Here is the question I was asked this week by Washington Times reporter Jennifer Harper. "What is it about Iowa voters that enables them to remain such an important and consistent political barometer over the years?"
(Dr. Steffen Schmidt, Fall 2007 ISU pol sci department newsletter)
My answer is below.
1. Smarts. Iowa has been one of the most literate states and tops in education. Education leads people to be more interested in politics and that leads to taking the process seriously at least for the hard core political geeks.
2. Heritage. Iowa is one of those states with a very high level of "civic culture" also called "civic republicanism." Researches such as Tom W. Rice, University of Iowa and Jan L. Feldman have noted in the article "Civic Culture and Democracy from Europe to America" that the historical ancestry of Europeans from certain countries produces a very high level of civic culture in their descendants in the United States. See the article in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 4, Nov., 1997. A large % of the population in Iowa and some other states is descended from these politically and "civically active" societies. These American states, including Iowa, are characterized by high voter turnout in most elections. "Civic Culture and Government Performance in the American States," by Tom W. Rice and Alexander F. Sumberg is also worth another read. It needs to be revisited!
3. Political engagement. See above. The "civic culture" includes an almost guilt driven desire to volunteer, participate, help the neighbor, improve the community, and participate in politics. "Civic engagement is about the right of the people to define the public
good, determine the policies by which they will seek the good, and
reform or replace institutions that do not serve that good." See the book Globalizing Civil Society: Reclaiming Our Right to Power, by David C. Korten, (1998). Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam has written excellent studies on civic engagement including the bestseller Bowling Alone.
4. The "Heartland attitude." Because Iowa has a small population and there is still a lot of "neighbor relations" - on county roads (where I drive from my farm - we still hold up a couple of fingers and greet cars coming at and past us just in case it's a neighbor! When you grow up on a farm or a small town you have to help each other because it's a rough life out in the country. So, a sense of cooperation and active engagement in improving the community, the township, and county is very strong.
5. Finally, Iowa has been very purple and so even though minorities are a smaller % of the population, we have liberals, moderates, conservatives, and "very" conservative voters. That's why Obama, Hillary, Santorum AND Mitt Romney could all do very well in Iowa in the same year!
Oh, I forgot to add this. Iowa, especially Des Moines, is also a great test market for products, including things like testing different flavors of Jello. Or, testing presidential contenders.