Every time the Iowa caucus comes around, opinionaters around the country wonder if it's undemocratic (for giving disproportionate presidential-picking heft to 200,000 mostly white, mostly conservative, mostly well-off Midwesterners) or even worthwhile (since it has only once predicted a winner). What did The Times have to say about caucuses past?
In 1972, dark horse Democrat George S. McGovern had a strong showing in Iowa that The Times didn't bother to mention. (The board said McGovern was "no Richard M. Nixon" when he lost the New Hampshire primary to Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, but did allow that McGovern was "underrated" when he won Wisconsin a month later). Iowa's importance grew in 1976, when Jimmy Carter dominated the vote, coming in second only to the "uncommitted" category. The Times recognized the positive impact of the system on June 10 of that year:
Yet the primary process however confusing and erratic did serve to nominate a Democrat who could not have won if he had not taken his case to the voters. And, in achieving that result, the primaries also were responsible for demolishing a century-old barrier against the nomination of a candidate from the Deep South by one of the major parties.
The Times didn't comment on Iowa in 1980 and 1984, returning to the subject in 1988, when eventual winner George H.W. Bush finished a lowly third, after Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson. On Jan. 12, the editorial board showed some prescience about the result:
[F]or the first time in years the GOP's 11th Commandment declaring that Republicans shall not speak ill of each other is being trampled in the dust or mud. In the process the focus on Bush and Dole is pushing the other four GOP candidates into the shadows. But the Bush-Dole one-on-one does not necessarily mean that the two of them will hog the bulk of support in Iowa on Feb. 8. This is not a simple primary in which all of the eligible voters can go to the polls and cast their ballots for their favorite candidates. Iowa is a caucus state, and a successful political campaign must get its supporters to the precinct caucus meetings where they must stand up and declare their loyalty. A campaign's organizational ability thus is critical, and evangelist Pat Robertson for one is believed to have a vigorous operation under way with the potential for producing a surprise.
On Jan. 18, The Times praised the little state for winning itself big power, and says caucuses are acceptable, if imperfect:
Iowans have demonstrated that they are not just country bumpkins who know little about anything other than hogs, corn and college wrestling. They have taken the Iowa presidential political caucuses and turned them into a media and political show that far outshines anything that New Hampshire ever did with its traditional first-in-the-nation presidential primaries.By caucus night on Feb. 8 the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will have spent more than 1,000 days in Iowa . Iowa is a relatively small state, so it is possible for an outsider candidate to get some attention by making a respectable showing. A mega-state like California or New York would offer a more diverse population for a first test, but it would be almost impossible for a worthy dark horse to do well .The caucus system also requires a campaign to develop a grass-roots organization .The situation in Iowa is not perfect. It never was in New Hampshire, either. But someone has to be first.
On Feb. 10, The Times tried to account for Pat Robertson's win and Bush's loss:
Robertson attracted thousands of political newcomers to his self-styled campaign of moral vision because caucus-goers did not have to be registered voters. It will be much more difficult in primary elections in other states where the rules are not nearly so flexible. Now that so much attention is focused on Robertson, his campaign will be subjected to greater scrutiny, and many potential supporters are likely to find it lacking in substance .The major message from Republicans seems to be that George Bush has failed to define his campaign. Iowa demonstrates that Bush cannot just act vice presidential and sincere and mimic Ronald Reagan .Contrary to all the carping, a small tribe of political crazies in Iowa does not pick American Presidents. What Iowans do is start the process on its way with a little snipping and paring and by establishing a new set of expectations for the candidates as they proceed down the road. As it happened on Monday, Iowans fulfilled that function pretty well.
The Times left 1992 alone despite its interesting result--Bill Clinton ranked embarrassingly low. In a 1996 Valentine's Day editorial, it stuck to its defense of the caucus, but seemed more cynical about why it mattered:
Just what is it that accounts for Iowa's apparent political importance, come the late winter of every presidential election year? Simple. The candidates and therefore the media treat Iowa as if it were important, and so it indeed becomes important. Iowa looms large to the candidates because it holds the nation's first full-scale caucuses, just as New Hampshire, another wholly atypical state, looms far larger than its modest electoral weight because it holds the first primaries .The true lesson of Iowa is that there are no consistent lessons to be inferred .A week from now the New Hampshire GOP primary will be history. After that come the more serious presidential preference contests, including California's on March 26. American voters can be forgiven if they have trouble holding their excitement in check.
By Jan. 10, 2000, The Times was disillusioned, but seemed unwilling to challenge the system:
Ready or not, American voters will begin the process of choosing a new president in just two weeks . This early crush of primary elections is chaotic and deplorable, but we're stuck with it for now. The best California voters can do is to learn all they can about the candidates and prepare to cast as educated a vote as possible .Still, the rigorous primary schedule provides a test of the candidates. The system is far from perfect, especially with the compacted primary schedule this year. But as often as not, it produces the best possible result.
But four years later, The Times finally called for shifting some power from the small states to the big ones, particularly California:
California, where one out of eight Americans resides, is on the outside looking in. By the state's March 2 primary, the presidential nomination will probably be all but over.Once again, it appears that little Iowa, quirky New Hampshire and the small-to-middling states voting Tuesday and later in February will decide the nominee before the presidential parade nears the Colorado River . California wields the nation's biggest delegate bloc, 440. No one would guess it by its lowly place on the primary totem pole.The state primary date was dragged forward to March 2 from the old June primary by the quest for clout in the presidential campaign. But the earlier primary dates set by other states meant California went to all that trouble for naught. California will not only continue to lack clout in the presidential primary, it's stuck with an elongated state primary election season .There's been a lot of talk about Democrats and Republicans joining to solve problems this year. One place to start: Make the most populous state matter in deciding who runs the country. California should play a much bigger role in the presidential primary process. As the financial newspaper Barron's Weekly said recently, "Maybe the parties should accept that wherever America is going, California usually gets there first."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times