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Investigating Why Iowa Has Caucuses And Why Iowans Vote First In Presidential Elections


Iowa is known for corn, the Hawkeyes and for being first in the county to choose who they want to be president. With the Iowa caucuses little more than a week away, we wanted to revisit how this small state plays such a big role in American politics. Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Simple question - why are the Iowa caucuses first? I asked that all across the state of Iowa recently, including at Duncan's cafe in Council Bluffs.

Do you know why Iowa caucuses are first in the nation?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know, myself why they're number one really (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm not really entirely sure how it - how it came to be that way.

SANDERS: Have you ever caucused?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't think so.

SANDERS: You don't think so?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know anything about this. I'm sorry.

SANDERS: So you don't even know if you've caucused.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't even know what a caucus is, to tell you the truth.

SANDERS: Clearly, this calls for an expert - or several.

So first things first.


SANDERS: Tell me your full name and your title.

YEPSEN: OK. I'm David Yepsen. For 35 years, I was a political writer for The Des Moines Register.

SANDERS: Yepsen is the Iowa politics writer of a record. He helped answer a few questions. First of them being what exactly is a caucus?

YEPSEN: In a caucus - it's a neighborhood meeting. In fact, the term caucus is thought to be a Native American term - an Algonquin term for meeting of tribal leaders.

SANDERS: It's more than just a vote. People gather and talk about why they're supporting their candidate. And they try to convince other people to support their guy or gal. The process can sometimes take hours. I also spoke with Kathie Obradovich.

KATHIE OBRADOVICH: Political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

SANDERS: She acknowledges that Iowa didn't really happen on purpose.

OBRADOVICH: The really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it's fist because it's important. Iowa is important because it's first.

SANDERS: It all began in 1968.

OBRADOVICH: It happened after the 1968 National Convention - Democratic National Convention, which is marred by violence over the Vietnam War and racial tension. And the Democratic Party nationally and in Iowa decided they wanted to change their process to make it more inclusive

SANDERS: Part of that meant spreading the schedule out in each state. Because Iowa has one of the more complex processes, they had to start really, really early.

YEPSEN: And precinct caucuses would have to be in, my gosh, February.

OBRADOVICH: And it turned out that they were going to be first in the nation.

SANDERS: Settled that one. Next question - is it fair? Just a warning, there's probably no consensus for this. But Jim Jacobson (ph) at a diner in Iowa City, he said this.

JIM JACOBSON: Is it fair that Iowa goes first? What's fair in politics? I mean, seriously. Yeah - OK. We're, like, 97 percent white, and we're really rural. And we don't look like a microcosm of America, but so what?

SANDERS: Let's take that first thing he points out, Iowa's whiteness.

JACOBSON: We're, like, 97 percent white.

SANDERS: Officially, non-Hispanic whites make up 87.1 percent of Iowa's population, according to the most recent census data. But J. Ann Selzer, she says it's actually kind of OK.

J. ANN SELZER: The idea that because Iowans are white and older they're going to vote for older white people is not borne out. In both parties, candidates of color have often done quite well in Iowa.

SANDERS: Selzer is the top pollster in the state.

SELZER: Well, look at Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson did well. Alan Keyes did well on the Republican side.

SANDERS: Even Jeff Kaufmann, the head of the Iowa Republican Party. He kind of says the same thing.

JEFF KAUFMANN: And this is going to be awfully odd to have a Republican chair suggest you look at what Barack Obama has to say about Iowa but I'm guessing Barack Obama has no problem with the diversity that we reflect. And I'm guessing if you talk to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, my guess is that they're not going to have a problem.

SANDERS: But there's another issue of race, not just who Iowans are voting for but which Iowans are voting. Both parties say they're reaching out more to Latinos, Iowa's fastest growing racial group. But in West Liberty, Iowa, a town that's majority Latino, I met a lot of people that had no idea about any of this.

So you've never heard of the caucuses?

MARIA LUNA: No (laughter).


SANDERS: It's new.

GUZMA: It's new to us, yeah.

SANDERS: Why's it new to you?

GUZMA: I've never heard it - never heard the word.

SANDERS: Until right now?

GUZMA: Yeah.

SANDERS: Wait, I was the first person to tell you the word caucus?

GUZMA: Yeah.

SANDERS: That's Maria Luna (ph) and her daughter, Jackie Guzma (ph). Maria owns a shop in West Liberty.

LUNA: Right now in Mangolandia (ph).

SANDERS: Mangolandia?

LUNA: Yes.

SANDERS: I like that. What does that mean?

They sell frozen fruit snacks and other stuff with lots of mangos. Luna, the store owner, she's not an American citizen yet, so she couldn't vote in the caucuses even if she wanted to. But her daughter Jackie Guzma says she can caucus. But she told me that no one has ever come to West Liberty to tell her how. Jackie and her mother Maria think that's wrong.

GUZMA: Nobody says anything and nobody talks about it. And we see no nothing - that we're not to be nothing and do nothing.

SANDERS: Another thing with Iowa, the state has a relatively small population - 3 million in the whole state. And it's very rural. A lot of American voters these days live in big urban areas.

DANTE CHINNI: When we get to the general election next November, about 45 percent of the vote is going to come from places that I call big cities or urban suburbs - that's a lot of the vote. There are none of those in Iowa.

SANDERS: That's Dante Chinni. He's the director of the American Communities Project at American University. I asked him, given those numbers, which state would be ideal?

CHINNI: Georgia, maybe.

SANDERS: For two big reasons...

CHINNI: First of all you, have diversity - a much more diverse state. The other thing that Georgia has is it's got Atlanta.

SANDERS: And when you look at states that have that mix - more racial diversity and a mix of rural and urban, there are actually a few options.

CHINNI: Pennsylvania's a very good option. Colorado is an interesting state. My home state of Michigan - Ohio's a really good one.

SANDERS: But here's the thing - if you look to bigger states for more diversity, you could end up with a caucus state that's actually too big. With Iowa, it's small enough for every candidate to make their way across the whole state and advertise on the cheap. Small candidates can compete with the big dogs in Iowa from day one. And there's another thing.

ANDY MCGUIRE: The real reason we're first in the nation now is because of what we do. We take this real seriously.

SANDERS: This is Andy McGuire, head of the Iowa state Democratic Party. She says Iowans can test a candidate like no one else.

MCGUIRE: You know, we ask really good questions. We ask follow-up questions. We look them in the eye like I am you right now. It's real. It's one-on-one vetting of candidates. Are you for real? Not a TV spot, not money - what's in your heart?

SANDERS: Whether you believe that Iowa voters are better at this, that they deserve the privilege more, it probably doesn't even matter. David Yepsen says we're stuck with Iowa.

YEPSEN: Iowa's first because of inertia (laughter). Most people in the country don't like this process, but the country finds it difficult to agree on an alternative way to do this.

SANDERS: And Iowa really doesn't want to let it go. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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