The Iowa Democratic Caucuses: Historical Flukes Changed Presidential Politics

Posted: August 5, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses


By Richard Bender

Iowa has had party caucuses for as long as it has been a state, but they rarely gathered much attention in the presidential process. Prior to the reforms by the Iowa Democratic Party in 1972, you simply did not know who won on caucus night, due to the fact that thousands of county convention delegates were elected but they were not identified as supporters of a specific candidate. National delegates were decided by a slate proposed by a Democratic governor or by the party chairman and were simply ratified by the state delegates.

National reforms after the 1968 Democratic National Convention triggered an examination of how delegates were chosen.  The McGovern-Fraser Commission put rules in place for the 1972 Democratic National Convention, but their impact on Iowa was small.  McGovern-Fraser encouraged state national convention delegations to include minority groups, young people and women in reasonable relationship to their presence in the population of the State. It required that written rules be created towards that goal, but it did not call for proportional representation by candidate.  Iowa went far beyond its requirements.

Two separate events crystalized the need for specific reforms for Democrats in Iowa that allowed the Iowa caucuses to become what they are:

  • At the 1968 state convention, the last item to be considered was a minority plank against the Vietnam War. The Chair ruled that it had lost on a voice vote, and, with loud calls for a recorded vote, the Chair in quick order gaveled that the plank had lost, the platform was adopted, and the convention was over. Anti-war delegates were furious.
  • At the 1970 Polk County Democratic convention, there were two factions, one led by Jim Brick, the county chairman, and one led by Norma Matthews, the leader of what many described as the anti-war faction. The Brick faction had about 51 percent of the delegates and rammed through a slate of delegates to the state convention, which had over 400 delegates for the Brick faction and only a handful of delegates for the Matthews faction. Anger ensued. This type of action was not rare over the years in various counties.

At the 1968 State Democratic Convention, progressives were elected in large numbers to the Iowa Democratic State Central Committee but, under the rules, could not name a chairman until early 1970. Cliff Larson, an anti-war Democrat from Ames who had been Congressman Neal Smith’s chief staffer, was elected and I, a long time anti-war activist on the ISU campus, joined the party staff.

I proposed a series of ideas to overcome the two problems mentioned above: election of the convention committees rather than their appointment by the county and state party chairs for the first problem, and proportional representation to overcome the second problem, an idea with broad support on the left. The proposals received considerable support at a “New Democrats” meeting in Marshalltown, with proportional representation particularly supported by Ray Morgan of Fonda. At that time the idea was for a proportional group to form around any candidate or issue.

To consider the ideas, Larson created a group that included Dick Seagrave, the Story County chair, Bob Fulton, the former lieutenant governor from Waterloo, Blanche Koenig, a member of the state central committee from Fort Dodge, and myself.

Bob Fulton feared that Democrats would split on highly divisive issues and perhaps into very narrow issues, thereby fracturing the party.  Fulton used the example of abortion as a very divisive issue, as a significant share of active Iowa Democrats were against abortion in 1970. Fulton suggested that there should only be divisions by candidate. Without the requirement to organize by candidate, Iowa’s caucus results would not have later held great significance nationally because the presidential preference of the delegates would not likely have been counted. At this point, however, none of us were thinking about the reforms having significance beyond the selection of Iowa delegates, the party platform, and a reduction in party divisiveness.

A 15 percent floor for the size of a candidate group was set at all levels, from the caucuses to the state convention. This minimum requirement was based on the number of national delegates— seven—that most Iowa congressional districts were going to elect in 1972.  The 15 percent floor avoided having more than seven candidates with the required support for a delegate. This rule caused a sharp lowering of reported support for candidates who did not achieve the 15% minimum. That result effectively narrowed the candidate field, which eventually become a very important factor in the importance of Iowa’s caucuses.  Eventually, the 15% floor for the size of a candidate group became the national rule.

The early timing of Iowa’s caucuses was due in large part to the need for district conventions. Since it wasn’t practical for all 99 county conventions to elect a member or members to the state convention committees, congressional district conventions were created to elect the state convention committees. Time was also needed for the committees to organize and for the county, district and state conventions to develop rules and platforms. Creating and mailing copies of the convention rules and platforms to the delegates further increased the time between each convention level. As a result, Iowa had to start the process at a very early point, and it was indeed the first state to begin the process in 1972.

There was considerable opposition from organized labor about changing the way the state platform committee would be selected. While Senator Hughes had supported proportional representation as a national rule, he was strongly against Iowa doing it alone. He was interested in running for president.  Under the proportional vote system, he would need 85 percent support in each congressional district to have a unanimous delegation, the norm at the time for a presidential candidate’s home state. Cliff Larson promised Hughes that Larson would not present the proposal to the central committee, letting me do it. The state central committee passed the proposal without a vote to spare.

When the caucuses occurred in January 1972, party circles viewed Iowa being first as a good thing, because attendance increased and Iowa Democrats had a greater voice. It was not seen as hugely important nationally on caucus night itself.

The party, in poor financial shape, thought about getting a third phone line to report caucus results, but the phone company wanted to charge for a whole month.  So instead, we organized an elaborate phone tree to report the results from the 99 counties to state headquarters. I was responsible for doing the calculations, but I attended my caucus first and then walked over to party headquarters.   Only about ten or a dozen reporters showed up at state headquarters for the result; all were from newspapers. One was the New York Times’ R.W. “Johnny” Apple, whose story got some real attention.

The rule changes, set up in 1971, were designed mainly as a way to avoid intraparty fights and to improve the democratic process, with a small “d.” The new rules effectively eliminated two difficulties that had been problems in the past. But it was not until months after the initial approval of rule changes that Iowa ended up being the first caucus state in 1972. I doubt there was any thought the caucus results would have a national impact when the rules were written.

Nevertheless, Jimmy Carter noticed, and he made Iowa the centerpiece of his effort. His Iowa success propelled him into the presidency in 1976, and Iowa acquired a very special place in American politics.