Worthwhile or Wasteful? The Future of Iowa’s Republican Caucuses

 /  Jan. 29, 2024, 9:25 p.m.

Iowa Caucus

In the media, the Iowa caucuses are typically portrayed as chaotic gatherings of the state’s most passionate voters who relish in ferociously defending their chosen candidate. Given the spectacle that the caucuses are made out to be on television, it was surprising to see how respectful real caucus-goers were. At one caucus site, inside a dimly-lit band performance room at McCombs Middle School on the outskirts of Des Moines, voters from the 70th and 71st districts calmly waited to write the names of their preferred candidates on small slips of paper. In fact, they were so calm that it took a while to get volunteers for the first step of the caucusing process: brief speeches in favor of each candidate. 

The docile nature of the caucuses was a departure from the image and build up of the caucuses in the media. Yet it wasn’t just Iowa outsiders with the wrong conception, many Des Moines residents seemed to harbor an idea of the caucuses that did not quite match reality. Danielle, a Des Moines native, commented that she has never caucused, nor did she intend to this year because she “doesn’t like to talk.” The caucuses, to her, seemed to be a forum for the incredibly politically driven, and she accepted that those who had strong opinions on each candidate could decide who secures the Republican nomination. She did clarify that although in the caucuses she “didn’t care who wins,” she would be voting for that Republican candidate in the General Election.

Danielle was not alone in her sentiment. In fact, it was an opinion shared by many other Des Moines Republicans with whom we spoke. How, then, did the caucuses gain this outsized reputation with the general public, and how does that impact the caucuses’ efficacy as a form of primary voting? 

The history of Iowa's unique role in presidential primaries helps explain their influence today. Iowa first gained its spot as the opening event in the primary voting calendar in 1970, as a result of political turmoil which ensued in 1968, when Lyndon B. Johnson dropped out of the presidential race and his Vice President Hubert Humphrey managed to secure the nomination without winning any primaries. The public was so outraged at the disconnect between public opinion and the eventual nominee that the Democratic party decided to reform the nomination process to better reflect the opinions of the people. Originally, Iowa had one of the longest nominating processes in the country, with four different statewide primary activities: caucuses and county, congressional district and state level conventions. Due to the state's extended process, Iowa got the first spot in the calendar. 

Today, the Iowa caucuses are one of the most important political events in the primary election cycle. As the first stop for presidential nominee hopefuls, the state has become a political center. Iowa, which will provide only a miniscule number of the total Republican delegates for the 2024 Republican National Convention–just over 1% of the total delegates–nonetheless has an immense impact on which candidates move forward. 

The largest benefit for the candidates who perform well at the caucuses is simple: energy. As the first test of public response to presidential candidates, the results of the caucus can either give campaigns much needed momentum or stop them in their tracks. This phenomenon is so common, it gave rise to  the common saying “there are only three tickets out of Iowa”. 

It is questionable, however, how good a metric the Iowa caucuses actually are for gauging America’s interests. In fact, while the eventual nominee is usually a top 3 finisher, Iowa voters have only chosen the eventual Republican nominee once since 1980, which was George W. Bush in 2000. On the Democratic side, the statistics only look slightly better, with 6 of the last 10 caucus winners going on to win the nomination. 

So what makes Iowa’s results an anomaly? There are a few possible reasons that Iowa defies national norms including different demographics from the rest of the country, such an early calendar spot before voter opinions have gelled, and low voter turnout. Perhaps Iowa’s biggest difference from the country at large is the makeup of their population. Of the voting age population, over 91% are white, which is almost 20% higher than the national average. Iowa also has a slightly lower poverty level than the rest of the country and comparatively more people working in manufacturing and farming as opposed to other industries. Along with this, education rates are lower than the national average with only 29% of Iowans with bachelor's degrees or higher, compared to 32.6% nationally. Iowa is also much more rural than other states with only 64% of the population living in an urban area, as opposed to over 80.7% nationally. Iowa also has a higher concentration of Evangelical Christians which often leads to a better performance for more religious conservative candidates. 

