A Brief History of the Iowa Caucuses
The Caucuses are neighborhood meetings at which participants voice their preferences among the candidates for president. There are some slight operational differences between Republican and Democratic caucuses, but in both cases, participants elect delegates to county conventions who, in turn, elect delegates to district and state conventions, where national convention delegates are selected. Those delegates are sent to nominate the candidate preferred by the caucus participants.
The Iowa Caucuses have been the first step in the presidential nominating process since 1972. The first candidate to use the Caucuses to gain national exposure was George McGovern in 1972, but Jimmy Carter's strong showing in 1976 launched him from virtual unknown to front-runner and solidified the Caucuses' national influence. Since then, candidates have used Iowa as a testing ground, and the national media have followed their progress.
From 1984 to 1996, the winners in Iowa did not go on to win their parties' nomination. But since 1972, no candidate that has finished worse than third in Iowa has gone on to win a major party presidential nomination. In 2000 and in 2004, the Iowa winners (Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 and John Kerry and incumbent George W. Bush in 2004) won their party's nominations.
Caucuses are held every two years, but those held in a presidential election year are much more widely attended by the general public. Off-year caucus participants tend to be the local party activists. Iowans take their role in the presidential nominating process seriously. Many caucus participants will have met the candidates in person and spoken to them directly about issues they consider important.
For a comprehensive political history and analysis of the evolution of the Iowa Precinct Caucuses from 1972-1996, see "The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event," by Hugh Winebrenner, professor emeritus of political science, Drake University.