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Campaign 2012 | The importance of Iowa caucuses in an election year is often questioned but rarely in doubt

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa-For months, the GOP contest has been a horse race, and voters have gauged the momentum of the presidential hopefuls by polls and fundraising reports. Late in the night Jan. 3, we will get our first tangible results from Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

As the first place where voters get a statewide chance to weigh in, the small Midwestern state's role is often questioned for its outsized influence on the presidential selection process. What's surprising is that Iowa's outcome is nonbinding on those eventually selected as delegates to the national conventions.

The official purpose of the caucuses is to select the delegates to the county conventions, followed by district and state conventions. Americans first began noticing the Iowa caucuses in 1972, when the political parties first used a tally of votes that could be reported. Then in 1976, the Iowa outcome was a game-changer: Jimmy Carter, an unknown governor from Georgia, won, and Iowa has since been a key early step to the nominations for both major political parties.

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Defenders of Iowa's role say the state is an important proving ground for candidates to campaign directly with ordinary people, and that only an early state like Iowa can allow an opportunity for a lesser known or modestly funded candidate to break through for a serious run at the White House.

The state is also balanced between the two parties and considered to have a "clean" political tradition. Critics say the demographics do not reflect major city populations, or simply that other states should have a turn at the front.

Not surprisingly, the first state does not always select the eventual winner. Democrat caucus-goers chose five of the past seven nominees in contested races, while Iowa Republicans picked the nominee in half of the contested races. Caucus night knocks out candidates without broad appeal, allowing the next states in line to focus typically on the top two or three hopefuls. With one exception since 1976, candidates in the top three at the Iowa caucuses went on to be nominated. The 2008 exception was fourth-place finisher John McCain. In 1988, both Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush overcame third-place finishes in Iowa to become their party's nominee. Bill Clinton in 1992 is the only nominee since Ed Muskie in 1972 to win neither Iowa nor New Hampshire.

Many Iowans express pride in the state's role, and they regard learning about the candidates as a serious responsibility. Every four years, other states challenge the status of Iowa and other early states, but the state political parties jealously guard their role at the starting gate of the presidential sweepstakes.

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