How Iowa ended up as the first state to caucus


Iowa State Daily

On Feb. 1, 2016, Iowa State campus residents crowd into the Pioneer Room at the Memorial Union in order to register for the caucus.

Lauren Ratliff

Iowa is the first state in the nation to caucus every presidential election year, and that will remain the case in 2020.

Following Iowa is New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina on the Democratic side; the latter two states then go the reverse order in Republican primaries.

Iowa ended up caucusing first in the nation following party reforms in their nominee-selection processes.

In the 1968 presidential election, Hubert Humphrey was selected as the Democratic nominee, with Richard Nixon as his Republican opponent. Humphrey was divisive in his own party, leading to a convention floor fight and riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He never entered a primary or caucus, yet the party establishment’s leaders chose him as its nominee at the convention.

Humphrey ultimately lost to Nixon in the general election.

Following the Democrat’s loss in 1968, an open version of the caucus was re-introduced in 1970. Democrats in Iowa got groups together to share ideas of how they felt was the best way to decide how to pick a nominee.

Mack Shelley, Iowa State professor and chair of the political science department, said it was a matter of activists in the state making proposals in the “early 70s,” and by the 1972 election cycle, the system in Iowa looked pretty much the same as it does now.

Before the 1970s, caucuses would have been small groups of families and friends who discussed the candidates. After the election in 1968, Iowans modernized caucusing to help expand it to large groups of people in a more open fashion.

“The proposed solution in Iowa was to come up with a more open form of caucuses,” Shelley said. “The whole point was to try to take the gathering of activists and expand it.”

As Iowa had the idea of how caucuses should be set up, they earned the right to caucus first.

“Iowa was a place that most people didn’t know much about,” Shelley said. “It was a way to put Iowa on the map as a center point for political discourse.”

Being the first state to caucus is a big deal to the state. There is global news coverage for the state from presidential candidates visiting and also publicity from the caucuses themselves. 

Being first brings in money from campaigns and different visitors that generates an economic boost within the state.

“It literally brings in money directly because you’ve got reporters and political organizations that are spending huge amounts of money in a relatively small state,” Shelley said.

However, there has recently been some concern over Iowa being the first state to caucus. Iowa lacks numbers in population and is not a very diverse state compared to the nation as a whole.

Iowa is not a very good representation of the country as a whole in terms of its racial demographics, and neither is the following state, New Hampshire, according to Shelley. Both states are small in terms of population and are less racially and ethnically diverse than the nation as a whole.

“In terms of demographics, the minority population is definitely underrepresented compared to the country as a whole,” Shelley said.

Iowa is also far more rural compared to other states.

“If you could look at census records, roughly 19 percent of everybody in this country lives in a rural area — it’s about 36 percent in Iowa,” Shelley said.