Iowa assumed its position as the state that votes first for a presidential nominee more than 50 years ago. But its 1972 caucuses didn’t feel very historic.
Two folding tables at state Democratic Party headquarters were enough to accommodate all staff and media present. No TV cameras rolled. Results from around the state trickled in on two phone lines because the party didn’t want to pay for a third. Just one person, a then-25-year-old anti-Vietnam War activist who helped engineer the Iowa caucuses, did the counting.
“I did borrow a memory calculator to speed up the process,” recalled Richard Bender, now 78, with a laugh. “That was state of the art.”
“We did not have any clue how big this was going to get,” he said.
So big that the Iowa caucuses became an entrenched part of U.S. politics and launched some unexpected candidates toward the White House. In 1976, Iowa propelled former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the little-known one-time peanut farmer. In 2008, the state gave Illinois Sen. Barack Obama his first win over Hillary Clinton, one of the most storied names in Democratic politics.
But when Iowa’s Republican caucuses start the 2024 election process on Monday, the way voters begin choosing the two major parties’ nominees will look different.
The order in which states vote has changed. So have some of the rules.
It’s a sign of our tumultuous politics, and also how the two front-runners — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — have moved party levers to give themselves an advantage, at times sowing chaos and confusion.
HOW DID IOWA BECOME FIRST TO VOTE?
The way that presidential nominees are selected has changed significantly over the years — and hasn’t always involved the will of the voters.
For decades during the 1900s the process was dominated by state and local party bosses, giving rise to the notion of the “smoke-filled room,” where top leaders were said to huddle secretly to determine their presidential candidate.
That legend began with the Republican convention of 1920, when party leaders met secretly in a three-room suite at the still-operating Blackstone Hotel in Chicago and Warren G. Harding emerged as the party’s surprise presidential nominee.
The party machine model continued until the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when police clashed with street protesters including students opposing the Vietnam War. Democrats later said the chaotic scenes contributed to Republican Richard Nixon’s subsequent victory. As a result, the Democrats created a commission seeking to empower women, minority voters and young people in selecting their presidential nominee.
The post-1968 Democratic reforms had a lasting effect on Iowa. New party rules required more time to pass between the state party’s four tiers of conventions, which ranged from local to statewide. That forced Iowa’s Democratic leaders to start the process earlier in the calendar.
When it became clear Iowa’s caucuses could move ahead of New Hampshire — where the primary had kicked off presidential voting for decades — officials jumped at the chance.
“We finagled a little bit,” Bender recalled.
In January of 1972, the corn-producing state tucked within America’s heartland hosted the Democratic Party’s opening presidential contest for the first time. Republicans followed four years later.
HOW ARE NOMINEES CHOSEN NOW?
Voters today weigh in on who should be the major parties’ general election candidates through a series of contests held over the first half of the year.
Candidates accumulate delegates — those people who will formally select the nominee at the parties’ national conventions this summer — based on state-level performance, using complex rules that vary by party and place. Officially, neither party will have a nominee until a candidate wins the number of delegates needed at the convention to clinch the nomination.
Besides the delegate race, how a candidate performs early on is critical to gaining campaign momentum and media attention. That’s why the order in which states vote matters so greatly.
It’s also why candidates for years have spent so much time in Iowa, from stopping at the state fair to chat up voters while working the storied pork chop grill to talking policy at swanky GOP dinners or tiny town halls deep in corn country.
“Primary voters in later states pay attention to what happened in early states and they react to what they learn,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Delaware professor and co-author of a book about the Iowa caucuses.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT FOR 2024?
This year, Iowa will again hold the first Republican contest. But Biden directed the Democratic National Committee to shake up the party’s primary calendar to start in South Carolina, which used to follow Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
South Carolina, where the the population is 26% Black, has a primary electorate that’s much more representative of the Democratic Party’s diverse coalition than Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the nation. The state also is safer political terrain for Biden, who struggled badly in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020 before a victory in South Carolina resurrected his campaign.
The DNC also voted to put Nevada on the same day as New Hampshire, followed by Georgia and Michigan — other more diverse states — next after South Carolina, which votes Feb 3. But Georgia Republicans refused to move their state’s primary date and New Hampshire opted to push ahead with its primary on Jan. 23 anyway. Biden won’t be on the ballot, but could still win as a write-in candidate.
Iowa Democrats also opted to go ahead with voting on Monday, the same day as Republicans. But they’ll do so by mail and say results won’t be publicly announced until March, so they comply with party rules letting the other states go earlier.
Biden, 81, is expected to win the Democratic nomination. The president faces token opposition from Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips and progressive author Marianne Williamson.
Meanwhile, Republicans have continued to open with Iowa.
Trump, 77, is the party’s overwhelming favorite, though he faces several significant GOP challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51. He also has been indicted multiple times, and a trial for one criminal case could begin in the middle of the primary campaign.
While their campaign strategies have varied, the GOP candidates know one of the keys to winning over Iowa voters is spending time in person courting them and embracing some of the state’s political traditions.
DeSantis completed an Iowa campaign milestone by visiting all of its 99 counties. Haley greeted voters at the Iowa State Fair. Trump tossed autographed footballs into the crowd at a fraternity house ahead of a college football game.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NEXT?
But winning — or losing — in Iowa isn’t everything. In the earliest contests, candidates are really playing an expectations game.
In the 1976 caucuses, Carter finished second to those who chose not to commit to any candidate — but it was far better than expected and served to lift his campaign. In 1992, Bill Clinton finished fourth in Iowa but notched a stronger-than-expected second-place New Hampshire finish, declaring himself the “Comeback Kid.”
Trump lost Iowa in 2016 to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but then dominated in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
This year, GOP voters will gather in local schools or other community sites for hours to be part of caucuses, which are party-run events conducted by local officials and volunteers.
Voting is open only to registered Republicans. Those who show up — typically a fraction of the state’s eligible voters — hear from representatives of the campaigns before making their selections.
Trump is hoping for a commanding win so he looks unstoppable going forward. If he’s successful, Iowa can claim to once again hold a central role in U.S. politics, and in how the nation chooses a president.
Will Weissert And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press