Why you should care

Because it’s caucus time.

It was the summer of 1975. The Vietnam War had just ended. The Bee Gees comeback hit “Jive Talkin’ ” was climbing the charts. And Steffen Schmidt was kicking back with friends, barbecuing and drinking beer at a neighbor’s farm in Iowa, when the group noticed a small band of cyclists turning off the country road to head up the farm’s long, tree-lined drive. “When they finally reached us,” remembers Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, “a toothy man in sports gear got off, walked over to us and said (in his now-famous Georgian accent), ‘Hi! My name’s Jimmy Cahter, and I’m runnin’ fo’ president.’ ”

That summer day Schmidt and friends could only ask “Jimmy who?”; 18 months later, the friendly cyclist would be the most powerful man in the world. Such are the vagaries of the American political process and the joys of living in Iowa, home of “the first in the nation” presidential caucus, where residents not only get to shake hands with the next president of the United States, but they also have an outsize hand in choosing who that individual is.

For the candidates, embarking on the political rite of passage in Iowa entails flipping pancakes, posing with pigs, eating all manner of fried food and expounding on their vision of America before a 30-foot stainless steel Jesus. But it also means stepping onto the great testing ground of presidential politics, one frozen in the amber of tradition, where the ghosts of campaigns past hover over one’s every handshake and hello.

Welcome to the Hawkeye State: Come Early and Often

Presidential politics in Iowa is personal. Very personal. Which means the first thing any serious contender, or caucus-goer, must do is show up. There is no absentee voting, and with almost 2,000 simultaneous meetings held at 7 p.m. on Caucus Night in church basements, school gyms and other venues across the state, those who can’t get out of work or have other commitments lose their say.

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Iowans sit at tables in a diner schmoozing over morning coffee before the Iowa caucus in 1988.

Source Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

And yet, Iowa is hardly representative of the American electorate. Several U.S. cities have more than Iowa’s roughly 3 million residents, of whom 94 percent are white and 15 percent are senior citizens, which puts the state in the top-five whitest and oldest in the nation. Which is also why courting voters in the state can feel like a never-ending public relations tour targeting tiny groups of retired farmers and their spouses. “It takes two things to win Iowa, and even they don’t guarantee success,” says David A. Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. The first is a message that appeals and, perhaps most important, as Simon notes, “time on task: a lot of time in smaller, retail political meetings.”

And retail politics can be a lonely business. Just one person reportedly turned up for a Rick Santorum event in 2012, and Yepsen, who spent 34 years reporting for the Des Moines Register, once found himself eating grapes alone with then–president-wannabe Carter after a mere handful of people turned up for a downtown reception that had food for hundreds. But the unknown peanut farmer persevered, winning hearts and votes in Iowa on his way to finishing first (after “uncommitted”) in the caucuses and becoming the 39th president — setting a rigorous campaigning precedent that is still emulated today.

Most candidates, as John C. Skipper chronicles in The Iowa Caucuses: First Tests of Presidential Aspiration, 1972–2008, come early and often to the state. Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt made his first appearance for the 1988 Iowa caucuses in early 1985, and his mother rented an apartment there to make frequent visits more feasible. Appealing to Iowans has made many candidates go to surprising lengths: Former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd moved his entire family to the state, even enrolling his child in school, in the run-up to his seventh-place finish in 2008. And former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt one-upped Carter when he participated in a weeklong 500-mile bike ride across the state before his 1988 campaign.

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Rep. Dick Gephardt campaigning for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination at the Iowa State Fair.

Source Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Then there are the little gestures that can count for a lot, from Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s flannel, man-of-the-people shirt to Rev. Jesse Jackson, decked out in his signature suit, handling a piglet. “Can I shovel your walk for you?” Howard Dean asked Iowans in the winter of 2004, one of many small deeds the former Vermont governor gladly performed, including opening new supermarkets, prompting one pundit to quip that Dean would willingly show up for the opening of an envelope in Iowa.

