The Iowa caucuses are the first step in the nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties.  As a result, Iowa garners a vastly disproportionate number of candidate visits and amount of media attention.  A better than expected showing on caucus night can boost a candidacy, while a poor performance can spell the end of a candidate's hopes.
Visits by Republican Prospects
Visits by Democratic Prospects
The Ad Campaign
Endorsements: Legislative; Newspapers
Interest Group Activity

2005-06 Notes
2004 Page

Jan. 3, 2008- Iowa precinct caucuses.

Des Moines Register: Iowa Caucuses 08
Cedar Rapids Gazette
Radio Iowa: The Blog
WHO-TV's "Iowa Votes 2008"
IPTV's "Iowa Press"
Iowa Newspapers

Republican Party of Iowa [+]  *Final Official Results
Iowa Democratic Party [+*Final Official Results 

Biden Clinton Dodd Edwards Gravel Kucinich Obama Richardson . Vilsack Didn't Run . Draft Nader
Cox Giuliani Huckabee Hunter McCain Paul Romney F.Thompson Tancredo Brownback T.Thompson Gilmore Pataki

1st CD
2nd CD
3rd CD
4th CD
5th CD (partial)
These county pages are designed to give a sense of the organizing challenge in Iowa, where the campaigns ideally seek to build right down to the precinct level.  Field organizers have been working for months to identify supporters, particularly multipliers or opinion leaders who can sway others.  These include current and former elected officials including state legislators, county officials and city officials as well as county party leaders.  As a public manifestation of support, campaigns can name county leadership committees or volunteer county chairs or coordinators; however some campaigns are (too) secretive about this, fearing that other campaigns will poach their supporters.  Irrespective of poaching; allegiances will sometimes change (example).  The top of each county page provides some basic facts, and at the bottom, based on information supplied by the campaigns, are some of the key people backing the various candidates. 


Iowa Code--Title II Chapter 43.4:

Delegates to county conventions of political parties and party committee members shall be elected at precinct caucuses held not later than the fourth Monday in February of each even-numbered year.  The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.  The state central committees of the political parties shall set the date for their caucuses...

Because Iowa's precinct caucuses are the first contests in the presidential nomination processes of both parties, the state attracts an inordinate amount of attention from prospective candidates.  The cliche is that there are three tickets out of Iowa, namely a first-, second- or third-place finish in the caucuses, and that if a candidate does not achieve top three finish his or her campaign is in deep trouble.  In fact it is not just the showing, but the showing as it relates to expectations.

Early Groundwork
About a dozen potential candidates from each party worked to cultivate good will and build connections in Iowa in the months and years leading up to the caucuses.  Most obviously, they made numerous visits to the state in 2005-06.  The closely split Iowa legislature (Republicans had a 51 to 49 majority in the House and the Senate was tied at 25 to 25), several close congressional races, and the gubernatorial campaign provided a convenient excuse for many visits by '08 presidential prospects.  [2006 campaigns].  By Election Day, Nov. 7, 2006, 13 potential Republican candidates had made 70 visits totaling 112 days and 11 potential Democratic candidates had made 60 visits totaling 108 days. [See also Iowa Visits 2004].  (In the 2006  mid-terms, Iowa Democrats fared very well, gaining a 54D to 45R, 1O majority in the House and a 30D to 20R majority in the Senate, winning two U.S. House seats and holding the governorship).

There were many ways in addition to actually traveling to Iowa that prospective candidates could engage Iowans.  Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), seen as the Democratic frontrunner, did not visit Iowa at all in 2005-06.  A candidate or potential candidate could hold low-key meetings in his or her office or home, make calls, send Christmas cards, or address groups of Iowans without traveling to the state.   In 2004 some prospects stopped by to speak to the Iowa delegations during the respective national party conventions.

