The History of the Iowa Caucuses

Expand/Collapse The History of the Iowa Caucuses


This collection from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary explores how Iowa became the political epicenter and first major electoral event for the United States presidential nomination process. Since 1972, the event has drawn increasing media attention and has become a test of candidates’ abilities to attract and organize supporters. This political rite of passage is an early indication of which candidates might gain the support of their political party for the nomination. The collection includes recent interviews with political leaders, campaign staff and journalists from across the country on their memories of caucus campaigns in Iowa.

  • Iowa Caucus History: 1968 Creates Need for Change

    Following the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, a group of Iowa Democratic party operatives moved to restructure the process of selecting local delegates for the national convention. They chose to start this new delegate selection process early in 1972, making Iowa the first-in-the-nation. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: George McGovern’s Early Momentum in 1972

    In 1971, South Dakota Senator George McGovern started campaigning in Iowa before his rivals. Although he placed second, the news of this long-shot candidate having a strong finish in the Iowa caucuses provided enough early momentum to propel McGovern to eventually claim the 1972 Democratic nomination. His campaign manager, Gary Hart, learned valuable lessons that he would use in the future. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: Jimmy Carter Connects with Iowans in 1976

    In early 1975, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter began campaigning in Iowa. He spent a great deal of time visiting with people in small towns and at local events. Although he came in second in the 1976 Iowa caucuses to those who had voted  “uncommitted”, the media picked up on the fact that he did better than expected, and Carter used this momentum to eventually win the nomination. His strategy would be used and adapted by both parties in future campaigns. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: George Bush Beats Expectations in 1980

    Following past candidates’ success with “retail politics” in Iowa, George HW Bush came to Iowa early and often to build awareness and relationships prior to the 1980 caucuses.  The clear front runner in the race, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, had Midwestern roots dating back to his childhood in Illinois and his time as a Des Moines radio announcer. Reagan had decided not to aggressively campaign in Iowa, and as the caucus results came in, George HW Bush was declared the winner. The Iowa victory catapulted Bush into the role of primary Reagan challenger, and he ultimately campaigned his way onto the winning republican ticket as the nominee for Vice President in the fall of 1980. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: Walter Mondale Battles Expectations in 1984

    Ahead of the 1984 Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Walter Mondale was the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic party's nomination. A Midwestern upbringing on the Iowa-Minnesota border only bolstered his caucus expectations. Expectations were so high for Mondale that the media’s attention was focused on who would come in second. Colorado Senator Gary Hart exceeded the low expectations for his candidacy, and received a significant boost in popularity from his strong Iowa showing. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: The Rise of the Christian Conservative Movement in 1988

    The emergence of the Christian Conservative movement and Iowans’ desire for change resulted in Vice President George Bush losing the 1988 Iowa Caucuses to Kansas Senator Robert Dole and televangelist-turned-politician Pat Robertson. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: Bob Dole’s Battle with the Conservative Right in 1996

    Kansas Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, was in the political fight of his life in 1995. The Republican “establishment's” popular choice for the nomination, Dole was under siege from a band of outsiders, some fueled by personal wealth like Steve Forbes, others fueled by increasingly conservative rhetoric. Although Dole would win the 1996 Iowa Caucuses, much of the nation’s attention was focused on the strong showing and conservative surge of Pat Buchanan. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: The Rise and Fall of Howard Dean in 2004

    By the fall of 2003, Vermont Governor Howard Dean had captured the support of many in the Democratic Party. With a late push and major reinvestment in his Iowa campaign, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was able to win the 2004 Iowa Caucuses in a close race. Dean’s surprising third place finish, and the media’s coverage of his Iowa concession speech, was the beginning of the end for his campaign. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Iowa Caucus History: Obama’s 2008 Victory

    A dramatic Democratic campaign ended with an historic victory for Barack Obama and defeat for the early favorite Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, as Obama gained the support of an unprecedented surge of first-time and independent voters. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12
  • The History of the Iowa Caucuses

    In 1972, the Iowa Caucuses became the first major electoral event for the nomination process for President of the United States. Since that time, the event has drawn increasing media attention and has become a test of candidates’ ability to attract and organize their campaign, and ultimately win the support of their political party for the nomination. This segment from Iowa Public Television’s Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency documentary includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with politicians, campaign staff and journalists of the era.

    Grades: 6-12

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