The Iowa Caucuses

Grinnell College’s tradition of activism intertwines with Iowa’s heavy impact on presidential campaigns
Carroll McKibbin ’60

While Grinnell College has a long and intentional history of encouraging participation and advocacy on public issues, the national significance of Iowa’s political party caucuses is relatively recent and quite accidental.

Grinnell’s involvement with public policy is as old as the College, dating back to abolitionist activities in the 1850s. The struggle against slavery developed into a tradition that continues to this day, having progressed through the Social Gospel Movement following the Civil War, the Progressive Era into the early 20th century, and the New Deal of the 1930s. In the latter instance, a number of Grinnellians served with distinction, including Chester Davis 1911 on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, Florence Kerr 1912, a Works Progress Administration executive, and Harry Hopkins 1912, a close adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a major architect of the New Deal’s many administrative and legislative measures.

During the 1960s, Grinnell’s Program for Practical Political Education (PPPE) flourished, sponsoring elaborate mock political conventions in Darby Gym and bringing to campus a long list of luminaries, including former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. However, the loss of foundation funding, the disruptions of the Vietnam War, and the reduction of the voting age to 18 via the 26th Amendment in 1971 caused both resources and motivation for the PPPE to dwindle. Many students, no longer restricted to mock political activities, took advantage of their new opportunity and became directly involved in politics of real consequence.

Iowa’s Caucus

The Iowa political party caucus system, like the Grinnell tradition of public policy involvement, dates back to the mid-19th century when statehood was attained in 1846. The precinct caucuses continued through the years, lightly attended and little noticed beyond the state until 1972. In that year, the national Democratic Party established new rules to democratize its presidential nomination process. Those changes, plus state party regulations requiring at least 30 days between consecutive meetings at the precinct, county, district, and state levels, pushed each of those sessions backward until January 24 became the latest possible date for the Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses.

New Hampshire, traditionally the first state to hold a presidential primary, had already scheduled its 1972 elections for March 7, six weeks after the Iowa date. Precinct caucuses, only the first of four steps in choosing delegates to a national convention where a nominee for president is selected, seemed innocuous. New Hampshire took little notice and did not contest the earlier date of the Iowa event.

However, the national media, always eager for news on a presidential race, responded quickly when U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., did surprisingly well in the Iowa caucus, placing second behind supposed front-runner U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine. When McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination, the stage was set for the Iowa caucus to become of great significance in subsequent presidential elections.

Iowa’s Rise to Prominence

The national importance of the Iowa Democratic Party’s precinct caucus caught the attention of their Republican opponents. Starting in 1976, the Republicans would thereafter hold their caucus on the same day as the Democrats, adding to Iowa’s impact on the selection of presidents.

A little known governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter also recognized the growing potential of the Iowa caucus. With the White House in mind and his term of office completed, Carter commenced his presidential campaign in Iowa nearly a year before the 1976 precinct caucuses.

Carter’s grassroots campaign across Iowa featured hundreds of personal appearances, including one at the Grinnell College Forum, and tens of thousands of handshakes. His standard introduction, “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be the next president of the United States,” was planted in the ears of thousands of Iowans.

Jimmy Carter’s lengthy person-to-person campaign in Iowa proved to be successful when he won 28 percent of the Iowa Democratic caucus vote, more than double that of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., and thereby moved from obscurity to a front-runner status. One year after the Iowa caucus of 1976, Carter became the 39th president of the United States.

The Republican campaign of 1976 added additional drama in the race for the White House when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the party nomination. Several Grinnellians entered the fray.

Bruce Weindruch ’78 and colleagues Jim Strickler ’78, Gregg Edwards ’80, and Jack Dane ’79 participated in the Republican caucus and supported Ford’s nomination. They also raised the issues of decriminalization of marijuana and divestment in South Africa. While Ford later won the party nomination, Weindruch and his partners had little luck at the caucus with their issue priorities.

“Policy discussions were dominated by the ‘right-to-life’ issue in the aftermath of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision,” Weindruch remembers. Reagan supporters came from out of state and pushed hard on that issue. It became a litmus test, a kind of ‘Are you with us or against us?’ sort of thing.”

Dane, in his freshman year at Grinnell, attended a precinct caucus in the living room of his parents’ farm home outside Iowa City. Four people attended: Jack, his mother, his father, and his sister. Jack was elected to the county convention by — no surprise — a unanimous vote.

From that beginning, Dane participated in the district and state party meetings, and later attended the Republican national convention in Kansas City as an invited, college-age activist. On the convention floor he carried a sign reading “Grinnell, Iowa, loves Jerry and Bob.” Dane originally had in mind Gerald Ford, the incumbent president, and Bob Ray, the governor of Iowa. In the meantime, however, the convention had selected U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., as Ford’s vice presidential running mate. Thus, the sign made sense in any case.

Network television cameras picked up the young Jack Dane with shoulder-length hair and wearing cutoff jeans. “Anyone who watched the convention had to wonder who the hell I was and what I was doing there,” recalls Dane, now an attorney in Davenport, Iowa.

