Explaining the Iowa Caucuses to Europeans

Steve McCann

A conversation I had with some of my business associates from overseas prompted some thoughts on the state of politics here in the U.S.  Among the topics brought up during the conversation was: why is Iowa so important and what is a caucus?   I did my best to explain that Iowa has been traditionally the first state to vote on potential presidential candidates for both parties and what a caucus entails.   

The reaction: so a small state in the middle of the country that represents about 1% of the population can eliminate half or more of the field of candidates running for office.   And they can do that by having a hundred thousand plus people herded by the various candidates show up at a numerous caucus sites and claim to be or can become a registered member of the Party on the spot and verbally or otherwise indicate their preference for a candidate.

That initiated the next question.  So these 100,000+ people out of the 312 million people in America become the determining factor if someone running for president can stay in the field?   I had to simply say, yes, because in order to stay in the race one has to raise money and if they do not have a good showing in Iowa that becomes extraordinarily difficult.  

One can imagine the incredulity which prompted more comments.   "That is a really good marketing strategy by the media in Iowa; they must make a fortune in selling airtime and print advertising."    "Is this a major tourist attraction every four years?"   "Can't someone sabotage another candidate by gathering up people who will register on the spot and vote for someone they were paid to vote for?" and finally "You can't be serious, this is how you folks choose a president, no wonder you got Obama"

Mercifully I was able to shift the conversation over to Obama's obsession with golf and his over three months on the golf course since he became president.   Which elicited "Can you find a way to keep him on the course 12 months a year?"

A conversation I had with some of my business associates from overseas prompted some thoughts on the state of politics here in the U.S.  Among the topics brought up during the conversation was: why is Iowa so important and what is a caucus?   I did my best to explain that Iowa has been traditionally the first state to vote on potential presidential candidates for both parties and what a caucus entails.   

The reaction: so a small state in the middle of the country that represents about 1% of the population can eliminate half or more of the field of candidates running for office.   And they can do that by having a hundred thousand plus people herded by the various candidates show up at a numerous caucus sites and claim to be or can become a registered member of the Party on the spot and verbally or otherwise indicate their preference for a candidate.

That initiated the next question.  So these 100,000+ people out of the 312 million people in America become the determining factor if someone running for president can stay in the field?   I had to simply say, yes, because in order to stay in the race one has to raise money and if they do not have a good showing in Iowa that becomes extraordinarily difficult.  

One can imagine the incredulity which prompted more comments.   "That is a really good marketing strategy by the media in Iowa; they must make a fortune in selling airtime and print advertising."    "Is this a major tourist attraction every four years?"   "Can't someone sabotage another candidate by gathering up people who will register on the spot and vote for someone they were paid to vote for?" and finally "You can't be serious, this is how you folks choose a president, no wonder you got Obama"

Mercifully I was able to shift the conversation over to Obama's obsession with golf and his over three months on the golf course since he became president.   Which elicited "Can you find a way to keep him on the course 12 months a year?"