Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Iowa Loses ‘First in Nation’ Bragging Rights

Democrats ending our neighboring state's key role in helping pick presidents.

By - Dec 12th, 2022 12:21 pm
George McGovern speaks to many ILGWU supporters at an open-air campaign rally, October 15, 1972. Photo by flickr user Kheel Center. (CC BY 2.0)

George McGovern speaks to many ILGWU supporters at an open-air campaign rally, October 15, 1972. Photo by flickr user Kheel Center. (CC BY 2.0

Whoa. That national political correspondent for CBS news sure had big feet. Size 12s, at least.

The basement of the home in a Des Moines suburb was so crowded that the big-name CBS reporter from Washington had to sit on the steps to cover one of the thousands of Iowa’s precinct caucuses in January 1972 – the start of the process to pick the next Democratic candidate for president.

That memory was triggered by news that the national Democratic Party’s presidential nomination calendar in 2024 will be rearranged in a way that strips neighboring Iowa of its “first in the nation” role. For 50 years, Iowa Democrats have held winter precinct caucuses. They have trudged through January or February snow and ice to neighborhood schools, government buildings and homes to suggest who the party’s nominee for president should be.

It’s been just a suggestion, since Iowa’s winner has frequently not ended up being the nominee. After sound-bite press conferences – or, in Howard Dean’s case, the 2004 primal-scream news conference – Iowa’s winners and losers then jet off to New Hampshire for the first-in-the-nation primary.

In 1972, Iowa Democrats boosted the campaign of Sen. George McGovern, since 22% of them endorsed him. That gave McGovern new standing to challenge the favored candidate, Sen. Edmund Muskie, supported by 35% of Iowa Democrats. McGovern eventually won the party’s nomination, but was crushed in the November election by Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon carried Wisconsin with 53% of the vote.

Fast-forward to this year.

A Democratic National Committee panel recently accepted President Joe Biden’s call for this 2024 nomination calendar: South Carolina first, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day, and Georgia and Michigan before Super Tuesday. Despite howls of protests from Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats, the full Democratic National Committee is expected to approve that calendar – one more sign that the 80-year-old Biden plans to run again in 2024.

Iowa Democrats may have no one to blame but themselves for being benched in the run-up to the 2024 nominating process. The high-tech reporting systems they set up to score winners and losers in January 2020 failed spectacularly, leaving dozens of live TV and cable reporters and pundits looking into cameras and repeatedly saying, “No winners – yet.”

It took days for the final results to be posted: Pete Buttigieg won, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and – in fourth place – Biden. By then, however, the candidates, reporters and pundits had moved on. Nobody cared about Iowa’s results.

To be fair to Iowa Democrats, consider the logistical nightmares of running precinct caucuses and getting the instant results demanded by the 24/7 news cycles of media organizations and social media:

-First, Iowa Democrats had to know where, and when, in their neighborhoods their caucuses were being held.

-Then, attendees were asked to group up according to which candidate they favored: Buttiege backers, this side of the room; Sanders fanatics, over here. Warren supporters, over there.

-If another candidate didn’t have enough supporters to hit the “viability” threshold – 15% of everyone at that caucus, for example – they either had to join the backers of another candidate or be counted as “uncommitted.”

-Totals for each neighborhood caucus were then checked, and rechecked. Results from the thousands of neighborhood then had to be reported to party officials.

-County-by-county totals were then tabulated, and there are 99 Iowa counties.

Iowa was where I got my start as a journalist, and its caucuses were fun assignments for reporters, who enjoyed watching neighbors cajole each other to give up on their favorite candidate, since he or she was not “viable,” and join them in support of a rival.

But Iowa’s precinct caucuses were doomed for two other reasons.

Its demographics do not mirror Democrats nationally. Iowans are 89% white, and 3.7% African-American; South Carolina residents are 66% white, and 26.5% African-American. (Nationally Blacks make up 24% of the voters in the Democratic primary.)

And, it was South Carolina Democrats who, in the 2020 primaries, threw a nomination-saving lifeline to Biden’s campaign. They gave Biden his first primary victory, with 48.7% of their votes.

But even Iowa Republicans are upset at the proposed 2024 nominating calendar of Democrats nationally. “Democrats have really given middle America the middle finger,” Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst told Fox News.

One more memory of covering Iowa Democrats’ precinct caucuses in 1972: Reporters covering McGovern were offered free beer when they boarded his campaign buses. That doesn’t happen now.

 Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at 

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3 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Iowa Loses ‘First in Nation’ Bragging Rights”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:


  2. says:

    Ditto, but moving the First primary to S. Carolina is plain dumb. Yes, we know that Biden owes Jim Clyburn, but the Dem vote in SC is minuscule and Dems haven’t won SC since the racist Southern Dems ruled. Better to concentrate resources in states that actually represent the Dem constituency.

  3. kaygeeret says:

    Why not rotate the ‘first’ state primary every cycle?

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