The history and death of Iowa’s ‘First in the Nation’ status

Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 8:44 PM CST
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DES MOINES, Iowa (KCRG) - For decades, the state of Iowa has been the benchmark to test viable political candidates before they move their campaign further through the nation as they seek a spot in the White House.

Now, after 50 years, Iowa’s long-standing history of ‘First in the Nation’ status is coming to an end.


Following the chaotic 1968 primary campaign, Democratic party leaders sought to improve the nomination process to prevent party leaders from manipulating the process and give voters more direct access to who would be their nominee for president.

The McGovern–Fraser Commission was formed for the 1972 election, and with it, party leaders could no longer handpick the convention delegates in secret. States had to give 30 days’ notice before hosting primaries or caucuses and to encourage full participation.

Iowa had a lengthy nominating process and with the new 30 days-notice, needed an early spot on the voting calendar. Iowa was given a January 24th slot in 1972 and was thus the first stop for candidates in the nominating process.


But while 1972 was Iowa’s first year as “First in the Nation,” the importance and prominence of this spot didn’t occur until the following election cycle in 1976, when Iowa caucus winner Jimmy Carter took a hold of the Democratic nomination and eventual the presidency.

Carter’s campaign did not have the visibility or money at the time to compete in larger state primaries. Focusing on Iowa gave Carter the platform he needed to secure both the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

1976 was also notable as it was the first year Republicans held their caucuses and primaries in every state, also with Iowa kicking things off for their ticket. Iowans narrowly selected Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan that year.

Carter’s victory was a template that campaigns would follow over the decades, as the early exposure gave candidates a legitimacy that could help them fundraise and carry them through the next phase of the nomination process.


George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008 have been the only non-incumbent candidates who have won both Iowa and the presidency. And following technology problems in the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, Democratic leaders have examined whether or not Iowa is a true reflection of the party and demographics of the nation.

In April 2022, DNC leaders announced a new proposal that would strip Iowa of its ‘First in the Nation status’ and instead look toward states that can promote “diversity and a fair process.” Members put forth a plan that would allow any U.S. state or territory to apply to host one of the early nominating contests.

Add to that the 2022 mid-term elections - which delivered a red wave of GOP victories across Iowa. The results posed the following question to DNC officials: Why should Democrats focus on a state that seems less and less focused on them?

On December 2nd, the Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm followed this train of thought and made the move to strip Iowa from the position it has held for more than four decades and pushed for South Carolina to hold their caucuses before Iowa.

The Republican National Committee announced that they will still keep Iowa first for their caucuses.


Following Biden’s recommendations, the committee also opted to have New Hampshire and Nevada jointly vote second, a week after South Carolina, followed by Georgia and Michigan, two critical battleground states that would round out the top five in subsequent weeks. All the proposed contests would likely be held in February 2024.

The move will still have to be approved by the full DNC in a vote likely early next year, but it will almost certainly follow the rule-making committee’s lead.

Iowa and New Hampshire have said laws in their states mandate them going before others (Iowa for Caucuses and New Hampshire for Primaries), and according to those state officials, they intend to abide by those laws and not the DNC decrees.

However, language in those DNC decrees note that states could lose all of their delegates to the party’s national convention if they attempt to violate new rules. So only time will tell how firm Iowa and New Hampshire will be in resisting these changes.