Why the Iowa Caucuses Are Great for Democrats but Terrible for the GOP

The party based on the liberal coasts benefits when presidential primary voters to drag it to the center, but the Midwestern and Southern one doesn't need the push further right.

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DES MOINES -- As front-runner after front-runner has surged and then collapsed in GOP presidential primary polling, one long-time front-runner facing a fresh spate of scrutiny is the state of Iowa itself.

The unfair advantage the Hawkeye State has as the first state in the nation to weigh in during presidential contests is a topic of quadrennial debate, but it's picked up new attention this year as one unlikely pick after another has surged to the front of the Iowa polling pack.

First House Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll in August, with libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- he of the racist newsletters and calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and opposition to most federal rights-protecting laws -- coming in a close second. Then former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain, never having held elective office, had a moment as the Iowa darling, soaring to the front of the pack in an October Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took Cain's place at the front of the pack only after sexual harassment and infidelity charges forced Cain from the race in early December. Now Gingrich is fading fast and Paul again seems competitive to win the state, as the Ames no. 1 or 2 finishers have done in Iowa every Republican presidential cycle since 1979. And one of the few other candidates besides Paul to have devoted real on the ground time to campaigning in Iowa, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, is surging as social conservatives begin to consolidate their support.

The only half-joking buzz right now is that if Paul wins Iowa, the story won't be that Paul, 76 and on his third presidential race, is the future of the GOP, but that Iowa has taken yet another giant step toward making its own caucuses irrelevant. After all, a party process that elevates those who have little ability to run a competitive national race and who are far to the right of the national -- and GOP -- electorate is not one that is really helping that party out. Should former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pull out a win after spending fewer than 20 days total in the state, it will show that devoting huge amounts of time and money trying to win Iowa may no longer be necessary. Whatever the outcome Tuesday, skeptics conclude, Iowa's best days as the first state in the presidential nominating contest may be over.

Both those itching to dismiss a Paul victory and those predicting Iowa will fade from the political scene are getting ahead of themselves.

Iowa will be just as -- if not more -- relevant in future presidential cycles for one unflagging reason: Democrats. Iowa does the Democratic Party good for all the same reasons it exerts a right-ward pull on an already right of center GOP: its largely white, heavily rural, somewhat older caucus-going population. Argues Michael Crowley in "Why Iowa Shouldn't Vote First Anymore" in Time magazine, "With every passing decade, Iowa's electoral character grows more out of step with the reality of the United States." The GOP caucus-electorate in 2008 was 70 percent rural or exurban; 60 percent born-again or evangelical Christian; and majority male. That's hardly what America looks like.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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