A History of the First Iowa Caucus (and why winning in Iowa may not matter)

By Kaleena Fraga

And they’re off! After years (years) of political posturing by the Democrats, the campaign of 2020 will begin in earnest today, in Iowa.

What did the first Iowa caucus look like? And does winning in Iowa even matter in the general election?

Iowa Caucus of 1972: The Players

Participating in primaries became newly important after the chaotic campaign of 1968. In 1972 the Democrats gathered in Iowa to give this form of politicking a serious try.

Their goal? To excise the ghosts of 1968 and to make Richard Nixon a one-term president. (They would fail—Nixon’s sweeping reelection victory gave him every state but Massachusetts.)

And in fact the election of 1972 contained significant echoes of 1968. Three of the ’68 candidates, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern, had decided to run again. “Run” is a tricky word here. Of the three, only Eugene McCarthy had participated in the ’68 primaries. Humphrey joined the race in April, too late to participate, and McGovern didn’t join the campaign until after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

(This time, there would be no Kennedy in the race. In July of 1969, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. ‎Kennedy would run for president in 1980, unsuccessfully.)

Humphrey had won the nomination in 1968. It was a tough victory, marred by Kennedy’s assassination in June, the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and Humphrey’s association with an unpopular president, Lyndon Johnson. Still, he’d lost the general election by less than 1% of the vote and wanted another go.

In 1972, the alums of the 1968 election were joined by Edmund Muskie, a Senator from Maine.

Who won the Iowa caucus in 1972?

As to who would win the day in Iowa? Drumroll, please—

No one.

Technically, Muskie won with 35.5% of the vote. But 35.8% of Iowa voters signaled that they were uncommitted.

Muskie had a healthy lead over the runner up, George McGovern, who earned 22.6% of the vote. Fascinatingly, Muskie fell into a common pitfall of Iowa victors: The win wasn’t enough. In fact, it was a bad sign. The New York Times noted:

But the victory of the Maine Democrat, widely considered the front‐runner for his party’s Presidential nomination, was clouded by the unexpectedly strong showing of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

The real victory, wrote the Times belonged to McGovern:

For Mr. McGovern, who has struggled since January, 1970, to convince the press and the public that he is something more than a fringe candidate, the Iowa results provided a lift in the final weeks before the New Hampshire primary on March 7.

McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, called McGovern’s victory a “moral” one.

All of this goes to show how tricky Iowa can be. A victory is not a victory; a defeat is not a defeat. Beating expectations is often more powerful than an outright win.

Of course, losing can be tricky, too. Just ask Howard Dean.

What does a victory in Iowa mean? Not much

In fact, many candidates who win in Iowa find defeat further down the trail. Muskie’s campaign would fall apart in New Hampshire, when he was accused of crying in front of the press. (Muskie blamed snow on his face.)

Gerald Ford won the Republican’s first Iowa caucus in 1976, but lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter. The trend started by Ford and Muskie, of winning in Iowa only to lose later on, was continued by Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, Tom Harkin (the eventual nominee, Bill Clinton, got less than 3% of the vote), Al Gore, John Kerry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz. In Iowa, victory is often-short lived.

Those who won Iowa and then the presidency are a smaller group: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama won both in Iowa and in the general election.

So what does the Iowa caucus really mean? Nothing—and everything. Since 1972, we’ve certainly seen that anything can happen. And anything can mean anything, depending on how you can spin your results.