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University of Iowa News Release


March 8, 2011

‘Why Iowa?’ explains state’s key role in nomination process, proposes new system

Iowa picks corn. New Hampshire picks presidents.

The jab at Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses is a running joke among politicians who dismiss the event as hokey or inconsequential. But the dig is a bit off-base, according to a new book by the University of Iowa’s Caroline Tolbert and fellow political scientists David Redlawsk of Rutgers University and Todd Donovan of Western Washington University.

Published in December by the University of Chicago Press, “Why Iowa?” argues that Iowa has a major influence on the presidential nomination -– perhaps too much so. The book calls for reform that would preserve the best aspects of caucusing but create a national primary to give the entire country a say in the nominations.

“In the past it’s been Iowa and New Hampshire, followed by Nevada and South Carolina, and a free-for-all on Super Tuesday,” says Tolbert, professor of political science in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The many states that went after Super Tuesday essentially had no voice because the deal was sealed.”

Iowa landed its first-in-the-nation privilege entirely by coincidence. In 1972, Des Moines hotels happened to be booked for the typical weekend of the state convention, and the Democratic party enacted new rules for publicizing its events in advance. So, the caucuses were pushed up.

“It bumped Iowa ahead of New Hampshire, and nobody really noticed,” says Redlawsk, a UI faculty member from 1999 to 2009. “It wasn’t until 1976 when Jimmy Carter’s crew thought, ‘Iowa’s first, we’re relatively unknown, maybe we can get some play out of it,’ that the legend of the caucus was born.”

What happens in Iowa … makes national news

The contest serves as a litmus test for candidates. Hopefuls are forced to campaign on a grassroots level -- shaking hands in small-town cafes, looking folks in the eye, and fielding queries from no-nonsense farmers.

“In our Hawkeye Polls of Iowa caucus-goers, more than half of respondents said they had personally met a candidate,” Redlawsk says. “That’s astounding. Nowhere else do you get that opportunity, and it molds the candidates because they have to respond -– they can’t just stay in the bubble of ads and tarmac visits.”

And throughout this grueling process, media mania ensues. Reporters descend upon the state for months, speculating on who will win and blasting the results out to a worldwide audience. All that attention influences how voters in other states view the candidates, who gets funding, and ultimately, who wins the nomination.

“There were many cases in the ’80s and ’90s where the winner of the Iowa Caucuses did not go on to become the party candidate. But we’ve seen a punctuated change beginning in 2000. With the rise of online news and social media, frontrunners from Iowa are projected nationwide,” Tolbert says. “So Iowa picks presidents, not just corn.”

Lessons for 2012

With the next Iowa Caucus season just around the corner, “Why Iowa?” might offer the 2012 Republican candidates a few lessons on how to win the state -– specifically, that Iowans respond better to a personal, volunteer-driven operation than an ad-based effort. If there’s any doubt whether grassroots campaigning makes a difference in Iowa -– and whether Iowa Caucus results affect the rest of the race -– just look at 2008.

Barack Obama spent money on door-to-door canvassing, field offices, and live telephone calls. He finished ahead of Hillary Clinton –- the leader in name recognition and money. His victory in a virtually white state demonstrated to the rest of the country that an African-American candidate was electable, propelling his successful bid for the White House.

The caucuses changed the game for Republicans, too. Rudy Giuliani ignored Iowa, a tactical error that cost him exposure and led to a disappointing sixth-place finish. Mike Huckabee exceeded expectations with a decisive win over Mitt Romney. That hurt Romney’s momentum going forward, and as doubts about Huckabee’s electability emerged later in the game, the race opened up for John McCain.

“It’s not so much winning the Iowa Caucuses that matters, it’s whether you beat the odds,” says Tolbert, explaining a finding that coauthor Donovan contributed to the book. “We found that candidates who did better than expected in Iowa got more coverage beyond the caucuses, and that shaped events in other states.”

A peculiar kind of primary

Influential as they are, the Iowa Caucuses can seem obtuse and archaic – bundling up on a snowy January night, driving to a school gym, and shuffling into a corner to publicly support your candidate. The process can take two or more hours -– a much more significant commitment than casting a ballot in a traditional primary.

But it has its benefits, according to “Why Iowa?” People engage in healthy debate as they lobby their neighbors to shift allegiances. Caucuses can be lively, with each candidate’s supporters setting up card-table camps within the school gym, armed with homemade snacks, T-shirts, posters, buttons, and other enticements. In fact, Hawkeye Polls confirmed that 86 percent of Iowa caucus-goers had fun in 2008.

The caucuses also provide an opportunity to develop party platforms. And, the authors argue, caucusing is more representative than other methods of voting.

“Most elections are winner-take-all,” Tolbert says. “There’s one seat, and the person with 51 percent gets it, while the person with 49 percent gets nothing. In the caucuses, on the Democratic side, you may have six delegate votes that are divided up through proportional representation. It’s fairer.”

Calling for change

What’s not fair, caucus critics say, is the power one small state has compared to the rest of the country.

“Why Iowa?” proposes a “caucus window” during which any state could hold a caucus. Then the candidates would meet in a national primary in which all states would resolve the nominations by voting on a single day.

“We think this would provide the best of both words,” Redlawsk says. “The caucuses would still winnow the field and force candidates to talk to voters, but the national primary would provide a meaningful chance for everyone in the country to vote on the nominations.”

Within the caucus window, the authors believe small states should go first.

“Part of what’s special about the Iowa Caucuses is that they’re a great leveler,” Tolbert says. “Candidates who can’t afford media advertising but have good ideas can come here and have a chance. It’s a small state, so it’s possible. You can’t do that kind of grassroots campaigning with 40 million people in California.”

It doesn’t have to be Iowa, but Iowa has 30 years of practice going first –- and picking a little more than corn.

For more information on the book, visit

View related documentary: "First in the Nation: The Iowa Caucuses"

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Caroline Tolbert, 319-335-2358,; David Redlawsk, 319-400-1134,; Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070,