Loading icon

Why Iowa?

Opinion | October 12, 2015

On February 1, 2016, Democrat and Republican voters from the state of Iowa will assemble in church basements and high school gymnasiums to voice their support for a United States presidential candidate. This process—known as a caucus—has been the first major electoral event in the presidential campaign cycle since 1972. Winners of the Iowa caucus gain significant momentum in their campaigns. Bob Dole, Al Gore, George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Barack Obama all won the Iowa caucus in the year that they were selected as their party’s presidential nominee. Conversely, no candidate who has finished below third place in their party’s caucus has ever gone on to secure their party’s nomination. While some champion the Iowa caucus as an exemplary demonstration of grassroots democracy, an electoral event with enough significance to The influence currently endowed to the Iowa caucus is arbitrary, disproportionate, and should be corrected.

Although the Iowa caucus does not take place until midwinter 2016, candidates spend months of their campaign and hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa attempting to kickstart their candidacy during the primary season. Rick Santorum, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, raced to become the first 2016 candidate from either party to visit all 99 counties of Iowa. In the second week of August, 18 presidential candidates gorged on an array of fried food-on-a-stick and braved the sweltering summer temperatures to interact with voters at the Iowa State Fair. Fair attendees could even display their support for candidates in attendance by dropping corn kernels in mason jars labeled with the candidates’ names—Donald Trump won overwhelmingly.

The Hawkeye State’s critical position in the primary process is completely arbitrary. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee was forced to reform the primary process after violent confrontations between thousands of anti-war protestors and National Guard troops marred the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. The chaos of the convention—and general discord in the Democratic Party —contributed heavily to Hubert Humphrey’s defeat by Richard Nixon in the November election—a defeat that Democrats did not want repeated. A rule within the 1972 reforms stipulated that Democratic caucuses and primaries must be announced with at least 30 days’ notice prior to the event. Since the Iowa caucus is a complex, multi-step process taking multiple months, the first caucus date had to be scheduled early in the primary season. When the time spent in Iowa by George McGovern in 1972 electrified his campaign, and the efforts of Jimmy Carter in 1976 helped win him the presidential election, the Republican Party also moved the date of its Iowa caucus to the beginning of the primary season.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart argued to the Wall Street Journal in August 2014 that “the single most effective bellwether of a candidate is how they do in the Midwest—it’s not only in the middle of the country, it contains all the central elements and attributes of the country.” While this may be true in 2015, current demographic trends in the United States are changing what constitute “central elements and attributes.” Hispanic and Latino voters make up 17 percent of the US population, and are the fastest growing demographics in the nation, but only 5.6 percent of Iowans reflect this changing ethnic composition of the American electorate. By 2044, at least 15 US states are predicted to be majority-minority in ethnic composition, and by 2060, only 44 percent of the United States is expected to be white. Allowing Iowa to continue to occupy such an important position in the election season creates a strong bias in the types and identities of the candidates that are benefitting from the results of the caucus. If the primary process intends to clarify the most popular candidate in the eyes of the voters, the primary system must become more equitable and provide a better representation of America’s changing electorate.

In 2007, representatives from 40 states met in Washington, D.C. to discuss the prospects of primary reform and possible alternatives to the current “Iowa First” system. Since then, a variety of politicians, political theorists, and political advocacy groups have proposed laudable solutions to the current United States primary system. The RNC has proposed a “pod” system by which the least populous states conduct their primaries first, and the more populous and influential states are back-loaded in the primary schedule. This strategy would ensure that the most populous states have the most influence over presidential campaigns, but the order of the primaries is fixed, and lacks a dynamic aspect that engages voters.

The Democratic representative from Michigan, Sandy Levin, has proposed an Interregional Primary Plan wherein the 50 states are divided into six regions. On six national primary days, at least one state from each regional group holds its primary. This approach would spread media and campaign attention around the country leading up to primary days, but would make it difficult for less funded candidates to spent ample time in each state.


The most interesting alternative primary idea in circulation is the Modified Rotating Regional Lottery Plan, conceived in 2001 by political scientist Larry Sabato. In this primary system, states would be grouped in four regional divisions of the United States, and a lottery would determine in what order those four regions hold their state primaries. Additionally, a lottery consisting only of small states would select two less-influential states to kick off the primary season, similar to the role of Iowa and New Hampshire today. This system would keep candidates on their toes, not knowing in what order the four regions will be selected. As a result, candidates would have to allocate their time more evenly across the country, engaging with more voters that typically do not receive significant campaign attention. Dark horse candidates would still have time to concentrate on a region after the order has been chosen. Additionally, the small states lottery feature would still provide an exciting opportunity for two states that have not featured prominently in the primary process to take a turn at the national spotlight.

Iowa is very unlikely to relinquish its hold on the first spot in the primary season unless state party structures decide to change their primary process. While this is very unlikely, it does not diminish the merit of seriously considering alternative primary systems. When the first nomination event of the primary season has the ability to launch or destroy a presidential campaign, it is crucial that such influence is shared in an equitable manner. Thus, it is imperative that the United States adopts an alternative national primary system that is more representative of the national voting population and more inclusive for states commonly overlooked in the primary season. Moreover, a new system featuring concentrated regions would empower lesser-known and underfunded candidates. The American electorate is changing, and the Midwest should no longer be allowed to speak for this new United States.