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Caucusing The Iowa Way

DES MOINES -- As we all know, Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses play a unique role in U.S. politics. In 2008, with the primaries all bunched up, they could prove more influential than ever. The State Historical Society puts it all into perspective with a new caucus exhibit.

Start with this year. The Democratic and Republican fields are surely crowded now, but here's the guest list that Iowans were expecting at the beginning of the cycle:

Democrats: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gavel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson -- plus Evan Bayh, Tom Daschle and Tom Vilsack.

Republicans: Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo -- plus George Allen, Sam Brownback, John Cox (who??!!), Bill Frist, Jim Gilmore, and Tommy Thompson.

"It is a long road that is open to anyone with a vision and a desire to lead," museum goers are informed. More practically, candidates in Iowa must "organize, organize, organize" and get especially energized at the end. A blurb recalling the "Dean Scream" underscores another lesson of Iowa -- don't forget your manners. This is the Midwest.

The caucuses have the feel of something permanent, but in fact they are not. It's not inconceivable that Jan. 3 could be the Iowa's last stand, depending on how the two parties sort out the 2008 front-loaded calendar mess. And the first caucus was not ages ago, but in 1972. The Iowa caucus process had been around since the mid-1880s, but after a skirmish in 1968 between the old and new Democratic guard, it was reformed to become more grassroots driven. The state cut a deal with New Hampshire, the exhibit tells us, and Iowa took its place at the head of the line, with New Hampshire going second.

The Democratic contest that year established what has since become an Iowa truism: there are no clean wins. Edward Muskie won the '72 caucus, but George McGovern performed better than expected, finishing second with 22.6 percent support, compared to 35.5 percent for Muskie. But McGovern had made Muskie appear vulnerable and left Iowa with a bounce that helped him to become the Democratic nominee.

Actually, the real winner of the 1972 Democratic caucus was "undecided," with 35.8 percent of caucus goers unable to make up their mind. Undecided won again in 1976, beating Jimmy Carter handily, with 37.2 percent, compared to 27.6 percent for the Georgia governor. Birch Bayh, father of Evan Bayh and the former Indiana senator, came in third that year with 13.2 percent.

The Republicans held their first Iowa contest in 1976, in the form of a straw poll that showed Gerald Ford narrowly beating Ronald Reagan. Despite his Midwestern roots, Reagan narrowly lost the 1980 Iowa straw poll to George H.W. Bush -- giving Bush the "Big Mo," or momentum, but only until New Hampshire, where Reagan snatched it back.

The McGovern lesson, that second place can be good enough, did not translate in 1980, when Ted Kennedy lost to Carter by two-to-one, effectively ending his candidacy. But even third was good enough for Mike Dukakis in 1988, a year when the Democratic field was similarly crowded. Finishing ahead of the Massachusetts governor was Richard Gephardt and Paul Simon, both lawmakers from neighboring states.

"Every campaign's goal is to convince voters come caucus night that their candidate did better than expected," reads a quote from Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, over a photo of President Bush. Dukakis met the test and won in New Hampshire, leading Ted Kennedy to complain, "Only eight years ago I finished second in Iowa and my presidential campaign was finished. This year Mike Dukakis finishes third and he's on the way to the White House."

Photos depict caucus meetings in school libraries, gyms and peoples' homes. One woman passes a trash can at a Republican precinct in Cedar Rapids, collecting hand-scrawled ballots. A man stands before a crowd in a living room, arguing for Pete DuPont. Installations explain how preference groups form, how the viability threshold is determined, and the meaning of caucus math, an intricate formula used to determine how many delegates each viable candidate is awarded (Democrats must win at least 15 percent support at a given precinct, to be included in the official tally). And by the way, fractions are rounded up at .5.

For political junkies, the exhibit is a treasure trove of Hawkeye lore. There's Forbes addressing a crowd at a fire house. Jimmy Carter getting advice from a woman in LaMars, the self-described ice cream capital of the world. Al Gore standing at the back of a Davenport firetruck. Reagan with a pet monkey. A Dick Lugar videotape, running time nine minutes, entitled "Everything a President Should Be."

The rituals of Iowa campaigning are displayed: the state fair; the coffee bean poll at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City; lunch at the Maid-Rite in Newton.

One glass case holds a $10 ticket for a Reagan fundraiser in Harlan Iowa, on Dec. 14, 1979. Eight years later, Dole was selling $50 ticket for an announcement speech at Ernie ThomasÂ’s farm in Waukee. A much younger Bush is seen campaigning around the state in 1999. There's Dole at a Dairy Queen, Ted Kennedy staring down a fiesty bull, and Bill Bradley with students at Iowa State University.

"More than just pigs and corn," museum goers are reminded of Iowa at the end of the tour.

--Shailagh Murray

By Post Editor  |  December 10, 2007; 10:53 AM ET
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Anyone interested in what Huckabee is really like face to face should try this funny (but it actually happened) column:

Posted by: lanefiller | December 10, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse


"Actually, the real winner of the 1972 Democratic caucus was "undecided," with 35.8 percent of caucus goers unable to make up their mind. Undecided won again in 1976"

Is that the last time that 'undecided' performed so well? Or is there more recent precedent for 'undecided' to do so 'well'?

Posted by: bsimon | December 10, 2007 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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