This is the sixth 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.
On a warm day in September of 1991, a group of young campaign staffers arrived at a family farm in Winterset, Iowa, and got to work. They built a stage directly in front of a small red barn painted with an American flag, set up dozens of hay bales to act as seating, and organized stacks of campaign literature and rally signs. When they were finished, it looked exactly like what an Iowa political rally is supposed to look like: personal and pastoral and important. Eventually, the media got there, setting up their cameras and equipment in a roped-off area near the back of the field. When voters began to arrive, dressed in flannels and button ups and baseball caps, they were handed blue candidate signs and told to pick a hay bale somewhere in the audience. From the cheering that arose on the left side of the field, it was clear that the candidate had arrived, and he made his way to the stage, shaking hands and greeting supporters as he went. As he turned to address the whole crowd, a chorus of “Harkin! Harkin!” broke out among his eager supporters. Dressed in his customary khakis and a blue button up with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, he asked the sea of people “are you ready?” and he gave off an energy of excitement that only comes at the beginning of a promising campaign. On that afternoon in Winterset, Iowa’s favorite son Senator Tom Harkin announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
The 1992 Iowa Democratic caucuses were less of a contest and more of an affirmation that Iowa Democrats loved and supported their long-time Senator Tom Harkin. In what was supposed to be a competitive year for the Democrats (and was, outside of our state), Harkin’s Goliath presence in the race dissuaded other candidates from campaigning in Iowa much at all. Harkin, born in the tiny town of Cumming, Iowa, was an ISU graduate and a Vietnam War veteran, and he was fresh off the most significant legislative victory of his 30-year career in the Senate: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Already aware of the powerful Democratic base he had in his home state, Harkin hoped that the popularity of the ADA combined with a likely strong performance in the Iowa caucuses would be enough to win over a national audience.
With Harkin taking the reins in Iowa, competitive Democratic candidates opted to focus their attention on New Hampshire, where Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas’ campaign was growing worried about how quickly Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was gaining traction in state polls. Clinton was young, charismatic, and represented a new era of moderate Democrats stepping into leadership. His message resonated with a lot of moderates and independents who were searching for something different after 12 years of Reagan-esque policy coming out of the White House. Clinton came in a close second in New Hampshire, but from that point on his campaign was headed upwards, soon overtaking Tsongas and landing himself enough delegates to become the Democratic nominee.
It came as no surprise when Harkin won the Iowa caucuses on February 10th with over 76% of the vote—the highest percentage earned by a non-incumbent candidate in Iowa caucus history. Uncommitted voters came in second, followed by Tsongas with 4% and Clinton with just under 3% of the vote. Harkin’s victories, however, were limited mainly to Iowa, and after performing worse than expected in New Hampshire, he had to reconsider his candidacy. He opted to drop out of the race directly before Super Tuesday and endorsed Bill Clinton, with whom he maintained a strong alliance for the entirety of his time in the White House.
There were few surprises in the Republican contest in 1992. As incumbent president, George H. W. Bush earned himself his second Iowa caucus victory in an uncontested race, later losing out on a second term in office to Bill Clinton. Also significant to the 1992 presidential election, although not to the Iowa caucuses because he was running as an independent and therefore not competing in a party caucus, was Ross Perot. Perot went on to win nearly 19% of the Iowa popular vote in the general election, further proof that Iowa voters were not willing to swing too far left after they decided to move on from the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
The public response to the 1992 Democratic caucus showed the paradox of the Iowa caucuses. Everyone expected Tom Harkin to win the caucus in his home state, so he received a much smaller boost from his victory than Jimmy Carter did in ’76 or George H. W. Bush did in ’80. The momentum that comes from winning the Iowa caucus only comes if a campaign manages to surprise the media with the results. Because Harkin’s victory was not a surprise, the true beneficiary of the early preference votes was Bill Clinton, who did better than expected in New Hampshire and went on to win the nomination and serve two terms as president. Iowa matters because it is first; it is not first because it matters. When the results of the Iowa caucuses are long anticipated, the state fails to hold as much weight in the nomination process.