This Whole Primary Is Steered by a Tiny Percentage of an Incredibly White State

We’ll be lucky if even 15 percent of Iowa turns out to help winnow the Democratic field.
This Whole Primary Is Steered by a Tiny Percentage of the People in One of America’s Whitest States
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In August 2018, a relatively unknown non-profit executive named Andrew Yang wrote a blog post outlining why he believed he could become President of the United States. In it, he included one line he’d come to repeat in various forms at campaign stops in Iowa.

“Our political system is set up such that one passionate Democratic Iowan is worth his or her weight in gold,” he wrote.

Now, days before the 2020 Iowa Caucuses, Yang’s campaign has outlasted many other candidates—many of whom had far more political experience and much greater visibility than he had just a year ago—and its own durability in Iowa has proven his point.


As the 2020 Iowa caucuses finally approach, no one would argue the caucus-goers themselves don’t take their first-in-the-nation duties seriously. Many take time out of their busy schedules to see each presidential candidate at least once, and maybe more. But the truth of the situation is this: Because of historical oddities, the U.S. has created a political system in which a tiny percentage of Democrats in one of the country’s whitest and least representative states play an enormous role in steering the party toward its candidate.

To add to the problem, the Iowa Caucuses are inarguably exclusionary. As Iowa writer Lyz Lenz recently pointed out, “the caucuses begin at 7 pm on a weeknight and can take hours to complete, making them almost impossible to attend for those who are single parents — heck, any kind of parents — disabled, suffering from chronic illnesses, older, without cars, poor, night workers, or anyone who speaks English as a second language.”

The 2008 caucuses experienced record turnout among Democratic caucus-goers casting their votes for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards. But the turnout of just over 239,000 Iowans constituted a measly 8 percent of the total population of the state. On Monday, when Democratic voters cast their votes, we’ll be lucky if even 15 percent of a state that is 90 percent white turns out to help winnow the Democratic field.

Since Jimmy Carter exposed the Iowa Caucuses as a way for a relative unknown to make his way to the presidency in 1976, upstart candidates have looked to make use of the population’s susceptibility to retail politics as a springboard for their broader electoral chances, and establishment candidates have been forced to spend a great deal of time and money in the early stages of the race to keep a surprise defeat at bay.


The attention imbalance is clearly visible in candidates’ ad spending. Of the cumulative $971 million expected to be spent by candidates and various organizations during the presidential primary process, $125 million will be spent in Iowa. That’s more than the $123 million candidates will spend in California, a state with 36 million more residents than Iowa.

Much is made of the political judiciousness of Iowans when it comes to their place at the front of the line. Another way to see that: Iowans are aware of the power they hold. At a Storm Lake even for Pete Buttigieg in November, I asked Robert Napkin, a retired farmer and Buttigieg supporter, whether he was concerned about the lack of support among voters of color for the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor. His answer: Just do well in Iowa.

“They all say, coming out of the Iowa Caucuses—they need to be in the top three to be able to prosper down the road,” Napkin said.

If Napkin caucuses for Buttigieg on Monday, he will have an outsized impact in propelling the South Bend mayor’s campaign into true contention when other more populous and diverse states cast their primary votes in the coming months.

Some are already saying the quiet part loud. After dropping out in November, former presidential candidate Julian Castro ran a public campaign criticizing the Democratic Party’s decision to continue to make heavily white states like Iowa and New Hampshire the de facto arbiters of a party that is growing ever more diverse.

“It doesn't make any sense,” Castro said last year. “I believe, as many Iowans themselves do, that it’s time that our presidential nominating process reflects our nation’s and our party’s diversity. That's just the truth.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.