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Why the Iowa Caucuses May Elevate an Underdog

History shows that this blockbuster event is merely a test of organizational strength in one small state.

Politico reporters recently suggested that the Iowa caucuses on Monday will be a “hot mess” as Democratic candidates compete amid razor-thin margins for votes through a newly reformed process designed to increase transparency.

“In theory,” as state party leaders suggest, the four-step process has not changed. But, according to some political consultants, the introduction of voter-preference cards and the disclosure of two vote tallies and one delegate count has the potential to muddle, or even distort, the crucial role Iowa has played in the electoral process since the 1970s. In these conditions, the battle is not just over who receives the most votes. It’s also over who can control the media narrative that comes out of Iowa.

But we’ve been here before. In fact, Iowa owes its prominence to two dark-horse campaigns from the 1970s that used grass-roots organizing and local media In Iowa to harness national media-fueled momentum that helped pave the path to their nominations. They exploited recent reforms designed to create a more transparent, inclusive electoral process, and in the process reinvented the presidential campaign.

The decades-long push for transparency in the nomination process culminated with reforms brought about by the contentious nomination of Hubert H. Humphrey, who did not enter a single Democratic Party nominating contest in 1968, instead relying on the support of political bosses. In the aftermath of the party’s deeply damaging convention in Chicago, the Democratic National Committee understood that it needed to make changes to avoid a repeat.

Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), Humphrey’s main opponent at that convention, became one of the key architects of the McGovern-Fraser Commission (1969-72) reforms. These required, among other measures, that state parties develop written rules for the delegate selection process to ensure transparency and to promote a more inclusive process that might end domination by middle-aged, middle-class white men.

Not long after McGovern resigned from the commission in January 1971 to announce his second bid for president, his wunderkind campaign director Gary Hart began “searching for a game-changer” that might catapult McGovern to a victory over Sen. Edmund “Big Ed” Muskie of Maine, the 1968 Democratic vice presidential nominee. Muskie was the heavily favored front-runner in February’s New Hampshire primary, the national starting gate for the party’s nomination since mid-century.