Hopefuls also made early efforts to attract talent.  By mid-2006 several of the '08 prospects had announced Iowa chairmen or coordinators of their leadership PACs and advisory committees.  The leadership PACs made generous contributions to candidates and party committees in Iowa (and elsewhere) and even paid for staff to work on Iowa campaigns.  In mid-August 2006, for example, Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-IN) All America PAC announced it was placing 25 graduates of its campaign training program to work as paid staffers on state, local and congressional races in Iowa.  Other leadership PACs did this type of thing on a more modest scale.

Independent of a candidate or potential candidate's efforts, citizens and organized groups started up efforts to build support for or to criticize some of the presidential hopefuls.  Several Iowa activists launched blogs in support of particular candidates.  Additionally a few interest groups tried leveraging small media buys criticizing one or another of the presidential prospects to gain attention.

Iowa's precinct caucuses were tentatively scheduled to take place on the evening of Jan. 14, 2008; that was the date penciled in on calendars for much of 2007.  However, the jostling of other states seeking to go early made it likely that the date would move; there was even talk that the caucuses might occur in Dec. 2008.  Finally, in Oct. 2007 both parties announced Jan. 3, 2008 as the caucus date. [RPI press release, IDP press release, 2].  Meanwhile pundits debate whether the "super duper primary" on Feb. 5, 2008 made a strong showing in Iowa even more important than it has been in past.

For most campaigns, not competing in Iowa was not seen as an option.  John McCain tried it in 2000 and Wesley Clark tried it in 2004.   An internal memo by Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry, leaked to the AP on May 23, 2007, suggested that Clinton bypass the Iowa caucuses to focus on later contests, but the campaign disavowed that notion and competed hard in the state.  Even candidates like McCain and Giuliani, who focused much of their efforts elsewhere, spent some time in Iowa.

Labor forms an important constituency for Democratic candidates.  The state party is led by chairman Scott Brennan, and Norm Sterzenbach is serving as the IDP political and caucus director, charged with organizing the party's caucuses.  For a while it looked as if the campaign of Gov. Tom Vilsack, whose term ended in January 2007, might affect the dynamics of the Democratic race, but he withdrew on Feb. 23, 2007 citing money; on March 26 he endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton.  Conventional wisdom had it that the frontrunners were Sen. Clinton, former Sen. Edwards, and Sen. Obama.  Sen. Biden, Sen. Dodd and Gov. Richardson also invested major time and resources in the state and built credible organizations.  Edwards had the advantage of being able to build upon his 2004 campaign.  Obama built a strong field organization early and drew consistently big crowds.  Clinton also built an extensive field organization and hoped to be able to leverage the women's vote.

On the Republican side, social conservatives form an important constituency.  The Republican Party of Iowa re-elected Ray Hoffmann to a second term as chairman on Jan. 13, 2007. The Iowa Republican Straw Poll, held on Aug. 11, 2007, was one of the determining events of the Republican caucus campaign.  While the Giuliani and McCain campaigns' decisions not to participate lessened the impact of the event somewhat, and former Gov. Mitt Romney prevailed as expected, the Straw Poll did give a significant boost to former Gov. Mike Huckabee, knocked former Gov. Tommy Thompson out of the race, seriously dampened the hopes of Sen. Sam Brownback (he held on for a couple of months but bowed out on Oct. 19), and did not help Rep. Tom Tancredo.  Romney was seen as the frontrunner until the Fall, but Huckabee started gaining strength in November.  Former Mayor Giuliani, Sen. McCain, Rep. Paul, Rep. Tancredo, and former Sen. Thompson all waged credible campaigns.

Iowans, like Americans everywhere, want to learn candidates' views on Iraq, education and health care and other issues, but the candidates must be also prepared to address questions relating to agriculture, the rural economy, and ethanol.  Agriculture is obviously important, but Iowa has an increasingly diversified economy and leaders have sought to counter a one-dimensional stereotype of the state.

Candidates seeking to get their messages out face several communications challenges.  First is the large number of candidates.  Unlike in 2003-04 where just Democrats were running, both Democrats and Republicans crowded into the Hawkeye State.  Second, the proximity of the caucuses to the Christmas holiday meant the campaigns had to work around that in addition to vying with commercial advertisers' holiday pitches.

