Saturday, July 13, 2024

Iowa matters: how the Hawkeye state became king of the caucus


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Story by Tayla Courage, Zoe Haggard, Savannah Meade, Amanda Smith and Sabrina Washington/ Seigenthaler News Service


Editor’s note: a group of six MTSU journalism students are in Iowa through Sunday to report on the campaigns of Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Look to Sidelines for more stories from their reporting, and continuing coverage of the 2020 election.

Iowa’s caucus history and why a Midwest state far from Washington, D.C., goes first in the presidential preference primaries boils down to the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Contextually, 1968 was a tumultuous political year. The assassinations of presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the country’s divide over the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, caused many Americans to voice their disapproval.

At the Democratic Convention held that year in Chicago, anti-war protestors and police clashed violently. The anger of protestors only grew louder as the nomination went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race too late to compete in any primaries but won on what some deemed strong-arm politicking on the convention floor.

Fast forward four years and the Democratic National Committee found themselves not wanting to repeat the blunder of 1968. A solution lay in the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which was formed to improve the nomination process so voters could have a direct say in which candidates they wanted. The intent was to take power away from entrenched party leaders and make the nomination a grass roots effort.

Iowa became the best player under the new rules.

With its small, middle-ground location and already long nomination process consisting of four levels of conventions, it needed more time than other states to prepare for its caucuses and primaries. Thus, the state needed to go first.

In 1972, going first propelled George McGovern to the top of the Democrat’s ballot, but he lost to Richard Nixon. Four years later, however, a peanut farmer and former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, parlayed a second-place finish in Iowa to win the nomination and the presidency.

As the saying goes in Iowa, the caucuses are not first because they’re important; they’re important because they’re first.

Today, nearly 50 years later, Iowa still goes first. In 2020, February 3 will be caucus day.

Which brings up a crucial question, particularly for Tennesseans trying to understand what all the fuss is about: what the heck is a caucus?

According to National Public Radio, the term is thought to come from an Algonquin word meaning “one who advises, urges, encourages” and “to talk to … give counsel, advise, encourage, and to urge, promote, incite to action.”

In Iowa, all this advising, encouraging and inciting to action begins at a very grassroots level: neighborhood meetings. In 2020 there will be meetings at 1,681 precincts, all on the same night.

Iowans will gather at churches, schools, firehalls and other public buildings to, as they say, to “vote with your feet instead of your fingers.”

Participants in Iowa’s Democratic Caucus must be checked in at a predetermined polling location on Feb. 3, 2020 at 7 p.m. Unlike the primaries, there is no option for Iowans to submit an absentee ballot.

Supporters of each candidate gather in a cluster to be counted. To move forward in the process, candidates much attract at least 15 percent of the crowd present. If not, those voters must walk over to join another candidate’s cluster.  Obviously, low voter turnout can be detrimental to a candidate, so campaigns work hard to make sure supporters are in the caucus room when the meeting starts.

An obvious difference between the caucuses and primaries, such as the one Tennessee will hold on March 3, is that when a citizen declares their support for a candidate, all your neighbors know your business, and you know theirs. There’s no voting in secret.

But this extended process allows voters to voice their opinions without having to consider the position their ideal candidate holds in the polls. They can stay loyal to a candidate until they are no longer in the running.

To be clear, Iowa’s 49 electors appointed to vote at the summer’s Democratic Convention will not be named in February. Following the precinct caucuses there will be county caucuses, then regional meetings and, finally, in late spring, a state convention where 41 electors to the national convention will be named based on support gathered in the caucuses. Eight other electors who are chosen at the state convention, outside the caucus system, will round out the 49. These eight have been dubbed “super delegates” because they can vote as they please.

Meanwhile, the Republicans also will be caucusing on Feb. 3, but their system resembles a regular primary. Candidates are chosen in secret, via paper ballot.

While it is an important stop on the campaign trail, the Iowa caucus is not the end all, be all for presidential elections. Since the 1970s, the winners of the Iowa caucus have shown some consistency in deciding the Democratic presidential nomination but is not as strong at picking the president.

Among Democrats, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008 won the Iowa caucus and went on to win the presidency. In the Republican Party, Ronald Regan was victorious at Iowa in 1984, as was George W. Bush in 2000.

Most recently in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton was the winner for the Democrats and Ted Cruz for the Republicans. Clinton went on to receive the Democratic nomination, but Donald Trump, who was second in Iowa, went on to become the Republican nominee and the President.

According to ABC News, Iowa caucus winners who went on to win the nomination is about 75 percent for Democrats and 42 percent for Republicans. Judging by this information, Iowa does not have a history of choosing who will become the next president, but the Iowa vote can still be a strong indicator as to who is leading the race in each party at that time.

The caucus system is unique in the American experience, but it has its detractors.  For instance, many Iowans are not able to partake in the historic tradition. Some can’t travel to the caucus site due to a disability or a lack of transportation.

In efforts to improve the caucus and close the gap between accessibility and participation, a satellite option for Iowans unable to participate in traditional caucus has been created. Residents of nursing homes, for instance, will be able to participate in the system this year.

Another issue is how rural Iowa is. While there’s talk of moving the caucus to the internet, many areas of the state do not have broadband internet access. Consequently, rural areas feel left out.

“So many populations are potentially disenfranchised, and I don’t find that folksy or charming,” Emmanuel Smith, a disability rights advocate from Des Moines, told a reporter from The Atlantic.


To contact Editor-in-Chief Angele Latham, email

For more news, visit, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News


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