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.


Iowa 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 prospective 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 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.

From the first visit by a potential candidate after the November 2008 general election (Mike Huckabee on Nov. 20, 2008 on a book tour) to Caucus Day, January 3, 2012 Republican prospective candidates, former candidates and candidates made over 240 visits to Iowa totaling more than 500 days.  On the Democratic side, President Obama did not face a primary challenge, and there were only a few scattered visits by Obama and Biden during the same time. 

The Iowa 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 matters.

Early Groundwork (Pre-Campaign Period, 2009-10)

In contrast to 2005-6 when about two dozen potential candidates from both parties were trooping through the state, in this cycle, aside from a few scattered visits by Obama and Biden, the field was clear for potential GOP candidates.  A general theme of early news coverage of the 2012 campaign was "the slow start," and the numbers of visits by potential candidates to Iowa in the pre-campaign period seemed to support this.  By Nov. 7, 2010 fifteen potential candidates had made 49 visits totalling 69 days.  In the last cycle, by Election Day, Nov. 7, 2006, 13 potential Republican candidates had made 70 visits totaling 112 days.  Explanations for the lower amount of activity include the possibility that open contests in both parties in 2008 had a synergistic effect, upping the level of activity in that campaign; the difficult state of the economy; and the growth of social media lessening the need for actual visits. 

Potential presidential candidates looking toward 2012 sought to cultivate good will and build connections among local Republicans in 2009-10.  A good way to do that was to help out Iowa candidates running in the 2010 mid-term elections for offices ranging from governor to congressman to state legislator.  Iowa Republicans had a generally successful 2010 cycle.  They won back the governorship, held for the past 12 years by Democrats (two terms by Tom Vilsack and one by Chet Culver).  In the General Assembly, they took control of the House, where a 56D-44R majority flipped to 60R-40D.  In the Senate, where 25 seats were up, they narrowed Democrats' margin from 32D-18R to 26D-24R.  Republicans did not pick up one or more U.S. House seats as they would have liked.  Potential 2012 candidates put in plenty of appearances at fundraisers and events for state and local candidates and party committees, and their leadership PACs made generous contributions.

There are many ways in addition to actually traveling to Iowa that prospective candidates can engage Iowans.  A candidate or potential candidate can hold low-key meetings in his or her office or home, make calls, send Christmas cards, or address groups of Iowans without traveling to the state.  In the 2000 cycle, then Gov. George W. Bush did not make his first visit until June 1999. >  This cycle Gov. Rick Perry put in his first appearance in August 2011.

Hopefuls also made early efforts to attract talent.  Freedom First PAC, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's leadership PAC, was perhaps most active in this regard, signing on Sara Taylor and Terry Nelson, two operatives with Iowa roots and serious Iowa experience, as senior advisors in Oct. 2009.

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.  A few Iowa activists launched blogs in support of particular potential candidates. Interest groups also sometimes try to leverage small media buys criticizing one or another of the presidential prospects into a bit of free media attention. 

Play in Iowa?

The first decision a campaign faces is whether to compete in the Iowa caucuses.  Running an Iowa caucus campaign requires an intensive ground operation.  On the Republican side, social conservatives carry significant weight, prompting some more moderate candidates to skip Iowa.  John McCain tried this approach in 2000 and Wesley Clark tried it in 2004.  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.  However, most campaigns conclude that they must run in Iowa.  This cycle Jon Huntsman as well as Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer opted not to compete in Iowa (+).  After adopting a low key approach to the state for most of the campaign, Mitt Romney ramped up his Iowa operation in November 2011.  Newt Gingrich started a traditional campaign, but then went through the mass exodus of his team in June 2011; he re-started his campaign in the state very late as well.

Pencil in the Date

In 2008 the caucuses were held on January 3, necessitating campaigning over the holidays.  This cycle the two parties changed their rules in an effort to discourage such an early beginning.  It did not work.  Iowa's precinct caucuses were tentatively scheduled to take place on the evening of February 6, 2012.  However, on September 30, 2011 Florida Republicans set their primary date for January 31, 2011 prompting the designated early states to move their dates forward.  The Iowa Republican caucuses again occured on January 3.  The change forced to campaigns to re-jigger their plans, and made for a more less measured pace to the overall primary campaign.

Throughout the process the Iowa Republican Party worked to ensure a level playing field.  The Iowa Democratic Party has had its caucus team; although there was no challenger to Obama, Democrats viewed the caucuses as an important step in organizing this swing state for November 2012.

The Iowa Republican Straw Poll

For Republican candidates, before January 3, 2011 there was August 13, 2011.  The mid-August Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll in Ames has assumed almost as much importance as the caucuses themselves.  This mega-event fundraiser for the party has the atmosphere of a three-ring circus.  It is an important organizational test for the campaigns, and they plan their activities for months in advance.  Buses bring in supporters from around the state, and there is food, entertainment and speeches. 

In 2007 the Giuliani and McCain campaigns decided not to participate in the Straw Poll, lessening the impact of the event somewhat, but it still shook up the race.  Although former Gov. Mitt Romney spent the most and prevailed as expected, the Straw Poll gave more of a boost to the second place finisher, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, knocked former Gov. Tommy Thompson out of the race, seriously dampened the hopes of Sen. Sam Brownback, and did not help Rep. Tom Tancredo.

