Like clockwork every four years, critiques against Iowa’s influence in the presidential election cycle start to pile up: “No state should wield such power.” “Iowa is too old and too white.” “Iowa is not representative of the nation as a whole.” The latest entry in this body of literature is by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who begins with a blatantly click-baity headline, “Iowa Should Never Be First Again.” He argues that the state’s prominence is undeserved, that Iowa’s first-in-the-nation role as a winnower of a large field of candidates smacks of white privilege in an increasingly diverse America.
Here’s the thing: Iowa is increasingly diverse. Yes, the 90% white racial demographic is often cited, but that percentage is decreasing steadily as the Hispanic population in the state has dramatically increased in the past 30 years. That demographic is expected to grow by nearly 450,000 in the next three decades, doubling to nearly 13 percent of Iowa’s population. Crawford County is projected to become the first in Iowa to have a Latino majority, 57.9 percent by 2050. An hour to the north sits Storm Lake, Iowa, home of the celebrated Storm Lake Times, which was awarded a Pulitzer in 2017 for editorial writing. In his memoir about Storm Lake, newspaper editor Art Cullen focused on his hometown’s diversity, writing that “immigrants comprise 90% of the elementary school enrollment.”
One of the most visible critics of the Iowa caucuses in this cycle has been former candidate Julián Castro, who dropped out on Jan. 2 and placed at least part of the blame for his failing campaign on the white voters of Iowa. But Castro got only a lukewarm reception to his candidacy as a whole, as his national poll numbers never broke 3 percent. Even voters of color were hesitant to throw their full support to him because of overarching concerns related to electability.
2004: a different, simpler time
Furthermore, Leonhardt cites a 16-year old study, which argues that early states hold an outsized influence on the eventual outcome of presidential elections. But the flaw in that citation is that it focused almost entirely on the 2004 Democratic primary process. Ah, 2004! A simpler, pre-recession time in our country when the fragmentation of the media had not yet accelerated. Facebook had just been founded and social media as we know it today did not exist. It remains to be seen just how influential Iowa will ultimately prove to be in 2020, but there are signs that social media may already be upending the long-held notion (in the words of George H.W. Bush) of “Big Mo” or momentum that top finishers in the state’s caucus have come to expect.
What the caucuses have unequivocally done for Iowa and the Midwest as a whole is provided more media coverage to a region of the country that remains overlooked and underestimated by coastal elites. In recent years, that coverage (especially in the lead up to the caucuses) has fallen into two main categories. Op-eds like Leonhardt’s are mean-spirited and reveal longstanding elitist attitudes and an urban, East Coast bias against the Midwest. Such bloviating contributes significantly to the idea that the coasts are out of touch with the so-called “flyover” folks at a time when our political and cultural divisions are already exacerbated by pronounced online tribalism.
But these attitudes colored by privilege are nothing new. Leonhardt and other East Coast pundits bring to mind an old New Yorker cartoon, Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue that illustrates New York City in great detail, then looking West, a vast no man’s land just beyond the Hudson River, with cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles drawn as minor blips on the map. Iowa is not even there. It’s notable, however, that Steinberg’s cartoon appeared in 1976, the year that the Iowa caucuses helped propel Jimmy Carter to the Democratic nomination and eventually to the presidency. Now, the East Coast media establishment had to start paying attention to the voters in Iowa.
Keen insights, respectful stance toward Iowans
The second category of media coverage on Iowa is what I term “deep dive” journalism: thoughtful, important stories that provide nuance and complexity to the Midwest experience and offer an important window into the lives of regular people outside the beltway of D.C. and borders of Manhattan or Los Angeles. The recent piece on Howard County, Iowa, from the Wall Street Journal is an exceptional example of such journalism, but reporters like Trip Gabriel (who while working for the New York Times “embedded” himself inside the state for a year during the 2016 election) also demonstrated keen analytical insights and a respectful stance toward the Iowans he covered. We’ll never know, of course, if national media outlets would pay much attention to Iowa without the caucuses, but I suspect it’s doubtful that they would.
Moreover, there is something to the argument that Iowans take their responsibility as voters seriously. The state is distinguished by the highest rate of literacy in the country, a notable statistic that is indicative of a unique brand of civic engagement that may not necessarily be as replicable in states with much larger voting populations — notably Texas, California, or New York. Iowa caucus supporters emphasize the value of “retail politics” for candidates, and it has proven to be a fascinating laboratory for campaign innovation. As former DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile recently stated of Iowa’s voters, “While it doesn’t look like America, when they take into consideration the qualities and values we’re looking for in a candidate, I believe that they represent what is truly best about our country.” She further added, “They’re smart and they take this seriously.”
The relevance of the Iowa caucuses comes down to this simple truism: There’s value in coming together face-to-face, as Iowans will once again do on Monday night. They will meet in high school cafeterias and gyms, town halls, and civic centers. At a time when many a journalist or cultural critic laments the loss of community in America or decries the outrage machine perpetuated by uncivil dialogues on social media, let Iowa continue to serve as a model of civil, civic engagement in its small towns and in its cities under 250,000.
Anna Thompson Hajdik is a native Minnesotan who now calls Wisconsin home. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and teaches courses in English and Film. She is interested in a range of issues linked to the Midwest and is at work on a book about the cultural and political identity of Iowa.
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