David Yepsen has been director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, since April 1, 2009. Yepsen hails from Des Moines, Iowa where he was the political editor and writer for the Des Moines Register for 34 years and is the premier expert on the Iowa Caucus’s covering the caucus ever since their inception in 1972.
Yepsen said the caucuses have changed since the early days in the 70’s and 80’s where people would gather in living rooms, gymnasiums, and schools to discuss the candidates. Small retail politics in Iowa no longer exist and with big media outlets and huge campaign staffs focusing heavily on the candidates, some of the intrigue and relaxation of choosing a candidate has given way to sideshows and huge campaign events. Yepsen said the caucuses have lost their intimacy and neighborhood feeling of what they once were. Yepsen said it was easier to get to know each individual candidate without the glare of national media.
Yepsen said the Iowa Caucus is up for grabs. While Mitt Romney has stayed consistent with low numbers, new challengers keep rising and falling. Yepsen believes that whoever peaks at the right time could win Iowa, but insists that Mitt Romney is following the strategy of former President George H.W. Bush. In 1988, Bush came in third in Iowa, but won the nomination with a plurality, because conservatives split their votes in South Carolina and other states allowing Bush, the moderate to rise and win the Republican nomination. Yepsen laid out Romney’s logic: “Romney has decided to make a play for Iowa and he needs the conservative vote split among the several candidates, and the risk is probably worth it, because if he stays out of Iowa he has to fend off the winner of the Iowa Caucus who will have all the momentum and media attention who may have an edge on him, however, if he wins Iowa he can start to roll up the nomination like John Kerry did in 2004.”
The Iowa Caucus came about after the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The disputes over Vietnam and the protests in Chicago initiated Iowa as the spring board of presidential politics in every election since ’72. The Democratic leaders did not want similar circumstances to occur at the next national convention when nominating a future president and vice-president. Therefore, they decided to open up the party and allow more people to participate. Place more time between more state and district conventions earlier throughout the year, which led Iowa to have their caucus in February.
“Most importantly the Democrats figured Iowa would be the first place in the country where rank-in-file Democrats selected people who went on to select national convention delegates,” Yepsen said. In 1972, Senator Ed Muskie, (D-ME), was the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination for president and a strong contender to beat President Richard M. Nixon that year. However, Sen. George McGovern, (D-SD), was convinced by his young campaign manager Gary Hart to visit Iowa. A bad ice storm came the night of the caucus and establishment Democrats who would have supported Sen. Muskie stayed home, but radical anti-war Democrats showed up and supported Sen. McGovern. When McGovern came in second he surprised the political establishment and went on to win the Democratic nomination for president, thus securing Iowa’s place in presidential politics as the nation’s first political contest.
“For better or worse for right or wrong they have had a huge impact on the presidential selection process on our country and I think they will again this time,” Yepsen said. The role the caucus has played is one of two things either it would shoot someone to the White House as it did with President Jimmy Carter in ’76, or the result would be minuscule compared to the primary states. Yepsen said that no one who finished worse than third in the history of the Iowa Caucuses went on to win their party nomination, with the exception of Sen. John McCain in 2008 who finished fourth.
In 1976, the Iowa Republicans decided to get in on the action of these caucuses and a former California governor and Illinois native, Ronald Reagan, ran a close second to President Gerald Ford in the caucuses. Yepsen said that after the 1976 elections republicans saw the caucus as a barometer of Ford’s decline and Reagan’s rise in the party. The Democrats and Republicans do their caucuses differently; Democrats do proportional voting convincing one another at their meetings to support their candidate, while Republicans simple do a straw ballot and drop names in a hat.