Four decades later, Weindruch reflects on those days: “My experience as president of the Grinnell College Republicans and grass-roots involvement in Iowa county and state politics had a profound impact on me — only to be fully understood in hindsight many years later. I would describe it as the equivalent of a political ‘post-traumatic shock syndrome.’ ”

Strickler’s recollections on his Grinnell experience mirror the College’s traditional mission. “What I got out of this experience was the opportunity to discuss and argue political issues, to learn that political involvement is rewarding and enriching of one’s life, and to understand multiple perspectives on issues. I came to appreciate a variety of viewpoints and gained understanding on how people can disagree on issues.”

Edwards, another of the Weindruch group, was raised in New Jersey, where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. “We Republicans had to hustle hard in New Jersey,” Edwards remembers. “I found much the same at Grinnell College. You have to get used to losing a lot, and that toughened my hide.”

Edwards has kind words for Grinnell professors who didn’t always share his group’s political views: “They admired our pluck and treated us fairly.”

Edwards stayed in Iowa after graduating in 1980 to run for the state House of Representatives. Unfortunately, he again learned the trials of losing. If he had won, he might still live in Iowa, something he says, “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Gatekeeper to the White House

The McGovern campaign in 1972 revealed the potential of the Iowa caucus in the presidential race, and Carter proved four years later the Iowa caucus could serve as a launch pad to the presidency. The lessons learned from those two campaigns were not lost on presidential candidates or the media as the 1980 presidential selection cycle began, a year when Iowa would become nationally recognized as the gatekeeper on the road to the White House.

All three major television networks established temporary studios in Des Moines in 1980. On Jan. 21, the evening of the caucus, the three news anchors — Walter Cronkite (CBS), John Chancellor (NBC), and Frank Reynolds (ABC) — journeyed to Iowa’s capital city to originate their evening news programs. Iowa, for the first time, surpassed New Hampshire for presidential campaign news stories.

Also in 1980, the Iowa Republican Party added a new feature to the presidential campaign that attracted even more media attention, a straw poll conducted five months prior to the caucus. Held on the Iowa State University campus in an atmosphere of half-carnival and half-convention, nine Republican candidates sought to get a jump on the party nomination. “The action begins in Iowa,” George H.W. Bush, winner of the straw poll, proclaimed with exuberance.

Bush followed his victory in Ames with the Carter strategy of “retail politics,” meeting face-to-face with as many voters as possible. He made dozens of stops across Iowa, including one in Grinnell where he was accompanied by his then-young sons, George, who would be elected president in 2000; and Jeb, who aspires to the same outcome in 2016.

Reagan, the Republican front-runner, largely bypassed the Iowa caucus, making only one stop in the state to deliver a quick speech at the Des Moines airport. When he lost to Bush, a lesson was learned by all presidential candidates: Pay attention to Iowa!

Reagan later won the Republican nomination for president, but his erstwhile opponent had made his mark in the Hawkeye State. Bush became Reagan’s vice president and later succeeded him in the Oval Office.

President Carter was challenged in the 1980 Democratic caucus by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whose many visits to the state included speaking to a packed house in Darby Gym. Carter trounced Kennedy, 59 percent to 29 percent, in the caucus vote. The senator from Massachusetts continued his campaign, but never recovered from that devastating defeat.

Iowa’s presidential caucuses, now fully recognized as important national events, inspired greater local participation. In 1976, the Republican precinct caucus for the West Lucas Township of Johnson County attracted only Jack Dane and his family. Four years later, nearly 100 people crammed into the Danes’ living room to caucus.

The 2016 Election Approaches

While Grinnell’s tradition of equipping students to participate in public policy issues is firmly established, Iowa’s key role in presidential elections, although widely accepted, is still evolving.

States still jockey for position and influence in the selection of presidents, a century after presidential primaries were first established. Over the years, New Hampshire became accepted by other states, begrudgingly, as the lead-off primary. And then Iowa innocently slipped under the radar with its precinct caucuses that were knighted by the media into national prominence.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole ’71, R-Okla., has a high regard for the Iowa caucus system, except for the Republican straw poll, calling it “stacked and packed” and “one of the worst inventions ever.” The poll lost much of its luster during the 2012 campaign when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won that event but placed only sixth in the caucus five months later and dropped out of the race. The last straw for the straw poll came when several high profile candidates in 2015 decided not to participate. The cancellation did not disappoint Cole.

Cole acknowledges the Iowa caucus is “very important” and “the first real test in the presidential race,” and calls the state’s voters “a sophisticated electorate.” The congressman says there is “some resentment” in Washington over Iowa’s special role in presidential elections, but he is comfortable with it, saying that Iowa, unlike many states, is politically competitive.

As the 2016 presidential election approaches, the significance of Iowa is very much in evidence. The day after announcing her bid for the presidency in the spring of 2015, Hillary Clinton headed for Iowa. The first official event in her campaign was not held in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, but in an auto tech classroom in Monticello, Iowa.

At last count nearly two dozen declared candidates for the presidency are appearing all over Iowa. Whether it’s Donald Trump addressing a crowd in Winterset in front of a mural of John Wayne; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., schmoozing with patrons of the Better Day Café in Storm Lake; or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appearing at the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, they all come to Iowa.

The participation of Grinnellians in the 2016 presidential selection process is an absolute certainty. A tradition that started in the 19th century battling the evils of slavery in the abolitionist movement continues into the 21st with the confrontation of environmental and other issues. The Iowa caucuses will be held Feb. 1, 2016. Grinnellians will be there, continuing a legacy of seeking solutions to the major public policy issues of our time.


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