The Iowa caucuses matter

The Iowa caucuses don't matter? Only the losers think so. They matter, and they should. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., December 29, 2011 — My colleague Catherine Poe recently published an article titled, “Iowa Caucus 2012: A waste of time for candidates.” She made some excellent points, namely that Iowa voters aren’t representative of the nation as a whole, that the caucus system favors candidates with die-hard supporters in a state that is ideologically skewed, and that the cost of campaigning hard there for relatively few delegates drains resources that candidates might use to better effect in more populous states.

All that is true, but Iowa remains important, and most certainly not a waste of time. Here’s why:

1. First matters. Whether Iowa voters are representative of the nation or not, they’re the first to vote. They won’t actually choose any delegates next week - those will be chosen in April at local meetings and a statewide convention - and caucusing isn’t what we think of as voting, but they’ll send the candidates their first clear signal of how they’re doing on a scale larger than a straw poll.

That’s the most important thing: Iowa sends a signal. That signal might be, “you’d better get your act together for New Hampshire and South Carolina,” or it might be, “you’re gaining traction.” It might even be, “hey, America, here’s a new face to think about.” It allows or forces the candidates to recalibrate, make organizational changes, and get ready for the rest of the race. It doesn’t matter whether the first is Iowa or Hawaii, first matters.

2. Every state is somehow skewed. Ms Poe argues that demographics and ideology are skewed in Iowa. Indeed they are, but they aren’t much better in Vermont, Montana or Utah. Voters in Connecticut are better educated than the national average, voters in Massachusetts more liberal, voters in California more urban, and voters in Alaska better armed. Were Utah the first primary state, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman would have a huge advantage. Were it Texas, only Texans would claim that the United States (Texas surrounded by 49 other states) was well-reflected by their state.

There are certainly states more “typical” than Iowa, but “typical” is a moving target. We might argue that larger states are more diverse and so more typical, but if California and Texas went first with their huge delegate counts, candidates would have incentive to spend all their money there, and the decision there would be much more likely to make the rest of the campaign an afterthought.

If Iowa is important and skewed, it’s also small. A candidate can lose there and come back to win the race. Because it’s small, previously unknown candidates can suddenly spring to prominence there. Remember Jimmy Carter? He may not be the best argument for giving Iowans a say in the race, but he’s proof that Iowa matters, and candidacies like his are a reason that the first contest should be in a small state, not a large one.

3. Money spent in Iowa is amplified. It isn’t a complete waste of resources to spend money in Iowa. The presence of national press there amplifies the effect of spending on ads. Spending the same per capita in a state like South Dakota would indeed be a waste of resources, but that’s because the money isn’t spent on delegates (remember, none will be chosen next week), but on attention and momentum, and those come with doing well in whichever state is first.

After Iowa, the field will be narrowed. The candidates at the bottom will probably be forced out of the race, and that’s for the better. Iowa won’t decide anything (Mike Huckabee’s campaign was downhill from there), but it will help bring focus to the rest of the campaign.

It’s fair to ask whether Iowa should be first, but if not Iowa, where? There are good reasons for letting a small state go first, and as small states go, Iowa seems as good as any.

If Mitt Romney does well in Iowa, he’ll tell you Iowa matters. If Rick Santorum does better than expected, he’ll tell you Iowa matters. If Ron Paul comes in first, everyone else will tell you that it doesn’t matter, or it shouldn’t.

But regardless, Iowa matters. 


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. When the Picht brothers emigrated from Germany, they settled in Iowa Falls. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at



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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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