As I'm sure you realize, the Iowa caucus is tonight. So here's a history of the Iowa Caucus for you!
The Iowa caucuses took a step toward national prominence in 1972 when the state's Democratic Party moved its caucus date forward to January 24, which positioned the caucuses ahead of the New Hampshire primary election, the traditional first presidential nominating event. The earlier date resulted from reforms in the caucus and convention system that the Iowa Democrats adopted between 1968 and 1972 to comply with national party rule changes.
The 1972 decision by the Iowa Democratic Party to move its caucus date forward had an immediate, albeit modest impact on the presidential nominating process. Iowa’s new first-in-the-nation status gained the attention of presidential candidates and reporters. Further changes in state caucus procedures by the Democrats in 1972 and 1976 -- and by the Republicans in 1976 and 1980 -- made possible the creation of a national event by instituting a common date for the meetings and providing “results” from the process. This process centers around precinct caucuses, which select delegates to the county conventions. Before 1972, neither party's procedures were designed to determine winners and losers at the first stage of the multistage Iowa caucus and convention system. The procedural changes created a formal system to determine and report the presidential preferences of caucus participants.
George McGovern, then a South Dakota senator, successfully used the caucuses to gain attention for his campaign, and in so doing contributed to their growth as a national event. McGovern's 1972 Iowa campaign received limited national coverage, but the caucuses had an impact on the race for the Democratic nomination by alerting the nation that the presidential candidacy of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie was vulnerable. Although modest by current standards, significant attention by the news trendsetters -- the New York Times and the Washington Post -- and the post-caucus success of the McGovern campaign assured more extensive media attention and a larger role for the Iowa caucuses in succeeding years.
In 1975, Jimmy Carter, who was virtually unknown outside the South, launched an all-out effort in Iowa. He became the Democratic front runner after a strong showing which generated considerable attention from the national media, and when "Jimmy who?" gained the party nomination and beat Gerald Ford in the first post Watergate presidential election, the Iowa caucuses became a fixture in the presidential nominating process.
...The 1972 and 1976 caucuses marked the beginning of a dramatic change in American electoral politics. As the Iowa caucuses grew in importance, other states moved their primary events forward. What had been a traditional four-month primary season -- starting in New Hampshire in March and ending in California in June -- was significantly altered. The schedule of primary events was compressed, and a new front-loaded season emphasizing the nominating processes in Iowa and New Hampshire developed.
The article goes on to ask, "Is Iowa a good place to start the presidential campaign? Is it a representative state?"
Party officials in Iowa -- and some local and national writers -- have asserted that Iowa is a good place to begin the presidential campaign because it is a two-party state whose politics are competitive, clean, and open. Moreover, Iowans are hardworking and fair and take their duties as citizens very seriously. Finally, the state is small enough that less well known and less well financed presidential hopefuls have a chance, through hard work and good organization, to establish themselves as viable candidates. This “legend of Iowa” has gained creditability in many circles even though it developed after the fact; that is, as an attempt to rationalize the role Iowa has assumed in presidential politics.
Iowa is a small, homogeneous, Midwestern farm state largely composed of small cities and rural areas. The political culture and demography of Iowa may be typical of the American heartland. But an aging population, the absence of big cities, and the small number of nonwhites make it a poor mirror of the national political culture, and its political activists are not ideologically representative of primary election participants or the national electorate. Although no state can legitimately claim to mirror the national electorate, Iowa is less representative than many. Larger states justifiably complain that Iowa influences the candidate selection process far more than it should, given its lack of demographic and political diversity.
Representative or not, the Iowa caucuses have become an important part of the presidential nominating game. It matters little that Iowa is not a microcosm of the United States. The name of the presidential nominating game is perception, and the reality of the Iowa precinct caucuses has long been replaced by the media perception. It is not the caucus event per se but the media report of the event that shapes the presidential selection process -- just as earlier it was not so much the event itself but the report of the event that shaped the politics of Watergate and Vietnam. Iowa is first. The precinct caucuses provide early evidence -- hard news -- on the progress of the presidential race. This is the perception of Iowa’s role, and it is therefore the reality of the precinct caucuses.