The Caucuses' Greatest Hits: The 1976-2004 Boxed Set
I’ve followed presidential nomination politics closely since 1980, extremely closely since 1984 (motivation: I was doing a humorous speech on the primaries in intercollegiate speech competition and needed to keep my jokes up to date), and from a front row seat as an Iowa party activist since 1990. Apply salt in grains or blocks as needed.
This is my first attempt at an ongoing series about the Iowa caucuses. The idea is mostly to focus on the kind of stuff the locals know but the national folks miss. This first time, though, my in-state perspective is just in the anecdotes.
First question: Do the caucuses REALLY matter? How important are they in terms of overall impact on the nominating contest, the presidency, and history? Here’s a look back, categorized and countdown formatted (with apologies to Casey Kasem). In the process of writing, I surprised myself and changed my own number one.
Not Worth The Airfare To Waterloo
13. 1984 and 2004 Republican. The Republican tradition is to hold no presidential vote at all in incumbent re-elect years. Or in years when Republicans otherwise reside in the White House.
12. 1996 Democratic. The word went down from Des Moines to the Democratic county chairs: “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” Self-starters in a couple lefty college precincts elected a very small handful of Nader and Uncommitted protest delegates, but those results got delayed till past the newspaper deadline and thus went down the Memory Hole. Clinton came out and campaigned the final weekend, largely to step on the GOP story (Actually Being President trumps winning the caucus), but it was in basketball arenas, not chat n’ chews. Only time I've ever caucused for the eventual nominee.
11. 1992 Republican. Ranked up a little because the inside the Des Moines Beltway (yes, non-Iowans, Des Moines has a beltway) decision NOT to hold a vote while the Buchanan Brigade was tearing up New Hampshire was a strategic win for Bush Sr.
10. 1992 Democratic. Hometown boy Tom Harkin runs and wins big, though not as big as it looks (that’ll be a later discussion). Paul Tsongas, already on the ground in Iowa, bails. A couple feints from Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown but nothing serious. In the end, Iowa kept first place after `92 only because Harkin jumped on the winner’s bandwagon while the other rivals couldn’t hide their obvious contempt for Clinton. (Jerry Brown probably wrote himself in that November.) The long term importance of 1992 may be that Hillary Clinton didn’t have to shake hands and eat hotdish in towns like Courthouse Center and East Pole Bean. Comic relief: An Iowa City dorm precinct elected a Jimmy Carter delegate.
9. 2000 Both. On the Democratic side Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in what was merely the first moment in the overall national dynamic; Dollar Bill made his stand on friendlier turf in New Hampshire. The truly significant GOP event was the summer 1999 buy-a-vote straw poll that winnowed out more candidates (E. Dole, Quayle, and Buchanan bolting to Reform) than the actual caucus (Orrin Hatch, as if that wasn’t obvious). This one was like one of those boycott-era Olympics: Bush Jr. won but the toughest competitor, McCain, was a no-show. Comic relief: People who took Gary Bauer seriously, Alan Keyes in Michael Moore’s mosh pit.
Secondary event in nomination contest
8. 1980 Democratic. The incumbent won the first test of Kennedy-Carter, but that battle of giants was played out on a national, even global, stage and Iowa was a bit player.
7. 1996 Republican. Frontrunner Dole wins, some all too obvious field winnowing (Dick Lugar???) happens. Phil Gramm gets out too, but his real stumble was in Louisiana’s jump-the-starting-gun contest a week earlier. What might have been: Pat Buchanan was within 3% of Dole, but the fundamentalists in Cedar Rapids backed Alan Keyes instead; Keyes thus won the second biggest county. One minister at one mega-church makes a different choice, and we’d have had a major upset. Comic relief: Easily the funniest caucus! Bob Dole, genuinely witty in his non-Satan mode, Steve Forbes the android, Alan Keyes… but they all pale next to Morrie Taylor, the tire magnate who literally tried to buy a win one vote at a time. Failed miserably but looked like he had more fun than the rest put together.
6. 1988 Democratic. Gephardt narrowly wins. Some Paul Simon loyalists still point to a couple late reporting counties and say otherwise (real-time rules on reporting results have been enacted since then), but this one proved the winner-take-all-news theory. Al Gore is the first to use the Screw Iowa strategy. It's never worked (save for the Tom Harkin year), but nevertheless Gore wound up outlasting the two Iowa leaders. But the contest came down to Dukakis vs. Jackson, neither of whose fortunes were affected by Iowa. Comic relief : Gary Hart’s last minute return to the race, campaigning with his wife.
Significant event in nomination contest
5. 1988 Republican. Pat Robertson pushes Bush Sr. into third place. Robertson was insignificant thereafter, but the blow made Bush go on a fight of his life attack against Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Dole took the bait and was goaded into “stop lying about my record.” This convinces Bush Sr. that hard negative was the way to go. That road went through the flag factory and Willie Horton, and ended at the White House. Comic relief: Al Haig.
4. 1984 Democratic. Gary Hart barely squeaked past his old boss, George McGovern. But second, no matter how distant, was enough to make him the anti-Mondale and propel him up about 40 points in eight days for a New Hampshire win, a brief but genuine shot at the nomination, and (pre-Donna Rice) 1988 front-runner status. The Right Stuff sank like Gus Grissom’s capsule, and you're an old timer if you catch that reference.
Decisive event in nomination contest
3. 2004 Democratic. Nothing that happened after Iowa mattered nearly as much as what happened in Iowa. The guy who won got the nomination, the guy in second gets VP. And the guy who came in third yelled. The Dean Scream goes down as the most memorable caucus moment, but everyone forgets The Scream was after The Much More Important Disappointing Third Place. Iowa was the whole ball game in 2004.
2. 1976 Democratic. This one made both Jimmy Carter and the reputation of the caucuses themselves. Carter didn’t actually win this, you know. He was second to Uncommitted. But I know folks who still brag “Jimmy Carter slept on my couch.”
I’m torn about ranking the only caucus that directly produced a president merely SECOND. But read on.
1. 1980 Republican. In the first true Iowa Republican caucus (more on the two party history and the very significant differences later), an obscure former ambassador, spy boss, and failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush shocks the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP, Ronald Reagan. This one win puts Poppy on the map and ultimately on the ticket (after the botched Ford “co-presidency” deal at the `80 convention).
So why rank this ahead of Jimmy Carter, especially since Bush Sr. lost that 1980 nomination? The ripple effect. No Iowa win = no Bush 41. And with no Bush 41, do you REALLY think Bush 43 would have made it on his own? History needs a major rewrite without that 1980 caucus.
As for history and the caucuses themselves, a mixed bag. Irrelevant nearly half the time, critical a little less often.