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Iowa Caucuses: Impact on You

Updated on January 23, 2014

Every four years the Iowa caucus hosts gatherings of Democratic and Republican voters throughout the state to help determine who will become the next President of the United States.

Most American voters are unaware of the workings of the Iowa caucus process, the money paid by candidates to participate or the effect that Iowa caucus has on U.S. voters' choices in November.

Most importantly, Americans should be aware of the benefits and risks of placing such a high-stakes event early in the process, and in the hands of a group that may not reflect the interests or demographics of voters elsewhere. And that, because so much is riding on this single event, it poses a prime target for manipulation, where a candidate may have little time to set the record straight.

American voters need to look at the Iowa caucus and understand it, and its effects on their Presidential election.

Do or Die

Timing is everything. And the Iowa caucus is the first in line of all the primaries and caucuses held in the Presidential election year. This has put the Iowa caucus into a powerful position, especially for candidates who might be unknown, under-funded or otherwise vulnerable to a 'thumbs down' in a long series of pre-convention contests.

The fact is that failing to be voted first or second in the Iowa caucus decreases the odds of a candidate becoming nominated by his/her party's national convention later that summer. Since 1972, when Iowa started holding early caucuses, the national convention for each respective party selected Iowa's first or second place candidate 11 out of 15 contests.

Further, candidates have found that an unexpected, positive result in Iowa can be like rocket fuel for a campaign, propelling them from relative obscurity to nomination. See: George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Barack Obama in 2008.

Candidates, and their benefactors, have recognized that it is enormously difficult to succeed without doing well in Iowa. Many candidates are compelled to drop their Presidential aspirations shortly after a poor performance in the Iowa caucus.

Money Money Money

The pressure of performance in Iowa has caused many candidates to 'pull out the stops' when it comes to using campaign funds.

For example, in 2008 the eight Democratic Presidential candidates running in the Iowa caucus spent campaign funds totaling $35 million on television advertising on Iowa stations [Wisconsin Advertising Project].

Split among the 124,000 Democratic voters at that year's Iowa caucus, that is $283 per voter. That amount doesn't include the campaign funds spent on radio, direct mail advertising, outdoor signage, telemarketing, brochures, event planning or the Internet.

As an example of the enormous number of TV commercials purchased, on just one of the days leading up to the 2008 Iowa caucus, 1,093 campaign ads - the equivalent of nine hours of commercials - aired on Iowa television.

With just four or five media markets in the state, it's conceivable that the tactic is to outspend one's opponent -- use campaign funds to buy up the available blocks of airtime and work to control the public discourse by monopolizing it.

Now, you might ask, what exactly is all this money buying? What takes place in the Iowa caucus process that ensures that the nation receives worthy choices at the polls in November? What exactly is the critical gauntlet that candidates need to traverse to help assure their party's nomination? You might be surprised.

There are actually thousands of caucuses held throughout the state on caucus day, held by both Democrats and Republicans. We'll explore the Democratic Party's version of the Iowa caucus for the US Presidential election since it is more entertaining to tell, albeit more quirky than the Republican version:

Iowa Population by County. Now numbering three million, Iowan's have been shifting toward the cities. Most of the population can be reached through five media markets.
Iowa Population by County. Now numbering three million, Iowan's have been shifting toward the cities. Most of the population can be reached through five media markets. | Source

Do-si-do and Promenade

On the evening of the Iowa caucus, registered Iowan voters who choose to participate in their local Democratic caucus arrive at the state's 1784 precinct sites to select candidates for the Democratic Party's Presidential election campaign. Voters can choose to affiliate with the Democratic Party beforehand, or right at the door. Even non-voters, under the legal voting age, can attend and participate, as long as they will reach voting age by Election Day in November. In 2008, about 125,000 - 25% of Iowa's 500,000 registered Democrats - participated in the 2008 Democratic Iowa caucuses.

In the early stage of the meeting, participants listen to local supporters speak on behalf of many or all of the candidates. Then participants indicate their 'vote' by standing in a designated section of the room - and thereby become part of what is called a 'preference group.' Undecided voters may have a designated area as well. [Wikipedia]

Members of a preference group then attempt to convince others to join their group, especially targeting the undecided voters.

After 30 minutes or so, the process is then paused and supporters in each of the groups are counted. Caucus officials determine which candidates are viable candidates. Rules for Democrats in the Iowa caucus require candidates need to be supported by at least 15% of those attending - so in a caucus attended by 100 voters, any one candidate would need at least 15 supporters to be deemed 'viable.'

After determining viability, voters are given another 30 minutes to realign, to allow supporters of the inviable candidates to find viable candidates, or perhaps join with supporters of another inviable candidate and negotiate which of those two candidates to support, or perhaps choose to abstain.

This realignment process highlights the ultimate difference between primary vs caucus: at the Iowa caucus a voter is offered a second vote to support a more viable candidate.

Further, all the voting, the conjoling, the changing of preference - is done in open view of all who attend: participants, caucus officials and even non-voting by-standers and media who wish to witness the event.

The Iowa caucus officials finally close the precinct's voting, count each of the viable candidates supporters and apportion delegates to the county convention which is held one month later.

Once all the state's precincts report the number of delegates voted for each candidate, the statewide totals are provided to the media and to an awaiting nation.

