Living in Society

Iowa Caucuses in Presidential Election Years

Caucus-goer signing petitions.

On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, lowering the voting age to 18 years. I was eligible to vote in the 1972 general election yet I have no memory of doing so. There was little guidance and I recall confusion about whether to register in Iowa City where I attended university, or where I grew up in Davenport. Absent guidance, it was one less vote for George McGovern. I figured I’d vote in the next election.

On Oct. 26, 1972, McGovern gave a speech at a rally in Iowa City on the steps of Old Capitol. His motorcade of small-sized vehicles arrived late. This first paragraph from the New York Times coverage captured the subject and mood of the speech.

IOWA CITY., Oct. 26—Senator George McGovern expressed hope here today that the Nixon Administration’s confidence of an imminent cease‐fire in the Vietnam war was well founded. But he refused, in a carefully worded speech to 15,000 people on the campus of the University of Iowa, to credit the Nixon Administration for the prospect of peace, saying that those who had opposed the war deserved “much of the credit.”

New York Times, Oct. 27, 1972.

We were an anti-war crowd and McGovern was just what we wanted to hear. Many of us had protested the war in 1970 after Kent State and on campus in 1971 where we encountered the Scott County sheriff’s posse, tear gas, and more. I wasn’t worried about using my newly granted voting rights. We were involved in something bigger than one person. I remember this part of the speech.

“The question that haunts my mind this afternoon,” he told the cheering audience “is this: Why, Mr. Nixon, did you take another four more years’ to put an end to this tragic war?

“What did either we or the rest of the world gain by the killing of another 20,000 young Americans these past four years?.

“What did we get from the terrible unprecedented bombardment that has gone on these last four years—bombardment and artillery attacks that we are told have either killed or maimed or driven out of their homes some six million people, most of them in South Vietnam?”

New York Times, Oct. 27, 1972.

As we now know, Richard Nixon won the presidency then resigned in disgrace, making Gerald Ford president.

In 1976, I was serving in the U.S. military and unavailable to attend caucus. After getting rid of Nixon, I didn’t care who was the next president. Anyone would have been better. I was in transit from Fort Benning, Georgia to Mainz, Germany during the general election and did not vote. To be honest, I didn’t think much about voting and was ready to accept whoever was chosen by the electorate. Jimmy Carter was nominated by Democrats and won the general election.

The rest of my Iowa caucus life is as follows:

  • I first attended caucus in 1980 in the neighborhood near where I was born. I caucused for Ted Kennedy, who wasn’t viable. My late father’s union buddies tried to get me to join the Carter delegation. I didn’t. We elected Ronald Reagan that year.
  • I was living in Iowa City in 1984 and caucused for George McGovern. We re-elected Ronald Reagan.
  • In 1988 I was in Lake County, Indiana where I voted for Michael Dukakis in the Democratic primary. I recall cursing Iowans for giving us that guy, even though he did poorly in the Iowa caucuses. George H.W. Bush was elected president.
  • In 1992, still in Indiana, I voted for Bill Clinton in the primary and the general. I had been following him since his keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. I have a copy of the speech sent by his Arkansas staff. Tom Harkin won the 49 Iowa delegates during the Iowa caucus. As a favorite son, he did not have staying power. Clinton won the election.
  • In 1996 and 2000, I skipped the Iowa caucuses. If Democrats couldn’t re-elect a popular president then they should just disband, I thought. Same went for his vice president, Al Gore. Clinton won in 1996 and Gore had the 2000 election decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. We elected George W. Bush.
  • 2004 was when the Iowa caucuses started to get unmanageable.There were a lot of Democratic candidates and some came to our small city in Eastern Iowa. George W. Bush won re-election, beating John Kerry. 2004 marked the beginning of the myth about the caucuses being a vital party-building asset. This turned out to be malarkey.
  • 2008 was the zoo of caucuses. I led our precinct delegation for Edwards AND served as caucus secretary. It was a bitch to just get a count as the Middle School Cafeteria was too small and our delegation bled out into the hallway. Barack Obama got the most delegates and won the general. 2008 was the last time any attempt at diversity in attendance was made. We had people in wheelchairs from the assisted care facility lined up in the hallway just wanting to vote and go home. It was the last year care center people who needed accommodation attended.
  • In 2012 I chaired two precincts that were not my own. We all listened to the Barack Obama webcast and for the last time had serious conversations about platform issues and party building. While his margin eroded in our precinct, Obama won the precinct for the second time, and the general.
  • I got smarter in 2016 and served only as precinct captain for Hillary Clinton. I had learned to talk to attendees as they waited, encouraging them to stay. Clinton easily won our precinct, although statewide, the delegate count was even with Bernie Sanders. Trump won the general, as we know.
  • By 2020, the number of Democrats attending caucus decreased by 30 percent, driven by Republican and No Party registered voters moving into the precinct and Democrats dying or moving out. I led the caucus and that part of it went well. The results reporting process was glitchy, to be kind, and a national embarrassment. Biden won the general.

Going forward, I don’t care what the Democratic National Committee does about the nominating calendar. Unless the state party uses the caucus experience for party building, what’s the point? David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register was a peddler of the party building myth. I doubt Democratic activists are willing to swallow that any more. In the meanwhile, Republicans gained hegemony in Iowa.

Who knows if there will be a presidential preference poll at the 2024 Iowa caucuses? More importantly, who cares?