The Iowa Caucuses are an accident of American history and should be demoted from its lofty perch as the nation’s first test of presidential candidates in election years. Iowa has voted first since 1972, when the modern primary system began, and the reason for its position at the beginning of the schedule has nothing to do with democratically relevant factors, like demographics or delegates. After all, Iowa is roughly 90% White, while the Democratic Party is, well, not. Also, Iowa only sends 49 delegates to the DNC, which means that it is far less significant in terms of delegate math than states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania. Yet Iowa has been the first state to weigh in on Democratic Party candidates for almost half a century. The true reason comes from a far more pragmatic and far less romantic feature of the late 1960s and early 1970s: mimeograph machines.
As Kathie Obradovich, the Des Moine Register's opinion editor, explains, "the old story is that they figured out how long it would take to print all the paperwork on their elderly mimeograph machine." Quite literally, the organizers of the state’s caucus in 1972 measured how quickly their mimeograph machines could print out all of the paperwork that would be needed to document the results of the Iowa Caucuses ahead of the DNC convention. They concluded they would need 4 months. With the DNC convention happening in the summer, early February was the only option that allowed for enough time to print out the results. Thus, because Iowa had the slowest technology at the time, it became the first in the nation to choose a candidate. Obradovich finishes the story: "In the 1972 presidential race, Sen. George McGovern’s campaign was managed by a young political whiz kid named Gary Hart. Hart noticed that Iowa was going to be first in the nation and decided to make a bid here as a way to get (McGovern) a media boost before the New Hampshire primary. It worked." The rest is history.
Once the schedule was set, the momentum of tradition took over. Every election cycle, the campaigns would arrive in Iowa earlier and earlier. The advantage of leftover infrastructure from campaigns from prior years quickly became its own self-fulfilling reason to go to Iowa: within a few elections, campaigners had more political data about each county in Iowa than any other state in the Union. The Iowa Fair became a legendary stop on the campaign trail of every candidate, as did the annual Liberty and Justice dinner. Today, the position of the Iowa Caucuses at the front of the schedule is so deeply ingrained into the sociological fabric of American elections that it is difficult to imagine another order. Every four years, new ideas are proposed that would snatch Iowa’s privilege away. But the tradition only grows stronger with every passing election cycle.
Tradition is not something that should be so quickly dismissed. In politics, traditions matter. They create a narrative of continuity between the present and the past, which in turn legitimizes the future. One can imagine Pete Buttigieg biting into a corn dog at the Iowa Fair last Summer, noting to himself as he did the significance of the act, and the fact that one of his rivals, Cory Booker, was vegan, and thus could not partake in such a legendary gastronomical ritual. The ingestion of a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair may seem insignificant, but such traditions build a mythology around a candidate: “Just as Obama did before me, and Bush before Obama, and Clinton before Bush, and so on, I too shall chomp the magical corn dog of power, and tomorrow it shall be recorded for all time in the Des Moines Register that I ate it with yellow mustard, as did my predecessors.” As much as we might wish to reason with our prejudices, we cannot help but judge politicians who stray from orthodoxy. In 2003, when candidate John Kerry skipped the beer and instead ordered a strawberry yogurt smoothie to wash down his own mythic corn dog, Iowans saw something alien in this man who professed to be just a Regular Guy like the rest of them. Just days earlier, Kerry had put Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak in Philadelphia, a big no-no. The strawberry smoothie solidified the pattern, and Americans took note. Kerry's corn-dog-and-smoothie debacle was an early portent of his eventual downfall in the 2004 election.
The power of the Iowa corn dog in American Democracy is a small example of a much larger conundrum in politics generally. In the turbulence of history, few things are stable over the long term, and what solidifies into tradition is often accidental, imperfect, and unjust. Political history is no different. Indeed, much of the work of politics is about managing accidents by building up facades of stability around unstable elements. In that sense, the randomness of the fact that Iowa’s mimeographs were a bit slow in the early 1970s is offset by the predictability of the Iowa State Fair corn dog in some small way. The tradition brings order to the madness.
At the same time, traditions can hurt as much as they help, especially when they prop up injustices. This is a danger to watch out for. The fact that Iowa goes first in the primary season has negative downstream effects on all of the subsequent primaries. For instance, Pennsylvania’s voters are nearly entirely disenfranchised by the current schedule. Even though Pennsylvania is worth hundreds of delegates and is a crucial swing state in the General Election, by the time Pennsylvania’s primary rolls around later in the Spring, it will already be clear who the nominee will be. California was in a similar position until this year when it moved its primary forward to Super Tuesday. For the same reasons, Pennsylvania recently passed legislation to move their primary forward in 2024. Several other states are considering similar moves.
Watching the states jockey for position behind Iowa highlights the absurdity of Iowa’s privileged status. Iowa is the tastemaker for American presidential elections, not because Iowans have good taste in candidates necessarily, but because as a nation, we have decided to try to legitimize an accidental injustice with the pageantry of tradition instead of address the root cause of the injustice directly. But as a farmer at the Iowa State Fair might say, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. In the same way, no matter how much we try to dress up the Iowa Caucuses in the myths of Americana, Iowa’s position at the front of the line is an injustice that must be reformed. In this case, the traditions are wrong. It’s time to take responsibility for our elections and intentionally plan out our primaries with some sort of logic that will result in a juster and truly democratic system rather than let the winds of history decide our fate. In short, it’s time for Iowa to step aside and let other states have a turn in the spotlight.