I ask myself: Why are the Iowa caucuses like the Minnesota Vikings?
Answer: Because they always promise more than they deliver and yet they continue to be a source of both fascination and consternation year after year.
Once again, Iowa has become the state with five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter and caucus. Presidential candidates are pouring into the state hoping to be the people’s choice on caucus night, the first test in the nation of how they fare with voters.
I know a little something about the caucuses because of research for a book I did 10 years ago called "The Iowa Caucuses: First Tests of Presidential Aspirations, 1972-2008."
And I can tell you that even though about 100 candidates from both major political parties have campaigned in Iowa in the past half-century, only three Iowa caucus winners have gone on to become president. Can you name them? Answers will come later. Keep reading.
If you live in Iowa, and you attend campaign events for candidates in both parties, chances are you will meet the next president of the United States. You just don’t know who it is at the time.
Jimmy Carter made the caucuses famous in 1976 because they proved to be the launching pad that allowed a peanut farmer from Georgia to become president. Carter’s success was largely due to the fact that he came to Iowa early and often and, as he said many years later, “While other candidates were in front of microphones in Washington, I was in Sioux City, Iowa.”
For the next 40 years, candidates have flocked to Iowa to try to do what Carter did – which is impossible. Carter’s key to success was that he was the lone ranger. With dozens of candidates trying to accomplish what he did, they will never be alone. The Carter formula cannot work. And yet they keep coming.
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There are other reasons for coming to Iowa. Little-known candidates without much of a war chest can travel across the state at minimal expense, hitting several cities every day. Then, if they do well on caucus night, they are likely to raise more money to keep their campaigns alive.
The national media likes to ridicule the caucuses. There is no secret ballot, there is no absentee voting and there is no “election day” where polls are open for 12 hours. In Iowa, you have to be free on a cold, wintry Monday night. If you have to work or can’t get a babysitter, you’re out of luck.
One of the privileges I had in writing the book was interviewing former Vice President Walter Mondale, who participated in three caucuses, in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
Mondale said, “You know, after Iowa with its face-to-face campaign style, you kind of go from one television station to another. It’s not that way in Iowa. It’s open. It’s real. In Iowa, people want to be asked. They don’t want to be assumed.”
In our conversation, Mondale was not always kind in referring to the media. He would often start a sentence by saying, “With all due respect…” and I knew I was going to get hammered.
He said the press needs winners and losers. Without that, there’s no story, he said. So the media decides who the winners and losers are. And Mondale said the winner, in the eyes of the media, is the candidate who exceeds expectations.
He said in 1984 when he sought the presidency, he received 49 percent support in Iowa, compared to 17 percent for Gary Hart, the second-place finisher. But Mondale said he was expected to win big. The press focused on Hart because Hart exceeded expectations. “So Hart got the big bounce going into New Hampshire even though four out of five people supported someone else,” he said.
My favorite Iowa caucus story is an incident involving Mary Grandon, wife of former Cerro Gordo County treasurer Mike Grandon. In 1984, a pollster for Sen. John Glenn called her and asked her if she would support Sen. Glenn for president. She said, “I don’t know. I haven’t met him yet.” There, in a nutshell, is the value of the Iowa caucuses.
Oh, almost forgot: The only three non-incumbents to win the Iowa caucuses and go on to win the presidency are Carter in 1976, George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008.