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The significance of the Iowa Caucuses: A former volunteer reflects

At 7 in the morning on Dec. 27, 2007, a typical gray wintry day in Chicago, I stood in my driveway with a suitcase awaiting a car to pick me up. I was home for winter break from my first semester of college, but I was not headed to warmer climes as one usually does to escape Chicago winters. I was going to Iowa City, IA, where I would spend the next five days mobilizing voters to support then-Senator Barack Obama’s upstart presidential campaign in the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

Unlike other states, where the winners of presidential primaries are determined by secret ballot, the Iowa caucuses require a more sophisticated strategy that candidates and campaigns must follow in order to win. The caucuses are held on a weeknight; attendees show up to a designated meeting place in their community. Attendees do not have to be registered members of a party, or even registered to vote (they can register on site). As long as attendees are in line by the start of the caucus at 7 p.m., they are guaranteed admittance. After an introduction from the precinct chair, the presidential vote is taken. Republicans conduct a simple straw poll, from which delegates are awarded proportionally. Democrats conduct a more sophisticated process, explained here.

As the nation’s first presidential nominating contest, the Iowa Caucuses usually separate the weakest contenders from the rest of the field. Then-Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann ended her bid for the 2012 GOP nomination after a disappointing performance in that year’s caucuses; the 2008 Democratic Caucuses ended the presidential hopes of both then- Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden.

However, winning the Iowa Caucus does not guarantee a candidate their party’s presidential nomination; 2012 GOP Caucus winner Rick Santorum and 2008 GOP winner Mike Huckabee both fell short of winning their party’s nomination. Iowa’s recent unreliability in predicting presidential nominees is not the only concern with having the state vote first; demographically, Iowa is older, whiter and more rural than the rest of the United States, and caucus attendees are even more so. As America becomes more urbanized and racially diverse, having Iowa choose presidential nominees first seems increasingly unrepresentative of the American voting public.

Given the boost (albeit a very minor one) to Iowa’s economy (pdf), the Hawkeye State will not give up its first-in-the-nation nominating status anytime soon. And, as I found out in 2007, it is a unique place to visit during the run-up to the Caucuses. Whether it’s the interesting state cuisine or retail politicking opportunities such as the Iowa State Fair, the fanfare leading up to the Iowa Caucuses is uniquely American, and exciting to partake in as a volunteer.

Of all the campaigns I have worked on, my time in Iowa was among the most enjoyable. Getting voters to physically attend a caucus on a work night in the middle of an Iowa winter (temperatures during my stay were routinely in the single digits) requires more persuasion than the usual canvassing activity. As a result more personal interactions with voters occur; many of the doors I knocked on invited me to come inside from the cold and to talk politics for a few minutes.

I have utilized the skills learned during my brief time in Iowa on other campaigns and even outside the world of politics. Iowa may be unrepresentative of the United States, but the political skills required to win the Caucuses are necessary for both candidates and campaign workers and are invaluable in politics and other career paths.


Benjamin Seitelman, from Highland Park, IL, is a Master of Public Policy student at Duke.

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