Election 2020 Iowa Caucus

A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses on a downtown skywalk, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Is Iowa worth all the fuss?

The state is fairly small, with only six electoral votes in presidential elections (two less than Louisiana). It will have just 40 delegates out of 2,467 at the 2024 Republican convention in Milwaukee. So why is Iowa’s presidential caucus such a big deal?

The Iowa caucus became the first testing ground for presidential politics in the 1970s. The more media coverage it received, the more money and time candidates put into it.

Republican presidential campaigns have already dropped $105 million on television and radio ads in Iowa this election, and that’s not counting the final two weeks of spending. Also keep in mind that these numbers don’t include millions spent on direct mail, social media, printing, grassroots organization, telephones and crucial get-out-the-vote activities.

Sometimes, Iowa’s outcome has foreshadowed the ultimate nominee, providing an accurate predictor for pundits and political operatives starved for such indicators. In 1976, Gerald Ford beat Ronald Reagan by slim margins in both the state’s caucus as well as the national delegate contest. Jimmy Carter also used an Iowa win over opposing candidates to launch his victorious campaign that year.

In 2008, Iowa gave Barack Obama a successful send-off; his caucus triumph broke the spell that Hillary Clinton was the inevitable nominee. John Kerry gained the momentum he needed from Iowa to snag the 2004 nomination. In 2000, Al Gore was able to crush Bill Bradley’s candidacy in Iowa, as George W. Bush was able to cement his front-runner status by beating a field of candidates that included Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and John McCain.

But as a predictor, Iowa is often a dud. Ted Cruz in 2016, Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Tom Harkin in 1992, Richard Gephardt and Bob Dole in 1988 and George H.W. Bush in 1980 — they all won the Iowa caucus, but lost the nomination later in the year.

In 2020, Joe Biden lost Iowa. He ran a dismal fourth behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. He was able to lock up the nomination anyway. Not only did Iowa fail to pick the eventual nominee, the Democratic caucus system that year broke down, delaying final results and forever tarnishing its credibility.

The total number of votes received by Iowa caucus winners is minuscule considering the national importance of the results. Bernie Sanders received fewer than 46,000 votes in Iowa when he won the state, and Ted Cruz received less than 52,000 votes in Iowa when he won it. That’s about the same amount of votes that LaToya Cantrell received in her races for mayor of New Orleans.

Margins of victory in Iowa can be tight, enhancing the power of small constituencies. As a result, candidates don’t often take chances with interest groups and voter factions of any size. “Don’t forget the left-handed Lithuanians,” noted  psephologist Richard Scammon used to caution.

In Iowa, Reagan beat George H.W. Bush by only 2,000 votes, Dole defeated Pat Buchanan by fewer than 3,000 votes and Santorum beat Romney by a tiny 34-vote margin. Sanders led Buttigieg by just over 2,000 votes. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by a mere three-tenths of a point based on a mysterious tabulation of what was called “state delegate equivalents” (which means they couldn’t agree on an accurate vote count).

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Some Republican candidates — especially Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy — hope good showings in Iowa will boost future candidacies, should they lose this time and run again in 2028. Dole lost Iowa in 1980 and came back to win it in 1988 and 1996; he also captured the nomination in 1996. Mitt Romney lost Iowa twice (2008 and 2012), as did John McCain (2000, 2008), and both overcame these losses to win GOP nominations.

Since 1980, Barack Obama was the only nonincumbent Democratic candidate to win the White House after winning the Iowa caucus. On the Republican side, only George W. Bush accomplished the same feat.

Is Iowa really worth all the effort? Probably not, but season openers always get undue attention.

Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst, pollster and writer. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a nationwide newsletter on polls and public opinion.