The Political Process
Political parties play an important role in the political process. Parties nominate candidates, promote voter registration, publicize candidates’ views, raise money for campaigns and help build agreement on major issues.
Two Major Parties
There are two major political parties in Iowa, the Republicans and the Democrats. For nearly a century after the Civil War, the Republican Party was the stronger party and won most elections. In the 1950s, however, the Democrats began to gain strength. Many Iowa voters often split their ballots between the two parties. They may vote for the Republican candidates for some offices and Democrats for others in the same election. This keeps the two parties very competitive.
Candidates for State Offices
In Iowa party candidates for state offices—such as governor—are selected through a primary election, usually in the spring before the November election. Candidates ask voters to sign their names to a petition, and when the candidate has enough signatures, their name qualifies to go onto the primary ballot. The candidate with the most votes becomes the party’s candidate in the November election. However, if there are several candidates running for that office and no candidate receives 35 percent of the ballots cast, the party calls a political convention. Delegates to the convention, selected by party members, choose the candidate.
Every Four Years
But the election process is a little different for candidates at the national level. Every four years the major parties hold political conventions to choose someone to be their candidate for president and vice president in the general election. Political conventions are national meetings composed of party members or their representatives from every state. Lots of party members want to be delegates to the national conventions. But they have to be chosen to go. They are chosen either through a caucus or through a primary election.
The Iowa Way— Caucuses
Every four years when preparing to elect a president each party in Iowa sponsors a local neighborhood meeting in January. The meetings, called "caucuses," are open to any voter who wants to support that party.
At the caucus party members discuss political issues and candidates. They also elect representatives called “delegates” to the county convention. The same discussions occur at the county conventions, and the county convention elects delegates to the state convention. At the state level the convention selects delegates to the national convention.
How Other States Do It—Primaries
Because of the way the political process works in Iowa, this state plays a unique and important role in the selection of presidential candidates. In many states delegates to the party’s national convention that nominates the presidential and vice presidential candidates are selected in a primary election. Party members go to the polls and vote for the presidential candidate of their choice. Delegates for the national convention are awarded to each candidate based on the number of votes the candidate receives in the primary election.
The Caucus Way
The political parties in Iowa didn’t always use the caucus method of choosing presidential candidates to represent their party. It was in 1972 that both political parties in Iowa established a new way of choosing delegates to the national convention—the current caucus system. And this decision has made Iowa a place that gets a lot of attention every four years.
Because the convention process takes so long—neighborhood caucus, county convention, state convention—the first caucus happens in January, almost ten months before the November general elections. The Iowa January caucuses are the first step anywhere in the United States in selecting a presidential candidate. The entire nation watches the results of the Iowa caucuses to see which candidates connect well with the voters.
Therefore, most presidential candidates spend a long time campaigning in Iowa. They meet with voters in cafes, in small group meetings, in homes, on the street, in factories—anywhere they can. They run television ads promoting their issues. They listen to understand Iowa voters’ concerns.
On Iowa caucus night there are hundreds of reporters from around the world in Iowa. They report on the results of the caucuses and why Iowans support one candidate or another. Caucus night is Iowa’s night to be in the political spotlight.
Carter and the Iowa Caucuses
Jimmy Carter was one of the first candidates to realize the importance of the Iowa caucus. In 1976 Carter was governor of the state of Georgia and was campaigning to win the Democrats’ nomination for president. He realized that if he could run well in Iowa, his campaign would attract attention. He spent many days campaigning in Iowa, bought advertising, and convinced leading Democrats to support him. The plan worked. His surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucus made people around the nation pay attention to his campaign. He won the Democrats’ nomination at the national convention and was elected president in the November election.
Other states sometimes complain that Iowa plays too big a role in the presidential campaign. Candidates spend more time in Iowa than in most other states, even those that have bigger populations. Iowa is proud of its first-in-the-nation status and works hard to maintain it.
It’s Not Just Nominating Candidates
Political parties do other things besides nominate candidates. They raise money for elections. This money is used to buy advertising and signs and to help pay the costs of a campaign. They also make sure that voters who support the party candidates are legally registered to vote. On election day the party works hard to make sure that their voters go to the polls to vote.
Fun to Watch, But Even More Fun to Participate!
The political process can be a fascinating thing to watch. Both local and national political campaigns can be exciting. During presidential election years Iowa gets a lot of special attention. People from around the world notice Iowa. But the great thing about it is that when a person turns 18 years old, they get to do more than just watch the excitement. That’s when a person can actually take part in the process by voting!
Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.