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 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
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
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
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.
The first decision a campaign faces is whether to
compete in the
Iowa caucuses. Running an Iowa caucus campaign requires an
ground operation. On the Republican side, social conservatives
carry significant weight, prompting some more moderate candidates to
John McCain tried this approach in 2000 and Wesley Clark tried it 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. However,
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.
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
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.
For Republican candidates, before January 3, 2011
there was August
2011. The mid-August Republican Party of Iowa Straw
Poll in Ames has assumed almost as much importance as the caucuses
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.
participated. 16,892 votes
were tallied in the 2011 Ames Straw Poll. When
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.