SOUTH BEND – Why Iowa?

Why would Mayor Pete Buttigieg already be opening 20 campaign offices there, with 100 organizers, and with further expansion likely before the Iowa caucuses next Feb. 3?

Why, in a state with demographics not typical of the nation’s population, are these caucuses – meetings where a show of hands rather than ballots can determine the count – so darn important?

Credit or blame goes to Jimmy Carter.

Carter, who began his presidential quest as a former Georgia governor with little national name recognition and seemingly no chance for the White House, spent two years campaigning in Iowa, attracting the attention of the national news media and drawing other contenders into the suddenly important 1976 Iowa caucuses.

When Carter won and gained momentum to go on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, the caucuses were established firmly as the first test with voters for presidential candidates – an important first test determining nomination finalists if not the eventual nomination winner.

New Hampshire still has the first presidential primary, coming eight days after the Iowa caucuses next February.

The caucuses differ from the more familiar primaries in which voters cast secret ballots in other states. Iowa caucus participants, openly backing their choices, have to attend in person and, in most cases, stick around in these “neighborhood gatherings” as groups are formed to indicate support for candidates. Negotiating often goes on to win over those left in smaller groups.

Defenders of the Iowa caucuses say they attract very dedicated voters who have studied the candidates, often meeting the contenders in events held for months all around the state. Critics say it’s too small a sampling of party activists on which to base such importance.

After Iowa and New Hampshire come crucial tests in South Carolina, Feb. 29, and on Super Tuesday, March 3, with big states having a voice.

Iowa winners don’t always go on to capture the nomination. Often they do, sometimes because there is an overwhelming favorite at the start.

Iowa is certain to provide a boost in the polls for the winner and perhaps for some others with significant vote percentages. Those who do poorly usually drop out officially or are dropped out anyway in terms of funding, national media attention and standing in the polls.

It’s a long time until the caucuses. A lot can happen before then. But even now, speculation is that Joe Biden will have his frontrunner status damaged if he doesn’t win in Iowa and Elizabeth Warren will need to finish ahead of Bernie Sanders to claim the status of leading progressive contender.

Mayor Pete?

Well, of course he wants to win. But since he still is regarded a longshot, an impressive top-tier finish would enable him to continue on as a serious contender. A win? That could bring another impact of Jimmy Carter dimensions.

Where do they stand now?

A David Binder Research poll of likely participants in the Democratic caucuses conduced last week showed these percentages: Biden 25%; Warren 23%; Buttigieg 12%; and Sanders 9%. The only others with any significant percentages were Amy Klobuchar, 8%, and Kamala Harris, with 5%.

It is interesting to note that Biden, despite critics hitting at his debate performances, actually improved by 8 points since a similar July poll. Warren was up by 3 points and Buttigieg was up 2. Sanders dropped 3 points and Harris dropped by a whopping 13 points.

The Iowa percentages aren’t the same as found nationally. Nor are there expectations that they would be the same. Buttigieg was at about double his national percentage.

Why Iowa? It’s established now, in all-out focus of the candidates and in news coverage as the first big voter test in the presidential selection process. Whether it should be is another question. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.