The Iowa precinct caucuses, held on Feb. 3, mark the formal beginning of the presidential nominating process of the two major parties. Because Iowa holds first place, it garners an inordinate amount of attention from candidates and the media.
Among Republicans, Trump seems unlikely to face a serious challenge for the nomination. There will be Republican caucuses, including a straw poll, but they will not be competitive. And the nominating convention looks like a coronation for Trump and his Republican Party minions.
Among Democrats, the presidential race still seems fluid. The very large field that started the 2019-2020 caucus cycle numbered about 24 candidates. Now, judging by media coverage, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg are polling well in Iowa.
In the four most recent competitive Democratic caucus campaigns, the Iowa winner went on to win the party’s nomination: Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), Barack Obama (2008) and Hillary Clinton (2016). The two most groundbreaking were the Obama and Clinton nominations that made the Democrats the first of the two major parties to nominate a black man and a woman.
While the Iowa caucus holds first-in-the-nation status, its position remains contested. Unlike most other states, the small population of Iowa is not representative of the nation as a whole. The United States is one of the world’s largest nations in terms of population, land area, and well-known cities (New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles). The USA also is one of the world’s most diverse countries, ethnically/racially, culturally and religiously.
Critics charge that Iowa is not representative of the country as a whole. The state of Iowa has a very small population that lacks the density of most other states. The state, moreover, is overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and largely peopled by folks with northern and western European backgrounds. Iowa is more rural, older, and has no big cities compared to many other states. Its relatively homogenous population, too, contrasts sharply with that of many other states.
Iowa, then, stands out as among the least ethnically/racially diverse states in the union. The electorate is even less diverse because minority voters often lack time and transportation to cast ballots. If they are people with black or brown skin color, moreover, they are more likely to face Republican-imposed voter suppression devices. These include reduced polling hours, burdensome voter ID requirements, fewer polling places and partisan gerrymandering of election districts.
Traditional Democratic voters may also skip the election if the candidates pander to big contributors and only seem to address issues important to the monied elite.
In Iowa, Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination seem to be everywhere, backed by hordes of field staffs and volunteers. The hopefuls are reaching out to farmers, teachers and out-of-work factory employees. If the Democrats attract their traditional coalition of workers, the poor, women, ethnics and middle-income folks, they will likely prevail in the fall 2020 elections.
Iowa is one of the few states where retail politics happens in a presidential race. Iowa is a place where candidates meet with voters in their communities instead of on the airways. The candidates face questions about pressing issues like jobs, health care, immigration, climate change, income inequality, racial injustice and more.
Whether Iowa maintains its first-in-the-nation presidential selection process remains to be seen. It could retain its position, some modest changes could be made, or it could be replaced by one or more states. What seems likely is that Iowa will continue its role as a leader in retail politicking.