Editor's note: This is part two in a six-part series about the Iowa caucuses and why they are important.
This year, Iowa has retained its first-in-the-nation status in an extremely front-loaded schedule, causing some to wonder if it will stay as significant as in the past.
The caucuses are the first step toward picking delegates to national conventions where the parties pick their candidate for the presidency.
Iowa's major political parties have held caucuses every two years for more than a century, except for a short period when the state flirted with a presidential preference primary. In 1913, the Legislature voted to establish a primary election for presidential nominees. The primary was held April 10, 1916.
Iowa went back to a caucus system after only 25 percent of registered voters participated in the primary.
Iowa's caucuses are important because they are the first to be held in the nation during each presidential election cycle. They can be the candidates' first opportunity to gauge their level of approval or popularity among voters.
"It's important because it's first," said David Yepsen, Des Moines Register political columnist who has covered the Iowa caucuses since 1972.
Caucuses in Iowa force the candidates to actually come in and do some work.
Candidates know just airing political ads in Iowa does not work and many voters in Iowa will not vote for candidates if they aren't given a chance to meet the candidates and ask them questions about their policies.
"That's what the Iowa caucus is all about. It's called retail politics," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics. "You go into the hometowns of people in Iowa, and try to sell yourself to the citizens. The precincts in Creston are just as important to their nominations as the people in Ames."
Bystrom said the Iowa caucuses weed out the lesser candidates.
"[We] reduce the field of presidential candidates for the rest of the country," Bystrom said. "So they just have to pay attention to fewer candidates. New Hampshire has a primary, and we have a caucus. The top contenders rise to the top."
Moved to the front of the pack in 1972 in response to a national change in delegate selection rules, Iowa's Democratic caucus gave George McGovern a mild boost.
"You know Iowa really told us something, and Jimmy Carter was down in Georgia watching this. In 1976, what he did was implanting that strategy of doing well in Iowa, as a strategy to actually go the whole distance with it and that really certified the caucus as important," Yepsen said.
Michigan, Florida and a host of other states tried this year to grab part of Iowa's influence by moving up their voting. Each time, Iowa moved further, always boasting that here, people pay attention.
Iowa appears to have outmaneuvered several states that are trying to leapfrog into first on the calendar. But the effort to move to the front created a schedule that could settle both the Democratic and Republican races by the first week of February.
Political science faculties will, no doubt, produce realms of analysis on whether the front-loaded season made Iowa more or less important. But the campaigns have bet heavily that Iowa counts more.
"Only really the top three are in a position to survive in the later stages. In the history of the caucuses no one who had finished worse than third has ever gone on to win their party's nomination.
"I've always said you have three tickets out of Iowa: first class, coach and stand-by. That's a big function of Iowa, and that is just to cut down the field of candidates to a smaller size, who then go on to New Hampshire." Yepsen said.
Just how much the caucuses atter, or should matter, is a matter of endless debate. But there is no denying that anyone who makes a difference - be it the candidates, the consultants or the media - in the long slog to Pennsylvania Avenue treats the Iowa caucuses as a vital piece in the great game of expectations.
© 2007 Iowa State Daily via U-WIRE