Why is the Iowa caucus so important?

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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  • 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