Every Four Years, the Eyes of the Nation Turn to ... Iowa!

Every Four Years, the Eyes of the Nation Turn to ... Iowa!

David P. Redlawsk of Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics discusses why Iowa matters

David Redlawsk

David Redlawsk

David P. Redlawsk is a professor of political science and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. Unlike many politicians, who make whirlwind visits to Iowa every four years – presidential election time – Redlawsk spent considerable time in the Hawkeye State. After earning his doctorate at Rutgers, he taught at the University of Iowa from 1999 until 2009 and also founded the university’s Hawkeye Poll. His new book, Why Iowa? (University of Chicago Press), co-authored with Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan, political scientists at the University of Iowa and the University of Western Washington, respectively, started as a class project to give undergraduates some hands-on data collection experience by conducting polls ahead of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. Redlawsk will discuss his book in a free public presentation Feb. 8 at Eagleton.

Rutgers Today: This book is in part about the role played by the Iowa Caucuses in choosing presidential nominees. What made you want to look so closely at Iowa?

David Redlawsk: After moving to Iowa – and never even having been to a caucus – I was asked anyway to be chair at the one in my precinct in February 2000. About 150 people showed up, nearly evenly split between U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore. I was immediately hooked by the idea of 150 neighbors coming together to talk about politics and to express their preference for president. That is just so rare in my experience in politics. Then, in the run-up to 2008, I started the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, which did the surveys during 2007 and 2008 that provided the data for this book. The idea of Iowa as a grass-roots expression of politics that can make or break presidential candidates has been around a long time, but there have been few efforts to study it systematically.

Rutgers Today: Many people complain that Iowa is a “bad place” to start the process of nominating presidents, since it is a small Midwestern state with little racial and ethnic diversity. Why should Iowa get all the attention?

Redlawsk: First, it’s important to understand we have a sequential system. We hold caucuses and primaries over time, not all on one day like a general election. Iowa became first due to a quirk of the rules in 1972. Is it fair Iowa has remained first?  Maybe not, but the system generally seems to work. Iowa Caucuses require candidates to meet “real people” and answer their questions. They cannot win running a pure media campaign. Instead they must build an organization, get out and learn about voters and allow voters to learn about them. It is certainly true Iowa is nowhere near as diverse as New Jersey. Its population is mainly white – though there is a rapidly growing Latino presence – and it is also older than most states. But no state – not even New Jersey – is a perfect representation of the country as a whole. Iowa works because of its relatively small population. Candidates can literally shake the hand of nearly every supporter. While the caucus process has its problems, they are mostly offset by the information voters later on learn from Iowa, and primaries in New Hampshire and other states.

Rutgers Today: You use the 2008 election to show how Iowa matters. Will Iowa play as big a role this time around?

Redlawsk: By definition, 2008 was unique. For the first time since the caucuses became first in the nation, both parties had a truly open race, with no clear “heir apparent.” More than 15 candidates from both parties made significant efforts in Iowa, and there is no doubt Barack Obama was propelled to the Democratic nomination by winning mostly white Iowa. Likewise, Mitt Romney saw the nomination slip from his grasp when Mike Huckabee unexpectedly beat him. In 2012, President Obama will be the Democratic nominee. All the action will be on the Republican side. While recent media reports suggest Romney would like to skip Iowa to avoid a repeat of 2008, so far that has not been a winning strategy in past elections. So I expect he will compete there, as will all serious GOP candidates.

Rutgers Today: So why NOT New Jersey?

Redlawsk: Well, no particular reason, except that New Jersey’s politics are probably too elite-driven to work well at the start of the nomination process. Iowa is special because its politics truly builds from the ground up. Iowans not only express presidential preferences, but also elect precinct captains and begin building the state party platform at their local precinct caucuses. Everyday Iowans have direct access to party leaders and direct input into key parts of the party operation. Iowa is first in the nation essentially by accident, but to change would require 49 other states to agree. And since they all would like to be first, a sort of stalemate ensures keeping the current system in place, at least for one more presidential cycle.


Media Contact: Steve Manas
732-932-7084, ext. 612
E-mail: smanas@ur.rutgers.edu