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The US elections: How Iowa kicks off campaigning United States of America

Logo of the Iowa caucuses

On a cold winter’s evening at the start of an election year, the people of Iowa vote in the preliminary stage of the US presidential elections., © dpa

05.02.2020 - Article

On a cold winter’s evening at the start of an election year, the people of Iowa vote in the preliminary stage of the US presidential elections – with their feet. Our Embassy in Washington explains how that works and why Iowa offers a particularly clear insight into the US election campaign.

Why Iowa? And why so early?

Iowans queuing at a caucus
Iowans queuing at a caucus© Deutsche Botschaft Washington

The answer lies in Jimmy Carter... but let’s start at the beginning. Even before Iowa joined the United States in 1846, Iowans organised their influence on the selection of candidates by means of caucuses – that is, gatherings of a party’s members and supporters at which they would preselect their favoured candidates. However, more precise rules for the procedure were not laid down until the 1960s. That was when a timeline was set to ensure that there would be enough time for all the caucuses and primaries in the various states before the National Conventions in summer, where the choice of candidate is finalised. To comply with that timeline, Iowa has held its caucuses early, in January or February of each presidential election year, ever since. This change was of little consequence in the 1972 election, as Iowa’s favourites did not make it through the national selection process. But that all changed in 1976. Jimmy Carter’s victory in the presidential elections had been preceded by a spectacular second place in Iowa – spectacular because, as Governor of Georgia, he had not previously been very well known. Since then, all political pundits in the United States have kept one eye on Iowa. Many believe that placing in the top three in Iowa is a precondition of success at the national level.

What exactly is a caucus?

What happens at these caucuses, and not at primaries in other states, makes them particularly interesting. At 1,777 gatherings across the state, representatives of the various candidates fight for pole position on the very same evening the decision is made. They literally try to get supporters onto their side: different parts of the room are assigned to the individual candidates, and the people attending distribute themselves among them. Our team on the ground saw this in action in the city of Johnston, Iowa. Anyone who wins over less than 15% of caucus-goers in the first round is out of the running, and their initial supporters have to choose another candidate in the second round. In Johnston, for example, Steyer, Bennett, Gabbard, Yang and Biden didn’t make it past the first round. Of those candidates’ supporters, the largest number then moved to Amy Klobuchar – which meant that she, after placing second in the first round, ended up in the lead ahead of Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren. In this way, the whole of Iowa fosters lively discussion followed by people voting, quite literally, with their feet.

How does the election campaign develop?

Ambassador Emily Haber visited Iowa during the caucuses.
Ambassador Emily Haber visited Iowa during the caucuses.© Deutsche Botschaft Washington

The electoral system forces the candidates to conduct real grassroots campaigns in the preliminary stages. This requires well-structured campaigns, organised right down to the most local level – and the use of countless volunteers to go door to door over vast distances in the often biting cold of the Midwest in the hope of motivating voters. But the campaigns were already in full swing last autumn. At the classic Polk County Steak Fry, for example, a traditional cookout held in September, the candidates turn up to recommend themselves to interested citizens. More than 10,000 steaks are grilled on a meadow outside Des Moines, Iowa’s state capital. Vegetarian and vegan alternatives are, of course, also available. Last year’s steak fry attracted around 12,000 visitors. Iowans thus come into particularly close contact with the candidates. At countless events, town hall meetings and front doors of voters’ homes, the candidates compete for people’s trust and listen to their concerns. Voters have a realistic chance of exchanging a few words with a future president of the United States.

What happens after Iowa?

The results from the various gatherings are factored into the overall result using a precisely defined calculation. This complex procedure is not foolproof, however, as this year showed: the Democratic Party in Iowa was unable to publish any results before the campaigns and their retinues moved on to New Hampshire. It remained unclear whether the caucus winner, Pete Buttigieg, would be able to claim the traditional Iowa boost. The glitch amplified criticism of the procedure – and of Iowa’s special status as “first in the nation”. Critics say Iowa is too lacking in diversity, too white and too small to serve as a representative test case at the start of an election campaign.

The Iowa caucuses will be followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina before February is out, and then March will bring Super Tuesday, when 14 states hold their primaries or caucuses on the same day. Gradually, this process will whittle down the choice for each party until each nominates its official presidential candidate at its National Convention in summer.

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