How the World Votes: The Iowa Caucuses and Voter Representation

This Teaching Idea is part of a Facing History series, “How the World Votes.” Each installment will look at one aspect of how elections are organized in different countries around the world, with the goal of giving students fresh insight into how their own representatives are elected. Look for more installments of “How the World Votes” throughout the 2019–2020 school year.

Iowa has an unusual presidential primary system called a “caucus,” which requires voters to come in person to debate the merits of each of their party’s candidates before voting. The Iowa caucuses are the first chance voters in the United States have to cast a ballot in support of a presidential candidate, which means Iowa can have a significant impact on the presidential primary race. Voters in other states, the media, and donors use the results of the Iowa caucuses to help them determine which candidates are viable; winners can gain momentum and those who do not do well may bow out of the race.

Not everyone agrees that the Iowa caucuses should have this level of influence, however, since the voters in the Iowa caucuses are not representative of the broader demographics of voters across the United States. The state is small and rural, with an overwhelmingly white population (90.7% according to the US census).

This Teaching Idea helps students understand how the Iowa caucuses work, prompts them to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of voting in person at a caucus, and invites them to explore the question of whether Iowa should be the first state to vote in the presidential primary season.

  1. What Makes the Iowa Caucuses Different from Other State Primaries?

    Play the Washington Post video Iowa Caucus 2020: A Step-by-Step Guide and Why They Matter for your students in order to give them background information on how the Iowa caucuses work.

    After you watch the video, ask your students to discuss the following questions in small groups:

    • What are the advantages of organizing an election that requires voters to come in person to discuss the candidates? Should more elections be organized like Iowa’s caucuses? Why or why not?
    • The requirement to come in person presents barriers to some voters. Which groups of people do you think might find it difficult to vote in the Iowa caucuses? What effect could it have on the outcome of the election if certain groups of people are more likely to vote than others?
    • Do you think you would be more likely to vote if your state (or country) had a caucus rather than a more standard primary? Why or why not?
  2. Should Iowa Vote First?

    Ask each student to read the arguments for and against the Iowa caucuses being the first elections in the presidential primary season.

    Argument against the Iowa caucuses being first:

    People generally have two big criticisms of Iowa's first-in-the-nation status (and New Hampshire's, as well): (1) that the states are not representative of the rest of the country, and (2) that they're too tiny. Were a state like California or Texas or Florida or New York first, a much bigger share of the U.S. population would get a shot at shaping the presidential race early. And with any of those states (and plenty of others) you get more diversity; Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest states in the country, as well as two of the most rural.1

    Argument for the Iowa caucuses being first:

    Iowa's smallness is in some ways a feature, not a bug, in that it allows less well funded candidates a fair shot. . . The state's caucus "ensures that there is at least one place where a candidate with a compelling message has a shot at winning, regardless of money or national fame," as the Des Moines Register's Kathy O'Bradovich argued in October [2015].2

    Then, place your students into pairs, and ask them to discuss the following questions together:

    • Which arguments did you find most convincing and least convincing? Why?
    • What groups of voters do you think get more influence because Iowa votes first? What groups of voters do you think get less influence? What effect could this have on the outcome of the primaries?
    • Do you think that the US presidential primaries should be changed so that Iowa does not vote first? Why or why not?
    • How else do you think the presidential primaries could be organized?

Extension: What Do Iowans Think About Their Caucuses?

Select a few videos from the New York Times article What Iowa Caucus-Goers Have to Say to play for your students. (Note: It is not possible to pause the videos.) Then, discuss the videos with your students. Depending on which videos you watch, you may find the following questions useful to guide a discussion:

  • How do these Iowa voters describe their caucuses? 
  • According to them, what are the benefits of the caucuses? What are the drawbacks? 
  • What do they say about the question of whether the Iowa caucus should be first? Do you agree or disagree with any of their statements?
  • Did watching these videos change or reinforce your thinking about the Iowa caucuses in any way? If so, how?

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