On the representativeness of the Iowa Caucuses

As we’re now less than a week out from the Iowa caucuses, I spent a few days reading Why Iowa? by Professors David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert, and Todd Donovan. The book is an extensive and well-researched examination of the effect of Iowa (and New Hampshire) on U.S. presidential nominations. The authors rely on statistical analysis of a series of public opinion surveys fielded during 2007 and 2008 in both Iowa and the nation at large to draw their conclusions. (Personal note: the book was especially interesting to me because Professors Redlawsk and Tolbert were both members of my Ph.D. dissertation committee at the University of Iowa and I had the opportunity to help collect the data analyzed in their book during the 2008 caucus season.)

There’s a great deal of content in the book that would be of interest to a wide audience. Over the next few posts, I’ll share a few of what I view as the most substantively important and interesting contributions that the book makes to our understanding of the Iowa caucuses.

First, many people criticize the Iowa caucuses because they consider them to be elite-dominated and unrepresentative of the people of Iowa. Their survey results indicate just the opposite: on a host of measures, Iowa caucus attenders are not all that different from the voting eligible population in Iowa as a whole, except that Iowa caucus attenders are slightly better educated and more religious than non-attenders.

Second, many people criticize the Iowa caucuses because they view Iowa itself as unrepresentative of the rest of the United States: it’s a small, rural state with very low levels of racial or ethnic diversity. Why, then, should they have the privileged position at the start of the nominating season? The authors cite recent research by Peverill Squire and Michael Lewis-Beck that shows that when you look at a host of economic indicators, Iowa is actually the most “average” state in the country.

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