The Iowa caucuses have historically had different results due to the timing of the caucuses themselves, as the first stop in the primary election cycle. At this point in the race, voters have not been influenced by any previous primary results and there are often more candidates vying for a nomination. However, Iowa’s position means they get an incredible amount of attention from potential presidential nominees, who spend months campaigning all over the state. 

Another big difference between Iowa and other states is the impact of having caucuses instead of traditional primary voting. Unlike primaries, caucuses take place at specific times, where all eligible voters registered with their party have to meet at the same time to collectively vote for the candidate of their choice. This process can be extremely limiting, especially for voters with disabilities, elderly voters, or anyone with a more limited schedule that would not allow them to take an hour out of their day to caucus. Low turnout, which was just over 16% of Iowa’s registered voters in 2016, can have a significant impact on the outcome of the caucuses. 

Due to the increased commitment required from voters in a caucus system, pulling off a win in Iowa requires candidates to work even harder to mobilize their supporters. Trump was predicted to have a blowout win in the caucuses this year in large part because he had something other candidates did not: an army of unwaveringly passionate supporters. In pre-caucus polls, it was noted that Trump’s personality and the attention he commands from his supporters had motivated many Iowans to attend the caucuses for the first time ever to lend their support to the former president. Additionally, Trump vowed to send multiple “white hats,” specifically chosen speakers to speak for him at caucus sites. Other candidates followed suit, especially Desantis, who sent a variety of Florida politicians to Iowa on his behalf. For Trump, this push to get his supporters to caucus appears to have been successful as he ended up securing 20 delegates and 51% of the vote.

The quirks of the caucuses have also drawn lots of criticism, especially from President Biden. In 2020, President Biden first announced his idea to reform the Democratic caucus system as a result of that year’s caucuses during which, due to party mismanagement, there was a delay in counting the votes and releasing results. Last February, the DNC finalized their plan to restructure the presidential primary calendar by replacing Iowa’s top spot with South Carolina. The states following will be New Hampshire, which appealed Biden’s original plan, citing their law that requires first-in-nation primary status, and then Nevada, which is replacing their caucuses with traditional primaries. Biden mainly chose South Carolina to precede Iowa because of their higher Black population which would better represent the rest of the Democratic party. The Republican party in Iowa, as well as those in Nevada, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, Hawaii, Wyoming and Kentucky, have all decided to keep their caucus systems. Yet, Biden’s plan raises questions as to whether there is distinct value in having caucuses at all. 

For Iowa voters, there seems to be little concern over the efficacy of the caucus system. Regardless of the fact that the Iowa caucuses are a more unconventional political process, they have been sculpted into the state’s identity. At the caucuses themselves, there seemed to be an underlying emphasis on what made Iowa different from the rest of the country, which was made clear in the crowd’s reactions to each of the candidates speeches. To her detriment, the first speaker at the McCombs Middle School caucus wasn’t even from Iowa. Attorney General of Florida, Ashley Moody, had flown into the state, risking an almost 70-degree decrease in temperature, to support Florida Governor Ron Desantis. Unfortunately for her candidate, her Floridian sensibilities did not fully resonate with the Republican voters of the midwest. The speakers that followed seemed to better represent Iowan voters’ unique interests. The speaker for Former President Donald Trump was especially engaging, as he gave a more conversational speech that felt more genuine than the rehearsed remarks from the previous speakers. 

For decades Iowa has garnered national attention as well as the unique opportunity to get to know each presidential candidate. While some Iowans have skewed views of the caucuses or apprehension about participating in such a nationally regarded event, none of the Iowans we met had any desire to change the caucus system. Danielle, the first voter we spoke to, mentioned that her husband was looking forward to caucusing for the first time this year to “see what the process was all about.” The Mayor of Des Moines, Connie Boesen, corroborated, in a conversation we had with her at a Starbucks in downtown Des Moines, that the caucuses are a very exciting time for the city. Perhaps the national attention towards Iowa or mobilization of first-time caucus goers is enough to demystify the process for more of the Republican voter base. With this shift in mind, the caucuses could potentially begin to correct their own image problem as voter turnout increases. Iowa’s Republican caucuses are far from a perfect system, but given their significance both locally and nationally it seems like Iowa won’t be getting rid of them anytime soon.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was created by DonkeyHotey and can be found here.

Eva Herrick


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