Iowa′s inflated role in US presidential politics | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 01.02.2016
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US elections 2016

Iowa's inflated role in US presidential politics

The contest to select the nominees for US president begins in Iowa. Though many candidates campaign tirelessly in the Midwestern state, few voters participate and the outcome often isn't predictive.

For the all the media attention paid to the Iowa caucuses, very few people actually participate. It's a closed presidential nominating process. Participants must register as Republicans to participate in the Republican caucuses, and as Democrats to participate in the Democratic caucuses.

"It's an internal party business meeting, run by the parties, not run by the state's election machinery," Dennis Goldford, an expert on the Iowa caucuses at Drake University, told DW.

Very few members of either party bother to show up on caucus night. Thirty-nine percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans participated in 2008, the last year that both parties held contested presidential caucuses in Iowa. For the Democrats, it was a record turnout.

Those Democrats and Republicans who do show up on caucus night don't necessarily represent the broader membership of their respective parties.

"Primaries and caucuses attract the most ideologically activist people," Goldford said. "You get the most liberal Democrats showing up at Democratic primaries and caucuses; you get the most conservative Republicans showing up for Republican primaries and caucuses."

'Creatures of the parties' extremes'

A recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll found that 62 percent of likely Republican caucus goers identify as devoutly religious, while 43 percent of likely Democratic caucuses goers describe themselves as socialists.

USA Iowa Landwirtschaft

Iowa is not representative of the United States

A plurality of Iowans are actually independents – about 36 percent of the electorate, compared to 32 percent who are Democrats and 31 percent who are Republicans. But the independents, the largest bloc of Iowans, are barred from participating unless they register with one of the parties.

In a 2012 email, Hillary Clinton described the Iowa caucuses as "creatures of the parties' extremes."

Not representative of US

Iowa is the first state to vote in the presidential election cycle, and the outcome of the caucuses sets the initial tone of the campaign. But the sparsely populated Midwestern state is not representative of the demographics in the broader United States.

"The state is better than 90 percent white, while the country as a whole is much more diverse," Robert Schmuhl, an expert on US politics with the University of Notre Dame, told DW.

"The foreign-born population is less than five percent in Iowa, but approaches 15 percent nationwide," Schmuhl said. "Only two cities in Iowa exceed 100,000 in population, so urban issues rarely enter political discussions there."

Caucus process complex

The caucus system isn't easy to understand. It's not a matter of simply showing up and voting. In the Democratic caucuses, participants meet at one of 1,781 precincts in Iowa, which can be public buildings or private homes.

The participants begin the caucus by discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the presidential candidates. The supporters of each candidate then separate into groups in different areas of the precinct building.

Those participants who are undecided are lobbied to join one of the groups. Any candidate who receives less than 15 percent support is eliminated from the caucus. Supporters of a disqualified candidate can then join the supporters of a competing presidential candidate.

The caucus officer tallies the percentages for each viable candidate and sends the results to the party's headquarters, which calculates the winners and candidate rankings.

The Republican caucuses are more straightforward. Participants make the case for their respective candidates, and then there's a vote by secret ballot.

'Not really predictive'

Since 1972, the presidential nominees from both parties have always finished among the top three in the Iowa caucuses. Yet the candidate who comes in first in Iowa often doesn't get the nomination.

"The caucuses are not really very predictive," Goldford said. "Iowa is not first because it's important, Iowa is important because it's first."

Iowa does, however, give grassroots candidates a chance to attract national media attention. Campaigning in Iowa is comparatively cheap, and the caucus system forces candidates to campaign door-to-door and personally reach out to voters, creating a more level playing field.

USA Wahlkampf 2008 Iowa - Barack Obama

Barack Obama's win in Iowa helped him to win the nomination

In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama built a grassroots campaign in Iowa and defeated Hillary Clinton, the candidate favored to win the nomination at the time. He was able to build on that victory and eventually secure the nomination.

Josh Levitt, press secretary for the Iowa Democratic Party, believes the caucuses are a healthy antidote to the massive influence of money in US presidential elections.

"You can't win the Iowa caucuses with money alone," Levitt told DW. "You have to have an organization; you have to have a great ground game and a strong team here."