Don't believe the hype about Iowa caucuses

November 14, 2007|By Theo Lippman Jr.

Now that politicians and political junkies are counting down to the Iowa presidential caucuses in weeks and days, you hear a lot of speculation about the "president maker" Iowa caucuses being so important.

How important are they? As Al Smith, a Democrat who lost the presidential race in 1928, liked to say, "Let's look at the record."

The Iowa caucuses have been making newspaper headlines across the nation since 1972, sometimes on the front pages. The winning Democrat that year was Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. He wasn't nominated.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter won Iowa in January and in November nationwide. In 1984 the winner was former Vice President Walter Mondale. He was nominated but lost the general election in a wipeout.

In 1988, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt won but wasn't nominated. Ditto Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore won there and was nominated but lost in November. In 2004, the same happened to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

As for 1980 and 1996, both Democratic winners of the caucus in those years were presidential incumbents, Mr. Carter and Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton won the presidency; Mr. Carter lost in November to Ronald Reagan.

So, based on the historical evidence (and leaving aside elections where there was an incumbent president), on Jan. 4 the front page headline on the story should read: "[Fill In the Blank] Wins Iowa Democratic Caucus/Has Odds of 6-to-1 Against Winning Presidency."

On the Republican side, only one Iowa caucus winner out of five since 1976 (again, excluding incumbents) went on to win the presidency: George W. Bush in 2000.

Clearly, there's less to victory in Iowa than many politicians and pundits would have us believe. And the big states - with many more delegates in the national conventions and many more electoral votes than Iowa - are fed up with the Hawkeye State's inflated role in the process.

Caucuses are rapidly becoming a relic anyway. Almost all states have switched to primaries, which get more ink. Twice as many states in 2008 will have primaries as in 1972, when Iowa first put its caucus on some front pages. And many of those states that used to pick delegates in March, April, even June, have scheduled much earlier selections. When Maryland votes Feb. 12, Republicans in 29 states and Democrats in 32 will have already voted.

Nevertheless, presidential candidates are spending more money in Iowa this election cycle than in the past, and when six candidates spoke to 9,000 Iowa Democrats at a recent fundraiser, it was reported on Page One in The Sun and other newspapers.

No, the Iowa caucuses don't make much sense. They never did. But don't expect this tradition to die without a struggle.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer and the author of campaign biographies of Edmund Muskie, Edward M. Kennedy and Spiro Agnew. His e-mail is

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