Knowing the importance of these seemingly mundane gestures, some campaigns go even further: Alexander’s staffers once deputized a teacher in a Mason City crowd to be a designated clapper at one of his speeches, and aides to GOP candidate Pat Buchanan removed chairs from a room where he was scheduled to speak so the event would be standing-room only. Not surprisingly, these efforts have been known to backfire, as when Hillary Clinton’s campaign came under fire for planting questions at town hall events in Iowa in 2007.

Iowa: Kingmaker or Grim Reaper?

So does it work? Can running the gauntlet of town halls and stump speeches lead to victory in Iowa? In 1980, a former CIA director named George H.W. Bush sank all his efforts into Iowa, upsetting GOP favorite Ronald Reagan, who opted instead to rely on endorsements and his front-runner status. Bush would claim the “old Mo” (momentum) from the victory, while a good friend would tell it straight to the humbled Reagan: “You were sitting on your ass in Iowa.” Then there’s Dean, who sank more time into the state than his rivals, only to finish a disappointing third in Iowa.

Despite their reputation as political kingmakers, however, Iowans do not have a stellar record when it comes to picking future presidents. Putting aside incumbents and Carter, only two caucus winners since 1972 have gone on to win the presidency (though they also happen to be our most recent presidents: George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008).

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Sen. Edward Kennedy tours a hog farm in Indianola, in 1980, while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Source Tom Peterson / Corbis

Still, in that same period, no candidate who has finished worse than fourth place has gone on to win the Republican or Democratic nomination. In reality, says Yepsen, Iowa serves two functions: It can “elevate a candidate out of obscurity with a win or good showing,” as with Carter in 1976, Bush in 1980 and Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, or it “cuts down the field of candidates.” Schmidt tabs Iowa the “Political Weather Service” because the caucuses identify, like a good forecast, “the top three contenders in each party — candidates likely to connect with voters in subsequent primaries and caucuses.” Indeed, Iowa’s forecast has missed only two fourth-place finishers (and future nominees) — John McCain in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

It may be true that Iowa’s caucus-going minority has a disproportionate impact on American democracy, but it is doing precisely what a first-in-the-nation forum should do: force candidates to personally interact with voters while showcasing their strengths and weaknesses on a national stage, which is why so much depends on those shining the light on that stage. Without the media glare, a triumph in Iowa, as journalist Howard Kurtz once put it, “amounts to scoring a run in the top of the first inning.”

Playing the Expectations Game: Win, Lose or Spin

In many ways, the impact of Iowa is a figment of the collective imagination, stoked by a media narrative. A “win” in Iowa, says Yepsen, is really just doing “better than the political community expects.” For long-shot victors like Mike Huckabee in 2008, a better-than-expected showing means getting noticed and getting to campaign a bit longer. For front-runners like Bush Sr., whose third-place finish behind Bob Dole in 1988 was called “feeble” and “humiliating” by the press, failing to meet expectations can be more devastating than the actual result.

And even winners can fall victim to the expectations game. Just ask Walter Mondale. The sitting vice president at the time, Mondale thumped runner-up Hart by more than 30 points in Iowa in 1984, but Hart was the one deemed to have exceeded expectations by finishing second, and his “upset” in the headlines helped fuel Hart victories in the next three primaries. “Without a fight, there’s no story,” Mondale said later. “The press establishes the expectations game and thrives on it.”

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Democratic presidential candidates, including former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, prepare to speak on Meet the Press in 1976 in Des Moines.

Source NBC/Getty

Recent studies (by Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University; David Redlawsk of Rutgers; and Caroline Tolbert of the University of Iowa) analyzing data from the caucuses confirm such wisdom. Iowa’s most significant role, the researchers conclude, is to refocus media attention when a candidate exceeds or fails to meet expectations. Which might explain why, even before tomorrow’s caucuses, both Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have been scrambling to downplay expectations that they will win, or need to win, lest they finish what some might label a very disappointing second.

Carter was one of the first to realize the importance of going door to to door and cycling up Iowans’ driveways, but he was also among the first to see Iowa for what it really is: a media event. Carter’s campaign hinged on Iowa not merely because it could boost name recognition or win delegates, but also because he knew it was where his political narrative would be forged in the media. “It’s not about how many votes or about winning,” Donovan observes of Iowa. “It’s about how the story is interpreted.”

Let the caucuses, and the storytelling, begin.

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