Caucus Kickoff: Why is Iowa “first in the nation”?


Diane Huang

The decision to make Iowa the first caucus was a hardly serendipitous accident.

As some of you may have heard, the United States is seeking a new president.  There’s probably a “now hiring” sign hanging up in the White House window and I have no doubt that the most sensible nation on the planet will go about this selection with its usual understated poise.  No big deal.

Wait…  I got the U.K. confused with U.S. again.  Classic mistake!  We’re talking about the United States?  The insane one?  Well then that is a VERY different story.

Exactly one week from today our whacky weird six month long primary marathon will begin in Iowa.  Presidential candidates are skipping across the country like flung stones, bolstering support, and talking about seventy three miles a minute.  The only thing in this race that move faster than the candidates’ awesome campaign buses are their poll numbers which veer wildly as though controlled by an extremely drunk driver.  But why does Iowa start this rodeo?  Why not California with one eighth of the country’s population?  Why not Texas with its fast growing hispanic population?  Why not Minnesota with its… lakes?

This, then, is the story of Iowa’s monopoly on “first in the nation” and how it was unjustly (and mostly accidentally) acquired.

The story begins in 1968 with a terrible debacle.  Since the advent of our nation, Americans have had their pick of major parties. But, until 1972, they had very little voice in who each party chose to nominate.  Party bosses and other party elites chose their nominees independent of the ostensible primary process.  This tension between rank and file party voters and the elites who controlled nomination came to a head in Chicago in 1968.  Eugene McCarthy (a senator from the great state of Minnesota) had made strong showings in many of the state primaries.  He commanded huge audiences and was a potent orator.  McCarthy even inspired many hippies to shave off their beards and cut their hair so they could campaign more effectively for him.  This fact alone should have proved that McCarthy could convince anyone to do anything.  Someone who could convince a sixties hippy to shave could convince water to flow uphill.  McCarthy was challenged by Hubert Humphrey (also from the great state of Minnesota) who’d entered a grand total of zero primaries.  As I’m sure you can guess, the democratic party, in its wisdom, chose Humphrey…  Violent debate raged for days and nights within the convention hall and violent protests verging on riots raged outside.

After this crazy disaster the Democratic National Committee put together a commission to reexamine the way the party selected its nominees, which recommended many changes to the nomination process.  The most important reform for our purposes was the instatement of a rule that required parties to notify the public at least 30 days before a primary was set to be held.  Before these reforms, the primary could be called with no notice whatsoever and held without delay.  This, as it could hardly fail to, promoted corruption.  


 A light bulb went on in every brain in Iowa and they wrote into their state constitution that they must be the first caucus in the nation.


The next part gets aggravatingly accidental.  Iowa wanted to synchronize their caucuses with their state convention which was normally held in June.  Unfortunately, in 1972 there weren’t enough free hotel rooms in Des Moines in June so they moved everything back until January.  Iowa wasn’t a big deal in that election season but four years later Jimmy Carter decided that the best way for him to get lots of great press was to win the first caucus out of the gate.  A light bulb went on in every brain in Iowa and they wrote into their state constitution that they must be the first caucus in the nation.  Every threat to unseat them is met with assurances that Iowa and New Hampshire will go as early as they need to to maintain their monopoly on “first in the nation.”  

So next time someone asks you, “why does Iowa go first?  I’m sure it’s for a good reason” you can tell them the whole grisly tale.  But if they don’t want the whole story you can give them this analogy: Imagine a substitute teacher who fills in for an excellent teacher and decides to win the love of his students by giving them lots of candy.  A couple days later the teacher is feeling better and calls the sub to thank him.  The substitute says “actually, I kind of like it here.  I think I’ll stay” and when they’re asked, the kids sing arias in praise to the sub for fear that their candy supply will be cut off.  Side note, everyone gets really sick from sugar overload.  Add in the fact that the sub is old, racist, and pretentious and you’ve got yourself a pretty good analogy to explain Iowa’s place in our primary process.

Okay, that’s how Iowa got where it is, but what should we do about it?  Just because they got it dishonestly that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad choice.  No, there are plenty of other reasons.  Tune in next week for the answer to the question “should Iowa keep its place?  Is Iowa a good choice, a terrible choice, or a very terrible choice?  And, if it should be booted, who should replace it?”