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A look back at the history of the Iowa Caucuses

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While Iowa's always held a caucus, their popularity is only about 50 years old. So what has changed over the years?

There are two men that historians refer to for as to why the Iowa Caucuses are so popular. That's George McGovern and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Both of them used first in the nation status as a way to show their strength as a candidate.

It all started in the 1970s.

“In 1976, when Jimmy Carter was here, these were very small events,” David Yepsen, of Iowa PBS, said.

A living room, church basements: those were the kinds of places where Iowans met candidates 50 years ago, offering a sense of charm in politics.

“I think the candidates like to try and recreate it, but the thing has gotten so big that they can’t,” Yepsen said.

Yepsen is a long-time journalist who started his career in the 70s, just as the caucuses were gaining fame. The democratic party was in the midst of reforms, so Iowa wound up going first. It wasn’t for any specific reason. That's just how it happened.

Through the years, the Iowa caucuses predict a party's nominee correctly about half of the time.

Usually though, the one who wins the presidency does well in the Hawkeye state.

“The only time that a candidate has not finished in the top three and has gone onto win the presidency was 1992,” Leo Landis, curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa, said. “That was when Senator Harkin was running and Bill Clinton comes in 4th.”

Landis notes a historic shift with Christian voters.

“The 1988 campaign with Pat Robertson is when the Christian voting block and the Republican party really becomes active,” Landis said, “but that continues then to the early 2000s and into the 2012 and ‘16 campaign as well.”

In the modern political sphere, Yepsen thinks the caucuses are almost a campaign in themselves.

“When you come here, you can't try out messages like you used to,” Yepsen said. “You have to be on your game. You have to have a position paper. You say what you want to do here. It better be the same here as it is in New Hampshire.”

“Part of that change is because of how technology and the media have advanced,” Yepsen added.

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