How Iowa's Straw Poll Can Lead to the Presidency

Why Iowa? It was the 29th state to be admitted to the Union, it is the 30th state in population, it has given the nation Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” It has long been the nation’s number one corn- and hog-producing state.
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.
People like Mary Louise Smith gravitated toward the Democratic Party. Iowa was the sixth most Democratic state in the 1984 presidential election, the second most Democratic in 1988.
In those years, religious conservatives became the dominant force in Iowa Republican politics. This was apparent when televangelist Pat Robertson won the 1987 Ames straw poll and came in a strong second to farm-stater Bob Dole in the 1988 precinct caucuses. Bush, the 1980 winner, ran a poor third.
Iowa didn’t pick the Republican nominee that year, but it did in 1996, when Bob Dole and Phil Gramm tied for the lead in the straw poll and Dole won the caucuses. In 2000, George W. Bush built a strong organization and with his strong pro-life stand won the straw poll and the precinct caucuses.
Mitt Romney followed Bush’s strategy in 2008, campaigning hard in 99 counties as an abortion opponent. He won the straw poll but lost the precinct caucuses, in which 60 percent of attenders called themselves religious conservatives, to “Christian conservative” Mike Huckabee.
Caucus turnout declined in most Iowa rural counties between 1988 and 2008, but it rose sharply in Des Moines’s Polk County and the seven adjoining counties. Country churches were replaced by metropolitan megachurches as generators of turnout.
You can see the change by the location of candidates’ headquarters. They used to be clustered in Des Moines, near the affluent neighborhood where people like Mary Louise Smith lived. Now they’re out in the suburbs, convenient to freeways and megachurches.
And so on Saturday some 15,000 to 25,000 Iowans in a state of 3 million will travel to Ames and pay a $30 fee that may determine who will be president of a nation of 311 million.