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Why the Iowa caucuses matter

It’s because people believe they do.

Democratic presidential campaign signs are displayed in a front yard in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 2, 2020.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden has led national polls of the Democratic presidential race for the past year — and though other candidates have surged and fallen, they haven’t been able to supplant him as the frontrunner.

But this Monday, all that could change when Biden faces his first electoral test: the Iowa caucuses.

The results in Iowa, the first time a state’s voters weigh in on the presidential nomination contest, can make the national contest turn on a dime. Barack Obama won Iowa in 2008, and he suddenly shot up to become competitive with Hillary Clinton in national polls. John Kerry came out of nowhere to win Iowa in 2004, and the presumed leader, Howard Dean, collapsed with astonishing speed.

But let’s step back for a minute and ask: Why do the quirky Iowa caucuses have this tremendous impact on the race, anyway?

A poster with the likenesses of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the style of “American Gothic,” seen in Iowa City, Iowa, on February 2, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The state is small. Its population is overwhelmingly white. Turnout for the caucuses is absurdly low. Democrats don’t even get a secret ballot. They’ll also report three different types of results this year, which can make determining a “winner” even murkier. But vanishingly few of the delegates who will actually determine each party’s nominee at the national conventions will be from Iowa.

So why do we care so much about who wins?

As I’ll explain, Iowa became super important because we — the media, party insiders, activists, the candidates themselves, and even voters to an extent — gradually decided to make it so important. These key players think the caucus results reveal a great deal about which candidates can win elections elsewhere, and the contest for Iowa isn’t really a contest for delegates; it’s a contest to look good in their eyes.

But does Iowa’s prominence make sense? Or could the obsession with its results from the media and insiders alike be a tremendous overreaction, bordering on a bizarre mass delusion — one that could end up distorting who gets nominated for president?

”What is the difference between first place and third place in Iowa going to be, 4,000 votes? It’s like a student body election,” Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, told me back before the 2016 caucuses.

”You have to respect the absurdity of it,” he continued. “Or it’ll drive you crazy.”

1) What are the Iowa caucuses?

The Iowa caucuses are the first time actual voters across any US state get up and go say who they want to be president.

And these voters do literally have to “get up and go” — to an in-person event, held at a specific time in the evening, at one of 1,678 precincts across the state or one of more than 90 “satellite caucus” sites.

The caucuses are administered separately by each major party, and Republicans and Democrats have quite different rules. The GOP contest is far simpler, with an ordinary secret ballot vote on presidential candidates and a statewide tally.

The Democratic caucuses are far more complicated — they’re rowdy public affairs, with back-and-forth debate among attendees who have to go physically stand or sit with other supporters of their preferred candidate.

There’s no secret ballot, and if a Democratic candidate doesn’t get enough supporters in a precinct (15 percent of attendees in most precincts), he or she is eliminated. (For more details on the mechanics of how the caucuses work in practice, check out my article at this link.)

2) Why should I care who wins the Iowa caucuses?

Like it or not, the Iowa results appear to be hugely important in determining who the major parties’ presidential nominees will be — particularly when considered alongside the impact of fellow early state New Hampshire.

  • Every winner of a competitive major-party presidential nomination contest since 1980 except one started off by winning the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, or both. (The sole exception is Bill Clinton in 1992 — an odd year where most candidates didn’t contest the Iowa caucuses because Iowan Tom Harkin was running.)
  • Two of our three most recent presidents — Barack Obama and George W. Bush — kicked off their primary season by winning Iowa (and each survived a subsequent loss in New Hampshire). Trump did the reverse: He lost Iowa, but won New Hampshire and then the nomination.

And, importantly, even if the Iowa victor doesn’t end up winning the nomination in the end, the state’s results can dramatically shake up the presidential contest — knocking some candidates out of the race entirely, while elevating others to top-tier status in the eyes of political elites and future voters.

Supporters of Pete Buttigieg cheer at a town hall event in Coralville, Iowa, on February 2, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

3) But why, exactly, does this small-time contest affect the larger race so much?

The political world is obsessed with the question of who can actually win in each presidential nomination race. And a large part of that world has come to believe that the caucus outcomes help shed some important light on that question. Remember, before Iowa, assessments of who can win are mainly based on polls — and polls, of course, can be wrong.