Again this cycle, several of the major campaigns did not participate.  Romney and Huntsman and Gingrich declined.  Gov. Rick Perry chose the day of the Straw Poll to announce his candidacy half a country away in South Carolina.  Nonetheless the event was important for the remaining campaigns.  In addition to the campaigns, various interest groups participated.  16,892 votes were tallied in the 2011 Ames Straw Poll.  When the big day was done, Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed a narrow win 28.6% to 27.7% for Rep. Ron Paul; former Gov. Tim Pawlenty obtained just 13.6% and ended his campaign the next day.  Unlike after the 2007 Straw Poll, however, Bachmann was unable to gain a significant bump out of the Straw Poll; Gov. Perry's announcement and appearance the next day in Waterloo stepped on any such momentum.

Organize, Organize, Organize.

Iowa has a population of a bit more than three million, and its ninety-nine counties provide plenty of ground for candidates to cover.  Des Moines-West Des Moines, in the center of the state, has a metro area population of over half a million; the population of Polk County itself is about 430,000.  At the other extreme is Adams County, in the Southwest part of the state, with a population of less than 4,000.  

One can identify various advantages one or another of the candidates could claim.  Agriculture is obviously important issue, and a candidate must be able to speak to rural issues.  Rick Perry, a former Agriculture Commissioner, seemed to fit the bill in this respect.  But there is more to Iowa than agriculture; the state has an increasingly diversified economy and leaders have sought to counter a one-dimensional stereotype of the state.  As noted, social conservatives form an important constituency on the Republican side.  Mike Huckabee, who won the most votes in 74 of the 99 counties in 2008, could have had a strong base to start from if he decided to run.  Ron Paul and Mitt Romney had foundations to build on from their 2008 runs.  Tim Pawlenty, from neighboring Minnesota, hoped benefit from the proximity and similarity of the two states.  Michele Bachmann, having been born and spent her early years in Waterloo, was not shy about noting that fact.

The major job for the campaigns in 2011 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 their neighbors and acquaintances.  (In 2007-08 it was interesting to observe that Republican and Democratic campaigns took 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 started up in earnest in November, although there was some earlier advertising around the straw poll.  Not only did the campaigns that had money run TV and radio ads, in some cases lots of them, but the super PACs also deluged the airwaves in the closing weeks.  Caucus-goers were deluged with mail and phone calls.

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; visits were particularly intense in the weeks leading up to the August Straw Poll, then tailed off, and picked up in the closing weeks of the campaign.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum reached 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 (1, 2, 3).

Although attention focused on the activities of the Republican candidates and their campaigns, other players were at work.  Given the huge amount of media attention it was not surprising to find various interest groups organizing on-the-ground or media campaigns to inject their issues into the race (+).  One of the most active such groups was Strong America Now which promoted the Lean Six Sigma method of cutting waste. Additionally, the Iowa Democratic Party was ever ready point out the foibles and faults of the Republicans.

The Day Arrives

After all the activity and the millions spent and the pundits' pontificating and the polls it is finally in the hands of Iowans.  In terms of complexity, the Republican and Democratic systems are as different as checkers and chess.  The Iowa Republican caucuses are actually straw polls; candidates are simply trying to get the most total votes, and the outcome has no bearing on the selection of delegates (1, 2, 3).  Democratic precinct caucuses have a 15-percent threshhold (in most precincts) to achieve viability; this means that if a caucus-goer's candidate fails to achieve that level, he or she must align with another group or go home.  Although Obama did not face competition on the Democratic side, the caucuses still occurred; attendees selected delegates to county conventions (and thence to district conventions and the state convention in June 2012) and vote on platform issues.  Democrats viewed their caucuses as an important tool in organizing toward the fall campaign (+). 

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.

Historical Perspective: Republicans

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 five multi-candidate competitive Iowa Republican caucuses from 1980 to 2008, the Iowa caucus winner went on to win the party's nomination two times: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. 





The Ad Campaign




Events, Debates and Forums

Feb. 7-Aug. 1, 2011 - The FAMiLY LEADER "Presidential Lecture Series" in Sioux Center, Pella and Iowa City, IA.

March 7, 2011 - Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition "2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Meet and Greet Event" in Waukee, IA.

March 26, 2011 - Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, IA.

June 13-July 2, 2011 - Iowa Tea Party bus tour, three weeks, 20 stops.

Aug. 11, 2011 - RPI/Fox News Debate.

Aug. 13, 2011 - Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, IA.

Aug. 11-21, 2011 - Iowa State Fair.

Oct. 22, 2011 - Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition 2012 Presidential Candidate Forum in Des Moines, IA.

Nov. 1, 2011 - National Association of Manufacturers forum in Pella, IA.

Nov. 4, 2011 - Republican Party of Iowa's Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, IA.

Nov. 19, 2011 - FAMiLY LEADER Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, IA.

Dec. 10, 2011 - RPI/ABC News/ABC5/WOI-DT Debate in Des Moines, IA.

Dec. 15, 2012 - RPI/Fox News Debate in Sioux City, IA.

Dec. 19, 2012 - Des Moines Register Debate in Johnston, IA.

[Feb. 6, 2012 - Tentative date of Iowa caucuses].
Jan. 3, 2012 - Date of Iowa Republican (and Democratic) caucuses. Rep. 1, 2, 3.  Dem. +.