Why Does Iowa Get To Go First?

How Iowans came by their kingmaker role in presidential elections.

The Democratic contenders are gearing up for Monday’s tightly contested Iowa caucus, the first step toward picking the party’s presidential candidate. Why do Iowans always get first crack at determining who’ll run for the White House come November?

Iowa’s electoral prominence started as a fluke. In the late 1960s, the Iowa Democratic Party ruled that at least 30 days had to pass between the caucus and the district conventions (for which the caucuses select delegates), plus another 30 between the district conventions and the state convention (where Iowa’s delegates are officially selected). The purpose of the ruling was to allow enough time to work out convention details, like the printing of pamphlets and the staffing of sites. The 1972 Democratic state convention was scheduled for May 20, which meant the latest the caucus could be held was Jan. 24. It thus supplanted New Hampshire as the first contest on the road to the White House, a distinction the Granite State had held since 1920. George McGovern took advantage of this peculiarity by campaigning hard in the state. His surprisingly strong showing there—he came in second to Edmund Muskie—created a fair amount of media buzz and helped propel him toward the Democratic nomination.

Iowan politicos also enjoyed the spotlight, and the state’s Democrats made sure to select yet another early caucus date in 1976—as did the Republicans for the first time. That year, a little-known Georgian named Jimmy Carter ran away with the caucus, winning more than double the number of caucus votes earned by the runner-up, Birch Bayh. The landslide victory put the peanut farmer on the political map and helped create the folksy image that eventually earned him the presidential nod.

To preserve its kingmaker role, as well as the economic boon of hosting thousands of campaign workers and journalists, the Iowa legislature added a section to the state code that mandates that the caucus be held eight days prior to any other caucus or primary. The secretary of state’s office has also been active in lobbying the DNC and RNC to preserve Iowa’s unique status, arguing that the state’s relatively small size makes it an ideal testing ground for presidential hopefuls. In 1999, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver formed the Iowa First-in-the-Nation Caucus Commission to aid the lobbying cause. The effort seems to be working: This year, the DNC is requiring that all primaries and caucuses be held between February 3 and June 8—save for New Hampshire, which can hold its primary seven days earlier, and Iowa, which gets a full 15 days to jump the gun.

New Hampshire tends to take a dismissive view of the interloper (“The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents,” is the way then-Gov. John H. Sununu put it in 1988). But lots of other states are openly jealous of Iowa’s privileged status and gripe that it’s wrong to place such power in the hands of a state whose population (94 percent white) and economy (primarily agricultural) don’t square with the rest of the nation. Florida’s Democratic party discussed holding a straw poll in December, a meaningless exercise that nonetheless might have stolen some of Iowa’s thunder. But the DNC frowned on the idea, and the state party relented.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Peverill Squire’s Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process and the Iowa Caucus Project.