December 18, 2007
Caucus history: An early test of strength
By DAVID YEPSEN
REGISTER POLITICAL COLUMNIST
Editor's note: David Yepsen covered the Iowa caucuses for some 25 years before becoming a full-
time columnist at The Des Moines Register. Perhaps nobody knows more about the caucuses than
Iowa's precinct caucuses became an early, if controversial, test of strength for major party
presidential candidates during the 1970s and 1980s. Other states and critics seek to limit their
significance, and Iowa works to resist those efforts.
Early in each presidential election year, Iowa Democrats and Republicans gather in each of Iowa's
approximately 2,500 precincts to conduct party business and express an early preference for a
Since it is the first test of strength for candidates in both parties, national party leaders and reporters
pay close attention to the results. Iowans seem to enjoy the extensive courting, media attention and
spending by candidates and reporters that come with the caucuses.
Since they become nationally significant in 1972, the Iowa caucuses have provided important early
boosts to George McGovern in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1976; George Bush in 1980; and Gary Hart in
1984. Caucus losses have slowed many other candidates. Iowa political leaders often say Iowans
have the job of reducing the field of presidential candidates for the rest of the nation.
In the 1988 campaign cycle, perhaps the largest caucus event in history, 13 presidential candidates in
competition on caucus night spent an estimated 846 days and deployed 596 staffers in the state
during the two years that preceded the February 8, 1988, caucus-night balloting. In addition, about a
half dozen potential candidates also spent time in the state, driving the total "days spent" figure to
nearly 1,000 days. An estimated 3,000 reporters from around the country and the world were
credentialed to cover the events.
Critics of the caucuses said too much attention was paid to those results because Iowa was not a
microcosm of the nation. Supporters, particularly Iowa politicians, argued that no state was reflective
of the entire country and that Iowa was only the beginning of the process.
Doing well in the caucuses required candidates to build extensive organizations to get out their
supporters on caucus night. To do that, candidates devoted large amounts of campaign time to the
The caucuses weren't always an early test of presidential candidate strength. They became important
because, in 1968, the Democratic Party was torn apart by controversies over the Vietnam War. Iowa
Gov. Harold Hughes was selected to chair a national Democratic Party commission to open up the
party to more people and minority groups who felt left out of the party affairs. The Democrats adopted
a series of rules requiring that plenty of notice be given about meetings and that party members be
given plenty of time to discuss platform resolutions.
To accomplish this and still hold their state convention in June, state Democratic leaders decided to