11 Iowa Caucus Myths

By Pat Rynard

March 31, 2015

1. Iowans Insist on One-on-One Time with the Candidates – Nearly a quarter of a million people turned out for the 2008 Democratic Caucus, when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards faced off. Every single one of them did not shake hands with or personally meet the candidate they caucused for. Whenever the press quotes Iowa activists giving caucus advice, you’ll often read people saying Iowans need to meet each candidate several times to make up their mind. Those people are living in a bygone era, back when the caucuses were smaller affairs in the 1980’s and a minority of activists chose the winner.

Don’t get me wrong – retail politicking is still essential to victory. It can’t all be huge stage-managed rallies. You’ve got to drop in on coffee shops, hold a few small roundtables and make sure you’re actually having a conversation with voters. It’s just that a certain number of activists overstate the necessity of one-on-ones (and perhaps their own self-importance) with every major and minor activist. The vast majority of caucus-goers don’t feel like they need to have a personal question answered by the candidate in order to support them. We just want them to be authentic and accessible.

2. You Have to Do a 99-County Tour to Win – Successful candidates do need to barnstorm the state, hitting both urban and rural locations, but you don’t have to visit every single county. If you’re an interesting-enough candidate, people will drive a county or two to come see you. If you do the 99-tour, you’ve got to do it right. Michelle Bachmann did one, but very poorly, just jumping out of her bus to shake a few hands and then got back on the road. Unless you have the time to practically live in Iowa like Santorum, it simply isn’t efficient. Adams County has a population of a little over 5,000 people – forgoing a stop there in favor of a Des Moines suburb gets you a lot more votes. If you have the time and resources, sure, do it. Completing a “Full Grassley” gives you a good talking point and does help, but by no means is it the only successful strategy.

3. Republicans Only Meet at Pizza Ranch – Thanks for this one, Rick Santorum. Yes, a number of Republican events are held at Pizza Ranches, which in some rural counties are the only place that has both food and a meeting room. But it’s not like every event is held at the buffet-style pizzeria. I mean, sometimes they meet at a Casey’s Pizza! Just kidding, but the way the national media writes of “The Pizza Ranch Primary,” you’d think it’s the only place presidential candidates are allowed to speak at. Oh, and Democrats meet here too.

Here’s the important thing to know for reporters who find Pizza Ranch’s food selection… not that appetizing: you can request your own specialty pizza be made for the buffet for no extra charge (they’ll even bring the first slice to you). I personally don’t enjoy their basic pizza options that much, but with the right toppings it’s not bad. So I call ahead when I go and request a bacon, onion and tomato pizza. Your choices may vary.

4. The Same Old White People Decide the Caucus – The biggest counterpoint to the feared consequences that Iowa’s electorate is disproportionately white is obviously Barack Obama’s win here. We likely would not have the first African American president were it not for Iowa. But even that misses the bigger point: Iowa is predominately white, but we have plenty of minority communities. African Americans in Davenport, Hispanics in Marshalltown, Sioux City and Muscatine,Vietnamese in Des Moines. The caucus electorate is also not a static crowd. Each caucus different candidates bring out different voters. Obama brought out tons of new young voters to the 2008 caucus, which this year may turn out for Rand Paul. Hillary Clinton increased young female attendance, and Mike Huckabee brought out more evangelicals than usual.

5. Iowans Only Care About Agricultural Issues – This is a big one. The majority of caucus-goers wouldn’t even list agriculture in their top five most important issues. We care about income inequality, the Middle East, healthcare, tax policies, college affordability and just about every other topic you can think of. Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities are thriving cities that care about urban issues. Every Iowan realizes the importance of agriculture and the ethanol issue to Iowa, but to many – if they don’t personally work in the sector – there’s plenty of other issues affecting their daily lives,

And while agriculture is vital to Iowa’s economy, we have plenty of other large industries too. Des Moines is one of the top three insurance capitals in the world, with corporations like Principal Financial, Athene, and Wells Fargo basing headquarters or major operations here (actually, I’m surprised we don’t host an “Insurance Summit” in Des Moines for candidates). Advanced manufacturing employs a significant percentage of Iowa workers. And our tech sector is growing rapidly, with Facebook, Microsoft and Google building server farms here.

