Read: Chaos at the caucus
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.
David A. Graham: Why the Iowa caucus birthed a thousand conspiracy theories
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.