Presidential Politics And Election Returns
Last Updated July 25, 2003
On a frosty evening in January every four years, more than 100,000 Iowans troop to caucuses in some 2,131 precincts and begin the process of choosing a president of the United States. The precinct caucuses were scheduled early in the cycle for 1972 by Democratic doves who wanted more leverage for their views, and that year they started George McGovern on his way to the Democratic nomination. But the caucuses have had other, unanticipated consequences. In 1976, Jimmy Carter's strategist Hamilton Jordan determined that intensive campaigning could produce a surprise victory that could make a little-known candidate a national contender: Without Iowa and the next-week New Hampshire primary, Carter would never have become president.
Then, for 20 years, the Iowa caucuses were less nomination-determinative. In 1980, George H.W. Bush's intensive campaigning gave him a victory among Republicans, while Carter, still profiting from his 1976 contacts, trounced Senator Edward Kennedy. But Bush lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, and Carter lost in November. In 1984 Democratic favorite Walter Mondale won 49% of the "delegate strength" (Democrats don't compute the actual number of votes), but the momentum went to the 17% second place finisher Gary Hart, though Mondale did win the nomination. In 1988, Iowa failed to pick the winners on either side: Dick Gephardt, dressed in a warm-up jacket and baseball cap, capitalized on Iowa's economic woes to win among Democrats, while George Bush finished in third place behind Kansas Senator Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson among Republicans--a sign of the rising strength of Christian conservatives here. But Gephardt and Dole lost in New Hampshire, and neither was nominated. In 1992, Iowa went dark: No Democrat challenged Iowa's Tom Harkin here, and Pat Buchanan began his campaign in New Hampshire. In 1996, Dole had the support of leading Republicans, led by Governor Terry Branstad and Senator Charles Grassley, and farm state roots as well: Dole's very narrow victory was an omen of the weakness of his candidacy later, and the negative ads run against him by Steve Forbes and others may have contributed to his weak showing in Iowa in the fall.
But Iowa is determined to maintain its first-in-the-nation status, enshrined in national Democratic (but not Republican) rules. In 2000, Iowa moved its caucus date back to Monday, January 24, when New Hampshire surprised everyone by scheduling its primary for Tuesday, February 1. And in 2000, Iowa turned out to be important again. The Republican favorite, George W. Bush, refused to campaign here (or anywhere else) before the Texas legislature adjourned in May 1999, but he charged into the battle for the Republicans' straw poll at Ames on August 14. Originally designed as a Republican fundraiser, the straw poll had let anyone with $25 vote up through 1996; in 2000, it limited participation to Iowans, and drew much more interest than ever before--25,000 attended, about 30% as many as would vote in the much more convenient precinct caucuses in January. Bush won with 31%, followed by intensive campaigner Steve Forbes, with 21%; Elizabeth Dole, with 14%, and Gary Bauer, with 9%, which kept their campaigns alive for a time. Pat Buchanan, with fewer votes from a larger crowd than in 1996, did not succeed, and not long afterwards left the Republican Party for his ill-fated Reform Party candidacy. In January the standing was not much different. Bush won with 41% of the vote and Forbes got 30%, not the upset victory he needed. Both got a share of religious conservatives, as did Alan Keyes, who was third with 14%. In November 1999, Arizona Senator John McCain announced he was staying out of dovish Iowa.
Democrats had only two candidates, and both Al Gore and Bill Bradley campaigned intensively. In his 1988 campaign, Gore skipped what he called "madness" in "the small state of Iowa"; in June 1997 he was proclaiming, ''I love Iowa," and in November 1998, he was on the phone congratulating Tom Vilsack before Vilsack himself realized he had been elected governor. Gore did not get Vilsack's support--he stayed carefully neutral--but Gore did get vigorous support from Vilsack's wife, from Senator Harkin and, perhaps most important, from Iowa's labor unions. Bradley ran ahead in university towns, carrying Johnson County (Iowa City) and running even in Story County (Ames). And with support from professional-class liberals, he did not run far behind in the two biggest counties, Polk (Des Moines) and Linn (Cedar Rapids). But Gore won 70% or more in counties containing heavily unionized factory towns--Waterloo, Mason City, Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, Jasper, Keokuk, Burlington, Council Bluffs. That was dispositive since the Democratic vote is concentrated in urban areas, and Gore won in "delegate strength" with 63% to Bradley's 35%. This big victory undoubtedly gave Gore some momentum in New Hampshire, which he won by just 50%-46%. It would be five weeks until the next Democratic contest and, as eyes turned to George W. Bush's battles with McCain, the race for the Democratic nomination was over.
No one pays close attention to Iowa's seven electoral votes in the fall, though perhaps someone should; this state came very close to the national average in 2000. Al Gore won a 48.5%-48.2% victory, carrying most of the counties east and north of Cedar Rapids plus a narrow margin in the Des Moines area; George W. Bush carried most counties in the west and south. (Bush's campaign strategist Karl Rove later rued that the Bush campaign plane was too big to land in any airport in eastern Iowa.) In some ways, this ran on traditional Iowa divisions: Bush carried Protestants, Gore Catholics. But it was not necessarily a harbinger of future Democratic victories. Iowa has the nation's third-highest percentage of elderly, and Gore carried those over 65 by 51%-48%, according to the VNS exit poll; of those who voted the issue of Social Security, Gore won by a surprisingly narrow 54%-43%. In contrast, Bush carried voters under 45--the future of Iowa--by 52%-45%. This is a state that should be seriously contested in any close race in the future.
|2000 Presidential Vote|
|1996 Presidential Vote|
For 1992 and 1996 presidential results in Iowa, please see the Almanac 2000 online.
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