I am thinking back to the Iowa Caucus nights in 2004, 2008 and 2012that my college roommate and I went out to caucus at a local Des Moines high school when the temperature was 17 degrees (2004). It was, until now, the coldest caucus night in history. My hope was that Howard Dean was going to prevail, as he had been leading during the “sleepless summer,” as the press called it.
I dropped her off at the doorway and then had to drive blocks away to park my car. During that time, those in charge attempted to close the doors to late-comers, but she stood by the door to allow me to gain access. (They said they were running out of GOP ballots, for one thing.) Then we were thrown into the chaos of the classroom, with Democratic groups milling about trying to achieve the 15% viability that would allow them to continue. (The Republicans use paper ballots, but the Democrats, at that time, simply stand around in small clumps of people and it is sheer lunacy.)
The 2020 SNAFU in Iowa, when the results weren’t know for days, led to the resignation of the guy in charge, even though there still is debate as to whether an app called Shadow, Inc., developed by someone named Tara McGowan, was at fault. There were charges that both the Buttigieg campaign and the Hillary Clinton campaign had had dealings with the company that developed the app. The entire night was catastrophic for the Iowa caucuses and, this year, the Dems did not come. When you read that 8 precinct results went missing in 2012 and were never counted, you begin to get the idea that this entire throwback town hall meeting thing will soon cease. After all, the success rate of predicting who the standard bearer for each candidate will be is not great. The success rate for predicting the Democratic winner nationally is only 55% and for the GOP it is only 43%.
Is it any wonder that voices are being raised saying the caucuses in Iowa don’t “work” and should go the way of the Dodo bird? Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said, “I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting.” Former presidential candidate Julian Castro said, “It’s a mess. What we saw out there and heard about are, consistently, errors in the way that this process was done, whether in the initial phase or the realignment. Inconsistencies in how it was done across precinct sites. It is a total mess.” And let’s not forget that campaigning in Iowa is probably not real pleasant when the weather in the Midwest doesn’t cooperate. DeSantis and Trump are from Florida. Haley is from South Carolina. Talk about culture shock!
So, how did this “total mess” come to be at all?
One book written on the topic (“The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process” by Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri) says, “Iowa became first in the nation pretty much as an accident of the calendar.” One explanation even blames the entire thing on the slow duplicating machine that Iowa used at the time, which required Iowa to set their voting date up earlier and earlier to make sure that materials could be turned out in time. Supposedly, the party wasn’t really angling to be “first in the nation” but that’s what happened.
As for the GOP, they used to use an August “straw poll” thing, which turned out to be totally unreliable and was discontinued. It became a question of who could buy the straw poll. You could argue that that is also true of the caucuses as they now exist, with huge amounts of money being spent by the candidates running in the state. It is easy to see why a state like Iowa would want to continue being the center of attention and raking in advertising (and other) dollars. But will that happen, given the deep freeze that Iowa is going to be on the night of the caucuses this year? Thirty and Forty below zero is life-threatening. Iowans are hardy souls and take politics seriously, but the turnout is definitely going to be affected.
In 1976 then-candidate Jimmy Carter used the Iowa caucuses to give himself the national recognition that he did not have prior to winning there. In 1972 George McGovern won the caucuses, but they had not yet turned into any kind of national launching pad. After Iowa, Carter received attention and invitations to speak and be interviewed that gave him the momentum he needed to go on to win the nomination and be elected as the party standard-bearer and win the presidency. Since then, candidates have been attempting to duplicate that feat, with Barack Obama actually achieving it in 2008, the year I followed the caucuses for 24 months and wrote 2 books on the experience. The Iowa caucuses actually predicted the eventual national nominee and winner twice: Obama in 2008 and Bush in 2000. In 2004 the caucus winner in Des Moines (John Kerry) did go on to become the national nominee, but he did not win office. It is particularly interesting when you learn that Jimmy Carter only campaigned for 17 days in the state in 1976.
I did not become involved in following the caucuses in person until 2004, which was the year that John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards came in second, and Howard Dean came in third. The Kerry forces double-miked Howard Dean’s impassioned plea to his followers at the post party (I was there) and made him look totally foolish by replaying it what seemed like millions of times on television.
2008: January 3rd at 7 p.m. Temperature that year was 30 degrees above zero, warmer than in 2004 when it was only 16 degrees. In 2012, my last year of following, the temperature was 40, but it was a very quiet night for Democrats, who had an incumbent president in the White House. This year’s thirty below zero prediction is going to be the coldest on record, and one wonders how many will show up to caucus for their candidate.
2012: January 3rd. Supposedly, Romney won by 8 points, but then a recount showed that Rick Santorum might have won by 34 votes and Ron Paul came in third. This was the year that 8 missing precinct reports caused problems and the “win” was also taken from Santorum and awarded to Paul at one point. Not reliable, in other words.
2016: In the Democratic race, Hillary got 45% of the vote and Bernie Saunders came in second. Ted Cruz won the GOP contest, with votes going to Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, as well.
2020: Monday, February 3rd. This was the year of the Shadow, Inc. app that was, apparently, never reliably field-tested. Then, the phone number that was supposed to be used as a fall-back method for voting was totally jammed up with calls. Days went by where national talking heads could not report who had won, and the person in charge resigned.
Results over time:
1972 – McGovern
1976 – Jimmy Carter
1980 – Jimmy Carter (Ted Kennedy got votes)
1984 – Walter Mondale
1988 – Dick Gephardt (who withdrew from the race shortly thereafter)
1992 – Tom Harkin (a native son)
1996 – Bill Clinton
2000 – Al Gore
2004 – John Kerry (38%) John Edwards (32%). Howard Dean (18%). Dick Gephardt (11%). Dennis Kucinich (1%). GOP – George W. Bush
2008 – Barack Obama – 38%, John Edwards – (30%), Hillary Clinton (29%) Elliot Richardson got 2% and Joe Biden got 1%.
2012 – Obama – 98% (a very quiet night in Des Moines) Mike Huckabee on the Republican side, prompting my headline: “Huckaboom or Huckabust?”
2016 – Hillary (50%). Bernie Saunders (49%) Ted Cruz on the GOP side.
2020 – Trump