The week before Iowa, a predominantly rural state in Midwestern United States, kicks off the presidential primary season, its rolling plains and cornfields are covered in snow and the political debate is heating up.
On February 3, this overwhelmingly white and sparsely populated state of barely three million will fire the starting gun for the race to the White House. Across the state, roughly 1,700 caucuses, which are in essence neighbourhood meetings, will take place in church basements, fire stations, school gymnasiums and even around kitchen tables.
Iowans will break into groups for their preferred candidate, something that in caucus parlance is called an “alignment”. If their candidate is not “viable” — another word often heard here in Iowa to refer to at least 15 per cent support within a group — the caucus-goers might have to go into a “realignment”. Eventually, every precinct in each of Iowa’s 99 counties will have chosen their candidate in a very public show of support that outsiders might think was both brave and archaic, some 150 years after the secret ballot became a system of voting.
People across the country will closely watch — as they have every presidential election year since 1972 — Iowa’s first-in-the-nation verdict. It will be the subject of breathless commentary both in the US and around the world despite criticism that Iowa is racially and temperamentally unrepresentative of 21st century America.
People across the country will closely watch — as they have every year since 1972 — Iowa’s first-in-the-nation verdict. It will be the subject of breathless commentary in the US and around the world. This is because the Iowa caucuses will undoubtedly help winnow the crowded Democratic Party field
This is because the Iowa caucuses will undoubtedly help winnow the crowded Democratic Party field. It will build momentum for some candidates, and provide an early indication of who might win the nomination at the Democratic national convention in July and go on to challenge President Donald Trump on election day, November 3.
But the Iowa caucuses have a problem and it is the same this election season as it was in the last. There is a chance Iowa could deliver a result so close that it would be confusing. Even though Iowa voters are famous for making up their minds late, the indecisiveness this time around — half the electorate is still unsure of its choice — is significant.
At the same point in 2016, only 14 per cent were undecided in the Des Moines Register poll, for a race that featured just two top contenders: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“It came down to a coin-toss in 2016,” Scott Punteney, chairman of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party, acknowledges ruefully. “So yes, we’re not absolute.” Even so, he insists: “Iowa does matter because it sets the way the rest of the primary plays out nationally. If you don’t have a strong showing in Iowa you couldn’t do anything.”
That is part of Iowa lore but it happens to be inaccurate. Two Democrats — Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1996 — became their party’s nominee without a win in Iowa. Mr Clinton, of course, went on to a two-term presidency.
Often enough, the winner of Iowa in either party has not been able to muster enough momentum to win the next contest on the election calendar in New Hampshire, which is right after the caucuses.
In 2016, the Republican Party’s Ted Cruz narrowly won in Iowa but Mr Trump won the New Hampshire primary. Add to that the rather uncomfortable reality recounted by John C Skipper in his book The Iowa Caucuses: First Tests of Presidential Aspiration, 1972–2008: “Historically, Iowans have a dismal track record for picking presidents. Aside from incumbents, the state has picked only three winners since 1972: Jimmy Carter in 1976, George W Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008.”
However, the mythology around the Iowa caucuses is powerful and self-perpetuating. Not only do people in the state pride themselves on being the first Americans to sit in judgement on the political line-up every four years, they concede to feeling the strain of the decision they have to make. “It’s harder than being a voter, because we’re not just pulling a lever, we have to weed out candidates, and no one else has done it before us,” one Iowan says.
Mr Punteney, who is also president of a powerful western Iowa union and has caucused for 20 years, says he loves it. “You get to talk to your neighbours in a way you wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. However, some Iowans express doubts about the very public nature of caucusing. “I’d prefer to do it privately like the voters do in other states,” says a resident of Council Bluffs, a city of 62,000, where presidential hopefuls frequent steakhouses, cafes, bowling alleys, brew pubs and “hot-dish” house parties.
Iowa likes the attention and it asks the candidates penetrating questions about issues such as healthcare, retirement, the minimum wage, finances as well as issues such as the collapsing nuclear deal with Iran, America’s continuing military engagement in the Middle East and Palestinian-Israeli peace. The state’s boast, often proudly told as a joke, is that “we don’t decide until the fourth time we sit down with a candidate”. It is true that Iowans, unlike neighbouring Nebraska and South Dakota, get a lot of facetime with frontline politicians.
But this time round, that close-up view does not seem to have sealed the decision. Recent polls have showed Senator Bernie Sanders in the lead with Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend in Indiana, and Joe Biden, the former US vice president, in joint second place, Senator Elizabeth Warren in third and Senator Amy Klobuchar in fourth.
But other assessments suggest a different outcome, with Ms Klobuchar — a moderate Democrat from neighbouring Minnesota — possibly drawing support in unflashy western Iowa, while Mr Sanders and his fiery rhetoric does better in the eastern, more progressive part of the state.
Professor David Redlawsk, who wrote the definitive book on the relevance of the Iowa caucuses, says that county Democratic Party bosses have suggested Mr Biden might win and Mr Sanders will be in second place. But, he adds, the picture is far from clear.
If anything, Iowa seems to illustrate the very ideological divisions that the Democratic Party is struggling with nationally. To that extent, it is probably representative of the state of mind of the country.