The Iowa caucuses are the first step in the nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties. As a result, Iowa garners a vastly disproportionate number of candidate visits and amount of media attention. A better than expected showing on caucus night can boost a candidacy, while a poor performance can spell the end of a candidate's hopes.
Code--Title II Chapter 43.4:
Delegates to county conventions of political parties and party committee members shall be elected at precinct caucuses held not later than the fourth Monday in February of each even-numbered year. The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination. The state central committees of the political parties shall set the date for their caucuses...
Because Iowa's precinct caucuses are the first contests in the presidential nomination processes of both parties, the state attracts an inordinate amount of attention from candidates and the media. In fact authors Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford describe the caucuses as a "media event." Although there have been attempts in the past to challenge the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa caucuses, supporters of the process argue that the precinct caucuses allow for retail politicking which simply would not be possible in larger states. For Iowa voters who choose to engage in the caucus campaign the experience can be intense. In the 2012 cycle, for example, from Nov. 2008 to Caucus Day Jan. 3, 2012 Republican prospective candidates, former candidates and candidates made over 240 visits to Iowa totaling more than 500 days. With the large number of GOP candidates running in 2016, including several committing to the "full Grassley" (visiting all 99 counties), and the later caucus date, figures for the this cycle will no doubt eclipse those from 2012. In addition to visits, campaigns invest significant resources in putting staff on the ground, ads on the air, and mailers in mailbox, interest groups weigh in, and reporters flock to the state.
The Iowa caucus campaign fulfills an important winnowing
function. The cliche is that there are three tickets out of Iowa,
namely a first-, second- or third-place finish in the caucuses, and
that if a candidate does not achieve top three finish his or her
campaign is in deep trouble. In fact it is not a candidate's
showing, but the showing as it relates to expectations that is perhaps
The large field of Republican
candidates meant that
seeing much more activity on the Republican side. In
August 2015, 16 major Republican candidates made 30 visits to the state
totalling 72 days while five Democratic candidates made 13 visits
totalling 25 days. By December 2015 the field had thinned and 11
Republicans made 24
visits totalling 45 days, while the three Democrats made nine visits
totalling 18 days.
All this activity by the GOP candidates energized
local Republican parties; how that will extend to the general
election remains to be seen. Of the 11 Republicans still
competing by the time the caucuses arrived, some wre competing here
very seriously and others were "showing the
flag" and making occasional visits to the
state. Leading visitors to Iowa for the cycle thus far were
Rick Santorum, who achieved his second full Grassley on Sept. 1, 2015,
and former Gov. Mike Huckabee; they needed do well in Iowa to
Several candidates who made strong plays in Iowa bowed out well before
Former Gov. Rick Perry was first to go. Gov. Scott Walker had
as something of a frontrunner in the first part of the year, but saw
his star dim over the summer. He vowed to do the full
Grassley, but the money dried up and he suspended his campaign.
Gov. Bobby Jindal put over 70 days into the state before bowing
On the Democratic side, the three final players were former Sec.
Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin
O'Malley. Clinton "flooded the zone" in Iowa; by Sept.
5 her campaign reported it had 79 organizers, bringing her total staff
to around 100, and that did not include unpaid "organizing
fellows." Sanders, drew large crowds and put together a very
O'Malley and his campaign worked the state as well.
Within just a few weeks of the last presidential election the first visits by the next crop of potential candidates begins. For the 2016 cycle, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared at a birthday fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad in Altoona on Nov. 18, 2012. From Nov. 7, 2012 to Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, 17 potential Republican candidates made 61 visits totaling 81 days to Iowa (+). This is a bit more than at the same point in the 2012 cycle, when 16 potential Republican candidates made 51 visits totaling 71 days through Nov. 2, 2010 (+), but less than in the 2008 cycle (to Election Day 2006) when 13 potential Republican candidates made 70 visits totaling 112 days (+). Explanations for the lower amount of activity in 2013-14 and 2009-10 compared to 2005-06 include the possibility that open presidential contests in both parties in 2008 had a synergistic effect, upping the level of activity in that campaign; the difficult state of the economy in 2012 having a dampening effect; and the growth of social media lessening the need for actual visits. The Democrats' 2013-14 visit numbers were very low due to the "inevitable Hillary" scenario. From Nov. 7, 2012 to Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, eight potential candidates made 18 visits totaling 28 days. By comparison in the 2008 cycle through Election Day 2006, 11 potential Democratic candidates made 60 visits totaling 108 days.
Potential presidential candidates looking toward 2016 sought to
will and build connections among local party officials and activists in
good way to
do that was to help out Iowa candidates running in the 2014 mid-term
elections. Iowa was very much a swing state; active party
of Nov. 3, 2014 was 602,048 Democrats, 620,353 Republicans and 709,447
no party. There were a number of targeted and hotly contested
• Iowa had a very high-profile U.S. Senate race, pitting U.S. Rep.