There are a several more meetings held after the precinct caucuses: county conventions choose delegates to district conventions who in turn choose delegates for state conventions, who in turn select delegates for national conventions. Yet all the real attention focuses on the first set of caucuses - the precinct caucuses.

Ironically, after all the campaign work, media focus and substantial investment, the work of the Iowa caucuses becomes diluted by the time each party's national convention is held. In 2004, for example, of the 45 delegates who were selected to represent Iowa at the Democratic National Convention, only 29 were selected through the Iowa caucus system. The remainder: ten 'at-large' delegates and six 'party leader' delegates were all chosen by the state's party officials. And eleven additional Iowa delegates were appointed by local Democratic National Committee members.

Meet the Caulkers

Granted, there is a bit of colorful Americanna in playing out the Iowa caucus process. And perhaps it's not much different than what took place in early 18th century Boston, when the 'caulkers' - craftsmen who kept the boats watertight - would gather and agree on their political agendas.

The people of Iowa take great pride in the Iowa caucus process. They relish the ability to sit down with candidates over a morning coffee or evening barbeque, to learn about each candidate, support those they like and weed out the rest.

The two parties and the campaigns seem to like Iowa, too, perhaps because there are few distractions, the national media moves into Des Moines and sets up shop, the precincts are known to each of the pollsters, and skilled campaign organizations can be rolled out throughout the state as they have done every four years.

As quirky as the Iowa caucus is, it is not undemocratic. But because the Iowa race plays such an important role in shaping the choices Americans are offered for their President, at least two issues need to be addressed: the fact that the Iowa electorate - or any state electorate - doesn't necessarily reflect the views of the nation's electorate, is a problem. And the fact that a single powerful race can invite shenanigans to steer the outcome, is a problem.

Moreover, the American voter needs to be aware of the pros and cons of the Iowa caucus, and indeed, the entire process used to select, nominate and elect a President. Leaving the process in the hands of a few powerful interests is inviting trouble.

In the meantime, before we consider changing the Constitution, I would suggest a few things:

  • Let's make sure that the Iowa campaigns are challenged with winning by presenting the best solution rather than outspending each other on ad media.
  • Let's develop ways so that the Internet can help us all watch the campaigns for the Iowa caucus, not with a partisan tone, but through journals, blogs and videos, simply follow candidates on their journey around the state meeting people and sharing Iowa's one-on-one experiences with all American voters.
  • Let's make sure that whatever the system, our candidate-selection process is providing us with diverse, high quality choices for men and women who can lead the United States.
  • Discuss and explore improvements or alternatives to the caucuses and primaries, the national conventions and the Electoral College. Maybe the result looks more like Digg than it does a meeting of the caulkers.

What would you suggest?

- Clarke Stevens

Other Readings in the American Political Discourse

Post Script

As much as I'm concerned with excessive television ad spending in the Iowa caucus, I'm actually a fan of creative advertising that breaks through the media clutter and helps convey a message. And full disclosure: my own company produces postcard magnet mailers, and so I admit to being particularly biased towards Direct Mail advertising.

But I don't see the benefit of spending a lot of money on TV spots that basically overwhelms and potentially numbs the viewer. If campaigns feel compelled to spend money on TV, perhaps they should consider a contribution to the Iowa PBS affiliates who offer thorough and uncompensated coverage of the state's political events.

Final note: others have written plenty of good articles relating to this subject. Here are a few worth checking:

Caucus vs Primary by stephhicks68

The US Electoral College and Election Reform by Patty Inglish, MS

Running Low Budget Campaigns - by Stacie Naczelnik

Why Do Political Campaigns Cost So Much? by Pete Maida


Submit a Comment
  • Clarke Stevens profile imageAUTHOR

    Will Mays 

    8 years ago from North Kingstown, RI, United States

    Joanne- I sense from your comment that we're all in for a long campaign season. I'm not sure if you agree or disagree with the Caucus process, but at least you're tuning in.

  • profile image

    Joanne Miller 

    8 years ago

    Does the truth matter to the Republican voters of Iowa? Michele Bachmann has made so many statements that are not true that perhaps if there were a photo dictionary her picture could be put over "habital liar" to illustrate the term. Iowa voters should not let her supporters white wash her lies by blaming the liberal press. She spoke the lies. Let me count the lies. There are so many. She just pretends to cover them like

    a baker frosts over baking mistakes with frosting.

    Her lies are frequent, deliberate and careless.

    Her latest irresponsible remark explained how little she knows about basic events in US history and she parades

    from campaign stump to personal appearance blaming Obama's teleprompter for her thinking the first shots of

    the US Revoluntionary war began in New Hampshire. Michele Bachmann doesn't state the truth and then she ignores her lies and moves on telling more lies. Maybe

    investigative reporters have a responsibility to report

    her lies. Maybe investigative reporters should examine

    her resume. If her resume fails to be as accurate as her statements the responsibility of the free press is to advise the public.

  • Clarke Stevens profile imageAUTHOR

    Will Mays 

    9 years ago from North Kingstown, RI, United States

    Thank you for your visit, and your compliment, HS. My sense is that Iowans can sense a phony. I think its good that the candidates, right from the start, have to think in terms of being genuine.

  • profile image

    Howard Schneider 

    9 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

    Very informative Hub. The Iowa caucus is a great example of how a candidate can perform retail politics and can relate to all voters. The candidate needs to get out and press the flesh and not just rely on media buys. It's more of a battle of ideas which is what I wish it was on the macro scale.


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