Organize, Organize, Organize.
Iowa has a population of about three million, and its ninety-nine counties provide plenty of ground for candidates to cover.  Des Moines, in the center of the state, has a metro area population of about 500,000 (Core-Based Statistical Area (CBSA); the population of Polk County is a little over 400,000).  At the other extreme is Adams County in the Southwest part of the state with a population of less than 4,500.  In the 2004 Democratic caucuses there were 1,993 precincts although some of these shared locations.  This time there are 1,781 precincts (it was 1784 until a last-minute precinct consolidation by the Board of Supervisors in Washington County).

The major job for the campaigns in 2007 was to identify committed supporters, likely supporters, and persuadables (1's, 2's and 3's as they are called).  Republican and Democratic campaigns took decidely different approaches to this task.  The campaigns of the leading major Democratic candidates had very large staffs and a dozen or more (Clinton and Obama both have more than 30) field offices around the state, while the Republican campaign organizations were much smaller.  The campaigns devoted much work to building a team of committed county chairs and precinct captains. and they also made considerable efforts to obtain endorsements from state and local officials, who might be able to sway their neighbors and acquaintances.  In terms of the air war, those campaigns that had money ran TV ads, in some cases lots of them.  According to a Wisconsin Advertising Project analysis of TNS Media Intelligence data a total of $43 million was spent on presidential campaign advertising in the Iowa caucus campaign.   In the closing weeks caucus-goers were also deluged with mail and phone calls.

Iowa Visits by the Major Democratic and Republican Candidates*
updated Aug. 15, 2008 to reflect two missed days (Romney in June and Kucinich in November)
Jan. '07
Feb. '07
Mar. '07
Apr. '07
May '07
June '07
July '07
Aug. '07
Sept. '07
Oct. '07
Nov. '07
Dec. '07**
10 (13)
9 (10)
14 (19)
23 (38)
16 (26)
 25.5 (43)
 21.5 (73)
21 (66)
 8.5 (16)
17 (33)
 12.5 (22)
33 (82)
3 (5)
6 (10)
9 (15)
12 (25)
13 (29)
 13 (16)
 22 (45)
 19.5 (61)
 21.5 (39)
24 (61)
 25 (84)
32 (144)
13 (18)
15 (20)
23 (34)
35 (63)
29 (55)
38.5 (59)
43.5 (118)
40.5 (127)
30 (55)
41 (94)
37.5 (106)
65 (226)
 Visits that extend from one month to the next are tallied as 1/2 a visit in each month so as not to double count (see the calendars).  2005-06
*Does not include John Cox (R), Alan Keyes (R), Mike Gravel (D) and Tom Vilsack (D). 
**Dec. '07 entries include Jan. 1-3, '08.

Exchanges with a friend, neighbor, colleague or fellow Iowan can have an important effect on a caucus-goer's thinking.  Even more telling are first-hand impressions of the candidates.  Candidates plied the state with visits.  From Jan. 1, 2007 to Jan. 3, 2008 11 Republican candidates made 211 visits totaling 441 days, while seven Democratic candidates made 199 visits totaling 533 days.  Thus the campaign among the Democrats was particularly intense--fewer candidates spent considerably more time in state than on the GOP side.  Republican visits tailed off after the August Straw Poll.   Looking at the 2008 cycle Biden, Dodd and Edwards made the "hundred days in Iowa club," and Biden and Dodd accomplished that feat in 2007 alone.  Dodd even rented a place in Des Moines and brought his family there starting in October.  (Cox also spent 100-plus days in Iowa, but is not considered in this analysis).  Edwards, Richardson and Tommy Thompson (and likely Cox) made the "99-county club."   Finally if one looks at the whole cycle from Nov. 2004 post-election through Jan. 3, 2008, Republican prospects and candidates made 283 visits totaling 550 days and Democratic prospects and candidates made 265 visits totaling 648 days for a grand total of 1,198 days.

