How the Vietnam War, political protests and a mimeograph machine spawned the current Iowa caucuses

(Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

How the Vietnam War, political protests and a mimeograph machine spawned the current Iowa caucuses

Election 2024

Mark Z. Barabak

January 14, 2024

When Iowa’s brave and hardened Republicans venture into the Arctic cold Monday night to cast the first presidential ballot of 2024, Richard Bender will watch with particular interest and a hint of regret.

Bender, 78, has been called the godfather of the Iowa caucuses, in recognition of his role more than 50 years ago in creating one of the most closely watched and idiosyncratic events in American politics.

At the time, he was a young Democratic Party operative in Iowa, an ardent enemy of the Vietnam War and an architect who wanted to build bridges between the parties’ old guard and the anti-establishment wings.

Today, Bender has had a career on Capitol Hill. He lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and is sad to see his party in Iowa at the behest of President Biden in favor of later contests in South Carolina and Nevada.

It was good for my state, Bender said of the caucuses that both major parties relied on for decades to choose their presidential candidates. I think we really made an impact on national politics. I suspect Jimmy Carter and… [Barack] Obama, who used strong Iowa showings to launch himself to the White House, would agree with me on that.

And honestly, I was personally proud of it, Bender said. So I wasn’t very happy to see it disappear by the wayside.

As Bender is the first to testify, no one imagined the caucuses would grow into today’s internationally watched spectacle and a crucial early test of political strength. Their timing, as the first event on the presidential calendar, began as pure coincidence.

Iowa had long elected its delegates in a series of meetings, starting at the precinct level (the caucuses held Monday night) and ending with a statewide convention. But those meetings, usually held in the spring, were largely the domain of party bosses and political insiders anointing their chosen candidates.

After the maelstrom of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when party leaders chose the presidential candidate and blood flowed through the streets of Chicago, there was a strong push to overhaul the process and give voters more say.

In Iowa, the party was led by Clif Larson, who supported Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy in 1968. He tasked Bender with leading an effort to devise a new, more open system for choosing the state’s presidential delegates.

The changes included the elimination of the winner-take-all rule, which allowed candidates to receive a share of delegates based on their base support, and a requirement for public notice before each step of the nomination process.

The difficult circumstances of the parties led to Iowa’s fortuitous place at the head of the political calendar.

The Democrats were effectively bankrupt prior to the 1972 campaign and dependent on an old mimeograph machine. Looking back at the state convention on May 20, and taking into account the printing and mailing of materials before each of the four rounds, the party emerged for the first district-level vote on January 24, making it the first vote in the country.

This is how an institute was born.

A modest contingent of national political reporters showed up in Iowa to cover the January 1st caucus. Four years later, interest exploded when Carter, a little-known former governor of Georgia, emerged from nowhere and outpaced a field of Democratic heavyweights to catalyze his underdog campaign.

(Carter actually finished second in the caucuses, behind the free elections, but his 28% exceeded expectations, which has become the benchmark for success.)

In 1976, Republicans agreed with early voting, and for years Iowa and its rituals, coffee klatches, state fairs, pandering to farmers and agricultural interests were an indelible part of presidential politics.

Aware of their privileged role, Iowans really began to feel responsible, Bender said, in a corned beef-thick accent he retains from his native New York. (He moved to Iowa in 1967 to study biochemistry at Iowa State.)

They became a very sophisticated, careful electorate, Bender said. Well informed. Thoughtful.

But as Iowa’s influence grew, so did resentment.

Politicians in major states like California complained about Iowa’s outsized influence. Others complained that the state was too white and too rural, making Iowa unrepresentative of the country as a whole and the Democratic Party in particular.

When Iowa Democrats bungled the 2020 caucuses and took days to declare a winner, that was all the more reason to strip the state of its prime spot. (It also didn’t help that Biden, a two-time candidate in Iowa, never finished better than fourth in the caucuses.)

This year, Democrats officially bypassed both Iowa and New Hampshire, which long hosted the nation’s first primaries and were also criticized for being too white and rural. The party will begin awarding delegates in South Carolina on February 3.

Republicans have had their own mistakes in Iowa.

On caucus night in 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by just eight votes. The state GOP subsequently backed away from that call, and just over a week later announced that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had in fact finished first. By then the campaign was well underway.

Still, Republicans kept Iowa in first place because there was no incumbent dictating the 2024 presidential calendar.

Bender watched from a distance and acknowledged that the caucuses have moved significantly from their humble origins. Thousands of journalists now come to the state to cover the presidential campaigns, which have become multi-year extravaganzas that fuel a multibillion-dollar industry.

The time is seemingly gone when a Carter-style candidate can win by plodding from small town to small town, mingling with local families and meeting voters a handful at a time for years.

Trump, who made waves in 2015 with kiddie rides in his helicopter, has made relatively few appearances this election cycle and is still the odds-on favorite to win.

He was an extreme example of what has been going on for a long time, Bender said, as TV, radio and, more recently, social media have become more important than the one-on-one campaigns that gave the caucuses their intimacy and charm .

Yet Bender remains optimistic? naive? that once Biden leaves, Iowa can regain its prominence in Democratic politics.

It remains a place where voters can approach most presidential candidates and ask a few questions. And I think that’s very helpful, Bender said, unlike [candidates] create five 30-second ads to represent what they are.

It’s also still relatively easy and cheap to campaign across Iowa, where many people are willing to listen intently to a political stranger.

It would be the Jimmy Carter situation, said Bender, who envisioned a renaissance of the Democratic caucus.

He built it. He hopes his party will come again.


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