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On Caucus Eve, Some Thoughts on Iowa

It started as an accident, a scheduling problem. The convention center, the only place big enough for the big state-wide convention, was booked. The Party had no choice but to settle on an earlier date. And if the state convention was going to be earlier, working backwards, that meant that the county conventions would also have to be earlier, and before that, the precinct caucuses.

And thus Iowa became IOWA!

But it wasn’t just an accident of scheduling that turned the Iowa caucus into the first act in the drama of presidential politics, an exercise to be skipped at your peril. It was also the peanut farmer from Georgia, the guy no one had ever heard of, with a three-state strategy that started in Iowa and imagined that the momentum from there could carry him to New Hampshire and then to the friendlier southern voters in Florida.

In 1974, the former Georgia governor who would approach strangers and then startle them by his opening line, "Hello, my name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president," went to Iowa with his two young staffers, Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, believing that if they could meet enough would-be voters, one-on-one, someone who no one in 48 states had ever heard of could launch a campaign for president. They all but lived there for the next two years, while the better-known contenders were still in Washington, or running around the country raising money in Beverly Hills and Manhattan.

And on caucus night in 1976, the surprise “winner” and suddenly the man everyone in America, not to mention New Hampshire, wanted to know was Jimmy Carter.

Actually, he finished second. Uncommitted won that year, narrowly edging out Carter, but uncommitted isn’t a picture you can put on the cover of a magazine or interview on a morning news show. And the then-Dean of the political press corps, the late, great R.W. (Johnny) Apple, writing in the New York Times the next morning (which in those ancient days was soon enough) anointed Carter the winner and suddenly, the candidate-to-beat.

The state’s economy hasn’t been the same since.

Iowa is no longer a secret strategy.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan decided to skip Iowa. Why should a small state with caucuses attended by fewer than 100,000 people hold such clout? Why should the frontrunner spend months in cold farmhouses at the crack of dawn meeting voters who insisted on sizing up each candidate personally, often repeatedly, before deciding how to vote?

That was not how the television star turned Governor won elections in California, and it was not how he proposed to win the presidential nomination of his party. So he "skipped" Iowa, making only a token effort, and then ended up in a fight for his life, politically speaking, with George Bush, who got the “big mo” in Des Moines and very nearly rode it to an upset.

Four years after that, Fritz Mondale, the former vice president of his party, the loyal lieutenant who helped Jimmy Carter beat back the challenge from Ted Kennedy in 1980 by hitting every farm house in the state, while Carter remained in the Rose Garden, making "good" if you could call it that, on his pledge not to campaign during the Iranian hostage crisis, was supposed to win Iowa handily.

"Is He Inevitable?" had been the line on the cover of Time only weeks before. Gary Hart, the only former campaign manager to run for president, understood the game better than most. He took Iowa seriously. No one expected much. So when Hart finished a "surprisingly strong" second to Mondale, it was as if Mondale had lost. It was Hart who was on the cover of Time, Hart who was all over the television, Hart who couldn’t collect the money fast enough or file delegate slates soon enough to take advantage of the head of steam he’d gathered.

Hart went on to win New Hampshire, Mondale declared the battle to be a marathon, played every card in his hand, and finally crawled over the finish line on June 3, still phoning uncommitted delegates to claim his majority even after the last polls had closed on the last day of the nominating process.

Does Iowa pick winners? Not necessarily. But it winnows out losers, and helps determine the length of the road to victory. As the Mondale example makes clear, it’s not necessarily how you do in Iowa, but how well you do compared to how well people -- that is, the army of pundits and pundettes who now occupy every hotel room within miles of Des Moines -- expect you to do.

In 1988, I arrived in Iowa, as Michael Dukakis’ campaign manager, to the news that the latest, last Des Moines Register poll had him finishing fourth in the caucuses scheduled for the following Monday night. I was thrilled. I figured we were safe for third, and with everyone who mattered expecting fourth, third -- what we christened, "the bronze" -- would do just fine to get us to New Hampshire, where we could win the "gold."

The fact that George Bush, who was "supposed" to finish first, in fact finished third, behind not only Bob Dole but also Pat Robertson and his newly christened Christian Coalition, drained most of the attention from the Democratic side, leaving the Democratic winner, Dick Gephardt, with precious little momentum to take him to New Hampshire.

That is another rule of Iowa: there is only so much attention to go around, and when both parties have active contests, the division helps some candidates and hurts others. This year, on the Democratic side, the talk will be not only about who finishes first, but who finishes third. Only a few thousand votes may separate the candidate who places from the one who shows, but that won’t necessarily be the political result.

Whoever finishes second will say, “it’s on to New Hampshire and the marathon.” Whoever finishes third will be desperately working the phones and talkshows to convince donors and dubious interviewers that he or she has not been mortally wounded by a margin of a few thousand Iowans.

The real question, of course, is why a few thousand Iowans should have that much power. Why should what started as an accident assume such decisive power, or at least the appearance of decisive power, in selecting the leader of the free world? More than a few people have thought it shouldn’t.

For years, at least on the Democratic side, there have been efforts to "reign in" Iowa and New Hampshire, to force the two states to move back, or allow other states to move earlier, in order to diminish the influence of voters who tend to be whiter, more rural, less unionized, and, in a general election sense, less important than those from any number of other states who tend to play virtually no role, year in and year out, in the selection of the nominee.

But all such efforts have essentially failed, for the simple reason that as long as the candidates keep coming to Iowa, searching for gold, or at least silver or bronze, the media will follow them; and no matter how much earlier other states move, Iowa and New Hampshire move earlier still, which is why the political elite has assembled in Des Moines this year even before the Christmas trees have been hauled away.

Iowans will tell you that what they bring to the process, and what gets lost shortly after it, is the small "d" democracy that forces candidates to explain themselves to voters up close, that makes old fashioned political organization count for almost as much as slick television ads, that puts candidates to a test that won’t face them down the road when they are cocooned in their big planes, and farmhouse breakfasts are photo opportunities, not actual efforts to persuade voters.

That is true enough, but it may be beside the point. In the end, being a good Iowa candidate does not necessarily make you a good national candidate or, even more to the point, a good president.

The most successful candidate of recent history, from either party, was Ronald Reagan, who was probably right in his judgment that Iowa was no place for him to begin his campaign. But today’s crop of contenders don’t have that luxury. Or at least that’s how it seems this week, on the eve of the caucus.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.