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Iowa Caucuses: WhyThey Became Important

Todd Purdam, writing in the NYT (Jan. 19, 2004):

On Jan. 19, 1976, the notion of the caucuses as a big event was such a novelty that the Iowa Democratic Party had raised $4,000 to help defray the caucus costs: selling tickets, at $10 a head and $1 a drink, so the public could watch the national reporters at work on election night...

"Caucus" is an Algonquin Indian word meaning elder, and Iowa's system dates to its statehood, in 1846. But for most of their history, the caucuses remained comparatively obscure. Only after the debacle of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the subsequent revision of the party's rules to emphasize grass-roots power did Mr. Hart and others in the McGovern campaign seize on the caucuses as a way to make an early splash on a low budget.

It was all partly an accident: because the Iowa Democrats could not book a suitable meeting place for the state convention until May 20, 1972, and because new rules required 30 days between each party gathering (local, county, Congressional district and state convention) the latest possible date for the precinct-level caucuses was Jan. 24. For the first time, that put Iowa ahead of the New Hampshire primary, until then the initial test of candidates' strength.

Mr. McGovern, then a senator from neighboring South Dakota and a strong critic of the Vietnam War, headed a special Democratic commission that proposed changes in the national party rules. A young aide, Richard G. Stearns, sketched out a plan to win support in the 28 states where national delegates were chosen by caucuses or conventions, with easier potential for organizing, instead of primaries, with their higher turnouts and costs.

"Because caucus turnout was historically so low, on a fairly low budget you could organize the kind of attendance that could not only be competitive, but dominating," said Mr. Stearns, now a Federal District Court judge in Massachusetts.

In the summer of 1970, Mr. Stearns went to Iowa with Gene Pokorny, who had built a reputation as a wunderkind organizer. They carried the names of about 160 people who had written Mr. McGovern about the war, "went and saw everyone" and left with a skeletal organization in place, Mr. Stearns recalled.

Eighteen months later, the smart money favored Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, but on caucus night — in a blizzard with a wind-chill factor of 56 degrees below zero — Mr. McGovern came in third with nearly 23 percent, and Mr. Muskie was virtually tied with "uncommitted" at almost 36 percent. R. W. Apple Jr. of The New York Times praised Mr. McGovern's "surprisingly strong showing," and ABC News declared, "The Muskie bandwagon slid off an icy road in Iowa last night."

So began a three-decade obsession with the Iowa results, whose meaning has varied wildly. Ronald Reagan lost here to George Bush, but went on to win New Hampshire and the nomination in 1980. Mr. Bush finished third here in 1988, after Bob Dole and the Rev. Pat Robertson.

On the Democratic side that year, Michael S. Dukakis finished third behind Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri (whose political life now depends on winning outright) and Senator Paul Simon from Illinois.

Four years ago, Al Gore handily defeated Bill Bradley in Iowa, only to face a strong challenge from him in New Hampshire. And President Bush finished first here, where John McCain did not compete, only to lose to him in New Hampshire.