Iowa caucuses demonstrate direct democracy

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 10:21 AM

Arthur I. Cyr

"The corn is as high as an elephant's eye," a signature line from the musical "Oklahoma," comes to mind concerning the Iowa caucuses' importance for Republicans. The just-concluded exercise has winnowed the crowded field of presidential candidates in that party, while underscoring the distinctive dynamics of standard-bearer selection.

The Republican race is now eyeball-to-eyeball between front-runner Mitt Romney and insurgent Rick Santorum. Ron Paul finished third to maintain his independent role, especially in addressing foreign policy. Michele Bachmann has peeled off from the pack.

Rick Perry is shunted to the sidelines, ambiguity about contesting South Carolina indicative of wider uncertainty about his future. Newt Gingrich has reverted to mean-spirited invective, after brief flirtation with positive pronouncements during his moment of positive press.

The Iowa party caucuses are now established as the first election hurdle in party delegate selection, where public opinion polls parsed by pundits are translated into votes. Occurring right after the start of the new year means frustration for other states interested in trying to upstage this agrarian festival.

Primaries have become bunched closely together early in the year, promising vital momentum from an early win in Iowa. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois received an important boost in the Democratic primary, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, went on to launch a television career.

Iowa can catapult relatively unknown candidates to national prominence. This includes Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who won the Democratic presidential nominations in 1972 and 1976, respectively.

Iowa has been less pivotal in other elections. After investing tremendous effort, former Texas congressman and CIA director George H.W. Bush bested former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in the state in 1980, only to lose the Republican nomination to him. Bush did become Reagan's running mate, and eventually president.

In 1988, then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri won the Democratic caucuses, but then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts became the party's nominee; George H.W. Bush won the White House but finished third in Iowa behind Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and political evangelist Pat Robertson.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and other Democratic aspirants steered clear of Iowa in 1992, deferring to the candidacy of home-state Sen. Tom Harkin. In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina carried out a high-visibility battle, but U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts finished first and went on to become the Democratic nominee.

In 2008, evangelical Christians turned out to help Huckabee defeat Romney. Huckabee's message of Christian conservatism, delivered in a direct, down-to-earth style, resonated well in Iowa.

While Democrats have nominated candidates who suddenly emerge in the public consciousness, such as Carter, Kerry, McGovern and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960, Republicans tend to choose the runner up from the previous nomination contest. This was true of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008, Dole in 1996, Bush in 1988 and Reagan in 1980.

Republican primary contests also tend to be defined in terms of so-called "establishment" versus insurgent candidates. The primary ordeal is now central to a process by which leaders initially viewed as insurgents -- Reagan and McCain, for example -- become generally identified as part of the party establishment.

Iowa in sum provides a distinctive but integral component of American political democracy. That democracy has become much more direct, especially over the past four decades.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at

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