Why is the Iowa caucus so important?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during the CNN Town Hall at Drake University in Des Moines , Iowa, Jan. 25, 2016, ahead of the Iowa Caucus
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

During the fall and early winter of every fourth year, the United States turns its full attention to the state of Iowa. The Des Moines Register newspaper gets the kind of political clout that The Washington Post or The New York Times do when its editors reveal which candidates their paper officially endorses. Average Joes and Janes are interviewed by out-of-town national correspondents over coffee and pie in the local diner about what issues are most important to them. And almost every candidate in the presidential race virtually moves to the state to spend months campaigning throughout Iowa.

Iowa's caucus draws a lot of attention to an otherwise quiet, largely agricultural state. The Iowa caucus can be difficult to explain quickly, but once you understand the process, it may be more simple than you think. Learn more about how caucuses work.

Iowa doesn't necessarily represent a diverse cross-section of America. And although Iowa is one of the few states to hold a caucus, the other 49 states hold similar ballots, generally primary elections to choose the state party's nominee for president of the United States, which it will present at the national party convention. Yet the votes cast by the residents who turn out for the Iowa caucus are so highly coveted that news agencies and political organizations take frequent polls to find out what the Iowans are thinking. Why is Iowa so important?

The simplest answer is that Iowa is the first state in the nation to have a chance to show its support for candidates. Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic contender in the 1972 election, explained the significance of Iowa like this: "Iowa is terribly important. It's the first test in the nation, where we get any test at all" [source: University of Iowa].

That test comes from real, everyday voters. The level of support a candidate receives in Iowa gives a reasonable indication of how they will perform with the rest of American voters. If middle-American Iowans support a candidate, then that candidate has a chance with the rest of the nation. The results from the Iowa caucus tell a candidate whether his or her platform is desirable. It is the first chance for a campaign to find out if its message is affecting voters -- should the campaign stay the course or change tactics? And the Iowa caucus is so important that some candidates bow out of the race if they do poorly in Iowa.

A strong showing in Iowa also sends a message to the national party leaders. Each party seeks a strong contender for the White House, and a good response from Iowans helps cement a candidate's chances to win the national nomination. Being first in the nation certainly is important. But Iowa wasn't always first, and the votes cast by its residents in the caucus weren't always so important.

In 1972, the Democratic Party changed its scheduling, and Iowa became the first state to hold its caucus. The resulting attention for the Democrats was great enough that the Republican Party also made Iowa first in the 1976 election, and since then, Iowa's importance has grown each election cycle.

But to say that the importance of the Iowa caucus is entirely due to its status as first in the nation would be a mistake. Political analysts point to another factor that bolsters Iowa every four years. Read about that on the next page.­

Iowa in Sharp Focus

Jimmy Carter, shown on the campaign trail in 1976, was pivotal in cementing the importance of Iowa due to the amount of time he spent there campaigning.
Jimmy Carter, shown on the campaign trail in 1976, was pivotal in cementing the importance of Iowa due to the amount of time he spent there campaigning.
Matthew Naythons/Getty Images

New Hampshire has a state law that says it must be the first state to hold a primary in a presidential election [source: New Hampshire]. But because Iowa holds a caucus rather than a primary, it has remained the first state to hold any kind of vote on candidates for both parties since 1976. As such, Iowa has been consistently important in presidential campaigns since the 1970s. Many point to the media as the true creator of the prominent political role that Iowa enjoys.

It began with George McGovern. His better-than-expected showing at the 1972 Iowa caucus gave his campaign a shot in the arm and caught the attention of the media. Since then, the press has kept a close eye on the Iowa caucuses.

The same can be said for the candidates themselves. During the 1976 presidential race, Jimmy Carter spent a year conducting a grassroots campaign in the state, and was rewarded with a huge victory in the caucus. Since then, candidates have spent an inordinate amount of time canvassing the state in order to bolster support.

The effect is reciprocal. Since the candidates spend time in Iowa, the media does too. And where the media are, the candidates will be there, hoping to get more attention -- and votes.

Johan Bergenas, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, argued while he was a political science student at the University of Iowa that the press' presence is what lends such weight to the Iowa caucus. The media "pin both expectations and labels on candidates, such as 'dark-horse' or 'long-shot,' in the search for news," says Bergenas. "If the candidate does not fulfill expectations or cannot carry the label, he or she might not be portrayed as viable by the media."

As such, a candidate expected to do poorly, and who makes a surprisingly good showing at the Iowa caucus -- even if he or she did not place first -- can receive a tremendous amount of good press. This could go a long way to supporting his or her bid for the candidacy, and bring him or her into the front of the pack. Conversely, a candidate who is expected to do well in Iowa, and doesn't, may receive bad press, or no press at all. As a result of an early poor showing, he or she may decide to drop out of the race.

But does Iowa deserve the power that it yields? Some observers scoff at the importance placed on a state with so few people, but time and again, the impact Iowa's caucus has on elections is tangible.

"In the history of these caucuses, no candidate who has ever finished worse than third among the candidates has even gone on to win the nomination," David Yepsen, a political columnist for The Des Moines Register, tells ABC News.

Iowa's status as the first presidential test in the nation is constantly under attack. In 2003, the District of Columbia lobbied unsuccessfully to be allowed to move its primary before Iowa's caucus. In the 2008 election, states shuffled their primary schedules, all in order to attract more attention to their state. And a group of 40 states met in Washington, D.C., in February 2007 to discuss a rotating primary schedule to begin in 2012, so states can share the importance of being the first in the presidential nominating process [source: Indiana Secretary of State]. That didn't go anywhere.

As long as Iowa is able to hang onto its status as first in the nation, it appears that it will keep its prominent place in the nation's political climate. Especially since its state law says its caucus must be the first one in the nation.

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Sources

  • Bergenas, Johan. "About the caucuses: Meaningful test." University of Iowa. http://iowapresidentialpolitics.com/caucus_info/bergenaswinebrenner.html
  • DeWitte, David. "Economic impact of caucuses bigger this year." The Gazette. December 2, 2007. http://www.gazetteonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID= /20071202/IOWACAUCUS/712020031/1002/NEWS
  • Parker, Jennifer. "Caucus countdown: The importance of Iowa." December 3, 2007. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/story?id=3925751
  • "About the Iowa caucuses." Iowa Caucus 2008. http://www.iowacaucus.org/iacaucus.html
  • "Election of officers and delegates: Election dates (Section 653:9)." New Hampshire Statutes. June 25, 2007. http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/rsa/html/lxiii/653/653-9.htm
  • "Rokita calls for sweeping reforms to the presidential nominating process." Indiana Secretary of State. February 26, 2007. http://www.in.gov/sos/press/2007/02262007.html