Downtown Des Moines, Iowa
Credit: iStock

This post, by Editor in Chief Paul Glastris, originally appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 10, 1992. Given Monday’s night’s fiasco, in which a software flaw delayed the results of the Iowa caucus, we thought it was worth reviving. 

On the rare occasions when he can bring himself to do so, Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor and presidential candidate, watches videotapes of his performance at the 1988 Iowa debates. Each time he is struck by how he and the other candidates focused on narrow issues, like farm subsidies and AIDS testing, instead of the broad issues on which most voters judge presidents, the economy and national security.

“It’s as if we were in a congressional race,” observes Babbitt, “each of us responding to the separate disaggregate constituencies of the Democratic Party.” This year’s Democratic hopefuls haven’t made that mistake, he says, and he thinks he knows one reason why: “They don’t have to contend with Iowa.”

Tonight’s Iowa caucus, unlike any since 1972, will be a virtual non-event. The first big electoral battle of 1993 will be in New Hampshire, thanks to the fact that the candidates announced so late and that one of them was a favored son, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Yet few people seem upset about this, aside from Des Moines hoteliers and restauranteurs. Indeed, a case against Iowa has been building for years among some campaign strategists who claim that the caucuses produce candidates who can’t win general elections. Iowa’s loss in 1992, they hope, will be the Democrats’ gain.

But criticisms of Iowa aren’t universally shared. University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire notes that studies have failed to prove a common complaint about Iowa: That its caucus voters are more liberal than caucus voters elsewhere. Election results, he says, point to the same conclusion: Iowans preferred Edmund Muskie to George McGovern, Jimmy Carter to Ted Kennedy and Richard Gephardt to Paul Simon. Two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart complains of press hype and the inflated egos of some Iowa party officials, but thinks that any state placed first on the calendar would suffer these problems. “There’s nothing in the drinking water of Iowa,” he says.

Yet the 1990 census confirms just how unrepresentative Iowa has become. The state is 96.6 percent white; the United States as a whole is 80.3 percent white. The U.S. population grew 9.8 percent in the 1980s; Iowa’s dropped 4.7 percent. Fifteen percent of Iowans are now 65 or older, making it the third-oldest state in the union. Seventy-five percent of Americans live in urban areas; 40 percent of Iowans still live in rural areas. The U.S. economy grew in the 1980s and many regions boomed. Iowa remained stuck in a severe recession that eased only at the decade’s end.

Those differences were hardly apparent in the ’70s, when few candidates spent more than a handful of days in Iowa. They had serious consequences, however, during the ’84 and ’88 campaigns, when candidates spent up to three months working the state.

For instance, Democratic candidates perfected a gloomy economic rhetoric that fit the experience of most Iowans, but played less well in places like Florida and Connecticut, where voters responded better to more upbeat, entrepreneurial messages. Meanwhile, Democrats paid less attention to problems that were acute almost everywhere except Iowa: crime, drugs, racial tension and suburban traffic snarls. Why did the home affordability crisis become a central issue only this year? In part, perhaps, because in all of Iowa there are only 4,500 homes worth $200,000 or more.

The Iowa-oriented issues Democrats did focus on in ’84 and ’88 did little to boost their national appeal. The need to be seen combatting the farm crisis “drove Democrats to promise so much that it undermined their credibility,” says Babbitt. Candidates who didn’t understand farm economics also got punished, as Michael Dukakis found out when he suggested that Iowa corn farmers diversify into Belgian endive.

Reporters on past campaign trails, impressed by the undeniable warmth and work ethic of rural Iowans, have tended to see them as embodying the self-reliant American spirit. Yet farm-based Midwestern communities are more dependent than urban areas on government subsidies, in the form of farm-price supports and old-age benefits, according to a study by the Center for Rural Affairs, a non-profit institute in Nebraska.

Such dependence made Iowa “a very difficult place to break with the classic orthodoxy of the Democratic Party,” recalls Bill Galston, issues director for Walter Mondale in 1984 and an adviser to Gov. Bill Clinton.

Candidates who tried to tailor their messages for Iowa tended to pay the price later. Rep. Richard Gephardt, a pro-life, pro-tax-cut moderate in the early 1980s, turned populist in Iowa, championing an extremely generous farm bill while bashing Asian trade barriers to appeal to Iowa’s potent labor unions. After winning decisively in Iowa, Gephardt’s campaign fizzled as competitors accused him of “flip-flopping.” Harkin is this year’s example of the limited appeal of Iowa style populism.

Bending to Iowa’s isolationist streak is another common Democratic mistake. Candidate debates sponsored by Iowa’s well-organized disarmament groups such as STAR* PAC and PEACE, “pulled the whole ticket further to the left,” complains Galston.

Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen, a caucus defender, recalls that after one such debate “Richard Gephardt sought me out to make it clear which weapons systems he was for.” Dukakis managed a respectable third place in Iowa by hammering away on his opposition to Contra aid. He later tried to dispel his resulting soft-on-defense image with an ill-advised tank ride.

Iowa does force candidates to familiarize themselves with rural problems. Unfortunately, heavily agricultural Iowa is no longer even emblematic of most rural America, where the bulk of the population now works in manufacturing and services. New Hampshire, with its ties to urban New England, is more typical.

Moreover, the Granite State’s anti-tax fervor and other cultural eccentricities hardly encourage the Democrats’ New Deal tendencies. Traditional Rooseveltian promises of more farm loans and crop price supports won’t help most rural areas. What might help, say a growing number of experts, are the same policies that would benefit urban areas, like infrastructure investments and apprenticeship programs.

Even critics concede that as an early primary state, Iowa has advantages: its small size, clean politics and well-informed voters who demand face-to-face contact with candidates. Fortunately, it may be possible to keep the advantages of the Iowa caucus while minimizing its problems. Some political scientists and party leaders advocate for a federal law mandating that three or four small states from different regions of the country hold their primaries on the first day of the season, with different states picked each year.

If such a law makes sense, politicians might want to act before 1996, when Iowa will almost certainly regain its place as the eye of the presidential campaign needle.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.