Bruce Braley (D) against state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to fill the seat
held by veteran Sen. Tom Harkin (D). + Ernst
prevailed by 52.1% to 43.8%.
• The U.S. House delegation had been evenly spliit 2D and
Two seats were open: the 1st CD in the Northeast, held by Braley,
and the 3rd CD in the Southwest, where U.S. Rep. Tom Latham (R) was
retiring. Republicans won both those seats, bringing the balance
for the 114th Congress to 3R and 1D.
• Although Gov. Terry Branstad (R) easily fended off a challenge from state Sen. Jack Hatch (D), several of the other statewide offices were competitive, most notably the Secretary of State race, where Paul Pate (R) narrowly defeated Brad Anderson (D).
• Both chambers in the Iowa legislature were close heading into Nov.
4. In the
General Assembly, Republicans increased their majority from 53R-47D to
57R-43D. In the
Senate, where 25 seats were up, the balance stayed at 26D-24R.
Potential 2016 candidates put in plenty of appearances at fundraisers and events for state and local candidates and party committees, and their leadership PACs contributed as well.
There are many ways in addition to actually traveling to Iowa that
prospective candidates can engage Iowans. A candidate or
potential candidate can make calls, hold low-key meetings in his or her
home, send Christmas cards, do a fundraiser, or address groups of
without traveling to the state.
Hopefuls also made early efforts to attract talent. RAND PAC,
Sen. Rand Paul's leadership PAC, signed up A.J. Spiker, who had been
chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, as advisor in March 2014 and
announced Steve Grubbs, a veteran consultant, as chief Iowa strategist
at the end
of June 2014. Veteran operative Bob Haus is again advising Gov.
Independent of a candidate or potential candidate's efforts,
citizens and organized groups may start up efforts to build support for
(or to criticize) one or another of the presidential hopefuls.
The Ready for Hillary super PAC announced Derek Eadon, Iowa general
director on Obama's re-election campaign, as its Midwest regional
organizing director in April 2014. By Sept. 14 RfH reported it
had organized in all 99 counties, and it had a major presence at the
Harkin Steak Fry that day. The National Draft Ben Carson for
Exploratory Committee super PAC was quite active. In April 2014,
who has experience on a number of Iowa campaigns, started as Midwest
regional director for the super PAC, on Sept. 18 the super PAC
announced co-chairs, and on Oct. 20 it announced county chairs in all
99 counties (+).
The first decision a campaign faces on the
Iowa caucuses is whether to
compete. Running an Iowa caucus campaign requires an
ground operation. On the Republican side, social conservatives
carry significant weight, and this has prompted some more moderate
Jon Huntsman as well as Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer tried this
approach in 2012 and John McCain tried it in 2000. On the
Democratic side Wesley Clark gave the Iowa caucuses a miss in
In 2007 an internal memo by Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry
suggested that Clinton bypass the Iowa caucuses to focus on later
contests, but the campaign disavowed that notion and competed hard in
the state. Most
There were no significant challenges to Iowa's
status during the RNC and DNC rules processes in 2013-14. DNC
rules state that "the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier
than 29 days beffore the first Tuesday in March" (Delegate Selection
Rules, Rule 11). RNC rules are less specific, but also key off
March 1 and set a general exception for the four early states, stating
that "Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their
processes no earlier than one month before the next earliest state"
(Rules of the Republican Party, Rule 16(c)(1). Thus one could
Feb. 1, 2016 as the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses.
Based on recent election cycles, however, that date
could have changed. In both the 2012 (+) and
contests took place
February, and the caucuses stuck to February 1.
Both the Democratic and Republican state parties looked at making
some changes to their caucus processes. Iowa Democrats are
considered reforms to make the
caucuses more accessible; they conducted a “listening tour” and on
the party chair presented
five proposals at the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting (+).
[Even with such changes, Democrats will be hard pressed to achieve the
high turnout level of 2008, when the historic campaigns of Obama and
created a lot of excitement]. Iowa Republicans
proposals to increase accessibility. Additionally on Nov. 22,
2014 members of
the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee signed a pledge
to remain neutral in the caucus process; the party noted that the move
"is unprecedented and is intended to send a clear signal to potential
presidential candidates: all are welcome in Iowa, and the caucus
process will be a fair and impartial one" (+).
In Jan. 2015 Iowa
announced hiring of four regional political directors (+); part of
their responsibilities is to ensure that county parties are
prepared for the caucuses. The state party also took steps to
a results snafu in 2016 as happened in 2012 (+).
