Why Iowa?

George McGovern 1972 campaign button
George McGovern 1972 campaign button

A Facebook friend wanted to know:

Why is Iowa a bellwether state? Why should we care who they pick if it doesn’t look like the rest of the country demographically?

This was an opportunity to engage in some mansplaining which I did not feel at liberty to pass up. So here is what I told him. If you are a party elder who knows better than I what really went down in 1972, please feel free to comment/critique this post.

A Long Story

It’s a long story, and even grossly simplified it takes a lot of words to tell it. But it boils down to two factors, one of them fully intentional, the other possibly accidental.

George McGovern was in the late 1960s appointed chair of a national Democratic Party commission that, after the national convention meltdown in 1968, was tasked with re-writing rules for presidential delegate selection. The idea was to make it fairer and more representative of the Democratic Party as a whole.

However, the way McGovern and his commission staffers apparently chose to interpret the words “fair,” “representative” and “party as a whole” was to put their thumbs on the scales heavily in favor of the anti-war (or as Nixon termed it, the “acid, amnesty and abortion”) contingent that had backed Gene McCarthy and McGovern himself for president back in 1968. So in his newfound position of deep-insider power, McGovern directed a re-write of the rules in a way that furthered his own campaign hopes for ‘72—one might say the fix was in.

(In reality, of course, without Nixon’s dirty tricks winnowing candidates away until he was left with McGovern, the one he wanted to face, it probably wouldn’t have worked.)

Anyway, McGovern deftly used his commission chairmanship to create an opening for himself. (For the record, McGovern graciously denied this to me when I asked him about it in 2003.) Nonetheless, it is pretty evident that he and his left-wing followers felt justified in reshaping the presidential process in their own image because, in truth, they were treated quite shabbily in 1968.

One of the key openings McGovern created for himself was to construct new delegate-selection rules so they emphasized party caucuses, giving them a bit of primacy over party primaries and total primacy over state party conventions. Conventions were all but abandoned that year because the hyper-inclusive, quota-driven rules issued by the commission for delegate selection became so byzantine and impossible to follow that state party leaders threw up their hands and by default created primaries and caucuses, even in states that had never had them before, and allowed them to directly select delegates. That had rarely ever been done before. Up to that point, delegates were almost always selected through conventions.

‘Gathering of Neighbors’

As to Iowa: McGovern rightly figured he could do better in a “gathering of neighbors” (read: the hyper-partisan party members who bother to attend caucuses) than in a gathering of party elders at state conventions. And in Iowa, he did just that. He finished third there in 1972. That may not seem like much, but it demonstrated that McGovern could perform as a “viable” candidate against established party elder Ed Muskie—somewhat in the way that Rubio’s third-place showing last night allowed him to give a victory speech. (“Uncommitted,” incidentally, actually won the Iowa caucus that year, leading the media to characterize Muskie’s performance against McGovern as an outright loss.)

The reason Iowa goes first is not directly because of McGovern, though he may well have had an influence. It is yet another fluke remnant of that disastrous 1972 Democratic presidential contest. In the late 1960s, Iowa’s political leaders decreed that there had to be a 30-day gap between the caucuses that selected delegates to sit in the state party convention (where in those days the presidential delegates were formally selected), and the convention itself. They wanted time after the caucuses to print up fliers, issue communiques and what not.

However, because the Democratic presidential convention that year was scheduled for May 20—I do not know if McGovern, as commission chair, had a hand in scheduling that date—the Iowa state Democratic party was thus forced to schedule its caucuses on Jan. 24. That put them ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which had always held the pole position back in the days when primaries were just dog-and-pony shows meant to give party elders a gauge on voter sentiment before deciding how their delegate blocs would vote at the national convention.

Because of that single scheduling fluke in 1972, today we continue to live with Iowa as the first state out of the gate. And because George McGovern and, even more palpably, Jimmy Carter four years later were able to use Iowa to jumpstart their unlikely candidacies, Iowa has since at least 1976 had an outsized influence on the selection of Democratic presidential candidates—demographic/cultural representation be damned.

(Google “The McGovern-Fraser Commission” for details on this episode, which I wrote in possibly my favorite-ever magazine piece for “Minnesota Law and Politics” a decade ago. It is detailed in a great book, “The Quiet Revolution,” by Byron E. Shafer, if you ever want to hunt that down. The “Fraser” reference, by the way, is Minneapolis’ former U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, who took over the chairmanship when McGovern stepped down to campaign in late 1971.)


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