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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ‘72: Three Days in Iowa

This is the first 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 be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.

The Iowa caucuses are the stuff of political legend. For as long as they have been thought to impact presidential nomination decisions, the caucuses have drawn millions of campaign dollars, huge media attention, and precious weeks of candidates’ time. The caucuses have a way of getting billionaire political big shots to grovel at the feet of a butter cow or coastal political reporters who have never set foot in the Midwest to navigate between cornfields to reach small-town campaign events. They crowd hundreds of people into elementary school gyms, or a dozen into someone’s living room. They rely on hundreds of volunteers statewide in a state with a population just over three million. Some people call them archaic and unrepresentative, while others laud them as participatory democracy at its finest. Yet with all their madness, magic, and organized chaos, it’s hard to deny that the Iowa caucuses have been the gateway to much of the presidential politics of the past half century. 1972 was the year that started it all.

To understand why Iowa was suddenly plucked from the lineup and placed at the beginning of the nomination calendar, we need to go back four years to the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The 1968 convention was marred by bloodshed and rioting after a night of violent clashes between city police and the young student protesters who supported the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. While the riots were happening outside, party leaders inside the convention — who were used to controlling the entire nomination process — selected party favorite and Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic party nominee. Humphrey’s loss and the general backlash to the way that the party handled the protesters prompted a reevaluation of party priorities. The 1968 convention created the right environment for a rule change, and the McGovern-Fraser commission was appointed to establish those new rules.

The McGovern-Fraser commission settled on several reforms intended to appease the young members of the party who wanted a more democratic selection process. Some of the biggest changes included proportional representation of delegates, favoring primaries over caucuses, requiring that most delegates be elected at a local level, and implementing the now defunct system of public campaign finance. These changes allowed voters rather than party elites to have a say in choosing the presidential nominee, and it made it easier for lesser-known candidates to have a shot at the nomination without the frontrunners racking up huge numbers of delegates in winner-take-all elections. For Iowans, however, the commission’s most significant unintended consequence was that the precinct caucuses were pushed so far forward that they became the first delegate selection contest in the country.

Since it acquired statehood in 1846, Iowa has always had a caucus, but it hasn’t always been first. New rules in 1972 required that there be enough time between each level of delegate selection so that vote counts and necessary materials could be transported to the required location. Because delegates in Iowa are selected at four different levels — precinct, district, state, and national — officials had to count backward four times from the scheduled national convention in July until they ultimately reached a date that was sufficiently early to complete all necessary business. The result was an extremely early caucus on January 24. There was a slight pushback from New Hampshire, where it is written into the state constitution that they must hold the first primary of each election cycle. Because Iowa was planning to hold a caucus rather than a primary, however, the DNC gave them the okay anyway. It wouldn’t be until after the following cycle that Iowa would realize how valuable all of the attention that comes with being first in the nation can be.

While the Democrats were restructuring their party priorities and nomination process, the Republicans were in control of the White House and set on winning another term for President Richard Nixon. As President, Nixon had to attend to the Vietnam War, which he inherited from the Johnson administration; a stagnant economy after price and wage freezes; and the changing social culture that was occurring in the 1970s, all in addition to staging his reelection bid. The Watergate scandal and related corruption that would damage his presidential reputation had not yet been discovered, so although he was kept busy, he was in a relatively good place going into his campaign. Like many other reelection years, Nixon had no serious opponents for his nomination, and he could focus on the general election, rather than trying to win support in miscellaneous primaries nationwide. Essentially, this meant that the 1972 Republican caucus was very dull. The GOP held their caucus months after the Democratic Party — on May 9 — when it was already abundantly clear that Nixon would be renominated.

However, the parties did not hold separate caucuses for long. National media attention can be very persuasive, and the Republican Party would come to join the Democratic Party for an early caucus in 1976.

