Mark Shields

We have reached that time in every presidential nominating year when distinguished, national opinion leaders beat up on Iowa and that admirable state’s influential role in determining the two major parties’ eventual presidential nominees and, therefore, the next president. The USA Today editorial board indicts Iowa for being “one of the least ethnically diverse states in the country” and its status as the first-in-the-nation presidential test every four years as “un-American,” while Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post that the Iowa caucuses “are a crime against democracy.”

It is time someone stood up for Iowa and Iowans. It’s true that Iowa is neither very representative of the entire nation nor very average. Scholarly studies have ranked Iowa as tied for first place in percentage of the adult population who are high school graduates. Iowans are fourth highest in access to health care (more “representative” Florida and Texas rank 46th and 47th respectively in citizens’ access to health care); first in broadband access; and third highest in public libraries per capita. True, the Hawkeye State leads the nation in production of corn, soybeans and pork, but Iowans are at the top of the nation in literacy, and the state has the U.S.’s 14th lowest murder rate.

But Iowa remains a small, rural state in the middle of the country. How representative can its voters be of the nation at large? The answer: amazingly so. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won 43% of the national vote and the White House; in Iowa, Clinton won 43% of the vote. In 1996, winner Clinton carried 49% of the national vote and 50% of the Iowa vote. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the national vote by one-half of 1% and Iowa by one-third of 1%. Republican George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with 51% of the national vote and 50% in Iowa. Democrat Barack Obama, in 2008, got 53% of the national vote and 54% of Iowans. In 2012, Obama was re-elected nationally by a margin of 4% and in Iowa by 5%. In 2016, the exception: Donald Trump, who lost the national vote by 2% to Hillary Clinton, carried Iowa by a solid 10%.

Yes, Iowa’s 2008 Democratic caucuses were 93% white, and those mid-American Caucasians made history by giving legitimacy and momentum to a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. In Iowa, the African American underdog won an upset victory over the heavily favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was propelled to the top of the national polls.

In fact, the rest of us owe Iowa our thanks. Iowans faithfully and earnestly fulfill their civil responsibilities by showing up at campaign town halls and listening and questioning the men and women who seek the White House. They take their responsibility seriously and then, on a cold winter night, hundreds of thousands of Iowans leave their homes and go to the local church hall, firehouse or school gym and spend a couple of hours declaring and defending their presidential preference openly in front of neighbors and friends. In the caucus, firefighters join shoulder to shoulder with nurses, teachers, retirees, students and small businesswomen in truly vibrant democracy. Here in Iowa, because Iowans give them a full and fair chance, the underfinanced, underdog candidate has a real chance. It was in Iowa that Jimmy Carter broke through and where George H.W. Bush’s upset win would lead to his being chosen vice president.

Thank you, Iowa, for serving the nation so well.

Mark Shields has been on the political playing field since Robert F. Kennedy ran for president in 1968. After years of managing campaigns from the courthouse to the White House, he is now one of the most widely recognized commentators in the United States.

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