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The craziness of Iowa’s oh-so-important caucuses

Presidential candidates focus intensely on how to appeal to voters in Iowa, a small and not particularly typical state. Does that make sense?

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, right, and former Sen. Tom Harkin, center, pose for a photo with an attendee at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday.
REUTERS/Jim Young

On C-SPAN over the weekend, you could watch Hillary Clinton at the Iowa State Fair, where she received the important endorsement of former Sen. Tom Harkin — important for a few reasons but, at the moment, largely because he is an Iowan, well-known and well-liked by Iowans, and perhaps able to impart some advice on how Clinton can appeal to Iowans in the oh-so-important Iowa caucuses.

(I’m planning to be chatty and facty in this post about the Iowa caucuses. But I might as well confess my overall attitude, which is that it’s pretty crazy to allow the same two small, not particularly typical states — Iowa and New Hampshire — to have such overlarge impact on the presidential nominating process.)

Harkin, by the way, ran for president in 1992 and stomped Clinton’s husband, Bill, pretty badly (76 percent to 3). It turns out (understandably) that winning the Iowa caucuses isn’t as big of a deal if you are from Iowa. Harkin dropped to fourth place in the New Hampshire primary and soon disappeared from the field.

Of course, it was in Iowa in 2008 that Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status was cast into doubt by the upstart Barack Obama.

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Anyway, back to the weekend, via C-SPAN: Harkin squired Clinton around the fair and the media scrum that surrounded them occasionally parted so Clinton and Harkin could interact with ordinary fairgoers. Although the reporters mostly wanted to talk about Clinton’s emails, the ordinary Iowans had more personal, downhome exchanges.

Donald Trump also helicoptered in and met some Iowans, although the media reports that he is not spending nearly the time that his rivals are courting Iowans in person. Iowans rather famously demand that kind of one-on-one up-close attention, but maybe that’s just one more law of politics that Trump is about to repeal.

There’s a famous (possibly apocryphal) wisecrack by an Iowan during a presidential year who said he wished the presidential candidates would get off his lawn because he needed to mow it.

Iowa ranks high…now

Iowa ranks 30th among the U.S. states in population, just ahead of Mississippi and just behind Connecticut. Its population of 3.1 million is a little less than 1 percent of the national population of 320 million. But on the presidential nominations map, it’s bigger than California, New York and Texas, maybe put together.

New Hampshire, by the way, is 42nd among the states in population.

The Iowa caucuses in 2012 set a record for Republican turnout with 121,503 Iowans attending. That would be four-hundredths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. But that’s a ridiculous ratio to even discuss.

More relevant, this record turnout was just under 20 percent of the registered Republicans in Iowa (where they have party registration and where you have to be registered in the party whose caucus you attend). That was a high but fairly normal turnout for the Iowa caucuses. It would be a terrible turnout for any state on Election Day and pretty bad even for a primary.

Of course, caucuses are another matter, requiring a whole evening’s involvement by the citizen, and these are the Iowa caucuses, where normal rules of importance are suspended because (although this was not something intended by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, who never heard of Iowa) it has a sacred (but not really very old) tradition of being the first contest.

The Santorum story

Rick Santorum was the surprise winner of the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2012. On caucus night, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by a margin of eight Iowa Republicans over Santorum, but further recounting revealed that Santorum supporters had actually outnumbered Romney’s supporters by 34 Iowans.

(The total number of Iowans who caucused for Santorum was 29,839, slightly less than one one-thousandth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, although certainly a bigger share of eligible voters.)

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Santorum’s surprise win turned him into a major player for the duration of the campaign, although he ultimately finished second overall to Romney in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Because of having his supporters more strategically distributed, Ron Paul, who finished third, actually got more delegates out of Iowa than either Santorum or Romney.

Since 1976, when the Iowa caucuses first became recognized as the all-important first contest, the winner of Iowa on the Dem side has gone on to win the nomination eight out of 10 times. On the Repub side, it’s just six out of 10.

In New Hampshire, likewise, the winner of the Democratic presidential primary has gone on to win the nomination in eight of the last 10 races. The only person over those 10 cycles to be nominated without winning at least one of those was Hillary Clinton’s husband, Whatshisname, in 1992. But it should be noted that he is also the only ever to have to face a candidate with home-field advantage in both states, Harkin in Iowa and Paul Tsongas, from neighboring Massachusetts, in New Hampshire.

Harkin, by the way, did not endorse anyone in the 2008 Clinton-Obama-John Edwards Iowa caucuses contest.

Minnesota, by the way, the best state in the Union, has never played much of a role in presidential nominee selection, although we have produced two fine presidential nominees.