For Republicans, the mid-August Republican Party of
Poll had assumed almost as much importance as the caucuses
Buses brought in supporters from around the state, and there was food,
entertainment and speeches. It was
and those participating planned their activities for months in
advance. Additionally, the Straw Poll coincided with the Iowa
State Fair, another major draw for
of both parties.
After Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Straw Poll in 2011, her campaign subsequently fizzled, and some questioned the merits of the event. In a Nov. 20, 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal Gov. Terry Branstad stated, "I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness... It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over." Branstad later said he would leave the fate of the straw poll up to the state party. There was talk about holding a "straw poll-like event." However, on Jan. 10, 2015, during their regularly scheduled first quarter meeting, members of the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee voted unanimously to hold a Straw Poll (+).
The Straw Poll had long been synomymous with
Ames. However, Iowa State
University raised what it charged the party over the years, and
officials entertained bids from other venues (+). On March 12, 2015
the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee, meeting by
teleconference, approved the recommendation of the party's Straw Poll
Committee that the Straw Poll be held
at Central Iowa Expo in Boone on August 8, 2015 (+).
Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann emphasized the need to manage the expectations of what the Straw Poll is and what it is not. In a May 7, 2015 article in Politico Magazine, Kaufmann outlined changes to the straw poll designed "to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history." For example, no longer would there be an auction during which representatives of the campaigns bid for prime locations; instead spaces woud be provided for free and locations determined by lottery (>).
subcommittee of Central Committee members continued working out the
logistics of the event. Tickets
and Marco Rubio (May 30)
not be participating. Iowa Republican leaders defended the
Straw Poll as "a tradition worth supporting (+)"
However, on June 8 the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central
Committee voted to cancel the 2015 Iowa Straw Poll "to strengthen our
First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best
chance possible to take back the White House in 2016 (+).
Iowa has a population of more than three
million (July 2015 estimate 3,123,899), and its ninety-nine counties
plenty of ground for
candidates to cover. Attention naturally focuses on the Des
Moines area in the center of the state. The Greater Des Moines
region (eight central Iowa counties) had a 2014 estimated population of
Potential candidates and candidates look for advantages as they seek
to connect to Iowans. Agriculture is
obviously important issue, and a candidate must be able to speak to
rural issues. But there is more to Iowa
state has an increasingly diversified economy and leaders have sought
to counter a one-dimensional stereotype of the state. Social
conservatives form an important
constituency on the Republican side and organized labor is still
important on the
Democratic side. Candidates who are making a second run in the
caucuses before have some foundations to
build upon from their previous campaigning.
Once the campaigns staff up, their major job in 2015 was to identify committed supporters, likely supporters, and persuadables (1's, 2's and 3's as they are called). The campaigns devoted much work to building a team of committed county chairs and precinct captains, and they also made considerable efforts to obtain endorsements from state and local officials, who might be able to sway neighbors and acquaintances. Republican and Democratic campaigns take decidely different approaches to this task. The campaigns of the leading major Democratic candidates had very large staffs and a dozen or more field offices around the state, while the Republican campaign organizations were much smaller and generally did not open multiple offices. The air war has been going on for some time now. The campaigns that have money are running TV and radio ads, in some cases lots of them, and several super PACs are filling the airwaves as well. Caucus-goers were bombared with mail and phone calls as well.
Exchanges with a friend, neighbor, colleague or fellow Iowan can
have an important effect on a caucus-goer's thinking. Even more
telling are first-hand impressions of the candidates. Candidates
ply the state with visits; for Republicans in 2011 visits were
particularly intense in the
weeks leading up to
the August Straw Poll, then tailed off, and picked up in the
weeks of the campaign. In the 2012 cycle former Sen. Rick
the "hundred days in Iowa club" and Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann
achieved the "99-county club."
Much organizing activity occurs around candidate visits. If a campaign has any kind of organization, a field organizer or field organizers bearing supporter cards will approach attendees after an event. There are also the multi-candidate debates and forums which often generate sign-waving battles. Having a staff that can translate the energy and interest generated by the candidate into actual Iowans willing to volunteer time and effort and to head out on a Monday evening in February to spend an hour or two in a caucus meeting is essential.
Although attention focuses on the activities of the candidates and
their campaigns, other players will be at work. Given
the huge amount of media attention various
interest groups organize on-the-ground or media campaigns to inject
their issues into the race. The state parties work to ensure a
level playing field for their candidates, and, at the same time are
ready point out the foibles and faults of the opposing party's
After all the activity, the millions spent, the
pundits' pontificating and the meaningless polls, matters are finally
in the hands
Iowans. Despite all the attention lavished on their state, not
that many people actually
participate in the precinct caucuses. In the 2012 Republican
caucuses, 121,503 votes were
tallied, and Santorum's winning tally was 29,839 votes (24.56%) and in
the 2008 Republican caucuses 119,200 votes were tallied and Huckabee's
winning tally was 40,054 votes (34.36%). The 2008 Democratic
caucuses marked a high point, drawing 239,872 participants; Obama,
Edwards and Clinton
The state parties have spent countless hours preparing for the caucuses. Iowa has 1,681 precincts. That meant a lot of work for the state parties in keeping the county chairs up to speed, lining up temporary caucus chairs, and identifying caucus sites (1, 2).