It’s pretty weird: Essentially, the Iowa caucuses are important because the media, the candidates, and the political world more broadly all treat their results as greatly important in determining who can win. And this plays out in several interacting ways:

  1. The media hypes up the Iowa results, branding candidates as winners and losers based on how they performed there. So the winners get tons of excited coverage, but the losers become afterthoughts. And, particularly in multi-candidate fields, winning media coverage is hugely important.
  2. Donors and activists, too, look at the Iowa results to judge whether the candidates they’re supporting are still viable. A poor Iowa performance will likely mean fewer campaign donations and endorsements, which makes it more difficult for a candidate to stay in the race.
  3. Voters in other states — especially those trying to make sense of complex, multi-candidate fields — can take the Iowa results (and the media coverage of those results) as cues about which contenders can actually win. Accordingly, poll results in other states can change quickly after the Iowa results sink in.
  4. The candidates naturally take all this into account, and so many of them invest huge amounts of time and money to try to do well in Iowa. And when the results come in, candidates who do poorly often take the hint and quit the race (spurred by donors who will no longer fund their campaigns, media outlets that no longer cover them, and subsequent polls showing they’re performing poorly elsewhere). This shrinking of the field is a process known as winnowing.
  5. And all of these amplify each other: This behavior from candidates further assures the media that the caucus results are really important, which justifies even more coverage of Iowa. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Goldford. “So long as the candidates think the caucuses are important, the press will think the caucuses are important. And vice versa.”

All of these dynamics, it should be noted, also apply to New Hampshire (and, to a decreasing degree, to other states as the process continues). The media, the candidates, political elites, and to a certain extent voters elsewhere all act on the signals they believe Iowa and New Hampshire are sending them. And that’s how these early state contests dramatically reshape the nomination landscape long before the vast majority of the American people get to weigh in.

Academic Cornel West and actress Susan Sarandon spoke at a Bernie Sanders event with local campaign volunteers in Waterloo, Iowa, on February 1, 2020.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

4) That’s pretty abstract. Could you give me some examples about how Iowa has shaken up past contests?

The earliest case in which Iowa changed everything was little-known former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s victory in the 1976 Democratic caucuses. This was only the second time Iowa went first, and Carter calculated that if he won there, he’d get so much media coverage that he’d be catapulted from obscurity to national fame.

So Carter essentially camped out in Iowa for a year, and his strategy worked like a charm when he won. His subsequent media-driven poll surge helped him narrowly carry New Hampshire and then 11 of the next 12 contests, followed by the nomination and the White House.

Barack Obama, too, relied on Iowa for his first victory for his campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2008. On the day of the caucuses, he trailed Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in national polls. But days after he won there, he shot up to within 5 points of her. Obama’s win there made him surge to within striking distance of Clinton in national polls, and far above her in another important early contest, South Carolina.

Supporters of then-Sen. Barack Obama rally outside of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 19, 2007.
David Lienemann/Getty Images

Even when the Iowa winner doesn’t end up winning the nomination (as with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz, the three most recent GOP winners), the caucus results can shake up the race by elevating them, rather than other candidates, to prominence in the contest.

But it’s important to understand that not every candidate is affected equally by the caucuses. Iowa matters primarily because of how it changes the perceptions of the political world. And candidates are, in large part, judged by whether their caucus performance meets the expectations of the media and political elites.

For instance, in the 2008 GOP caucuses, Mitt Romney came in second and John McCain came in fourth. Yet Romney was portrayed as a big loser, since he had been campaigning hard in Iowa and had once seemed the favorite to win. McCain, meanwhile, hadn’t really been trying to win Iowa and was focusing instead on doing well in New Hampshire, so his fourth-place finish wasn’t interpreted as a stunning setback for him.

5) This is a bizarre way to pick a president. Why has Iowa been granted so much power?

Essentially, Iowa moved its caucuses to the front of the line at the perfect moment. It happened in 1972, just while the Democratic Party was overhauling its nomination process to give actual voters, not just party bosses, more of a say. That’s how the presidential nomination system we know today — the months-long sequence of staggered primaries and caucuses in every state and territory — came about. (Republicans adopted very similar reforms soon afterward.)

But for 1972, the first nomination contest under the reformed system, Iowa Democrats slated their usual caucuses for the unusually early date of January 24. People offer various explanations for why they did so: a deliberate effort to help a favorite son who was considering running for president, an arcane party rules change that required that 30 days pass between various state and local events, or even that a lack of available hotel rooms in Des Moines that summer necessitated an earlier state convention date (which then necessitated an earlier caucus date).

Whatever the reason, the Iowa Democratic caucuses moved ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which had traditionally been the nation’s first.