6. The RFS is a Subsidy – On that topic, when people do talk about Ag Issues, this misnomer has been popping up a lot recently. Ethanol subsidies expired in 2012, yet some conservatives still like to bash it as a government hand-out. The mandate for market access is still in place, but the subsidies are not. Many people also fail to realize the Renewable Fuel Standard’s larger impact to the country and the energy issue. It’s not like only Iowans benefit from it.

7. We Caucus in People’s Homes – It’s a quaint idea and image, but it doesn’t really happen anymore. Back when the caucuses were a smaller affair, it was more commonplace to see twenty or so people show up to caucus at a neighbor’s house. Nowadays, nearly every one is held in a school, a community center, or a church. There’s probably a small handful of precincts around the state in some tiny town that still does it this way, and the national media always seems to track one of them down. But those are extreme exceptions. The State Historical Museum in Des Moines probably didn’t do this myth any favors a few years ago with their exhibit that depicted caucus-goers meeting in a precinct leader’s home. [edit: per Matt Strawn, he reminds us the main issue in moving caucus sites out of private homes is ADA compliance]

8. Iowa Doesn’t Always Pick the Winner So It’s Not Important – I’ll write a longer defense of the Iowa Caucus at some point, but this is one “myth” that is more like a flawed argument. For one, if every candidate who won Iowa went on the win the nomination 100% of the time, people would complain about that even more – because what fun would that be for everyone else? For another, that’s not the purpose of the Iowa Caucus. We winnow the field so the rest of the country doesn’t have to deal with 15 candidates to choose from. Anyway, more on that at a later date.

9. County Party Chairs are Good Analysts – I can’t begin to tell you the number of national stories I’ve read where a reporter quotes a number of “lower-level” party activists, but it’s clear they just called down through the list of county chairs that anyone can find on the state party’s website. This leads to the same people getting quoted over and over again, not all of which accurately represent the wider caucus-going electorate or even the party’s volunteer base. Many county party chairs are the same types of activists who’ve been doing this for so long, that their mindset is stuck in caucus strategy from the 80’s and 90’s, leading to the distortions in #1. There’s a wide array of insightful opinions and analysis to be found in Iowa at the grass-roots level – reporters just need to dig a little deeper for some of it.

10. Only Social Conservatives Can Win the Republican Caucus – Many people point to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum’s recent wins and declare with certainty that only the evangelical-backed candidates can win over Iowa Republicans. Those same people miss the fact that Mitt Romney was only a few votes away from proving this theory wrong in 2012. I could point out the history of caucus victors to “disprove” this, but the real problem here is sample size. It’s like those ridiculous football stats you hear – a certain quarterback doesn’t throw any touchdowns in the first quarter while playing inside during the month of September. Except then that quarterback is like Peyton Manning or someone. You can’t base with certainty an idea off of a handful of elections over two or three decades. There are plenty of viable ways for a business conservative, libertarian or even a moderate to win the Republican caucus.

11. We Seek Caucus Advice from the State Fair Butter Cow – Uh… wait, what? That’s a weird one to bring up. Where did you hear that from? Did Mark tell you that? Nonsense. I can assure you that top activists from the Democratic and Republican Parties do not attend a secret ritual at the Iowa State Fair to ask the Butter Cow for advice. I most certainly have never personally entered the Fairgrounds after midnight, stood beside key party leaders in front of the Butter Cow, and chanted, “Oh Glorious Butter Cow, whom shall we select to lead Your nation?” Definitely a myth, now stop asking about it if you know what’s good for you.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 3/31/15

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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