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Batter Up in Iowa

Binyamin Rose

Iowa is first, and some say foremost, when it comes to determining who the next president of the United States will be. How did one of the nation’s smallest states earn this disproportionate power?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The rest of the country is riveted on Iowa and the disproportionate power this state, with less than 1% of America’s population, plays in choosing the next president. Last week, election coverage constituted some 27% of all of the news coverage on 52 national outlets analyzed by Broadcasting and Cable.

CNN’s Larry King was once quoted as saying, “I never understood the Iowa caucus,” and he is not alone. The process has invariably been described by the media and academics as “quaint,” “dominated by special interests,” or “mind-numbingly complex.”

Caucus voters gather behind closed doors at a variety of forums in Iowa’s 99 counties, listen to presentations by participants representing the candidates, and then vote, either by a show of hands, by filling in a preprinted ballot, or in some cases, by writing their choice on a blank sheet of paper. Ties can be broken with a coin toss.

The caucuses are actually only the first stage of a four-step process, which includes separate conventions at the county, district, and state level; the latter is where the final decision on the winner is formalized.

The move to make Iowa first was an outgrowth of the deep divisions that emerged inside the Democratic Party at its 1968 nominating convention. Hubert Humphrey lost that year’s election to Republican Richard Nixon, and the Democrats felt they had to ensure that the delegate selection process in subsequent election cycles would be more inclusive of the party rank and file.

Once the Republicans saw how the early 1972 ballot garnered the Democrats a bonanza of free publicity, the GOP decided that it too would advance its party caucus to the same day as the Democrats in time for the 1976 election season.

“Iowa got its leadoff position not because anyone thought this state would be a good place to begin a presidential nominating process, but simply because its multistage delegate selection rules required the state’s Democratic Party to change the timing of the 1972 caucus,” according to a University of Chicago report entitled Why Iowa?

However, other political scholars, such as University of Iowa political science professor Michael Lewis-Beck, argue that Iowa deserves to be first. While Professor Lewis-Beck admits that “in a nutshell, the population of Iowa is too old and too white to represent the nation,” he asserts that in other respects, it is a truly “representative” American state, based on the extent to which its social, economic, and political characteristics describe those of the nation.

Iowa supporters also note that Iowa is central to the rest of America — geographically and historically. It is located smack in the center of the country. It entered the union as the 29th state — approximately in the middle of the process that saw the US grow to 50 states. Iowa today is considered to be more conservative than most states, but approximately 150 years ago, when the Republican Party was in its formative stages, Iowa was progressive and took a leadership role in the new party. In those days, it was the Republicans who were the pro-civil rights and anti-slavery party, not the Democrats, who were then controlled by Jacksonian, pro-slavery politicians.


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