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Why the Iowa Caucuses Matter (at Least for Democrats)

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/John Minchillo

You have to feel for the people of Iowa, every four years they’re inundated by a bunch of people who want to be the next president. They can’t go to a restaurant, bar, fair, store, and seemingly their basement without someone giving them a flyer or desperate to shake their hand. You might think it would make them feel special, but so few people participate relative to how many are eligible that most people see it as a bit of a pain in where they prefer to sit. But it matters, at least to Democrats.


In 2016, participation in the Democratic caucuses dropped significantly from the high of 236,000 in 2008, with only just over 171,000 showing up. There were tightly contested races in both years, but Barack Obama was a draw that no other Democrat could match. There’s little reason to suspect 2020 will see higher turnout.

But it still matters because so much of politics is about momentum, real or perceived, and while Iowa is more of a landing strip for Republican candidates, it’s a launching pad for Democrats.

Since 1988, the eventual Republican nominee has won the Iowa caucus only 4 times, with 2 of those being an incumbent running virtually unopposed (George H. W. Bush in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2004). George W. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996 are the only candidates to win Iowa in an open year who went on to win the nomination. Other Iowa “winners” were Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012), Ted Cruz (2016), and Bob Dole (1988).

For Republicans, the odds of securing the nomination increase if you don’t win in Iowa. It’s a completely different story for Democrats.

Since 1988, only two candidates who’ve won Iowa did not go on to secure the nomination – Dick Gephardt (1988) and Tom Harkin (1992). That means that while the Republicans in Iowa are batting .500 (if you include unchallenged incumbents), while Iowa Democrats are batting 1.000. Granted, Hillary Clinton barely won in 2016 (only by .2 percent), but a win is a win, and history suggests that if you want to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, you have to win in Iowa.


This history is why Kamala Harris has closed up shop everywhere else, including her home state of California (where her campaign was floundering anyway), and why you can’t go to the bathroom in the Hawkeye State without someone trying to pitch some candidate or other – Iowa Democrats are too good at picking what their party wants.

That’s why Mayor Pete Buttigieg opening a sizable lead in Iowa matters.

We’re moving past the “it’s still early” phase of primary season; voting is only a little over three months away. People who weren’t paying attention, or were trying not to pay attention, are now. Or they can’t escape it.

Joe Biden has ridden his high name recognition as far as it will go. The more that people pay attention, the less interest they have in him as a candidate, especially in Iowa.

This is Biden’s third run for the nomination; in 1988 he dropped out of the race before anyone voted. In 2012, Biden only scraped together 1 percent, less than former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He’s slipping, down now to a tie for third place with only 15 percent. Only Delaware has spent more time with Joe than Iowa, and Iowa isn’t interested. This will likely be the first time he makes it to New Hampshire.

As for the other “top tier” candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Iowa doesn’t seem all that interested in either of them right now.


They got to know Bernie in 2016, almost handed him an upset win, but the romance seems to have faded. The biggest problem Sanders has is he’s no longer unique. Last time, he was the only socialist in the race, now there isn’t anyone in the race who isn’t offering some degree of socialism. There’s nothing “free” he can offer that someone else isn’t promising as well. That leaves him being just another old, rich, white guy. And the “woke” party of identity politics isn’t interested in selecting one of those.

Elizabeth Warren is an old, rich, white woman. The “woman” part helps her, but in the inverted victimhood food pyramid that dominates Democratic politics, simply being a woman isn’t really victim-enough to satiate their fetish, no matter how many yarns she spins trying to accentuate it.

It looks like, at least as of now, Iowa is Mayor Pete’s to lose. There’s still time for him to blow it, and his campaign seems to be flirting with trying, but with as white and woke as Iowa Democrats are, he’s exactly where he wants to be. Pete’s struggles with black voters won’t matter till South Carolina, and who survives till then is an open question.

For now, it’s all about Iowa. Momentum has a way of making a candidate more popular than they otherwise would be. Lack of it, and losses, snowball too.

So while the “it’s still early” excuse has carried some weight until now, it’s no longer early. Expect this to factor into the debate tomorrow night. Being at the top of national polls is nice, but Iowa matters more for Democrats. Biden (26), Warren (20.8), and Sanders (17.8) are well ahead in the national polls, but Buttigieg (only 8 percent nationally) is leading where it matters.  The gloves are about to come off, and it’s going to be fun to watch.


Derek is the host of a free daily podcast (subscribe!), host of a daily radio show on WCBM in Maryland, and author of the book, Outrage, INC., which exposes how liberals use fear and hatred to manipulate the masses.

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