But Why Iowa? The unofficial beginning of the 2020 Presidential Election

13 mins read
Photo by Kelcy Gatson on Unsplash

By Jeff Martins-Sexton

FINALLY, we’ve arrived!

This Monday, February 3rd, 2020, is the Iowa Democratic Caucus which is seen as the unofficial beginning of the 2020 Presidential Election. 

Voters from all across the state will gather to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. 

Before we begin, let’s get on the same page about what a caucus is. According to the dictionary, it’s “a meeting at which local members of a political party register their preference among candidates running for office or select delegates to attend a convention.”

But Why Iowa? Why is this state the first in the nation to vote?

The reason for this is both ridiculous and interesting, so have some patience and bear with me here.

With one exception in the early 20th century, Iowa has always held caucuses to select their nominees. Though Iowa had used the caucus system since the 1800s, it didn’t really have much significance in presidential politics until the elections in 1972.

To understand why the Iowa Caucus became the unofficial beginning of the presidential election, we have to look at the s*$t show that was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

1968 was turning out to be a pretty horrible year for America. The Vietnam war was raging on, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, as was presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in California. So the boiling point for many was the convention.

The Convention had nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its nominee.

But the problem with Humphrey was that he didn’t compete in any of the primaries and only competed in caucuses that were controlled by the so-called “party bosses” (Think Vito Corleone, but WASPier). Humphrey was also echoing President Lyndon Johnson’s pro-Vietnam war view while his main competitor, Senator Eugene McCarthy, was anti-war and had won the most votes in the primaries leading up to the election.

There were massive riots outside the convention because the nominating process was controlled by party insiders and not the rank-and-file members.

This not only tainted the Democratic Party, but it also played a huge part in their loss to Richard Nixon that year. The Democratic Party came out of that election determined to change the way that candidates were selected. This is where the Iowa Democratic Party comes in.

The Iowa Democratic Party, frustrated with the status quo, set off on making the voting process more transparent for 1972. 

They wanted to ensure that candidates were being selected by its members as opposed to party elites. To start off, the party decided to change the rules so that candidates were assigned delegates based on their percentage of total votes, rather than the winner-take-all rule. This made sure that every voter’s voice mattered.

To guarantee that the process was more transparent, the state party split the caucus into 4 voting stages before the national convention in July: 

Voters would first vote in their Precinct (which is what we’re talking about here). From there, the selected delegates from the precinct caucus would vote at the County level. From the County level, delegates would vote at the congressional level and finally the State level. This ensured that there was transparency at all stages of the nominating process.

But why so early? Keep in mind that this is 1972. 

Voters at every stage would need to receive candidate information and there weren’t computers or fast copying machines that could print out candidate information to send out to voters in time. 

The only thing available for the Iowa Democratic Party to use is a Mimeograph machine. (Think of this as a low cost but LABOR INTENSIVE copying machine). Because of this, it was determined that it would take the Iowa Democratic Party 30 days to produce enough material for each stage of the Caucus. 

This is why the Iowa Democratic Party decided to hold each stage of the caucus a month apart from each other, eventually leading to the national convention in July of 1972. 

In this case, the caucus was supposed to be held in February of 1972.

But it wasn’t. Why?

The problem was that they didn’t have a venue large enough for the State Convention in June. They had to push the state convention to May, and that is why the Precinct caucuses were pushed to January. Yeah, this long explanation is why the Iowa Caucus is held so early in the year.

Cue the Media

Ok, so why is the Iowa Caucus so important today?

A Democratic Senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, ran for President in 1972 and used the Iowa Caucus as a way to garner media attention before the New Hampshire Primaries. 

Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the leading candidate for Democrats, but McGovern insisted on heavily campaigning in Iowa. McGovern lost the Iowa Caucus to Edmund Muskie, but he came a close second and garnered enormous media attention thanks to reporting from The New York Times. 

This momentum worked for McGovern, and he went on to win the nomination but lost the general election to Richard Nixon.

As I said, it was a rough period for Democrats.

Learning from McGovern’s success, Jimmy Carter used the same tactics in 1976 to attract media attention and, like McGovern, won the nomination.

Luckily for Democrats, this time Carter won the presidency. In a matter of four years, the Iowa Caucus proved to be extremely powerful and is seen as the unofficial beginning of the Presidential Election.

So now that we (sort of) understand the importance of the Iowa Caucus, how is it different from a primary?

Well to start, state and local governments run the primaries, as opposed to caucuses which are private events run by the political parties themselves. 

PARTICIPATION is also key. As opposed to a primary where voters head to a polling station to select their nominee, a caucus requires members of a political party to meet and nominate candidates for various offices. Voters have to devote a few hours of their evening to participate in the caucus process.

The dedication of voter’s personal time means that it’s vitally important to have a good ground game in Iowa. Candidates have to make sure that they get their supporters to participate in the caucus.

One key difference between the caucus and the primaries is that people vote out in the open. There are no secret ballots like the primary system. In this way, it is very much like a community gathering.

So How does the Iowa Caucus actually work?

The Iowa Caucuses start at 7 PM local time and lasts for about an hour. The caucus is a closed caucus, meaning you have to be a registered democrat in order to participate but you can register the same day. 

Once in their precincts, voters listen to surrogates make the case for each candidate and then begin to vote.

There are two rounds of voting which will produce three results: The Initial preference results, the reallocated preference results, and the State Delegate Equivalents.

The Initial preference is the first round where all voters select their preferred candidates and the votes are counted. If a candidate does not receive at least 15% of the vote, their voters are released and can select any other candidate in the second round, also known as the reallocated preference. These results are also tabulated. The second round results are then converted to State Delegate Equivalents which are the final results released to the public.

What’s different about the 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucus is that for the first time, the raw vote totals are going to be counted, as opposed to the final State Delegate Equivalents which is what people usually receive.

How effective is the Iowa Caucuses in Determining the Presidency?

It seems like a long and tiring process for a small midwestern state but how accurate is Iowa in forecasting the Presidential Candidate?

Well, it’s far more accurate than you may think.

The winner of the last seven of nine Democratic caucuses went on to become the nominee. That is why the Iowa Caucus matters so much to many of the Democratic presidential nominees.

And this is why Iowa is the first in the nation?

Yeah, it makes no sense why Iowa is the first in the nation, but what IS important is that people turn out to vote. I mean, the whole reason that the Iowa Caucus exists the way it does today is because many people felt that they were being excluded from the political process.

Even in America, the oldest democracy in the world, people felt like they didn’t have a voice, so don’t take Democracy for granted. GET OUT AND VOTE.

We make it super easy. Click this link to see if you’re registered, do it if you’re not.

* This article was edited on 2/2/2020. The original article said that the Iowa Caucus was an open caucus. It has since been corrected. 

Jeff Martins-Sexton
A graduate of the University of Toronto, Jeff Martins-Sexton is a writer who uses his studies in history and the United States to influence his take on current affairs and the state of American society. He’s also a screenwriter and performer having studied both in Toronto and Los Angeles.


Originally posted on Tono Latino. Re-posted with permission.

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