Why a small rural US state is vital in presidential race – Henry McLeish

As the first state to hold a caucus or primary to choose the Democrat who will take on Donald Trump, Iowa has an inflated status that one critic claimed was a “crime against democracy”, writes Henry McLeish.

Bernie Sanders pitches on the baseball field built for the film Field of Dreams in Dyersville (Picture: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders pitches on the baseball field built for the film Field of Dreams in Dyersville (Picture: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

For a country that traditionally holds its politics, democracy and governance in such low regard, America appears to enjoy its elections and endless campaigning. This presidential race will have run for nearly two years before culminating in the election on 3 November, 2020. Before then, America will hold five months of primaries or caucuses in every state of the Union, Washington DC and US territories to select presidential candidates for the November contest. The Republican nomination is a foregone conclusion. The Democratic nomination is not.

Iowa, the ‘Hawkeye state’, which few people in the UK have heard of and even fewer have ever visited, lies between Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. The state’s caucus attracts a huge amount of media coverage, creates a vast amount of polling data and political debate and, if precedent is anything to go by, provides a reasonable insight into who will eventually win the presidential race.

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At this time of year when the US election machine is rapidly cranking up, why does Iowa figure so prominently in the minds of pundits, pollsters and politicians? Iowa was the first state to hold a caucus in 1972.

Despite the efforts of the two main parties to persuade 10 states to give up caucuses and move to primaries, which are better organised, more democratic and less archaic, Iowa continues to defy this advice.


The Iowa caucus takes place on 3 February and will be the first time in this marathon election campaign that voters have a say: this probably explains the importance of Iowa, it is the first real votes being cast, it is the first state in the Union to offer a view on the condition of America – so it is not an opinion poll.

The controversy over so much importance being given to Iowa as the first state to have a real poll has not diminished the interest or enthusiasm on the part of Democratic candidates, desperate to secure that first endorsement or a decent showing, and secure a positive impact on the rest of their campaign.

But the stakes are high. The outcome may confirm or rebut early polling results. For Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who are leading the polls for the Democratic nomination, victory in Iowa would create momentum, a sense of legitimacy and electability, and provide a considerable psychological boost even if there is no doubt that Iowa is not a microcosm of America.

For those doing less well, Iowa could force them to rethink their campaign or quit the race.

There is a body of opinion that the importance of Iowa as the first test of public opinion can be overblown and that the primary in New Hampshire on 11 February will provide a better picture.

The more serious criticisms of Iowa are aimed at the very idea of a caucus-driven assessment of voting intentions and the cultural and political identity of the state.

Iowa is a small rural state with a population of 3.1 million. The caucus comprises 1,681 precincts who meet in churches, libraries, community halls, schools and houses. Citizens vote by show of hands or breaking into groups after representatives make the case for each of the candidates. There is no secret ballot. If a candidate doesn’t get 15 per cent support, they are eliminated.

Church-going values

The purpose of the exercise is to vote for candidates but also to appoint 41 pledged delegates who will vote at the state convention. Eight super delegates, who are not pledged to a particular candidate, will be added to the delegation. The idea of super delegates created such bitterness in the Sanders-Clinton battle in 2016. The state’s delegates will then attend the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee in July, when the presidential candidate will be confirmed.

This seems like an exhaustive grassroots process, but it is an archaic and often chaotic procedure where the caucus can take hours and can be “rowdy” and “raucous”, sounding more like an energised public meeting than a well-organised polling station.

While the caucus process has obvious weaknesses, it is the nature of Iowa itself that make this an unlikely bellwether state.

Dismissed by critics as a “flyover state”, Iowa is known for some of the world’s most fertile soil and is first in the country for “the production of corn, oats, soya beans and cattle”. Criticisms of how representative it is, revolve around its 90 per cent white population, its church-going values, limited urban population, and having an older population: more white, more Christian and more conservative. One critic said: “Iowa [the caucus] is a crime against democracy and ought to be done away with.”

A humorous piece in the Washington Post asked whether cows are better represented in the Senate than people, a reference to states like Iowa which has four million sheep, but only 3.5 million people.

Jimmy Carter’s victory

In defence of Iowa, results in the state have been within a one per cent deviation from the national electorate since 1993 and it has been a reasonably accurate bellwether for the past two decades. Iowa, in terms of state turnout, ranks among the top five with 69 per cent as against the US figure of 57 per cent. Iowa has also voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but three elections since 1964. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in Iowa with 51.1 per cent of the vote. Hillary Clinton received 41.7 per cent. Trump carried Iowa by the largest margin of any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The jury is out on whether Iowa is representative of the US and as such there is pressure not to overstate its significance for the lengthy debate that lies ahead involving another ten months of expensive and enthusiastic campaigning. What is clear is that a good performance by a candidate in Iowa creates momentum and, in a campaign that will cost billions of dollars, a sound way of keeping campaign finance heading your way.

Jimmy Carter certainly appreciated the Iowa experience. He stood for the presidency in 1976. Folklore suggests he hung around Iowa for nearly a year, working the state to death in support of his candidature in the belief that a victory would help him in his struggle to get to the White House. For what had been, up to then, a disappointing campaign, barely registering any support in opinion polls, he won the Iowa caucus and then became President in November. Obama also won Iowa.

So Iowa does seem to matter.