The election may still be 18 months away, but every candidate with presidential ambitions has already set up camp in Iowa.
New Hampshire’s state law mandates that it must hold the nation’s first primary but Iowa, which holds a caucus, is the first state to hold an electoral event. By being first in the nation Iowa has become a testing ground for candidates. If a candidate does well it can signal possible success and garner more support from his or her party’s base.
Candidates go to Iowa, even more than a year before the general election, because that is the first checkpoint to winning, or staying in, the race. The people of Iowa are not representative of the whole nation but, political science professor, Laurel Harbridge points out, “they have seemed to be a pretty good signal as to which candidates have messages that people find compelling.”
For Iowans, the caucus is the event that puts all eyes on their state. “A lot of people take pride in that because it sets the trend for the rest of the nation,” said Weinberg and Bienen sophomore and Iowa City native, Aidan Manaligod.
In these early stages of the election it is all about name recognition and momentum, two things Iowans are good at bolstering. In 2007, most people saw Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner for the Democratic party, but by the time of the Iowa caucus in 2008, Democratic Iowans gave their support to Barack Obama and helped advance his campaign past Clinton’s.
“If you are able to show well in Iowa then that may do more for you in terms of securing the support of a super PAC or a huge single issue funder,” said political science professor Alvin Tillery. “It’s about raising name recognition and visibility. And if you luck up and win then you are in the top tier automatically.”
Iowa is also the ideal place for candidates to test their platforms for the rest of the nation. If their messages resonate with Iowans, it can signal broader support and a good starting point to help shape their campaign platform.
However, this intense focus on Iowa can also distort the issues that are talked about in the beginning of the election cycle. Iowa is roughly 92 percent white and has large agriculture and manufacturing industries. Candidates have been known to pander to the people of Iowa by promising policies that are beneficial to such industries. Religion is also important to winning over Iowa, especially in the Republican arena.
For some, this focus on agriculture is a plus, as it brings light to an issue that the media and most politicians rarely talk about. “I definitely think agriculture should be more important to people. I’m not a farmer but it’s an important issue. Everyone needs food,” Manaligod said. Nonetheless, focus on Iowa can also let other issues go uncovered. “Minorities are definitely underrepresented. I think that socioeconomic factors are an issue.”
The Iowa caucus, like any other state’s primary or caucus isn’t about representation. “None of these early states are representative,” said Tillery. “Anything you do there you will be catering to the base of your party.”
To better understand Iowa’s influence, it is necessary to break the elections down into steps.
“You have to think about the elections as being two different stages,” Harbridge said. “The primary election step selecting candidates and the general election step which is winning the 270 electoral college votes.”
In these two steps, different states are matter in different ways.
In the primary elections, states with early primaries and caucuses can affect a candidate’s momentum and funding. But after the primaries, the spotlight shifts to states that are undecided and hold a large number of electoral college votes.
Once the primary and caucus step are over and both parties have chosen their nominee, the nominees must make a shift in their their campaigns.
“The whole system of primaries and caucuses are described as having a centrifugal force, pulling candidates to the ideological poles,” Harbridge said. Republicans and Democrats must both appeal to their bases in the primaries and caucuses but once two nominees are actually chosen, they have to swing to the middle and appeal to moderates and undecideds.
Shifting to the middle can be hard to maneuver if the primaries and caucuses pulled a candidate too far from the center.
“This is why the Republicans have lost the last two cycles,” Tillery said. “The primaries and their individual funders have pushed them so far to the right they can’t recover. I think it is a tougher task for the Republicans because their base is so much more ideologically skewed and demographically skewed towards rural, conservative, white male voters.”
Iowa’s effects on 2016 are already starting to be felt.
Eight candidates have announced that they will run as of now and the Republican field is getting more crowded as election season nears. In the Democratic field, Hillary’s lone rival is the independent politician Bernie Sanders. While a lack of serious contenders might be good for getting the nomination, it puts a stronger spotlight on Hillary that may uncover some of her negative qualities.
“Hillary is not well served by having no primary. A primary helps take the heat and focus off of her. I think it is good for Clinton that other candidates are running,” Tillery said. “Otherwise it is just the scandals that come with the Clinton family. That reminds people that this is not a change election, and that is not good for her.”
As for Republicans, the competition continues to grow and split the focus of the media.
“It is relatively common that there’s a large field on at least one of the two parties leading up to the election,” Harbridge said. “Sometimes prolonged primaries can hurt the party because you spend a lot of time slinging mud at each other and then you have turned off a lot of voters.” But it isn’t always a problem. In 2008 the Democratic nominee was heavily contested, but Obama still won the election.
This election cycle, Iowa will probably play the role it always plays in weeding out candidates.
The Iowa caucus brings the state and Middle America, a voice that is sometimes overlooked once the general election begins and the media shifts their focus to swing states.
The power that the primaries and caucuses brings to individual states is inherent design of our government.
“It is actually what the framers intended with the electoral college. You would have 13 separate state elections where a candidate would have to cater to these different issues to be successful,” Tillery said. “That’s the genius and the madness of the founders. They set up a system where you are always catering to extremes but you have to build a coalition of the center to win.”
Whether Iowa is representative of the nation as a whole or whether it brings up the issues that matter to most Americans is not important to its intended purpose. The Iowa caucus and the rest of the primaries and caucuses serve to bring candidates back to their bases before they swing to the middle. Thus whether a candidate sees Iowa as a hurdle or a boost depends on the type of platform they have. But whether they like it or not, they have to win over the people of Iowa before they can win over the rest of the country.