equivalents’ each candidate has won at each caucus location and adds them up. The candidate with the most ‘state delegate equivalents’ wins the most delegates to the Democratic National Convention — and wins the Iowa caucuses.”
Sounds simple enough, right? It’s complicated. These meetings are often loud and contentious. They can go on for hours and they can leave people dissatisfied. It’s important to note that the primary process looks different in each state — following either the state’s regulations or the party rules. There are six caucus states this year: Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Maine.
The most common voting method is still the simple primary election. This is akin to the general election process where voters cast secret ballots for the candidate of their choice in a statewide election. The results directly determine how many delegates each candidate receives. There are fans and critics of each primary voting method. Champions of the caucuses will argue that they are more transparent, they encourage healthy debate, they represent the most enthusiastic of voters. Critics of the caucuses will argue that the method is outdated, they don’t represent the majority, they keep the elderly and sick away, and they don’t consider the workers who have incredibly demanding schedules. Either way, no election process is perfect.
Of the twelve mainstream candidates remaining in the Democratic primary, the person who has been running the longest is John Delaney — the former representative from Maryland. He announced his bid for the highest office in July (wait for it) 2017. He’s been to Iowa at least 44 times since announcing. Despite his valiant effort, Delaney isn’t polling at a single percentage point for the nomination. With a tone of admirable optimism, he told The Atlantic, “I’m disappointed it hasn’t gone better, but I think it’s a privilege to do this.” Delaney has spent $10 million from his own pocket. Although the amount is staggering, he’s still far behind the personal spending of the billionaire candidates in the race.
Together, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have spent more on ads than all the other Democratic candidates combined. Steyer has spent more than $123 million on ads. Bloomberg has spent more than $196 million. This is impressive on Bloomberg’s end, considering that he entered the race in the final days of November. However, when you’re a billionaire you tend to have more disposable income than most.
Specifically in Iowa, the big-spending leaders look different. As of January 13th, Tom Steyer has spent the most on ads in the Hawkeye state. Buttigieg, Sanders, and Yang follow Steyer in spending. Interestingly, Bloomberg is the smallest spender of ads in Iowa thus far. So how much is Iowa worth? When it comes to the ads — television, radio, satellite, and digital — the answer is a combined $48,862,241. That’s a lot of money for one relatively small, rural state in a primary.
Iowa is home to 3.1 million people. Harris County (TX), Maricopa County (AZ), and Cook County (IL) all have more people in their individual counties than the entire state of Iowa. Iowa is also one of the whitest states in the nation; 90.7% of the denizens are white. Only 4% of the population is black. When compared to America as a whole, there are troubling discrepancies. America is 76.5% white and 13.4% black. It’s fair to say that Iowa isn’t the divine microcosm of the USA. There’s reason to make a fair argument for a different state to go first — a state that is more of an honest reflection of the entire country. Moderately sized (in population) states like Colorado and Pennsylvania come to mind. Georgia or Ohio wouldn’t be bad either. California, however, is the coveted blue ribbon of diverse states. The Golden State is 39.3% Hispanic, 36.8% white, 6.5% black, and 15.3% Asian. Demographically, it is among the best representatives of America as a whole. Still, there would be issues with California going first in the primaries. One problem would be the fact that California already has the biggest voice via the delegate count in the general election (i.e. it would be unfair to not give a smaller state some representation). Secondly, and perhaps importantly, the ad markets in California make the cost of running ads in Iowa look like kindergarten; running ads in California would be outrageously expensive.
A fairer primary system would probably have space for fewer caucuses. Nate Cohn, of the New York Times, writes: “Caucuses tend to be dominated by the most motivated, engaged and informed voters, who also tend to be more ideologically consistent. The opportunity to participate is limited; voting usually occurs at a single time, rather than at any point during a day. The format also can burden voters in ways that deter participation: Caucuses can last for hours, and can require voters to publicly disclose their vote.”
Caucuses aren’t the most approachable or alluring forms of voting. The elderly aren’t fairly represented, nor are students that are studying out of state. Members of the military who are serving overseas cannot show up to these in-person events. Caucuses also don’t cater to physically handicapped voters either. (This year, Iowa is holding nearly 100 “satellite caucuses” at locations around the country and abroad to increase accessibility for Iowa democrats who are not able to be present at their local caucus sites.) These accessibility flaws may be why the caucus is out of vogue. Washington, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska have all motioned toward a primary election in 2020. Still, Iowa goes first — with a caucus. We look to history to answer why.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention is remembered by polluted and turbulent times. The Vietnam War was into its thirteenth year and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April of that year. The Democratic Party was subject to infighting and heated competition for a spot at the top of the ticket. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota developed a formidable, surprising campaign to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Robert F. Kennedy, the former Attorney General and Senator from New York, threw his hat into the race. He was, however, assassinated a couple of months before the convention. Johnson eventually decided against seeking another presidential term and his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, announced his bid. The party was being tugged in different directions and convention-goers were excited about all the wrong reasons. Protests and riots hit the streets of Chicago, always loud and sometimes violent. Racial tensions were running high and there was visceral contempt for the government on display. The fallout gave the Democratic party an opening to evolve and make-up for some of their faults. By 1972, the primary process was revised and Iowa took New Hampshire’s place as the first-to-vote state. It was/is very hands-on and lengthly.
Perhaps the biggest reason as to why Iowa goes first is due to the unusually long procedure and its multi-layered stages. The upcoming caucus will select and send delegates to county conventions. County conventions select and send delegates to district conventions. And district conventions lead to the state convention that is held in June. Because this process takes months, Iowa is first. Blame DNC rules. Blame tradition.
The most recent polling data averaged out by Real Clear Politics shows a single-digit lead for Joe Biden in the Democratic primary. As of where the race stands now, he’s the favorite to earn the nomination. However, Iowa has correctly predicted the eventual nominee on the Democratic side since 2000. If this trend remains in place, Bernie Sanders will be in position to win the nomination. Sanders is also up in New Hampshire, the state that follows Iowa in the process. South Carolina, as of now, is in Biden’s favor. Shortly after South Carolina votes, Super Tuesday arrives. Sixteen states and territories are set to vote on Super Tuesday (March 3rd), including the delegate-rich states of Texas and California. It is, in my opinion, on this day when Democrats will get the clearest picture at who the nominee will be. The big winner on that day will have insurmountable momentum to clinch the nomination and lead them to the starting blocks of the real race — the general election. Until then, it’s best not to overlook Iowa. The state has a lot of say-so before the rest of the nation. Iowa has been correct in recent years and we have to give it the attention and respect it deserves, for the state has a responsibility and chance, within a week’s time, to pick the next president of these United States. The country will watch closely, as it has since 1972.
Hugo is a writer of politics, culture, and fiction. Follow him on Twitter (@hugosaysgo) for recommended reading and on Instagram (@hugosnaps) for photography. Happy reading.