Small State, Big Reach: A Closer Look at the Iowa Caucus

Disproportionate yet influential

Real Talk | J. McGallicher | February 16, 2016

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With the results of the Iowa caucus in, presidential candidates are either ramping up their campaigns or dropping out altogether.

Regardless of the outcomes, it is clear that Iowa has a game-breaking impact on the odds of victory in the race. But why does a state with about one percent of the population have such an inflated importance on the national level?

DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

Basically, it boils down to the early date that the caucus is held. By being the first state to amass voters, they put pressure on the candidates to make a showing in a state that would otherwise be much lower on their list of priorities. Candidates need to establish themselves as legitimate candidates, and doing well in preliminary polls or caucuses shows voters throughout the country that they have popular support. Politicians therefore spend a disproportionate amount of time in Iowa because it’s a springboard for their campaign.

The caucus itself has no power; it’s basically just a registered poll.

The numbers for a caucus could completely misrepresent the entire state because typically fewer voters come out to a caucus than to an actual presidential election. It truly manifests as a kind of a first stone in a landslide: a candidate who does poorly in the primaries just doesn’t pick up enough momentum, voters, and financiers to do well as a contender in the race.

Politicians therefore spend a disproportionate amount of time in Iowa because it’s a springboard for their campaign.

While this may be an effective strategy, it also elevates Iowa to one of the most important states in the election, rivalling states like California and Florida which have much higher populations and therefore more representation in Congress.

Should Iowa have this kind of unspoken power? This is a hard question to address. Regardless of the moral or ethical justifications for any kind of action, there is basically no precedent for convincing or forcing a state to change the date of its caucus. One option would be for all states to have their caucuses at the same time, reducing Iowa’s influence because it will no longer be first.

What do you think? Is Iowa disproportionately influential in the race? If so, how should this power be mitigated?

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Featured Image: Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0)