The Iowa caucuses suck for Iowans

It burns out organizers who could be spending time working on local issues.


The Iowa caucuses suck for Iowans

It burns out organizers who could be spending time working on local issues.

The Iowa caucuses suck for Iowans

It burns out organizers who could be spending time working on local issues.

There were already 11 other Democrats running for president when Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia, entered the field on December 12, 1974. Few people knew who he was. His hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, even said, “Jimmy Who Is Running For What?” in a headline announcing his campaign.

Carter may have been an unknown candidate, but the Democratic nomination process was newly unknown territory. In the wake of the riots surrounding 1968 Democratic Conventions, the Democratic party made structural changes to the nomination process to create more accountability and transparency. One change mandated that state party leaders give 30 days’ notice before any primaries or caucuses were held. Each state had a slightly different nomination process, and this rule was intended to make it easier for every voter to participate regardless of what state they lived in.

In Iowa, the nomination process included four levels — the caucuses are followed by county, state, and Congressional district conventions — and the new rules required at least a month in between each event. In order to finish its nomination process before the national convention, Iowa needed to move its caucus to be the first in the nation.

At the time, no one paid much attention to the Iowa Caucuses. Carter and his campaign came up with an ingenious plan: if he could pull off a win in Iowa by being the one to aggressively campaign there, the media would cover his campaign more positively, which would lead to winning the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the presidency.

They were right. While “uncommitted” won more votes than Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Iowa caucus, he was declared the winner by the media. And ever since Carter successfully used the Iowa Caucuses to win his party’s nomination and the White House, presidential candidates from all parties have been trying to pull off a repeat performance. Few have been successful, but it hasn’t stopped any of them from trying. Every four years the campaigns descend on Iowa, and it becomes impossible to get a side of ranch without knocking over a presidential candidate.

Jimmy Carter may still be alive, but his ghost has been haunting Iowa since 1976.

I loved the caucuses when I first moved to Iowa in 2012 for college— presidential candidates would walk around my small town at all hours of the day, and they were compelled to answer whatever questions I could imagine. But now, after actively participating in politics here for the last five years, I would cheer their demise. Campaigns are costly affairs, both financially and emotionally, and Iowans pay the price for this without receiving the benefits. Presidential campaigns cause burnout among volunteers and voters alike, and they fail to make any lasting contributions to our state while they’re here.

Being able to get a selfie with whichever presidential candidate is in town doesn’t outweigh this cost.

In the 2018 midterm elections, I spent a majority of my time volunteering for Abby Finkenauer’s congressional campaign. Her campaign was exciting — a 29 year-old progressive woman against an incumbent Tea Party Republican. I couldn’t have felt more energized.

Not everyone felt the same.

“I had a lot of energy, but after constantly being pressured by campaigns to spend all of my free time working for them, I was tired.”
MacKenzie Bills

When I would call or knock on the doors of other Democrats to ask them to volunteer on the campaign, I was frequently told that they were still too exhausted from the 2016 caucuses to get back into politics.

MacKenzie Bills, a lifelong Iowa Democrat currently working for the State Department, explained that the situation is basically unavoidable.

“While there’s a great diversity of political ideologies in Iowa, there’s just not a lot of people here,” she said. “Campaigns today are very metrics driven. In order to get the numbers that they want in our small state, you have to try to get as much out of each person as possible.”

This is especially true for campaigns with limited resources.

“You see people get overused pretty quickly. It happened to me,” Bills said. “I had a lot of energy, but after constantly being pressured by campaigns to spend all of my free time working for them, I was tired.”

Volunteer burnout happens wherever campaigns occur, but what makes Iowa different is that there is never a real break between campaign seasons because of the Iowa Caucuses. There were only two months in between the 2018 midterm elections and when the first 2020 presidential candidate arrived in Iowa. There’s still nine months before the caucuses, but Iowa groups are already feeling fatigued from the demands of the 2020 campaigns.

Burnout isn’t just a phenomenon experienced by millennials; it exists across age groups and occupations. While there is still no universally agreed-upon definition, most researchers agree that burnout is the end result of a process in which motivated and idealistic people become exhausted, defeated, and unable to cope.

