Playing a distinctive role

The Iowa caucuses are now firmly established as the first tangible hurdle in the American presidential marathon, where public sentiments measured by polls and parsed by pundits actually are translated into votes for nominees.

The large number of candidates seeking the presidency in 2008 has resulted in even greater focus on Iowa. Primaries have now been bunched closely together early in the year, promising vital momentum from an early win. Iowa victors Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama will receive nonstop coverage in the few days until the New Hampshire primary.

Even before this year’s compressed primary schedule, Iowa could catapult a candidate to national prominence. Wins by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George McGovern in 1972 led to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Iowa has been less pivotal in more recent elections. After investing tremendous effort, George H.W. Bush bested Ronald Reagan in the state in 1980, only to lose the Republican nomination to him. Bush did become Reagan’s running mate, and eventually president.

In 1988, Democrat Dick Gephardt won the caucuses, after an intense effort and populist themes comparable to current candidate John Edwards, but Michael Dukakis became the nominee. That same year, George H.W. Bush won the White House, but finished third in Iowa behind Bob Dole and political evangelist Pat Robertson. Bill Clinton and other Democratic aspirants steered clear of Iowa in 1992, deferring to the candidacy of home-state Sen. Tom Harkin.

This time around, another former governor from the South has benefited from the Iowa stage. ABC News and other analyses show evangelical Christians came out in great numbers to carry Huckabee of Arkansas beyond front-runner Mitt Romney and the other Republicans. His message of Christian conservatism, delivered in a direct down-to-earth style, resonated very well in Iowa.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama won a clear victory over principal challengers Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards. There was a very active turnout for these caucuses as well, especially among independents and younger voters who stressed priority interest in change from the George W. Bush status quo.

Iowa’s caucuses can be viewed as integral to American practices of citizen participation that date from early New England town meetings. During the 19th century, the concept of the community forum came west with settlers in wagon trains. Caucuses were an established practice in Iowa even before statehood was granted in 1846.

At the turn of the last century, Middle Western prairie populism was expressed in part through support of electoral primaries. In 1916, Iowa held the first and only state primary election. When only 25 percent of registered voters participated, a decision was made to revert back to the caucus.

The present pervasive primaries date from 1968, a notably tumultuous, violent election year. While Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy battled for Democratic convention delegates in the relatively few established primaries, Vice President Hubert Humphrey collected enough delegates to secure the nomination while avoiding the primaries. This seemed to activists an unacceptable anomaly, especially in the emotional aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, and led to intense reform pressure.

As a result, Kennedy ally McGovern headed a party commission that greatly expanded the number of Democratic primaries, and the Republican Party soon followed. Iowa advanced the caucus date ahead of the well-established New Hampshire primary, which had been first.

Iowa, in sum, provides a distinctive but integral component of American political democracy. That democracy has become much more direct, especially over the past four decades.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War”; NYU Press/Palgrave Macmillan. He can be reached at acyr(at)