How Important is the Iowa Caucus?

A look at how the caucus works and what a win in Iowa has meant for past candidates

The political focus of the last couple of weeks has been on the Iowa Caucuses that are set to take place on the evening of January 3. Sure, Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin got a little attention with their annual New Year’s Eve date, but other than that, news coverage has seemed like all Iowa, all the time. It’s entirely possible that the journalist population in Iowa exceeds the number of actual residents right at the moment as so many of them are clamoring to break whatever big story they hope will come out of the official launch of the 2012 primary season.

The Republican Iowa Caucuses (there is a Democratic one on January 3, as well, but President Obama is running unchallenged) work essentially like a primary election, but there are no official ballots. Anyone who is 18 or over and is a registered Republican can attend at their respective caucus location – usually a church, a school or a private home -- in his or her precinct, write the name of their chosen candidate on a piece of paper, drop it in whatever is being used for the ballot box, and call it a night. The Democratic Caucus procedure is a little more lengthy in that attendees can argue and try to persuade others to switch candidates before a final tally is taken.

But every four years I ask myself -- just how important is Iowa to the ultimate outcome of a presidential race? Historically, it’s proven not to be an accurate indicator of who the eventual White House winner will be, unless the Republican winner was the incumbent president. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was the Republican winner in the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Remember Huckabee? Iowa was his bright, shining moment in the spotlight, but he was out of the race by early March.

The only time in the last nine presidential election cycles that the winner of a contested Republican Iowa Caucus won the presidency was George W. Bush in the 2000 race:

2004 -- George W. Bush (unopposed)

2000 -- George W. Bush

1996 -- Bob Dole (lost to Bill Clinton)

1992 -- George H. W. Bush (unopposed) (lost to Bill Clinton)

1988 -- Bob Dole (George H.W. Bush was the GOP nominee)

1984 -- Ronald Reagan (unopposed)

1980 -- George H. W. Bush (Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee)

1976 -- Gerald Ford (GOP nominee, but lost to Jimmy Carter)

1972 -- Richard Nixon (unopposed)

Another factor to consider in Iowa’s relative political importance is that the outcome of the voting in Iowa’s 99 counties doesn’t necessarily determine how the state’s electors will cast their votes at the Republican Convention this summer. There are still several Iowa GOP political events after the January 3 caucus where that will be determined, so depending on who’s ahead in the Republican race a couple of months down the road, the Iowa Caucus “winner” could look a whole lot different than it will on January 4.

So why do we focus on Iowa? Because it’s the first “primary” of the 2012 season, which gives it a bit of political gravitas it wouldn’t receive otherwise, since it only has seven electoral votes. Whether it should stay this way is another question.

One Iowa voter says it’s a good idea that candidates get to start off the official campaign season in a smaller, Midwestern state where they can actually meet voters and test the waters. But Heather Barmore at Poliogue blog points out one glaring problem with the current scheme:

“My senior year of college I took a course on electoral politics and at the end of the semester we were tasked with writing a paper as to the necessity of the Presidential primary process in its current state (this was in November of 2004 after the failure of Kerry-Edwards. Remember them?), as well as the purpose of the Electoral College. Was either representative of our democracy? How could they be changed in order to keep fairness and ensure that every person in the country was able to cast a vote that would count?

“After the papers were written, a debate was held for us to defend our positions on the primary system. It wasn’t until the end when I sighed deeply and in all my let’s just blurt this … out glory I said, “Um, HELLO?! THERE ARE NO BLACK PEOPLE!” Righteously indignant I was with a professor that appreciated my candor as no one else had pointed out this glaring fact about the states of Iowa and New Hampshire.”


So in this election cycle’s search for the perfect GOP candidate who can beat President Barack Obama, who is the likely winner in Iowa? And does it even matter? Voters have changed their minds on this question about as often as Lady Gaga swaps out her costumes. Just before the December holidays, it looked like the race was neck and neck between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, and someone is buying ad time to encourage voters to caucus for Sarah Palin, even though she claims she’s not in the running. In the last week, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has started to close the gap in many polls, and while observers doubted he would ever have his “flavor of the month” moment, the chances are good that he’ll pull out a conservative-based win because in politics, as in life, sometimes timing is everything. Whether he can heat things up in New Hampshire, and the other January primaries to stay in the race, even with the recent endorsement of the Duggar Family of TLC’s show 19 and Counting, looks less likely.

iVillage contributor Joanne Bamberger writes about the intersection of motherhood and politics at her blog, PunditMom. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, which is on sale now at Amazon.com.

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