The Case for Iowa

Our friends over at the Claremont Review of Books have a delightful and exhaustive review of several books on the Iowa caucuses.

For people in Iowa, perhaps more than in other states, a candidate’s pedigree and prejudices are relevant, and can play a role in the electoral outcome. Hillary Clinton’s contempt and snobbery in the 2008 election was surely detectable, and may have lead the former frontrunner to her distant third place finish.

Being from a rural, neighboring state seems to help a candidate’s chances, which may give credence to the critics of the fairness of Iowa, but it also gives a political voice to the Midwest in campaigns which are often focused on the coasts. Long-time Des Moines Register reporter David Yepsen noted that “[o]ne pattern that appears to be developing in the Iowa caucuses is a preference for Midwestern, or at least rural-oriented candidates. George McGovern of South Dakota, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Richard Gephardt of Missouri have all done well in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. But so did that Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter.” Yepsen recently noted that “politicians in the Midwest know how to campaign to people in the Midwest. The audiences demographically are much the same.”

Presidential candidates from the prairie Midwest may have enjoyed somewhat of a regional advantage in the past, but Carter (twice), George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Kerry make this much less than an iron-clad rule. Even if, however, the Midwestern candidate advantage were true, this would be acceptable, since it would be good to give the Midwest a loud voice in the presidential selection process, especially in an age in which the coastal media dominates the cultural and political discourse. As Why Iowa? notes, the Iowa caucuses force coastal media elites to visit “Middle America, a place that many have never visited.” Iowa serves as a proxy for the wider Midwest and helps to make the presidential selection process more representative of the interests of Middle America. Iowa bears the weight of this representation burden well, as demonstrated by its record of civic obligation, open elections, and fair politics. The historian Dorothy Schwieder says that Iowa has “a sense of rootedness…that implies stability, permanence, and continuity; there is also a centeredness that connotes balance in both perspective and behavior. At the same time, Iowans are not known for showiness, glitz, or hype.” Iowans have a healthy sense of place, unlike some transient, coastal Americans. The historian Laurence Lafore once noted that “Iowans always speak of themselves as Iowans.”

Read more here.