But nothing in the Constitution says that Iowa gets to vote for president before any other state. It just does. For years, Iowa like many states had precinct caucuses that elected delegates to county conventions, which in turn elected delegates to the state convention, which then elected delegates to the national convention.
No one paid much attention to the precinct caucuses until 1972. But that year, Sioux City antiwar activist Alan Baron, seeking to capitalize on Iowa's traditional dovishness, promoted a poll of those attending the precinct caucuses. Vietnam War opponent George McGovern finished a strong second to party frontrunner Edmund Muskie and went on to win the Democratic nomination.
Four years later, a former Georgia governor traipsed through Iowa's 99 counties, staying in folks' homes and making the bed in the morning. He finished second in the Iowa straw poll, won the Democratic nomination and became President Jimmy Carter.
Iowa Republicans got into the act later. In 1979, they took a straw poll at a political fundraiser. The surprise winner was George Bush, former Texas congressman and CIA director, who came in slightly ahead of Ronald Reagan. Candidates considered moderate -- Bush, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, Illinois Rep. John Anderson -- won most of the votes.
This straw poll proved to be an accurate predictor of the precinct caucuses in winter 1980. Bush again came in first, ahead of Ronald Reagan. I remember walking with him the morning after in the Des Moines snow, as he claimed he had "Big Mo" -- momentum.
It wasn't enough to carry him to victory in the New Hampshire primary or give him the presidential nomination. But without this victory in Iowa, it's inconceivable that the George Bushes, father and son, would have been president or vice president for 20 of the next 28 years.
The Iowa Republican Party that backed George Bush changed markedly in the 1980s. Iowa Republicans had been mainstays of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Gerald Ford named Iowa's Mary Louise Smith Republican National Chairman, and Smith, a backer of Planned Parenthood and supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, was typical of the college-educated wives of professionals who dominated its ranks.
But the 1980s were tough times for Iowa and for Iowa Republicans. Farm prices sagged, the state lost population, and its longstanding penchant for isolationism and dovishness made it unsympathetic to Ronald Reagan's defense buildup.