Elections 2020: Why Iowa is the first big battleground in the US presidential polls

The Hawkeye State doesn't have a heavy clout like say California. Yet, it has continued to be the state where the first caucuses of the presidential elections take place every four years

                            Elections 2020: Why Iowa is the first big battleground in the US presidential polls
Elizabeth Warren (Getty Images)

Come February 3 and the US will witness the first major test of this election season: the Iowa caucuses. In every presidential election, the Hawkeye State holds the first big test for the candidates and they camp in the state for days in the run-up. But why do the first caucuses take place in Iowa when there are states that have bigger clout in the presidential election?

It is since 1972 that Iowa has been holding the first presidential nomination contest (Democratic). Its significance has grown over the years in size as well as scope and now, Iowa caucuses have become a sort of trend-setter in presidential elections. The GOP held its first Iowa caucuses in Iowa in 1976.

Richard Seagrave, a retired engineering professor from Iowa State University who was one of the architects of the modern caucuses in the state, said the significance of the Iowa caucuses was something they could not predict. “Never in our dreams did we realize we would be ‘first in the nation,’ nor did we ever expect anyone outside Iowa would pay much attention,” he wrote.

Former presient Jimmy Carter (1977-81) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jimmy Carter's win in Iowa in 1976 made it special

According to Seagrave, the decision to hold the caucuses so early in a presidential year was not politically driven. He said the huge paperwork that was required to document the proceedings of the caucuses with a slow mimeograph machine meant that more time was needed to complete things and thus came the choice of the early date. 

However, the appeal of Iowa became big four years later when Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter contested. He did not have a flashy and rich campaign to compete in bigger state primaries early in the season and concentrated on winning Iowa. A good finish in Iowa helped Carter grab headlines and go on to win the presidency that year. Iowa also made a name of itself along with the Democrat. 
It is not that Iowans’ choice has always been endorsed by the rest of America. Since 1980, only one Republican candidate who won Iowa could win the presidency and it was Geroge W Bush in 2000. Among the Democrats, too, only Barack Obama could win the presidency after bagging Iowa in 2008. Iowa has also faced questions. The state is whiter and more rural than the rest of the US. According to many, Iowa doesn’t really represent the US. Kathy O'Bradovich, a political columnist for the ‘Des Moines Register’, has to say that Iowa is not first because it’s important but is important because it is first. 

The 1968 Democratic Convention also played a role

Another reason that explains why Iowa started earlier than any other state is the Democratic Convention of 1968. The period running up to the convention that year was not stable. The Vietnam War was still on; Martin Luther King Junior and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy were assassinated the same year and Lyndon B Johnson had withdrawn from seeking a second term. LBJ’s vice president Hubert Humphrey joined the race and his support for Johnson, especially over the Vietnam War, had irked the anti-war protesters. They clashed with the police as Democratic political leaders entered the convention hall and television cameras exposed the political division in the US. Humphrey went on to bag the Democratic nomination still, beating George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy, although he did not win a single primary.

Anti-war demonstrators attempt to push over a Chicago Police Department vehicle on Michigan Avenue during the anti-Vietnam War protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois, August 28, 1968. (Photo by APA/Getty Images)

Realizing that the connection between the popular sentiment and the political process got snapped, the Democratic leadership formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission to address the damage and it focused on bettering the nomination process so that the voters find it more inclusive while expressing their preferences for the nomination and stop political manipulation behind the doors.
The state leaders had to give a month’s notice before hosting the primaries and caucuses to encourage maximum participation. In case of Iowa, this made it challenging since the state has a time-consuming nominating process that includes, besides the caucuses, the conventions at the country levels, congressional district and state levels. Add to that the 30-day notice period and the Hawkeye State had to start really early in the year. While this laid the foundation for the early caucuses in Iowa, Carter’s victory made them a popular kick-off. 

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