For the Democrats, however, 1972 was a competitive contest. With no incumbent to reelect, there were several candidates who had made enough traction to show up in the polls. California Representative Shirley Chisholm ran a historic campaign as the first Black woman to run for President. Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey were back again for another shot at the national ticket, Humphrey after a failed race against Nixon in the general and McCarthy after failing to receive the nomination in the first place. There was, however, one obvious frontrunner: Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. A World War II veteran who was opposed to the war in Vietnam, Muskie could cater to a wide base of both party traditionalists and young anti-war voters. Additionally, his experience as Governor of Maine combined with his two terms in the U.S. Senate gave him the political expertise favored by party officials. Going into 1972, most people expected Muskie to win not only the Iowa caucuses but the Democratic nomination, and they felt he would be serious competition for Nixon going into the general.

Trailing behind Muskie in the polls at a distant second place was South Dakota Senator George McGovern. You may recognize the name McGovern from a few paragraphs back — this is the same McGovern who reworked the Democratic nomination rules on the McGovern-Fraser commission. So the 1972 caucuses saw the person who wrote the new and complicated rules getting to use his insider knowledge to play the system... and judging by his eventual nomination, he was very successful at it. McGovern’s campaign was centered around a quick end to the war in Vietnam, and he was more popular than Muskie among the anti-war faction of the party. Leading up to the caucuses, McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, had the fortunate insight to convince him to spend three whole days campaigning in Iowa. He hoped that McGovern’s appeal as a fellow Midwesterner would be enough to advance his standings in the race. Hart knew they had a far better shot in Iowa than in New Hampshire, which bordered Muskie’s home state, so it was wise to try their luck at winning at least a few of Iowa’s delegates.

After an unusually chilly caucus night interrupted by blizzards and heavy snow, the results were in. A political reporter at the New York Times, R. W. Apple, happened to take an interest in the convoluted new rules of the Iowa caucuses, and he was the first to give our small state national media attention when he reported the caucus outcomes. The results were a surprise to many: ‘Uncommitted’ came in first with 35.8% of the vote, followed closely by Muskie with 35.5%. McGovern came in third with a whopping 22.6% of the vote, far better than anyone expected him to do.

Although a third-place finish doesn’t seem very impressive at face value, the unique nature of the Iowa caucuses is that the candidate who gets the most media attention — not necessarily the winner — is the one who gets a boost from the results. The fact that McGovern surprised everyone by getting nearly a quarter of the vote got him the most media attention, which in turn guided him to a close second place finish in the New Hampshire primary.

It was also surprising that Muskie was performing worse than expected, especially at home in New England. A partial explanation for the fading enthusiasm surrounding his campaign has to do with a bit of trickery on the part of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP).

In what was later claimed to be a forgery, a man wrote to a prominent newspaper claiming that Muskie had used a racist term to refer to the French-Canadian New Englanders who made up much of his base. To make matters worse, Muskie delivered an emotional response denying the claims made in the letter, which the media later dubbed his “crying speech.” Reporters from many major newspapers claimed Muskie started crying while delivering his speech; Muskie claimed it was snow melting on his face. Regardless of specific truths, this controversy all took place in the two weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primaries, giving McGovern just enough room to step up and make a name for himself as an alternative choice. It wasn’t long before McGovern overtook Muskie as the frontrunner, and in July of 1972, McGovern accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

The 1972 caucuses cemented Iowa’s place in political prominence. Although it won’t be until the 1976 cycle that we see just how far Iowa can propel a candidate, McGovern’s performance was the first example of the momentum a good showing in Iowa can give to a campaign. Iowa has proven that it is not always the person who comes in first who benefits most from the caucuses. Rather, the person who is able to overcome media predictions and do better than expected gets extra attention — which, in McGovern’s case — can propel them to the party nomination. McGovern ended up losing to Nixon in one of the most devastating landslides in modern presidential history during the 1972 general election. However, his candidacy and the three days he spent in Iowa was the precursor to fifty years of Iowa bus tours, straw polls, stump speeches, and one of the most interesting political environments in the world.

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