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Why does the U.S. vote this way — and why is Iowa first? A look at caucuses


Elsewhere in the show, we have been talking through the politics of the Iowa caucuses. But let's take a minute, step back and talk about the way we get here to an elected president - like, the actual process. Why do we vote this way? Why does it go on so long? And why is Iowa first at all instead of, say, New Hampshire or Arizona or literally anywhere else in the country? To help us unpack these questions, we will now go to NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, who is our guide to all things politics, as always. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there. I'll do my best.

SUMMERS: All right. So Domenico, big picture - let's get started. Why do we put ourselves through this monthslong primary process?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, ironically, the super lengthy process with a campaign that's now been going on for more than a year, by the way, was actually designed to give voters more of a say. You know, it wasn't that long ago when party leaders were really the ones who picked the nominees. New Hampshire has taken pride in holding the first primary for more than a hundred years now, but Iowa only wound up holding the first caucuses about 50 years ago. And, really, it was only by virtue of how long their process takes.

SUMMERS: All right, let's get into it here. How did this current primary calendar actually come to be?

MONTANARO: Really dates back to the Vietnam War era. 1968 was a seminal year in American society and politics for so many reasons. I mean, today is Martin Luther King Jr. day. Dr. King was assassinated that year. Four months later, anti-war protests broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They turned violent. Ten thousand people had been there to protest - drew harsh response from the city. More than 600 protesters were arrested. They really wanted, these protesters, Eugene McCarthy, who was an anti-war candidate, to be the nominee. But he never really had a chance. Inside the convention center, Democrats were nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey to be the party's nominee despite not running in a single primary. So primaries were really, basically, just suggestions back then.

SUMMERS: All right, connect the dots for us. Where does Iowa come into the picture?

MONTANARO: Well, the party made several reforms that year to try to avoid the mess that took place in '68 and created a primary process where the nominee had to be decided by June, and the states and territories would have a say. Well, because Iowa's convoluted process took so many months to pick delegates, from precinct caucuses to county and state conventions, it wound up needing to go very early, before anyone else went, including New Hampshire, by the way. That irritated New Hampshire. The two states kind of came up with this detente, this deal where Iowa could hold the first caucuses; New Hampshire, the first primary.

SUMMERS: All right. So they made this deal back in the '70s, and it's stayed in place since. Why?

MONTANARO: Well, it stuck because the candidates started leveraging Iowa for momentum. In '72, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, his campaign exploited this idea that you should be able to beat expectations in Iowa. And he wound up doing it and wound up winning the Democratic nomination. He got blown out in the general election.


MONTANARO: But the fact that the strategy worked led Iowa Republicans to hold their first caucuses four years later in '76. Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who wound up becoming president, former governor of Georgia, expanded on McGovern's strategy to kind of gain some momentum and name identification - campaigned widely in the state. So now we have this arms race of not only which state goes first, but how much the candidates are willing to spend to get that momentum and attention from these early states. That's why this year, more than $123 million has been spent in Iowa alone on ads out of 270 million overall - almost half of all the ad spending so far.

SUMMERS: And, Domenico, this year, things changed a bit for voters on the Democratic side at least. Pretty unusual.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And, you know, there's always rumblings that there could be more changes. But Iowa and New Hampshire were kind of demoted to get a more diverse set of states. But tradition's hard to change overall, especially ones that are decades, if not more than a century, old when it comes to New Hampshire.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, last thing - taking it back to tonight's election. When will we find out who Iowa chose?

MONTANARO: Well, the caucuses start at 8 p.m. Eastern time. We don't make calls at NPR. We follow the Associated Press, which provides results to us. They reported the earliest results in 2016 at 8:32 p.m., weren't finished voting - counting until almost 1 a.m. 10:26 p.m. is when, by the way, Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, was named the winner of the Republican Iowa caucuses. So we'll see.

SUMMERS: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.