Iowa has been voting first for almost fifty years, before the primaries really started to matter. People only started caring about the presidential primaries/caucuses when the parties moved towards a more transparent process, and this new transparency fueled media attention. The earlier we start talking about the presidential primaries, the more newspapers they sold, the more viewers tuned in, and now, the more clicks they’ll get.
When people started taking an interest in primaries, Iowa started enjoying all the perks of going first (pandering by candidates, which turns into kickbacks from Washington, DC). If you’re wondering why ethanol and corn are subsidized so heavily, look at Iowa. If Idaho went first, we’d subsidize potatoes. If California went first, we’d subsidize the fucking Kardashians.
Iowa realized that this was a pretty sweet deal, and they’ve held on to their “First Voters in the Nation” title quite fiercely. The national parties keep Iowa first out of convenience: “It’s easier for parties to keep the peace rather than worry about the big fight that would ensue if someone else got the chance,” says political historian Andy Aoki. There’s no good reason that any one state should vote before any other, so we’re sticking with Iowa for the forseeable future.
But is Iowa a good predictor of the eventual nominees? Not really. The GOP Iowa caucus winner hasn’t gone on to be the party’s nominee since 2000.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee won Iowa. The eventual nominee, John McCain, placed fourth, behind Mitt Romney and someone named Fred Thompson. Who the heck is Fred Thompson? Nobody remembers, except maybe a handful of Iowans and The Hunt For Red October fans.
In 2012, Rick Santorum narrowly defeated Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus…we think. We don’t really know. The data from eight precincts got lost and was never recovered. Come on, Iowa GOP, you had one damn job.
For the Democrats, Iowa is a much stronger predictor of the party’s nominee. Iowa picked Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 – a winning streak of choosing the eventual Democratic presidential candidate. If Bernie defeats Hillary in Iowa,
This year’s Iowa results could be especially messed up, because a snowstorm is expected to hit Des Moines on the day of the Caucus. That could cause a huge shift in voter turnout. (Any of those superpacs want to invest in snowplows? I wouldn’t put it past them.)
Also affecting voter turnout, is that caucuses sound super boring. It’s not like a regular election where you walk in, cast a ballot, get a sticker, and walk out – there’s state party matters to take care of (yawn), delegates to be chosen (necessary, but meh), and then, supporters can stand up and give speeches on behalf of their candidates (as if Iowans haven’t heard enough about these candidates. These people have suffered enough!)
Iowa may or may not predict the eventual nominees, but it might predict who drops out next (O’Malley, Huckabee, Santorum). Oh, wait. I just predicted the drop-outs. So, Iowa’s results might not teach us anything new. But just in case – and to witness the very first votes cast in the 2016 election – I’ll be watching.