Iowa Forgot the Whole Point of the Caucus

The state got itself in trouble by deploying an untested app in a misbegotten attempt to rationalize itself.

A blurred image of voters.
Tom Brenner / Getty

Quirky is the word overworked reporters and analysts invariably reach for when they’re trying to describe the Iowa caucus, one of the last great anachronisms of American politics. How’s this for quirky? What got Iowa in trouble—to the point where many party poo-bahs are now calling for the death of the caucus tradition altogether—is that it was trying to stop being Iowa, by deploying an untested app in a misbegotten attempt to rationalize itself. Trying not to be quirky, in other words, Iowa seized up with a bigger quirk than anyone could have foretold.

In a pleasant irony, the origins of the Iowa caucus, like its now-probable demise, lie in technological ineptitude. In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was nearly upended by violent protests outside the hall and floor challenges within. After that debacle, reformers seized control of the party machinery from bosses like Richard J. Daley, the mayor of Chicago. They aimed to make the large-D Democratic presidential-nominating process more small-d democratic. A national commission decreed that state conventions would henceforth be supplemented by grassroots meetings—caucuses, for example—where the rank and file could express their preferences.

The Iowa state party had already scheduled its 1972 convention for June. Yet the group ran into a logistical issue. "Part of the problem was slow printers," Ron Masters, a former party chairman of Cerro Gordo County, once told the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette.* "With all the new rules, in order to get everything printed and distributed before the convention, it was necessary to move up the caucus date." Just imagine: A better, more technologically advanced system for circulating information—a couple hundred more mimeograph machines, even—would have allowed Iowans to caucus later in the year, closer to their convention. And they would have missed their rendezvous with history.

Instead, the caucus was set for January. The change caught the attention of Gary Hart, the future senator and presidential candidate who was then the honcho of George McGovern’s long-shot campaign. Iowa, Hart noticed, would be the site of the first votes cast in the 1972 election season. Hart promoted Iowa as a novelty to national reporters. Our present monstrosity of political scribblers and analysts was just beginning to form, and then, as now, they were desperate for any raw numbers that could justify their new nonstop, year-round obsession with presidential campaigns.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus provided numbers for the reporters to crunch—and a bit of drama, too, as McGovern finished unexpectedly close behind the front-runner, Ed Muskie. Within weeks the underperforming Muskie had dropped out. McGovern went on to win the nomination. A few months later, Richard Nixon creamed him in the general election.

Iowa had come through with data, hard numbers, and narrative excitement, not to mention a steady stream of colorful locals sipping coffee and waiting to be quoted in the state’s seemingly bottomless supply of donut shops. The caucus became indispensable to feeding the vast carbuncle of professional consultants, advertising hacks, traveling press, social scientists, candidates, subalterns, and foot soldiers who have developed around our way of choosing presidents.

Otherwise meaningless—and quirky!—events like the Ames straw poll and the Iowa State Fair took on large political significance and then, in time, began to lose their luster from overfamiliarity. When you’ve written one feature on the state fair’s Butter Cow, you’ve written them all, and a single bite of a fried Twinkie is one bite too many. For years now, grumbling about the caucus from the professional political ranks has been as loud as the more traditional sighs of charmed admiration toward the rustics. Iowa is too white, we’re told, too rural. Who but an Iowan gives a damn about ethanol? Voters who care enough about presidential politics to arrange child care and to gas up the car to drive a half hour to the middle-school gym and hang out for a couple hours on a work night are not, it’s commonly said, representative of Democratic voters, and hence meaningless as indicators of party sentiment.

I will let Democrats decide whether they want to let stand this subtle disparagement of their most dedicated party members. The criticism is misguided in any case. Anyone who wants to pursue perfect political representativeness in a given population is on a fool’s errand. By some measures, the most representative state in the country is Illinois. Trust me: The donuts are better and more plentiful in Iowa.

Still, there’s no denying that the Iowa caucus, as it has grown in pointless complexity, is an offense against logic, an insult to our great god, efficiency. Iowans have taken many of the criticisms to heart over the past few elections and tried to iron out many of their inefficiencies, modernize the anachronisms through technology and other means. That Iowa’s political undoing might be caused by an effort to deny its fundamental character is a much less pleasant irony. Connoisseurs of inefficiency will be sorry to see the caucus go, if go it must.

*An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the Globe Gazette. It's Mason City, not Mason.