Students learn about the history of the Iowa Caucus, and watch a video depicting Senator George McGovern’s surprising Iowa success in 1972. They consider the benefits that accrue to Iowa as a result of being “first in the nation.” To extend the lesson, students can research the history of Iowa Caucus results and compare them to national election results.
This lesson is part of "Great States: Iowa Unit 9 | Activities for Grades 8–12." This unit is comprised of activities for 8th grade and high school students. In this unit, students will explore the environmental, historical, and political factors that characterize the state of Iowa.
H.SS-Gov.9-12.27: Compare and contrast the institutions and systems of Iowa government and politics that are unique to the state including but not limited to Iowa’s unique role in presidential selection and in the special status of Meskwaki lands as non-reservation lands.
- Video: History of the Iowa Caucuses | Iowa Caucus History: 1972
- An interactive whiteboard, projector, or another type of screen to show videos to the class
Provide students with background information about the caucus and primary processes. In 1968, the process of electing presidential nominees happened through national conventions. After violent protests occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party decided that there needed to be a different way of nominating candidates for President. Thus, the primary and caucus systems were introduced to spread out the election schedule and create a way for anyone who wanted to be an elected official to have the opportunity to make their case in each state. The new system changed the way politicians had to campaign.
Explain that most states hold primaries in which people go to the polls and vote for their preferred contender to be a party’s candidate for president. In Iowa and nine other states, however, people gather with neighbors in homes, schools, churches, etc., to discuss the candidates and choose their preference. Iowa held its first caucus in January of 1972, the first in the nation. The tradition of Iowa holding the first caucus in the presidential election process has continued ever since.
Play the video, History of the Iowa Caucuses | Iowa Caucus History: 1972. [3:59]
Ask students to explain how McGovern’s second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses was considered a victory [he was a longshot candidate who did better than expected]. What role did the press play in promoting the importance of both McGovern and Iowa? [A New York Times story about McGovern’s showing was picked up by television stations, so many people learned about the January 1972 Iowa caucus.]
Indicate that the McGovern “victory” of 1972 launched the trend of candidates focusing attention, time, and resources on the state’s “first in the nation” nomination contest. Many underdog candidates have continued to set their sites on Iowa as the place to gain national recognition.
To conclude the lesson, ask students to list ways in which Iowa can benefit from the traditions surrounding the Iowa caucuses. [Possible answers include: candidates need to learn Iowa’s issues; because it’s a rural state, candidates need to visit many parts of the state to gain support; the Iowa caucuses garner national attention out of proportion to the size of the state’s population; presidential campaigns and the national political media spend money in the state on meals, lodging, etc.]
Extend the lesson (take-home assignment):
Have students watch some of the videos in the Iowa Caucus series. Have students conduct research to make a list of the Iowa caucus winners and the results of each presidential election. How often do the Iowa caucus winners go on to win the nomination at the national convention? How many go on to win the presidency? Do any patterns emerge?
For more on Iowa caucuses, see the other videos in The History of the Iowa Caucuses collection.