The Republican and Democratic
caucus systems are quite different. Republicans do their caucus
by secret ballot, while Democrats divide up into groups.
Through 2012, Iowa Republican caucuses were actually straw polls; candidates were simply trying to get the most total votes, but the outcome had no bearing on the selection of delegates. That has changed. On June 27, 2015, the Republican State Central Committee of Iowa amended its bylaws so that, "The Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention shall be bound on the first ballot to vote proportionally in accordance with the outcome of the Iowa Caucuses."
to achieve that level, he
or she must align with another group or go home. Attendees select
delegates to county
conventions (and thence to district conventions and the state
convention in June 2016) and vote on platform issues.
In June 2015 the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties jointly announced that, "The 2016 Iowa caucus results will be delivered via a new, mobile-enabled, cloud-based platform that will allow for accurate, efficient and secure reporting on caucus night (+)."
For the candidates, what matters is what happens on caucus night (+) and how these results are interpreted in the headlines the next day. The candidates who exceed expectations will jet off to New Hampshire claiming momentum. Those who fare poorly may drop out of the race, if not on caucus night itself in the days after the caucuses.
After all the visits, calls and canvassing, ad, mail, planning and
preparation, Hillary Clinton edged Bernie Sanders in "an historically
close" caucus on the Democratic side, while Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and
Marco Rubio finished one, two and three on the Republican side amid
record turnout. The precinct caucuses, an example of democracy in
action, look set to continue four years hence in the next presidential
Democrats held their first Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24, 1972; top finishers were uncommitted, Ed Muskie and George McGovern. (Although McGovern finished behind Muskie, his surprising showing provided a significant boost heading into New Hampshire). In the three most recent competitive caucuses, the winner has gone on to win the party's nomination. On Jan. 24, 2000, Vice President Al Gore (63%) defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley (37%). On Jan. 19, 2004 Sen. John Kerry (38%) finished ahead of Sen. John Edwards (32%) and former Gov Howard Dean (18%). On Jan. 3, 2008 Sen. Barack Obama (38%) finished ahead of former Sen. John Edwards (30%) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (29%).
|Feb. 1, 2016 +
(0.54%), Uncomm. (0.03%).
|Jan. 3, 2008||Obama (37.6%), Edwards (29.7%), Clinton (29.4%), Others (3.2%).||239,872|
|Jan. 19, 2004||Kerry (37.6%),
||Gore (63.4%), Bradley (34.9%), Others (1.6%).||60,760
In 1976 Republicans moved their caucuses to the same day as the Democrats, thereby boosting the significance of the event; that year there was a contest between President Gerald Ford and Gov. Ronald Reagan. The 1980 caucuses marked the first of the multi-candidate GOP contests seen in recent cycles. Of the six multi-candidate competitive Iowa Republican caucuses from 1980 to 2012, the Iowa caucus winner went on to win the party's nomination two and a half times: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. In 2012 Mitt Romney appeared to have won by eight votes and received an Iowa bump, but two weeks later Rick Santorum was declared to have won by 34 votes in certified results.
|Feb. 1, 2016 +||Cruz 51,666
(27.6%), Trump 45,429 (24.3%), Rubio 43,228
(23.1%), Carson 17,394 (9.3%), Paul 8,481 (4.5%), Bush 5,238
(2.8%), Others 15,495 (8.2%).
|Jan. 3, 2012||Santorum 29,839 (24.5%), Romney 29,805 (24.5%), Paul 26,036 (21.4%), Gingrich 16,163 (13.3%), Perry 12,557 (10.3%), Others 7,103 (5.8%).||121,503|
|Jan. 3, 2008||Huckabee 40,954
Romney 30,021 (25.2%), F.Thompson 15,960 (13.4%), McCain
15,536 (13.0%), Paul 11,841 (9.9%), Others 4,888 (4.1%).
||Bush 35,948 (40.9%), Forbes 26,744 (30.5%), Keyes 12,496 (14.2%), Bauer 7,487 (8.5%), Others 4,991 (5.7%)||87,666
|Feb. 12, 1996
Buchanan 22,578 (23.3%), Alexander 17,052 (17.6%), Forbes
9,861 (10.2%), Gramm 9,055 (9.4%), Keyes 7,219
Others 5,536 (5.7%).