Walter Mondale leads the Iowa caucus tally board, followed by Gary Hart and George McGovern, in 1984.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

At first, few people outside Iowa noticed or cared, and the 1972 caucus results got little attention nationally. But in retrospect, after George McGovern shockingly won the Democratic nomination, insiders second-guessing about why they failed to predict his rise concluded that they should have paid more attention when he finished a surprisingly strong second in Iowa. They thought Iowa’s results, in retrospect, told them something.

Savvy Iowans of both parties worked hard to promote this idea that Iowa was an early bellwether. Democrats arranged the event so topline “results” could be easily reported to the national press, and Republicans moved their caucuses to the same day to create a unified event that would get lots of media buzz. As Tom Whitney, then the state Democratic chair, later told Iowa Public Television:

Basically after the ‘74 elections, we organized a very, very significant kind of effort to convince first the candidates that they ought to be in Iowa because the national press was going to be here, and then to convince the national press that they should be in Iowa because the candidates were going to be here.

So Carter’s victories in Iowa and the general election weren’t just great for him — they ended up being great for Iowa, which could now claim to be a kingmaker. Future candidates in both parties spent more time and money there, and the national press started regularly covering the results as a major event. Party insiders and voters in other early states began taking Iowa’s results more and more seriously, too.

Ever since, the state parties have tenaciously and successfully fought to keep their caucuses first, helped by the new “precedent” they had set, as Brookings fellow Elaine Kamarck chronicled in her book Primary Politics.

6) And everyone is just okay with giving Iowa so much of a say?

Not at all! Many critics, including Vox’s Dylan Matthews, argue that Iowa’s population is unrepresentative of the country as a whole — the state is much more white and more rural, and has fewer foreign-born people.

Others criticize the caucus setup itself: The events take a long time, they’re scheduled at a specific time and place in the evening. all of which depresses turnout and could make it even more unrepresentative. (Four out of five registered party members in Iowa and the vast majority of independent voters there usually don’t show up.)

Furthermore, Democrats don’t even get a secret ballot, which means social pressure could skew their results. And presidential candidates of both parties have long felt compelled to voice fealty to powerful interest groups in the state.

Finally, it seems just plain unfair to a lot of people in other states that Iowa gets such power.

Caucus attendees listen to former Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Oelwein, Iowa, on February 1, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Caucus defenders respond by saying that Iowa does skew the results — positively. They say it’s a state where retail campaigning and one-on-one interactions with voters, rather than simply big money and ad buys, matter. Defenders also claim Iowa voters have shown that they don’t just follow the prevailing national winds — they’re more willing to give little-known and poorly funded challengers a chance, which helps ensure a more open contest overall.

In any case, every attempt to supplant Iowa has failed, because neither national party can agree on who else should be first in line, or on an alternative way to do things. And states that have tried to “jump the line” — like Louisiana in 1996 — have had their contests boycotted (at Iowa pols’ behest) and deemed meaningless by national elites and the press.

Eventually, the national parties accepted that Iowa and New Hampshire were hell-bent on going first and second — and that the vast majority of other states didn’t care all that much. So the parties began harshly penalizing other states that tried to move their nomination contests too early. Accordingly, nobody even bothered to try to leapfrog Iowa this time around.

7) Okay, so we’re stuck with Iowa going first for now. Tell me how it’ll affect this year’s race.

Once again, it’s the lessons the political world takes away from the caucuses that are really important — not how the delegates end up allotted. Everyone is anxious to see how the actual Iowa results measure up to their expectations, to help them better understand who can actually win. And for Democrats, they’ll be looking for two major things.

First, how will Biden do? He’s been the frontrunner all year, but there have been doubts about his strength in Iowa. (Some speculate that other candidates have more enthusiastic supporters and better turnout organizations, both of which matter a great deal in the caucus format.) A mediocre finish for Biden is probably survivable, but a surprisingly poor finish would likely sow doubts about his campaign. And if he manages to win the caucuses, that will be taken as a good sign for his chances to win the nomination.

Voters listen to Joe Biden during a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, on February 2, 2020.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Second, who will be the main alternative to Biden? Right now, the polls suggest it will be Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has led several recent polls in Iowa and is on the rise nationally. Caucus-goers could either confirm that perception and pave the way for a Biden-Sanders showdown — or shake it up by elevating Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or someone else with a surprisingly strong performance.

It’s odd that you need a decoder ring of sorts to make sense of Iowa’s results. Indeed, no one sat down and designed our bizarre presidential nomination system — even Iowans admit that no one would ever sit down and design this exact system from scratch. But candidates keep investing their time and money, the media keeps giving saturation coverage to the results, and political elites keep on believing that Iowa matters. So Iowa just keeps on mattering.

A version of this article was originally published in 2016. It has been updated for the 2020 caucuses.

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