November 22, 2011

Yepsen to discuss Iowa caucuses’ significance

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The process that leads the nation’s voters to the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential election begins in a few short weeks in precinct gatherings throughout Iowa.

David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, will provide insight next week into the background and history of the Iowa presidential caucuses, and also look at recent polling among Republican presidential hopefuls.

Yepsen will look at the Jan. 3 Iowa Caucus during a “Pizza and Politics” session at 5 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 1, in the Institute lobby.  The Institute is at 1231 Lincoln Drive, in the Forestry Building.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to attend the “Pizza and Politics” session with David Yepsen.  For more information, contact Matt Baughman, associate director, at 618/453-4009, or 618-201-0082.


The event is free, but Institute officials encourage registration.  To register, contact Institute project coordinator Christina Rich at 618/453-4078 or by email at

A nationally recognized political analyst and the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register prior to his appointment as Institute director in April 2009, Yepsen covered every Iowa presidential caucus since 1976.

Yepsen said Iowa is important for candidates because it’s first; the caucuses could move to another state and that state would be important, he said. The Iowa caucus “is an important early test of presidential candidate strength,” Yepsen said. 

Until 2008, when John McCain was fourth among the Republican field, no candidate finishing worse than third went on to win a major party nomination dating back to Iowa’s caucus in 1972.

“Iowa plays one of two roles in most presidential elections: it either winnows the field of candidates who are able to go on to compete in other events -- their money and enthusiasm dries up after a poor showing in Iowa -- or they get their rocket lit and go on to the nomination,” Yepsen said, noting the campaigns of former presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and 2004 Democratic Party nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

While President Barack Obama has no significant challenge to securing the Democratic Party nomination, the Republican field at times resembles a horse race at various stages of the track. With eight current Republican candidates, Yepsen said it is “too early and too unsettled to predict how this contest will come out.”  In 2008, for example, Iowa Republican caucus winner Mike Huckabee was in fourth place at this stage of the race, and in 2004, Kerry didn’t gain momentum until the end of November, Yepsen said.

“Caucus-goers are notoriously late in making up their minds -- they want to see how the race unfolds to the last minute,” he said.

The Iowa caucus began as a result of the Vietnam War and riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Yepsen said.

“The Democratic Party decided to open up its processes so more people could come and to do that, it was necessary to hold the most grassroots meetings -- the caucuses -- early in the year so delegates could be decided to county, state and national conventions,” he said.  “That meant that the Iowa caucuses of 1972 would be the first place in the country that grassroots Democrats expressed a preference for a presidential candidate.”

A few national political reporters came to Iowa to cover the events, and McGovern, with a young campaign manager named Gary Hart, the former senator from Colorado, worked the state hard to gain media attention prior to the New Hampshire primary, Yepsen said.

McGovern’s unexpected second-place finish to then front-runner, former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, not only gave McGovern momentum, but also “told us something about the mood of the party, in this case, the strength of the anti-war movement,” Yepsen said.  Four years later, Carter and his supporters took notice of benefits of working hard in the state and after Carter won the White House, “the events were cemented as important contests,” Yepsen said.

Yepsen disputes the belief that because Iowa is a largely white, small state, caucus results are “atypical” in comparison with other states.  Few states, he said, “really are typical and since the country can’t agree on an alternative system, inertia keeps Iowa as the starting line.”

Ironically, it is Iowa’s characteristics that worked to Obama’s benefit in 2008.  Obama’s victory “proved to skeptics, particularly African Americans who weren’t sure he could attract white votes, that he was a formidable contender,” Yepsen said.

“It’s also important to note that while Iowa may be atypical, the activists who show up for each party’s caucuses do reflect the activists in their party,” he said.

Yepsen will also share some of his favorite campaign coverage memories during the event, including how he met Institute founder Paul Simon, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, during Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign.

“I miss the old days when a young reporter could hop in the back seat of a car with a driver and a candidate like Jimmy Carter or a Paul Simon and drive for miles from one event just talking politics,” he said.

For more information on the program, contact the Institute at 618/453-4009 or visit