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The Iowa Precinct Caucuses

The Making of a Media Event, Third Edition

Hugh Winebrenner

Publication Year: 2010

Although some people refer to Iowa as “flyover country,” presidential candidates and political reporters in the national press corps have no difficulty locating the state every four years at the beginning of presidential primary season.

When Iowa Democrats pushed forward their precinct caucuses in 1972, the Iowa caucuses became the first presidential nominating event in the nation. Politicos soon realized the impact of Iowa’s new status and, along with the national media, promoted the caucuses with a vengeance. The Iowa Precinct Caucuses chronicles how the caucuses began, how they changed, and starting in 1972 how they became fodder for and manipulated by the mass media. Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford argue that the media have given a value to the Iowa caucuses completely out of proportion to the reality of their purpose and procedural methods. In fact, the nationally reported “results” are contrived by the Iowa parties to portray a distorted picture of the process. As presidential primaries have grown in the media spotlight and superseded the parties’ conventions, Iowa has become a political proving ground for the confident, the hopeful, and the relatively unknown, but at what cost to the country?

The third edition of this classic book has been updated to include the elections of 2000, which saw the first winner of the Iowa caucuses to reach the White House since 1976; of 2004 and the roller-coaster fortunes of Howard Dean and John Kerry; and of 2008 and the unlikely emergence of Barack Obama as a presidential contender.


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

People in other parts of the country are occasionally confused as to Iowa’s location on the map, but political reporters in the national press corps have no difficulty pinpointing the state. Although some waggish visitors still refer to Iowa as the state that is “overplowed and...


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pp. xi

List of Tables

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pp. xiii-xiv

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1. The Media and American Politics: An Overview

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pp. 3-10

BEFORE THE 1970s, studies of elections and voting behavior by political scientists paid relatively little attention to the role of the media in elections in the United States. The landmark study of electoral behavior, The American Voter (1960), devoted few pages to the mass media or...

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2. Iowa: A Political and Demographic Profile

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pp. 11-24

Is Iowa a good place to start the presidential campaign? Is it a representative state? Party officials in Iowa—and some local and national writers—have asserted that Iowa is a good place to begin the presidential campaign because it is a two-party state whose politics are...

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3. The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Decades of Obscurity

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pp. 25-33

The caucus system is a product of the Jacksonian democracy of the early 1830s. Until that time, the dominant system for nominating public officials in the United States had been one of caucuses by members of Congress and the state legislatures. The new system began with...

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4. The 1968 and 1972 Caucuses: The Emergence of a National Event

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pp. 35-56

The early date for the precinct caucuses was destined to change their character completely. Before 1972 they were strictly local events; attendance was limited and activism was confined to a small band of partisans whose interest allowed them to dominate the meetings by default...

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5. The 1976 Caucuses: The Making of a Front-Runner

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pp. 57-79

THE NATIONAL NEWS MEDIA, with notable exceptions, devoted minimal time and space to the 1972 Iowa precinct caucuses. The limited coverage is understandable, given the newness of Iowa as an early source of information about the progress of the presidential campaign...

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6. The 1980 Caucuses: A Media Event Becomes an Institution

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pp. 81-108

THE IOWA PRECINCT CAUCUSES were the opening round in the 1980 primary and caucus season. George McGovern's success in 1972 and Jimmy Carter's emergence as the Democratic front-runner in 1976 assured the caucuses of a position of prominence in the presidential...

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7. The 1984 Caucuses: The Kickoff of a Front-Loaded Season

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pp. 109-134

IN ADDITION TO shortening the presidential primary season, the Hunt Commission proposals had the unintended consequence of contributing to the front-loading of the 1984 primary and caucus calendar. A number of states, anxious to share the influence and...

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8. The 1988 Caucuses: A Media Extravaganza

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pp. 135-183

THE 1988 PRECINCT CAUCUSES were the first in which an incumbent president was not seeking reelection since Iowa became a media event in 1972. Competition in both parties assured vigorous nominating contests. The Iowa parties were eager to be a part of campaigns that...

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9. The 1992 Caucuses: A Favorite Son Emerges

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pp. 185-200

The campaign for the White House had started earlier every presidential cycle. Since the 1970s, candidates for the presidency had faced the prospect of devoting ever longer periods of their lives to the campaign trail. The Iowa campaign began more than two years before the...

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10. The 1996 Caucuses: Back in the Limelight

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pp. 201-251

Republicans entered the presidential primary and caucus season with renewed optimism as a result of their dramatic gains in the 1994 congressional elections. Newt Gingrich, the outspoken Speaker of the House of Representatives, had successfully "nationalized" the...

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11. The 2000 Caucuses: More Important than Ever

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pp. 253-282

Iowa’s “first- in-the-nation” caucuses have played an important role in the presidential nominations of at least one of the major parties in nearly every nominating cycle since 1972. Over this time both parties in Iowa have adopted and refined their rules governing...

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12. The 2004 Caucuses: Change and Continuity

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pp. 283-302

Despite the difficulties in unseating an incumbent president in modern times, the elections of 1980 and 1992 proved that it was possible. When President Bush’s approval ratings declined from their post-9/11 peak, a number of Democrats considered entering the presidential...

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13. The 2008 Caucuses: From Iowa to the White House

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pp. 303-336

The Iowa caucuses allow little-known and/or under-funded candidates to compete relatively inexpensively and become contenders by exceeding the expectations set by political pundits. That opportunity was attractive in 2008 because of declining Republican fortunes and...

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14. Media Event or Local Event? The Caucuses in Perspective

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pp. 337-343

Officials of both state parties , correspondents for the national media, and candidates for the presidency have all cooperated in making the Iowa precinct caucuses a weather vane for the presidential nominating process. The 1972 decision by the Iowa Democratic Party...


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pp. 345-363

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299544
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587299155

Page Count: 363
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Iowa -- Politics and government.
  • Caucus.
  • Mass media -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Nomination.
  • Press and politics -- United States.
  • Political parties -- Iowa.
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