This is the tenth installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will accompany reference material archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.
“They said this day would never come.” On January 3rd, 2008, Illinois Senator Obama delivered this famous line in his Iowa caucus victory speech in Des Moines. For months until that night, Obama had been waging an Iowa campaign of record-breaking resources and organization. He spent $9 million on television advertising in the state- more than any candidate in either party- and he had a network of hundreds of volunteers and organizers working on the ground in all 99 counties. All these efforts had paid off, and for a few moments, Obama got to address his supporters and reflect on his victory before flying east to focus all his efforts on New Hampshire. For many Obama voters that night, Iowa became “where America remembered what it means to hope[i].”
After decades of trying to recreate the path Jimmy Carter took to the White House in 1976- a path that meandered from relative obscurity to winning the Iowa caucuses to becoming the President- Obama became the next candidate to take a caucus victory and turn it into a residency on Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama was a largely unknown junior Senator from Illinois in his first term: he had never run a national campaign before, and he had a lot to learn before going up against well-funded party favorite New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Additionally, Obama had to contend with public fears that the country was not ready to elect an African-American candidate for president. His reception in Iowa would have huge implications for the rest of his campaign. With a population that was 94.5% white in 2008, if Obama could win in Iowa, it proved he had the potential to win anywhere.
The Obama campaign knew they would have to play a different kind of game if they wanted to have a shot at victory that year. With an established and popular competitor like Hillary Clinton taking up a huge share of the field and media attention early on, the “skinny kid with a funny name” would have to race to catch up. One of the most significant reasons that Obama earned his caucus victory in 2008 was his campaign’s chief strategy: getting Iowans who had never caucused before to turn up and vote for him. Based on data from previous caucuses, the Obama campaign was certain they would lose if they had to compete for votes among the same likely caucus-goers who showed up every four years. So, they came up with a new strategy. Instead of appealing to established caucus participants, they would recruit new ones, especially young people who had never caucused before. Obama’s message of hope resonated with enough of these young voters to garner 80,000 new registrations leading up to the caucus, resulting in record turnout in an already competitive race. Many precincts reported double or triple the attendance they had seen in 2004, leading to overflowing precinct sites and even a couple of examples of caucuses being moved to the parking lot, as venues could not support all the people who showed up[ii].
The way that each party calculates their delegates also comes into play during the 2008 Democratic caucus cycle. In Democratic caucuses, delegates are tallied by a proportional system, meaning multiple candidates can win delegates in the same precinct. If, for example, a Democratic candidate receives 40% of the votes in a precinct, they will also receive 40% of the delegates from that precinct. The Republicans, on the other hand, primarily use a winner-takes-all system, in which the candidate who receives the most votes in a precinct gets all of the delegates from that precinct. (In most states, if a Republican candidate received 40% of the vote in a precinct, they would receive 100% of the delegates). This way, the nominee is usually chosen quickly and with less contention. In the 2008 Democratic primary, the consequences of this proportional system meant that top candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were locked in a close battle well past the time that John McCain had been declared a nominee for the Republican party nominee. With Obama and Clinton picking up delegates in every state they competed in, one couldn't break away from the pack and become the leader outright[iii]. Obama’s eventual nomination at the DNC resulted from many months of slowly adding delegates to his total count.
The 2008 caucus cycle also made room for the growth of another little-known candidate who used his unlikely caucus victory as a way to prove the validity of his campaign. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won in Iowa partly due to his experience as a Baptist minister, which he used to win over Iowa's substantial Evangelical voting population[iv]. After Bush was reelected in 2004, Republicans were also dealing with a competitive race in their 2008 caucus cycle, so Huckabee was up against a large field of mostly better-known rivals. These included Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, and Arizona Senator John McCain, who went on to win his party’s nomination. The Republican caucus in 2008 may not have propelled Huckabee to the Republican nomination, but it did prove yet again that the Evangelical vote among Iowa Republicans should not be underestimated.
In the age of modern media, Obama’s campaign trajectory looked a little different than we saw in caucuses of the past. What Jimmy Carter accomplished in 1976 through word of mouth was through Facebook followers by Barack Obama in 2008. He took Howard Dean’s strategy of internet campaigning. He ran with it, using Facebook and YouTube alongside his campaign website to organize meetups and candidate events and reach more people with his message. Whereas Carter remained largely unknown until his victory in Iowa gave him the media attention he had been searching for, Obama could use the internet to build up his nationwide support so that he had become a national figure before his Iowa victory. But that early campaign in Iowa gave him the tools and experience to grow his campaign. This is why Obama said, reflecting on his early campaign in Iowa: “If we hadn’t won Iowa, we wouldn’t have won the Presidency.” To Presidents and almost-Presidents alike, Iowa remains a critical part of the Presidential election process.
[i] Obama, Barack. “Iowa Caucus Victory Speech.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 Jan. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqoFwZUp5vc.
[ii] “Iowa Caucus History: Obama’s 2008 Victory.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Jan. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Va6j64w6WVM&t=5s.
[iii] Yoon, Robert. “Winning the Presidential Nomination Is All about Delegates. but How Does the Process Work?” AP News, AP News, 29 Nov. 2023, apnews.com/article/presidential-election-delegate-selection-process-primary-caucus-9720daa8d706a4afceaa2d939f59a1b9.
[iv] Jaffe, Ina. “Iowa Republican Caucus Selects Huckabee.” NPR, NPR, 4 Jan. 2008, www.npr.org/2008/01/04/17840859/iowa-republican-caucus-selects-huckabee.