Much organizing activity occurs around candidate visits.  If a campaign has any kind of organization, a field organizer or field organizers bearing supporter cards will approach attendees after an event.  Having a staff that can translate the energy and interest generated by the candidate into actual Iowans willing to volunteer time and effort and to head out on that cold evening in January to spend a couple of hours in a caucus meeting is essential.

The Day Arrives
Brian Duffy's cartoon on the front-page of the Jan. 3, 2008 Des Moines Register shows the candidates standing on the palm of caucus-goer's hand.  After all the activity and the millions spent and the pundits' pontificating and the polls it is finally in the hands of Iowans [pledge, college student participation].  Democrats and Republicans use different processes [many of the campaigns produced videos to explain the caucus process].  The precinct caucuses on the evening of January 3 were but a first step in selecting delegates to the national conventions, both processes will conclude with state conventions in June 2008.

In terms of complexity, the Republican and Democratic systems are as different as checkers and chess.  Republican caucuses are actually straw polls; candidates are simply trying to get the most total votes, and the outcome has no bearing on the selection of delegates.  Democratic caucuses determine selection of delegates to county conventions and thence to district conventions and the state convention.  One very important feature of the Democratic precinct caucuses is the 15-percent threshhold (in most precincts) to achieve viability; this means that if a caucus-goer's candidate fails to achieve that level, he or she must align with another group or go home.  Thus if a caucus-goer favored one of the "second-tier" candidates, his or her second choice was a matter of great interest to the other campaigns.  The net result can be some very interesting negotiations.  Dennis Kucinich issued a statement on Jan. 1, 2008 urging his supporters to make Barack Obama their second choice; in 2004 he had pointed them to John Edwards.  While caucus math can be confusing, ultimately what is being determined are the 2,500 delegates to the state convention.  [See: Iowa Democratic Party Delegates to the 2008 State Convention by County].

For the candidates, what matters is what happens on caucus night and makes headlines the next day.  Both parties reported record turnouts -- 239,000 caucus goers for the Democrats and more than 118,000 for the Republicans.  (By comparison on Jan. 19, 2004 just 124,331 people participated in the Democratic caucuses).  Huckabee was the clear winner on the Republican side, given the millions that Romney had spent.  The Democratic race had been seen as too close to call between the three frontrunners.  Obama's win by a somewhat wider margin than expectations provided a boost.  Edwards' finish, quite a bit behind Obama and just slightly ahead of Clinton, was not as strong as might have been expected given the time he invested in the state going back to the 2004 campaign.  He did not get the push he needed going into later contests.  For Clinton Iowa was a wake up call.  On the plane going out of Des Moines the next morning there was some talk that her campaign was "toast."  As for other candidates, Biden and Dodd ended their campaigns on the night of Jan. 3 in Des Moines.  Richardson hung on until after New Hampshire.

Aug. 11, 2007-Iowa Republican Straw Poll

Official Sites
(launched April 16, 2007; April 28 grab)
(launched May 27, 2007; May 27 grab)
(May 3 grab)
(late Aug. 2007)
(May 10 grab)
(May 5 grab; old page)
(launched mid-April 2007; April 23 grab)
(launched May 21, 2007; May 21 grab)
(June 10 grab)
(July 6 grab)
(July 15 grab)
(May 28 grab)
Note: In general the Democratic campaigns devoted considerably more resources toward developing Iowa specific web pages.  Several of the Republican campaigns put up pages for the Straw Poll but then did not
The State Historical Society of Iowa's "Caucus Iowa" exhibit opened early Oct. 2007 at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines:
"An in-depth look at Iowa’s first-in-the-nation political caucuses in a new 10,000 square foot exhibition celebrating Iowa’s unique brand of citizen-democracy. A look at the history, four major video presentations, and a public forum space. Visitors also meet the cast of characters that make up the caucuses: from candidates to staff to volunteers to media to activists to voters. They populate the exhibit and reinforce the story of one-on-one campaigning." [press release].


Copyright © 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action