Lots of smart, witty people have been disparaging the Iowa Caucuses lately, and questioning why Iowa gets to have such an outsized level of influence over the presidential campaign. And rightfully so! I live in Iowa, I’m a veteran Iowa caucus-goer, and even I’m kind of sick of the Iowa Caucuses.
Why should my tiny, frigid, increasingly depopulated state get to go first in selecting America’s presidential candidates? Iowa’s too rural, too white, too old, too un-representative of the country as a whole, too unfashionable.
And why caucuses? What even is a “caucus?” Why do we have to start the presidential selection process with this archaic event, where people have to hang out for hours in a school gym or church basement and stand up to be counted in public, instead of a straightforward secret ballot?
Frankly: I hear you, Iowa Caucus critics. All of your complaints have at least a kernel of truth and validity. (Ha ha—kernel! Corn jokes! Iowans love ‘em!)
But here’s the thing. Even with all the valid criticisms and concerns about the Iowa Caucuses, on the whole, I would argue that the Iowa Caucuses are good and are still worth having. Even though I’m also sick of getting all this campaign junk mail.
Here are a few reasons why we should keep the Iowa Caucuses, and why my often-maligned home state deserves to keep its unique status as “first in the nation” presidential nominating contest.
Unless you want to have the presidential nominees decided in a one-time, same-day, all-50-states nomination contest, where every voter in America gets to have their voices heard all once in massive cacophony of direct democracy, we have to start the nomination process somewhere. One state needs to go first. So why not just let Iowa start?
Iowa was selected by both parties as the first state in the nomination process, and there was a lot of complicated, smoke-filled room, inside baseball stuff over the years that led up to that decision, all of which is too boring and arcane to explain here. (This article does a great job of explaining how Iowa ended up getting to go first.) Settling on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada as the first four states of the primary campaign required years of painstaking negotiations and compromise. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get these national political organizations to agree on anything? Do you really want to re-open that can of worms?
So if you have to start this nomination process somewhere, I would argue that Iowa is a pretty good place to start.
That’s right: Iowa offers a low cost of living and a low cost of running a presidential campaign. If America would start the nomination process in a big state with major media markets and higher costs of traveling and renting office space and doing business, the campaign would be more likely to be dominated from Day One by big-name, big-money candidates. Iowa makes it possible for campaigns to build momentum without spending the millions of dollars that it would take to go on TV in California or Texas or New York.
Iowa is good for unknown, underfunded, dark horse, underdog candidates. If you still believe in the concept that candidates with the best ideas, not just the best-known name or the deepest pockets, should prevail, then you should be a fan of the Iowa Caucuses.
Iowa is the pinnacle of retail politics. Presidential candidates get traction here not just by spending time with editorial boards and TV talk show panels, but by shaking hands at small-town diners and coffee shops and fairgrounds. My beloved Grandma Rosie (1921-2011) got to meet Illinois Senator Barack Obama in April 2007 at a family-owned restaurant in Colo, Iowa (population 876). Even though Obama was already somewhat of a national political celebrity during his first presidential campaign, he was still talking with a few dozen people in small town Iowa restaurants. Moments like that wouldn’t happen anymore if a small state like Iowa didn’t get to go first.
Not every politician is cut out for this level of retail politics. What happens in Iowa is democracy at its purest form; working the crowds and talking with town hall forums and responding to all the little moments of spontaneity shines a relentless spotlight on the strengths, weaknesses, and underlying character of the candidates.
And the fact that Iowa’s nominating contest is a caucus, instead of a primary, contributes to the importance of grassroots organizing and passionate activism and retail politics. If you’re trying to get your friends and family to come support your favorite candidate, you’re not just asking them to show up and quickly cast a secret ballot and go home.
You’re asking them to come to a caucus location, and commit to spending a few hours at a neighborhood meeting in a school gym or church basement, and standing up in public, and being counted, and possibly listening to sales pitches from other candidates’ supporters, and maybe shifting your support to another candidate at the last minute if your 1st choice candidate doesn’t have enough support to be viable.
The caucuses are complicated! But that’s also good! Because caucuses reward passion and commitment and community and party-building. Participating in the caucus is a different level of involvement than a primary election, and that’s OK!
Think about it, all of you non-Iowans: even if we could change the rules tomorrow, and your state could magically be instantly re-assigned to vote first, do you really want that? Are you really ready for all of this responsibility and annoyance? Do you want your mailbox to be filled with junk mail from Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer? Are you sure??
Getting to host the first-in-the-nation nominating contest is an honor and a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility and sometimes a weird burden. And for whatever little it’s worth, please know that Iowans really do take this responsibility seriously. People in Iowa agonize over their choice of candidate, they attend multiple campaign events and live debates.
People in Iowa fully expect to not just hear speeches from multiple candidates in person, but to actually meet multiple candidates and get photos taken together; people I know are often running into presidential candidates randomly at restaurants and on the street.
We know that our state has a big responsibility and a level of mostly-undeserved privilege. We take it seriously; it’s a cherished tradition. Can you trust us with this?
You know how Americans trust some states to be really good at making certain foods or brewing certain drinks, just like you trust Texas to give you delicious barbecue and you trust Kentucky to give you great bourbon? Can you just trust Iowa to handle this first-in-the-nation presidential selection thing? Can this be our “barbecue” or “bourbon?”
And speaking of trust: more than most other states, Iowa has a political tradition and civic culture that is widely respected for its integrity, transparency and honesty. It’s not that Iowans are “better” or smarter than anyone else; there are plenty of idiots and losers in this state.
But compared to some other states where multiple governors in a row have been sent to prison for corruption, or where weird, shady crap always seems to happen with the administration of their elections (like “hanging chads on ballots” or “all the voting machines malfunctioning” or “all the polling stations in Black neighborhoods being shut down”), Iowa is a trustworthy place to use as a level playing field for the first-in-the-nation contest.
Because here’s the thing about Iowa. Yes, our state is exceptionally elderly; we keep re-electing Chuck Grassley to the Senate even though he’s basically a pile of dust, because the Iowa electorate has an average age of 104 and they feel like Chuck Grassley is “young” by comparison. Yes, we’ve been hemorrhaging population and losing Congressional districts and Electoral votes in every Census of my lifetime. Yes, we’re sometimes kind of gullible and complacent; we could use a shot of ambition and an upgrade to our wardrobes. Lots of Iowans need to improve their personal fashion sense and be sexier. All of this is common knowledge.
But despite our flaws, there’s something about the culture of this state that is ideal for hosting a presidential contest. Iowans tend to be friendly, modest, generous to a fault, earnest, and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Our government and our election processes are widely respected for being exceptionally clean and trustworthy and corruption-free; we haven’t had anywhere near the kinds of high-profile scandals that other states have had.
If not Iowa, what other place would you really trust with this responsibility? Can you really imagine Rod Blagojevich’s Illinois being an honest broker, without demanding bribes from every campaign? Do you really want to entrust the sacred responsibilities of retail politics and civil discourse to the foul-mouthed, belligerent jerks of New Jersey or Philadelphia? Are you really prepared to see what freakish Constitution-violating horrors would happen if Florida got to go first?
The Iowa Caucuses are often misunderstood and sometimes unfairly maligned, but they’re also a lot of fun, and frankly, kind of heartwarming. If you love politics, it’s like witnessing democracy at its purest form: one precinct, one neighborhood, one conversation at a time. Iowa doesn’t want to have the last word on the presidential race; we just want the first.