In 1994, Ayala Malach Pines examined decades of research on burnout and personal experience by examining why so many political activists experienced such high levels of burnout. Her research showed that the circumstance wasn’t just the result of a stressful environment, but when political activists found that their work failed to make a meaningful impact.

The Iowa Caucuses, by design, create the perfect environment to trigger this feeling. They can only have one winner, and both losers and winners alike leave after Caucus Night. Consequently, many volunteers will find that their efforts for other campaigns were all for naught.

During the 2016 Iowa Caucus season, Nick Laning lived this experience. At the time, Laning was a college student in Central Iowa and an active Republican volunteer. He worked for the campaign of then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the front-runner at the time, until Walker dropped out of the race in September of 2015.

“The writing was on the wall that the money for the campaign was drying up,” said Laning. “But the staff didn’t want to believe it. I was already spending three to four days a week volunteering for them on top of being a full-time college student, and the staff kept asking why I wasn’t doing more.”

“It got to be a little too much,” he said.

After Walker dropped out, Laning began volunteering for the campaign of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. And when it became clear that her campaign was also going nowhere, he started volunteering for the campaign of Florida Rep. Marco Rubio. Neither of these candidates went on to win the Republican nomination in 2016. And for Laning, that was reason enough to stop his volunteer efforts for the next year.

What do campaigns give Iowans in exchange for this? Not money, that’s for sure.

“I was pretty exhausted after the caucuses,” Laning said. “If it was a different Republican nominee, I might have been involved still.”

He’s not the only volunteer to have felt this way.

Dale Todd, a city council member in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and a local Democratic activist, said, “It was hard to get volunteers for the gubernatorial campaign [in 2018] because many people were still burned out from 2016,” he said.

What do campaigns give Iowans in exchange for this? Not money, that’s for sure. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of money spent as a part of the Iowa Caucuses. It just doesn’t do Iowans any good.

Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, called the financial impact that the caucuses have on the state “surprisingly small.” His economic impact analysis of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses showed that Iowa received only 4.4 percent of all spending by Republican and Democratic campaigns for the last six months of 2007, making the amount of value added less than 1/100th of one percent of the Iowa’s annual domestic product.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that the conclusion has changed over the years,” Swenson said. “Sure, the amount of campaign spending that’s gone to various media outlets has increased, but this doesn’t translate to any jobs in Iowa. And besides, most of those media companies aren’t even owned here.”

That being said, there’s plenty of money to be made off the caucuses if you’re one of our elected officials willing to make an endorsement. There’s a long history of presidential campaigns paying for key endorsements in the caucuses, but it wasn’t until 2008 that our State Senate updated the ethics code to forbid senators from taking compensation from political action committees. There’s no such rule for our State House, and this “rule” hasn’t exactly stopped our Senators. Top party officials regularly decry and deny that there’s any corruption in the Caucuses, but it’s there. Just ask my former State Senator, Kent Sorenson.

Sorenson, a Tea Party darling and a rising star in the Iowa Republican party, was arrested along with three operatives for former Texas Rep. Ron Paul for concealing more than $70,000 in payment for flipping his endorsement of former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to Paul in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. Sorenson was sentenced in 2017 to 15 months in federal prison.

Ever since Jimmy Carter showed up in 1975, the Iowa Caucuses haven’t been about Iowa or Iowans. Our state is simply the backdrop for someone else’s story; our people, merely props. The Iowa Caucuses are a very one-sided relationship where campaigns take up all of the air in the room and give little back to Iowans in return.

Iowa is home to a whole host of problems — from devastating flooding to a botched Medicaid privatization to a child care crisis and more — that need political willpower to be solved. When the presidential campaigns (finally) leave, these problems will remain. But the very people we need to exert political will in this state — the parents, the nurses, the organizers who can phone bank and door knock — have had their much-needed emotional and logistical resources depleted by yet another flavor-of-the-month presidential candidate.

If the Iowa Caucuses get in our way of solving these problems, we have little to lose by getting rid of them.

Molly Monk lives in Iowa and writes about religion, politics, and the Midwest.