Read Now! Chapter 3: Iowa Caucus Rules

Chapter 3 from Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process by David P. Redlawsk, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan. Copyright 2011 by the University of Chicago.

Summary

So Why Iowa? Because the Iowa caucus has become the focal point of "one of the most media-saturated and speculated-about campaign events in American politics." If Barack Obama had not won in Iowa, most commentators believe that he would not have been able to go on to capture the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. Yet very little has been written on the caucuses. We find the change in mass media coverage candidates receive before and after the Iowa caucuses predicts how well the candidates do in the New Hampshire primary, and in presidential primaries nation-wide. It is not winning the Iowa caucuses that matters, but doing better than expected by the media. President Carter came in second to undecided in the caucuses in 1976, but beat the odds, using Iowa to propel his nomination to the White House.

Why Iowa? Because the world of politics has changed with the information age. Although many would agree that the Iowa caucuses are important, early nominating events, including the New Hampshire primary, may be more important in a systematic way than has often been recognized by pundits and scholars. We argue that the Iowa caucuses play a greater role in the presidential nomination process than they have in the past. This is a function of the mass media's growing attention to the Iowa caucuses and the explosion in online news. The evolutionary metaphor to describe this change is punctuated equilibrium, in that the old system has experienced an abrupt and consequential change.

Why Iowa? Because the unique sequential voting rules used to select American presidential candidates gives early voting states like Iowa a big voice. The book highlights the role of the mass media and the sequential voting rules in providing information about the candidates. Individuals aware that Obama won the Iowa caucuses were much more likely to perceive he could win the nomination and to vote for him in primaries nationwide. Our national survey data shows that winning (mostly white) Iowa was critical to perceptions that Obama could win the nomination (what is called "viability"), and that in turn viability was the most important factor predicting a vote for Obama in subsequent primaries and caucuses. We show that what happens in Iowa reverberates throughout the country both in terms of mass media coverage and individual level voting decisions in the primaries.

Why Iowa? Because Iowa uses a caucus system-live party business meetings-to select candidates, while the majority of states use a primary election. Turnout in the caucuses averages just 6 percent of registered voters. Thus mobilizing voters to attend a caucus is like finding a proverbial needle in a haystack. Why Iowa is the new authority on the Iowa caucuses, a media event that is becoming more important with each presidential election. It offers the definitive account of how the Iowa caucuses work and what candidates' campaign strategies are effective.

Why Iowa? is the common refrain associated with a growing sense among political elites and the general public that there is no rational justification for granting Iowa (and New Hampshire) special status. The conventional wisdom is decidedly hostile to Iowa and the impact its privileged position has on the selection process. Iowa has been maligned by many who see the caucuses in general, and Iowa in particular, as unrepresentative and biased, based on its demography and agricultural economy. This perspective has always been long on speculation and short on empirics. There are positive aspects to Iowa's political process that have been ignored. This book argues that caucuses and the sequential election system have distinct advantages for how we select American presidents.

Why Iowa? argues there is room for reform. The book's final section examines how voters perceive the fairness of the existing process and ways the presidential nomination process can be reformed. Here we learn that national opinion polls show large majorities of Americans favor reform, but they may not recognize the benefits derived from the current system. However, we take these concerns -70 percent of Americans consistently favor a national primary-seriously. A national primary would be fair, in that voters from all states would have a voice in selecting presidential candidates. Competition among the candidates on a national stage would also increase turnout and reduce the bias of the electorate in terms of partisanship or socioeconomic factors. We propose reform of the presidential nomination process that merges both sequential and simultaneous election rules, along with caucus and primary rules. We conclude with a novel policy proposal recommendation for a caucus window followed by a national primary.

Why Iowa? Because the state offers important lessons detailed in our book for the presidential candidates in 2012. While presidential candidate Mitt Romney outspent his Republican counterparts he lost to underdog Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. This is because Romney ran a mass media campaign heavily reliant on radio and television ads. Presidential candidate Obama also outspent his fellow Democratic competitors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but he spent his money on grassroots campaigning, including door-to-door canvassing, field offices, in-person telephone calls, as well as a campaign fought over the airwaves. In our surveys, more Iowans reported being contacted by Obama supporters-in person, mail, phone-than any other Democratic contender. Thus grassroots politics-where candidates meet voters face-to-face, or are convinced to participate via in-person contacts-is key to winning in Iowa. When average turnout in the Iowa caucuses is low compared to primaries, mobilizing people to turnout on a cold January night to caucus can mean success. Turnout in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was 12 percent, compared to the average turnout of 6 percent. Obama's campaign was effective at mobilizing many new voters to caucus. Why Iowa? finds, remarkably, that 50 percent of caucus attenders in 2008 were first timers. This meant caucus participants were younger, less educated, less affluent and more moderate in terms of partisanship than in normal election years. And finally there is the media game. Even if a candidate loses in Iowa, doing better than expected based on the mass media predictions is the key to momentum coming out of the caucuses and into primaries in other states.

This book demonstrates that more than thirty years after Carter discovered the magic of Iowa, early contests such as Iowa and New Hampshire proved critical in shaping how voters beyond those states evaluated the candidates in 2008. The path that Carter followed from Iowa to the elusive 'momentum' that candidates seek may have changed somewhat, but we suggest it is still clearly marked. Obama's path in 2008 may have been similar to Jimmy Carter's in 1976.

Why Iowa? Because it is based on an extensive and unique set of sequential public opinion data gathered in Iowa before and after the 2008 caucuses and throughout the United States. These data appear in our book for the first time. The data were originally drawn from telephone surveys conducted by the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll from 2007-2009, directed by two of the coauthors. The Hawkeye poll of likely Iowa caucus goers was the first to show Obama had tied Clinton heading into the Iowa caucuses. The release of the late October 2007 Iowa Caucus Poll was the leading story in Google News for one day and was presented at a National Press Club conference in Washington, D.C.

Why Iowa? Because the book brings clarity to the caucus's role in the election of the highest official in the United States, and suggests a novel proposal for its reform for an even brighter future.