Everything You Wanted to Know About Iowa Caucuses but Were Afraid to Ask
On Jan. 24, Iowa Congressman Steve King will be hosting the first official event of the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
It’s called the Iowa Freedom Summit, and it’s already sold out, with a waiting list of more than 700 activists from the first-in-the-nation caucus state still clinging to a chance to catch the abundant A-list roster of speakers. A roster that, not-so-coincidentally, includes pretty much everybody who’s thought at least 10 minutes about running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Except for Jeb Bush.
Since I’m already getting inquiries from candidates and media about what’s happening on the ground, I figured now was a good time to answer some frequently asked questions about what we do here every four years. Sort of an Iowa Caucus Primer, if you will.
What’s the difference between a primary and a caucus?
A caucus is more similar to how the founding generations of the country used to vote. It’s more relational and there’s more accountability. Unlike a primary, which allows you to pretend to be a conservative despite the fact you pulled the curtain and privately voted for the liberal media’s hand-picked Republican candidate yet again, a caucus often forces you to make your choice known. People talk to each other — right there at the caucus site. They horse-trade with each other — right there at the site. And they lobby each other — right there at the site. This is explains why the more principled candidates in both parties tend to do well in Iowa, because the most committed are more likely to share their selection with others than those who see voting as merely a transaction.
Do evangelicals dominate the Iowa caucuses?
Yes, but not in the way Iowa’s detractors portray. First of all, to single out Iowa as the only place where Jesus Freaks such as myself dominate the GOP primary electorate is disingenuous at best. Nationally, evangelicals remain one of the largest subsets of the GOP base , which they’ve been since they played a vital role in launching the Reagan Revolution 35 years ago. Evangelicals are also plentiful within the rank-and-file of most so-called “red states” as well. However, because the caucus process itself tends to weed out more establishment-oriented voters, conservatives do dominate the Iowa caucuses. Most of those conservatives are evangelicals. However, keep in mind candidates such as Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan and Rick Santorum also exceeded expectations here, and they’re Catholics. So Iowa’s evangelicals have proven they’re willing to overlook theological differences they may have with candidates who share their governing philosophy.
Isn’t Iowa’s role in the GOP primary process overrated? Isn’t it true Reagan never won the Iowa caucuses?
Iowa’s role is misunderstood, not overrated. Iowans are a (too) humble bunch, and don’t have the hubris to believe they should pick the party’s nominee before the other 49 states have a say. Iowans view their role as a winnowing fork, to borrow an agricultural term. They don’t pick the nominee as much as they use their unparalleled access to the candidates to narrow the field. For example, the GOP has never nominated a candidate who didn’t finish in the top three in Iowa (John McCain statistically tied Fred Thompson for third in 2008). So if you’re not one of those three tickets traditionally punched out of Iowa, you’re not going to be giving the acceptance speech at the convention. By the way, Reagan finished a close second in both of his Iowa caucus contests in 1976 and 1980, losing each by just two points.
What does it take to win the Iowa caucuses?
Money is always nice to have, but since we’re a state without a major media market, you can’t just drop a few million in television buys and purchase the electorate. Everyone says organization is key in Iowa, but there’s a vital component to winning here that’s even more important than that — authenticity. If Iowans don’t think you’re real, they don’t really care. They don’t like high maintenance star attractions. They don’t like candidates who think they’re celebrities. These are people who are used to seeing potential leaders of the free world at their coffee shop or jogging down their streets. So they’re unimpressed by the fanciful and flamboyant. Yes, organization is key in Iowa, but you will not build the organization it takes to win unless you get people to believe in you. A winning organization cannot be bought in Iowa, with overpaid operatives masquerading as activists. Every candidate who tries that here loses, regardless of party. We kick it old school out here in what y’all call “flyover country.” So you better come correct and know how to connect with everyday Americans. Otherwise they will chew you up and spit you out faster than you can say “conventional wisdom.”
Finally, that’s why it’s good for a state like Iowa to go first. The retail politics that are a must to be successful here gives voters nationwide the most intimate glimpse possible at the people running for president. Before the consultants and the commercials (and thus the cynicism) take over the process.
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