The Iowa Caucuses: Five things you need to know

Friday, January 31, 2020

The 2020 Presidential Election kicks off officially on Monday, Feb. 3, with the Iowa caucuses. Why does it get so much media attention? Interestingly, not because Iowa’s population is particularly large or votes in higher percentages than other places. Winning in Iowa doesn’t even guarantee a win in the general election. Eric Heberlig, UNC Charlotte political science professor, offers insight as the race to Election Day heats up.

Why are people talking about the Iowa caucuses? 

Iowa is the first state to vote in a series of 50 state elections to choose each party’s presidential nominee, and candidates hope that success in Iowa will boost their appeal in the primaries that follow. If voters care about a candidate’s “electability,” Iowa is the first opportunity candidates have to prove they can win a presidential election.

What’s the difference between a primary and a caucus? 

Most states hold a single primary—essentially, one election among a political party’s candidates—to determine who will represent the party in the general election. Iowa (along with a handful of other states), uses a caucus system. Caucuses—or meetings of people from a specific political party—are held at the precinct, county, congressional and state levels to elect delegates to the national party convention and the party’s nominee for the general election. 

Why is Iowa first?

Iowa ended up being first just because of the time needed to complete the caucus process. It remains first because in 1976, a relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, finished second, but beat all the better known candidates. The media attention helped Carter generate a bandwagon of support across other states. Though few others have been able to repeat Carter’s feat, the media continues to look for the next “surprise” candidate, and Iowa has fought tenaciously to preserve its status.

Does Iowa really matter that much? 

It can. Barack Obama was greatly assisted in 2008 by demonstrating an African American candidate could win in an overwhelmingly white state. But Iowa doesn’t have a good overall track record of voting for the eventual party nominees (for parties without an incumbent), particularly for Republicans. GOP nominees Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump all lost Iowa.

Does winning Iowa guarantee success?  

The winners of Iowa will have to continue to win in other states with more diverse electorates, and other candidates will adjust their messages to improve their chances in later states. Watching the results on television can be dramatic and entertaining, but try to resist the hype. Iowa may have voted, but the election sure isn’t over.

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