DES MOINES, Iowa—Merriam-Webster defines the verb “winnow” this way: “To remove (people or things that are less important, desirable, etc.) from a larger group or list.”
If Donald Trump winds up winning the Iowa caucuses Monday night, that precise definition is probably something that Iowa Republicans who care about their role at the head of the presidential-nominating process hope the rest of the country will overlook.
Otherwise, they will have to explain how a pop-culture entertainer with a seemingly tenuous grasp on world affairs, the functioning of the economy, and international trade has nevertheless won their first-in-the-nation contest with policy pronouncements that barely go beyond his campaign theme to “make America great again.”
While traditional Republicans around the country might have the luxury of not understanding Trump’s appeal, it is, in theory, the job of Iowa Republicans to assess his qualifications and policies. And should Trump parlay his polling lead into actual votes, it will once again call attention to Iowa’s uneven performance in that role.
Unlike the century-old New Hampshire primary, the Iowa caucuses became a fixture in the presidential race relatively recently, after Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter rode a strong showing here to the Democratic nomination in 1976. But while Iowa has frequently presaged nomination wins for its Democratic caucus winners—Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008 are just the latest—its track record choosing the Republican nominee has been dismal.
Even in 1980, the first time that the Republican caucuses were actively contested, winner George H.W. Bush was unable to maintain “the big mo” into New Hampshire, losing there to Ronald Reagan, who went on to win the nomination. In 1988, as the sitting vice president, Bush came in third in Iowa, behind Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson, before winning the nomination. In fact, only twice in the past 36 years has the Iowa winner gone on to head the GOP ticket.
Because of these results, consultants, elected officials, and even voters who defend Iowa’s place in the presidential-nominating process use the word winnowing to describe the state’s role.
“We take it seriously. I’d really hate to see it go away,” said Meg Courter, a West Des Moines retiree. “It’s part of the winnowing process. We do this better than anyone else.”
In reality, though, any “winnowing” that happens following a primary contest occurs not because candidates do poorly in the voting, but because they run out of money. (Sen. John McCain, for example, finished fifth in Iowa in 2000 after not really campaigning there. But after winning in New Hampshire later, he was able to raise enough money to stay in the race against George W. Bush through several more primaries.)
And in that context, Iowa defenders have argued over the years that the state’s voters get an honest sense of a candidate away from the stagecraft and media glare of a modern campaign. And in getting the true measure of a person, the argument goes, their assessment is more meaningful than those who only see candidates at large rallies or on TV. Iowans’ judgment is to be trusted because the candidates come to big cities and small towns and everywhere in between and look caucus-goers in the eye as they explain why they’re best suited for the job.
Yet if Trump manages to win Iowa anyway with large rallies and on TV—without having visited voters’ living rooms, American Legion halls, and other small venues—then why should Republicans continue to give Iowa any special regard? Or even permit it to always go first, for that matter?
The questions are already troubling Iowans who care about the state’s special status.
“Trump is such an anomaly compared to what Iowa is used to,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. “If it’s a national phenomenon, it would be unfair to point the finger at Iowa.”
And that appears to be the consensus response to the possibility of a Trump win: that he represents a confluence of national celebrity, deep pockets, and brashness, unlikely to repeat itself anytime soon. Besides, if Iowans wind up giving him a victory, they have only done what any other state would have done, according to national polling.
“There are way too many people who pay far too much attention to reality TV,” Courter said. “But would it be any different anywhere else?”