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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’84: Iowa Gets It Right

This is the third 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.

Less than one mile north of the Minnesota-Iowa border lies the tiny town of Elmore, Minnesota. With a population of 663, Elmore has the look and feel of a typical Midwestern small town. Curved streets are lined with single family homes with a few businesses sprinkled in the mix. There’s a liquor store, a car repair shop, a café, and a couple of churches. The community is too small to support its own public school district, so students are bused 20 minutes away to a larger neighboring town. Surrounded by cornfields, Elmore could have easily fit in among its neighboring Iowa farm towns, had the border been drawn just a half a mile north. In 1937, future Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale moved to Elmore with his family, including his Iowa-born mother, where he would stay until he moved away for college. Mondale would go on to seek his party’s nomination for President in the 1984 election, and his almost-Iowan upbringing assisted him in his appeal to voters during the first nominating contest in the country: the Iowa caucuses.

A lot of attention is paid by modern media to the question of whether Iowa matters. Does winning the Iowa caucus actually give candidates a better chance of earning their party’s nomination? Does it give them a better chance of being elected president? Although it is a stretch to pick out a direct correlation between a victory in Iowa and a candidate’s likelihood of nomination, there have been a few outstanding exceptions in Iowa history that keep the myth alive.

1984, for example, marked the first year that both the Republican and Democratic winners of the Iowa caucus went on to win their respective party nominations; the first time that Iowa ‘got it right.’ This was accomplished largely due to the presence of clear frontrunners in both party contests. On the Democratic side, with no incumbent to choose from, Walter Mondale stepped naturally into the role of de facto incumbent and became both a frontrunner and a party favorite following his term as Vice President. And of course, Ronald Reagan was back again and gaining steam going into his second nomination. Completely uncontested within the Republican party, Reagan won the Iowa caucus by default, and the party held no official straw poll that year.

Also important to 1984 were the new rules that Democratic caucuses and primaries had to abide by following the platform passed by the Hunt Commission. Formed after Carter’s failed reelection campaign following a national conservative realignment in the parties, the commission’s goal was to rethink the Democratic nomination procedures to both give the party a leg up in the primaries and to make their process more appealing to voters. After a year of debate, the commission passed a series of rule changes that included the creation of superdelegates, more freedom for states to choose between primaries and caucuses, and increasing income diversity among delegates. Some of the immediate consequences of the Hunt Commission included the election of delegates with more extreme views due to superdelegates who were not tied to a particular candidate, as well as the frontloading of state elections early in the season. In 1984, just over a third of all states held their caucuses in the first three weeks of the cycle, although as always, Iowa remained first in the nation.

Walter Mondale’s greatest enemy going into the 1984 caucus was his own frontrunner status. Just like Edmund Muskie twelve years before, most people assumed Mondale’s victory was inevitable, and he spent his early campaign struggling to maintain an already impressive lead in a wide field of candidates. Many staffers on the Mondale campaign felt as though he “couldn’t lose, so there was no urgency” – an attitude that had the potential to morph into a negative public image of the campaign. Voters don’t like it when candidates take their path to victory for granted; that’s why George H. W. Bush won the 1980 Iowa caucus instead of Ronald Reagan. Although Mondale eventually recovered, his competition took advantage of his weak points early on in the contest.

There was a substantial field of Democratic candidates vying for the nomination in 1984, including former George McGovern campaign manager and Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who had previously earned his place in Iowa caucus legend by suggesting that McGovern campaign in-person in Iowa for a few days leading up to the caucus. George McGovern himself was running (yes, again), as was California Senator Alan Cranston, much beloved astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn, former Florida Governor Reubin Askew, and Civil Rights leader and founder of the Rainbow Coalition Jesse Jackson, who became the first Black man to run for president.

The 1984 Democratic ticket was both predictable and full of surprises. It was expected, for example, that Mondale would earn the nomination, which he eventually did. In the meantime, however, Glenn’s lacking performance and Hart’s second place finish in the were surprises to most voters. With Reagan running uncontested and Mondale miles ahead of his competitors, the main takeaway from the 1984 was the second-place Democratic finisher Gary Hart. As one of the first people to recognize the importance of Iowa in the nomination process, Hart had the right ideas and right strategy to make a positive impression on voters.

The 1984 Iowa caucuses further reinforced a narrative that coming in first in Iowa makes a candidate more likely to receive their party’s nomination for president. With both Mondale and Reagan claiming dual victory in the Iowa caucuses and their party’s nominating conventions, this early stage in Iowa caucus history seemed to imply that the voters of Iowa had been dealt an enormous amount of power. In the eyes of the public, Iowa was rapidly increasing its impact on national presidential politics.


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