In the Grand Political Plan, Does Iowa Matter?

The presidential campaign begins too soon for many Americans. This year, it's starting earlier than ever. Once again, Iowa is the first state to weigh in, and that tradition has become a controversy in itself. Lavish attention is paid to the state by candidates and media alike, but will Iowa matter?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Before we step away from Iowa, a little perspective. And for that, we're joined by NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: All this buildup, all this hype, and I don't really want to be the role of the wet blanket here, but I will. How much does Iowa really going to matter?

ELVING: You mean, is it going to matter enough to justify all the fuss that's been made…

BLOCK: Yeah.

ELVING: …over it for all these months? Probably not. You'd have to wrap up the whole process and move the winner right on into the White House if you are going to do that. But will Iowa matter? Yes. It's all a question of degree. In a big year, Iowa's been known to re-scramble the entire field, raise up a new frontrunner, even a new number two. We saw that in John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004. Other years, Iowa just serves to confirm the status of the established frontrunners like, say, Bush and Gore in 2000.

BLOCK: And what about this year?

ELVING: Certain candidates are betting very heavily on a big breakout win in Iowa. And here, I'm talking about Obama and Edwards and Huckabee. And if they get that, if they get that big dream, then it isn't a dream. They go on to the other primaries and they're in the thick of it and maybe they could go all the way. Now, if they don't get it, it's not exactly as though there's no tomorrow, but it's hard to see a tomorrow that has the same opportunity promise as Iowa.

BLOCK: And what's the record, Ron? Does the winner in Iowa usually go on to the nomination or not?

ELVING: Well, the incumbent presidents who have run here in Iowa have gone on to get the nomination, of course, and usually to win. But for the party that's not in the White House, the Iowa winner has become the nominee in five of the last eight cycles. That's not too bad. But only two of those nominees actually became president.

BLOCK: A lot of people, Ron, are probably still thinking, why Iowa? Why does Iowa have this role of this first caucus of the campaign?

ELVING: A lot of the great battles in history have taken place in places where nobody wanted to fight. Politics often works the same way. Iowa started these early caucuses several decades ago, really, 1972. And pretty soon, some of the Democratic long-shot candidates who didn't really have much chance in the bigger states started to come around for these early caucuses. They were looking for some early support in a place where they could afford to campaign. And you know, the cost in this is really quite a crucial factor.

So, as soon as it worked for George McGovern in 1972, then to Jimmy Carter in 1976, it caught on. And pretty soon, the Republicans joined in, and they moved their caucuses up and started doing something similar on their side. So, whenever there's been a nomination up for grabs in either party, most of the candidates have started battling for it just as soon as they possibly could, and Iowa's been the first place to fight.

BLOCK: One more last thing. Let's just think ahead just a bit. Five days until the New Hampshire primary. Knowing what you know about who tends to vote in both of these states, do you expect that there could be a very different result on Tuesday than we're going to see tomorrow night?

ELVING: Yes, there could. And the big factor here would be the independents. In Iowa, independents are not really encouraged to vote under most circumstances because these are party processes, they're caucuses, they take a lot of time, they're not convenient. But in New Hampshire, there's a tremendous emphasis on the independents. And oftentimes, they tend to rush to one side of the ship or the other. Some years, they rush to the Republican side, some years to the Democratic. That really helped John McCain in 2000, and it could do the same in 2008.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Thanks a lot.

RON ELVING: Thank you, Melissa.

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