Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Primary Predicament: The Disproportionate Influence of the Iowa Caucuses

By Alex GreenPublished February 25, 2016

As the first state to cast their vote in the presidential nomination process, Iowa has received a disproportionate amount of influence in deciding the presidential nominees. Their excessive influence is further exacerbated by the state's low turnout rate and lack of racial diversity which boosts candidates who support opinions which are not indicative of the opinions of the nation as a whole.

    Every four years, Iowa kicks off the presidential election by hosting its infamous caucuses which, for the Democratic Party, transforms into mayhem that can only be rivaled by the chaos at Walmarts on Black Friday.  Although being the first state to vote for the next presidential candidates may seem insignificant, it actually bestows a disproportionate amount of influence when compared to the other states that vote later in the election cycle (arguably having an even greater impact than winning a large state such as California).  This influence has given the small minority of Iowa voters who turn out a much larger impact on the outcome of the election than other states in the union. Although Iowans have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of elections today, this was not always the case.

    Before the Democratic National Convention (DNC) of 1968, presidential candidates were often picked by party officials with little to no input from the electorate.  However, in the aftermath of the riots at the DNC in 1968, the Democratic National Committee was forced to open up the nomination process to the masses.  Many states chose to implement primaries with secret ballots; however, Iowa choose a different route, electing to caucus for their nominees.  Since their caucusing process originally took place over the course of a few months, the date they choose for their first caucus was in late January so their last caucus would be held before the national convention.  With this decision to host their caucuses in January, Iowa incidentally made itself the first state to vote in the primaries; however, this spot as the first state to vote held little significance until campaigns started to notice its impact on the race for the presidential nomination.

    The first politician to take advantage of Iowa's place as the first state to vote was George McGovern in the Election of 1972.  Leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, McGovern was polling a mere 3% (which is still 3x higher than Jim Gilmore at peak performance) in the national polls.  To change his fortune, McGovern vigorously campaigned in the state and managed to acquire roughly one-fourth of the Iowa's delegates.  This victory ultimately paved the way for McGovern to win the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party.  After Jimmy Carter's campaign employed a similar tactic to win the presidential nomination, this strategy became commonplace amongst candidates.  As a result of this strategy, an excessive amount of influence has been placed on the results of the Iowa Caucuses.

    The superfluous influence that has been given to the Iowa Caucuses undermines the very foundations of the democratic ideals that our nation was founded upon.  Instead of abiding by the principle of "one man, one vote" which is integral to our nation, the primary process has artificially increased the number of influence (or "votes" in a more abstract sense) and in doing so, has decreased the influence (or "votes") of citizens from other states across the union.  In addition, Iowa's turnout in 2008 (which has been regarded as an election with high turnout rates among voters) was only 16.7%.  This low turnout only exacerbates the problem of unequal influence since the results of the caucuses are determined by few individuals within the state.  Although Iowa is given a disproportionate amount of influence, its lack of diversity also increases the influence of certain ethnicities within the state.

    The only ethnicity that truly benefits from the influence of the Iowa Caucuses are White Americans.  In the State of Iowa, approximately 92% of the population is Caucasian, 3.4% is African-American/Black, and 5.6% is Latino.  This demographic varies dramatically from the national averages (Caucasian 77%, African-American/Black 13%, and Latino 17.4%) which shows that the results of the Iowa caucuses are giving White Americans an unequal amount of influence (relative to their population) in deciding the presidential nominees.

    Although the Iowa Caucuses have kicked off presidential elections for roughly four decades, it is time for a new state to champion that title.  Iowa has been given too much influence for a state holding only a handful of delegates and as a result, has diluted the importance of the other states, especially those which hold primaries later in the election cycle (i.e. late May, June).  In addition, Caucasians have a disproportionate impact on the results of the Iowa caucuses, thus favoring candidates who appeal to White citizens.  For these reasons, the Iowa caucuses should not hold a monopoly on the first spot to vote in the primaries.  Instead, a new system should be implemented which allows other states to control the first voting spot and have their voices heard.