Every four years, Americans ask the same question: Do the Iowa caucuses really matter? Iowa may not have many claims to fame, but every presidential cycle—for better or worse—the media shines its spotlight on the Hawkeye State.
For the past four decades, the Iowa caucus has served as the first major electoral event in the nomination process for the U.S. Presidency. Although the Iowa State Convention chooses roughly 1% of the nation’s delegates, Republican and Democratic presidential contenders flock to the Iowa Caucus every four years to win over Iowans.
Pandering at the fairgrounds
Despite the small delegate count, candidates continue to pander to Iowans every four years. Did you know that 19 presidential candidates—Democrats and Republicans alike—descended upon the Iowa State Fair in August? In an attempt to show kinship to Iowans, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ate pork chops and met Maggie, a shorthorn cow, while reality TV star and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump made a subtle arrival in a black helicopter with “TRUMP” plastered across it. And let’s not forget former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who manned a grill—flipping burgers for all to see.
Picking winners and losers
With the amount of importance that presidential contenders place on Iowa one might assume that the winners of the Iowa caucuses always go on to win their respective party’s nomination, but that isn’t always the case.
Since 1972, the winner of the Democratic caucus has gone on to win his party’s nomination 7 of 11 times. The tally goes up to eight if you count Jimmy Carter who received 28% in 1976, which was more than any candidate, but less than the 38-percent “uncommitted” total. Including Carter, four of the candidates went on to win the White House.
Speaking of President Carter, it’s worth noting that his 1976 campaign in Iowa is partly responsible for the media attention placed on the state today. Carter, who had little name recognition in 1976, received great media attention after his showing in Iowa. From then on, candidates have attempted to use Iowa as a means to gain name recognition and as a spring board for their party’s nomination.
As for Republicans, Iowans have picked the eventual Republican candidate 6 out of 10 times since 1976. Of those six, four would go on to win the presidency. Interestingly, both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush went on to be elected President after losing in Iowa.
So Does Iowa Really Matter?
So now we have the facts. Iowa has picked some winners and it’s picked some losers. And now we return to our initial question: do the Iowa caucuses really matter?
Although Iowa is largely nonrepresentational of America as a whole—it’s over 92% white—it is important for candidates. A good showing by a candidate in Iowa can signal to their respective parties and to voters, that their candidacy is serious. Additionally, a positive outcome in Iowa can translate to major campaign dollars and increased media attention.
Simultaneously, Iowa is unimportant because it is only important for being first. If Iowa is important because of this lone reason, could not Nebraska or Delaware or any state for that matter be just as important if it were first?
Just think of how different it would be if Minnesota was the first-in-the-nation state. If that were the case, candidates would descend upon St. Paul every four years in late August and mingle with Minnesotans at the Minnesota State Fair. Candidates would eat food on a stick; meet famous livestock; and show off their grilling skills.
On second thought, perhaps things would be exactly the same.