Why the Iowa caucuses are important

The first contest of the presidential primary is here — this is why it matters

On Jan. 15, Iowa Republicans will gather in community halls around the state to cast votes for the GOP nominee for president.

It’s called a caucus in Iowa, because they cast ballots differently than in other states. But the important thing is that it will be the first time voters in any state express their will in choosing a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Iowans don’t decide who the Republican party nominee will be, all on their own. But they have outsize influence in the process, a role they have played since the 1970s, when parties began to choose nominees through the primary process rather than at their conventions.

Interior of store with T-shirt on display that reads: Iowa! For some reason you have to come here to be president!
People shop for politics-themed shirts and other items at the store Raygun on the day of the Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Why does Iowa have so much influence?

Well, Iowa goes first. And that counts for a lot.

Iowa Republicans and Democrats have both fought for years to keep their place at the head of the line. Their grasp on that spot has been slipping, and this year the Democratic National Committee moved the South Carolina primary to the front of the calendar, greatly diminishing Iowa’s importance in choosing a nominee for the Democratic party.

In the GOP, however, Iowa is still the first official contest. The Iowa caucus winner has not always been the eventual Republican nominee for president. In fact, in the nearly 50 years since the caucuses started, only two nonincumbent Republican presidential candidates won Iowa and then became the nominee: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.

Sen. Phil Gramm and Sen. Bob Dole.
Sen. Phil Gramm waves after endorsing Sen. Bob Dole for president in New Hampshire on Feb. 18, 1996. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

In 2012, Mitt Romney was announced the winner the night of the caucuses and went on to become the nominee, but it was later determined that Rick Santorum had actually won.

Maybe more important than whether Iowa picks winners, however, is the fact that the Iowa results reduce the number of candidates running for the nomination. It narrows the field, usually down to two or three candidates.

What does that mean for 2024?

It means that Ron DeSantis has the most to lose in Iowa. The Florida governor has made Iowa his focus for a long time. Last month he completed a tour of all 99 counties in the state, which he began last summer.

The Iowa electorate is more traditionally conservative than the next state in the primary process: New Hampshire, where voters pride themselves for their independence a bit more.

New Hampshire voters have sometimes counterbalanced the result in Iowa. John McCain lost Iowa to Mike Huckabee in 2008 but rode a win in New Hampshire to the nomination. Similarly, Donald Trump lost in Iowa to Ted Cruz in 2016 but then won the Granite State, sending him on his way to the nomination.

Mike Huckabee apparently on stage surrounded by supporters.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee celebrates his victory in the 2008 Republican Iowa caucus at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2008. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, is hoping that New Hampshire plays the same role this year. Trump’s lead in the Granite State — while still large, at 46% to Haley’s 25% — is several points smaller than his 51% to 20% advantage over DeSantis in Iowa.

But no matter what, as long as Haley, DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are splitting the anti-Trump vote three different ways, Trump is going to run away with the nomination.

That’s where Iowa comes in, however. If it knocks DeSantis or Haley out, and gives one of them a better chance at a one-on-one confrontation with Trump, it increases their chances of pulling off a big upset.