Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The Iowa factor

Hillary Clinton spoke at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines on Sunday.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton spoke at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines on Sunday.

It’s Iowa time. Every four years everyone has to pay attention to little old Iowa, because since the early 1970s its caucuses have constituted the first real action of the presidential race. Until now, we’ve had only TV debates and polls. Now real voters get to cast real votes.

To me Iowa is not so much Grant Wood’s American Gothic, that icon of a vanished ascetic Midwest. It is Ronald Reagan’s first job — as a sports commentator on the radio station WHO in Des Moines. As a student in neighboring Illinois, “Dutch” Reagan had played a lot of football but dreamt of show business. It was the Depression, however, and Hollywood seemed infinitely distant. So he tried Iowa. A Scottish producer named Peter MacArthur hired him after he heard Reagan, alone in a studio, deliver an entirely imaginary football commentary based on his memories of a game he had played in. That story has always stuck with me — especially the moment when Reagan described himself making a tackle that he had actually missed in the real game. He was a politician before he even knew it.

In the 1930s, it was said that “Iowa would go Democrat when hell went Methodist.” Times changed. By 1972, there was enough anti-Vietnam sentiment in the state for the peacenik George McGovern to come a strong second in the Democratic party’s precinct caucuses, a breakthrough that dealt a fatal blow to the favorite, Ed Muskie, and put McGovern on track to win the nomination. In 1976 it was Jimmy Carter’s turn to use Iowa as a launchpad; unlike McGovern, Carter went on to win the presidency, too.


Iowa’s Democrats move in exceptionally mysterious ways. At the caucuses, party activists spend hours in little groups, trying to work out which candidates are “viable” and allocating to the winner the largest number of “state delegate equivalents.” The procedures for electing a Pope are more straightforward.

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And yet this baffling process works like magic. Although it involves only a fraction of Iowan voters, the Democratic caucuses nearly always pick the party’s nominee: after McGovern and Carter came Walter Mondale; more recently, Iowa anointed Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

The bad news for Hillary Clinton is that right now she is running neck and neck with Bernie Sanders in the Iowa polls. And with every passing day, as fresh revelations emerge about her storing top secret emails on a private server while she was secretary of state, the clouds over her campaign darken. To be the subject of an FBI investigation at such an early stage of a presidential campaign is not very Iowan.

The Democratic race continues to be overshadowed by the Republican one for the sole reason that Donald Trump is a GOP candidate. The polls suggest that Iowa will be won by either Trump or Ted Cruz. Despite the aspersions Trump has cast on Cruz’s eligibility (he was born in Canada), Cruz ought to win, as he seems to have sewn up the crucial evangelical vote.

On the other hand, if there is a big increase in turnout, Trump might well be the beneficiary. Does it matter? Much less than the Democratic contest. In living memory, the Iowan Republicans have picked the winner only twice: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W Bush in 2000. Who now thinks of Mike Huckabee, whom they chose in 2008, or Rick Santorum, their choice in 2012?


Trump took a gamble last week by opting out of the latest televised Republican candidates’ debate. Ronald Reagan did the same thing in January 1980. It proved to be a mistake: George Bush Sr. won Iowa. “I was wrong,” Reagan later admitted. “I should have spent more time in Iowa.”

Yet it was a minor setback. While Reagan’s first job was as a sports announcer in Iowa, his last was as president of the United States — a job he secured in November that same year by winning just over half the popular vote and no fewer than 44 states.

Whatever happens in Iowa on Monday, I do not believe Trump is capable of such a feat. Last week, to make sure I wasn’t misreading the election, I delved into the 1980 campaign. Had Reagan been as shameless a populist as Trump is today? Had I simply forgotten, my memory erased by Reagan’s triumphant performance as president? No. Already in January 1980 Reagan was shifting to the political centre. When asked a question about immigration in one of his TV debates with Bush Senior, his answer was both intelligent and compassionate.

Those are not words that could ever be applied to “the Donald,” who remains far more reminiscent of Barry Goldwater — the disastrous Republican nominee in 1964 — than of Reagan.

It’s time for Iowa, again. And sooner or later it will be time up for Trump.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.