Former President Donald Trump’s commanding, and expected, victory in this week’s Iowa caucuses has confirmed his frontrunner status in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
With his closest rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley lagging far behind, it seems the Republican primary contest is over before it has even begun.
Since the 1970s, Iowa has kicked off the US presidential election year with the first caucuses of the primary season. This changed for Democrats following the 2020 election, when the party ditched the first-in-the-nation caucuses for a mail-in vote. The results of this will be known on March 5 (often known as Super Tuesday).
Republicans, however, have stuck with the caucuses. With Republicans in 49 states still yet to cast a vote in the 2024 nominating contest, why is it that an overwhelmingly white state of 3 million continues to hold such sway over the fate of one of the world’s largest democracies?
Donald Trump’s stroll to victory in Iowa was a foregone conclusion. This doesn’t make it any less shocking
How Iowa was put on the map
Iowa reached the top of the nominating calendar for a string of logistical reasons — some even say by accident — when the Democratic Party reformed its candidate selection procedures after the tumultuous 1968 Chicago party convention.
At first, few noticed or cared about the Iowa caucuses’ early position. But this all changed in 1976. Little-known presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter led a grassroots campaign in Iowa — and the next-in-line New Hampshire primary — to deliver unexpected early victories in the Democratic nominating contest. He seized upon these two early wins to catapult himself onto the national stage and ultimately win the White House.
Carter showed how these early testing grounds of voter support can propel candidates from obscurity to national fame. Once he put the Iowa caucuses on the map, the state sought to ensure they remained there.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties officially cemented Iowa’s first-in-nation status through state laws and party rules. Since then, the caucuses have become not just an opportunity for candidates to make their mark, but a boon for the state’s economy, raking in millions every cycle.
The US presidential primaries are arcane, complex and unrepresentative. So why do Americans still vote this way?
An unrepresentative state
Iowa might be a big electoral prize, but the Mid-Western state itself is tiny and hardly representative of America as a whole. Iowa is more rural than the national average and among the country’s least diverse states.
The population in Iowa is about 90% white, compared to 76% nationally. Just 4% of Iowans identify as Black or African American.
Many rightly point out that Iowa’s demographics more closely resemble the 19th-century United States than the America we know today. This is part of why the state’s outsized electoral role has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
In 2022, President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee announced they would promote South Carolina to the front of the 2024 Democratic primary contests ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire (also small and overwhelmingly white).
While Iowa was successfully moved back in the schedule, New Hampshire held onto its first-in-the-nation status, prompting Biden to take his name off this year’s primary ballot. The vote will be held on January 23.
As Iowa and New Hampshire go, so goes the nation (sometimes)
Iowa has, at best, a patchy record of predicting party nominees and presidents.
In the ten contested Democratic Iowa caucuses since 1976, the winner has gone on to secure the Democratic nomination in seven instances. The most notable exception in recent times was Biden, who finished fourth in Iowa in 2020. Of these seven successful nominees, just two — Carter and Barack Obama — would go on to become president.
The state’s Republican results are significantly more mixed. Just three winners of the eight contested caucuses since 1976 became the party’s nominee. Only one of those, George W. Bush, went on to win the White House.
Almost every major party nominee since 1972 has, however, won in either Iowa or New Hampshire. The only two exceptions were Bill Clinton in 1992 and Biden in 2020.
Iowans and New Hampshirites are not clairvoyants with their fingers on the pulse of the nation. Yet their influence helps determine the presidential frontrunners, media narratives, donor contributions and campaign expenditures before millions of other Americans are able to vote. This can shape the rest of the election.
The reason for this is the structure of the US primary calendar. Because the contests are drawn out over five months, establishing early momentum is essential to carving out a path to the nomination, particularly given the exorbitant cost of running for president.
Until the structure of the US primary system changes, or another state replaces both Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the primary calendars, the eyes of the world will continue to turn to both of these tiny states every four years.
Correction: this story has been amended to correct how many Republican winners of Iowa went on to the win the White House. The story initially said two, George W. Bush and Gerald Ford, but Ford lost the general election in 1976.