Don’t Call Them the Iowa Caucus
By Richard Doak
Retired editorial-page editor of the Des Moines Register
It grates against the ear whenever a newscaster — usually one from out of state — talks about “the Iowa caucus.”
That’s wrong. The word needs to be plural — caucuses. There is not one caucus in Iowa. There are more than 3,400 of them.
The use of the singular “caucus” indicates a misunderstanding of what happens in Iowa and may give the impression that caucuses are tantamount to primary elections. They’re not.
New Hampshire has a primary election (singular). Iowa has party caucuses (plural).
Caucuses, of course, are the first step in the months-long caucus-convention system for choosing presidential nominees. Caucuses are held in each of Iowa’s roughly 1,700 voting precincts — one caucus for Republicans, one for Democrats — for a total of more than 3,400.
The caucuses elect delegates to the subsequent 99 county conventions. The county conventions elect delegates to congressional district and state conventions, which in turn elect delegates to the national conventions that nominate the presidential candidates. Whew! The process that begins in Iowa in January or February doesn’t end until the national conventions in July or August.
Primary elections, in contrast, are one-day events. Primary elections vary in different states, but in its simplest form a primary election allows voters in each party to directly elect the state’s delegates to the national conventions. Once long ago, Iowa had such a system.
Primary elections were a popular reform during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s. The idea was to take the selection of candidates out of the hands of party bosses in caucuses and conventions. Rank and file members would bypass the bosses, the thinking went, and select the party’s candidates in elections.
Iowa adopted a primary system in 1907 for state, local and congressional elective offices. The law did not provide for a presidential primary but did require that delegates to county conventions be elected at the primary election.
In 1913, a presidential primary was added, but it was used only once. None of the presidential candidates in 1916 bothered to enter the Iowa primary, held in April. The non-outcome was generally regarded as a farce, and the presidential-primary law was repealed by unanimous vote of the Legislature in 1917.
Iowa went back to the caucus-convention system for selecting delegates to the presidential nominating conventions, although the state retained primary elections, held in June, for all other elective offices. The caucus-convention system for presidential politics was made pure in 1963 when the provision for the election of county-convention delegates at the primary election was repealed. The county-convention delegates would henceforth be selected at the caucuses, so the stage was set for them to become nationally known a decade later.
This history of Iowa primaries and caucuses can be found in Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford’s 2010 book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, 3rd ed.
Next comes the oft-told story of how Iowa Democrats, in advance of the 1972 election, wanted to open party functions to broader participation. It was almost a reincarnation of the old Progressive desire to bypass the party bosses. To provide plenty of public notice for each step in the process, so more people could attend, the dates of the caucuses and county conventions were pushed back. The caucuses had traditionally been held in March or April, and no one outside Iowa paid much attention to them. In 1972, the Democratic caucuses were pushed back to Jan. 23, making them the first official events in that year’s nominating calendar, which drew the attention of the national press.
In 1976, Republicans got in on the action by scheduling their caucuses early, too, and the rest is history. Both parties in Iowa ever since have jealously guarded their status as having the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Since New Hampshire has dibs on holding the first presidential primary election, Iowa would never have become first in the presidential-nominating process if it had stuck with that 1913 primary election law. Funny how things turn out.