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9 Facts About the Iowa Caucus

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Most of the time, Iowa is a relatively low key state. Sure, it might occasionally pick up national attention when the state makes waves in the sports world with an undefeated college football team or when it became the third to legalize gay marriage back in 2009. But for the most part, Iowa keeps a low profile. Unless, of course, it’s a caucus year.

After months of hype, the Iowa Caucus is finally here. Tonight, registered Democrats and Republicans will gather at designated caucus locations to cast a hypothetical vote for their preferred candidates. But what are the rules of the Iowa Caucus and why exactly do we place so much importance on the opinions of a state with a relatively small population? Here’s what you need to know before you tune in for unrelenting caucus coverage tonight.

1. While Iowa residents have been caucusing since the 1840s, the state has only been “First in the Nation” since 1972. So what changed to make the Hawkeye State such a kingmaker?

According to Slate, Iowa switched their caucus from spring to January in the late 1960s to allow enough time between the caucus and the district convention (30 days) as well as between the district convention and the state convention (another 30 days). Much to New Hampshire’s chagrin, this calendar change meant that Iowa had trumped them as first to take a crack at picking November's presidential candidates. Democratic candidate George McGovern hit Iowa hard during the 1972 caucus and ended up showing surprisingly well. (He got second.) After he went on to take the party’s nomination, candidates started taking Iowa seriously—but New Hampshire still didn't. In 1988, Governor John Sununu angered a lot of Iowans when he said, “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents."

2. Iowa ranks 30th in terms of state population, and most of the time, only 20 percent of registered voters show up to caucus. An exception to that rule was the 2008 caucus, when the close Clinton vs. Obama race resulted in 239,872 Democratic caucus participants—about 40 percent of registered Democrats in the state.

3. Iowa is a “closed primary” state, which means participants have to be registered as Democrat or Republican in order to caucus. However, voters can register on the night of the caucus at their designated location.

4. Almost 1700 caucuses will be voting in Iowa, but multiple caucuses usually share the same location. The Democratic Party has about 1100 locations while the Republican Party has nearly 700. They can take place almost anywhere: churches, schools, fire stations, restaurants, even private residences. Where Iowans go to caucus depends on where they live, much like voting—but in many cases, the caucus location is not the same place as the voting location.

5. One major difference in the Republican and Democrat caucuses? The way they vote. Republicans cast secret ballots, sometimes using paper ballots, and sometimes just by scribbling their favored candidate's name on a scrap of paper. Democrats publicly declare their support and assemble themselves in groups according to the candidates they back. Undecided voters are usually then asked to take a side, with decided people making impassioned pleas for their candidates.

6. Another difference: Republicans can throw their support to whichever candidate they prefer, even the most unpopular ones. But Democratic candidates must receive a minimum of 15 percent of the votes in the room in order to remain viable. If a candidate doesn’t receive 15 percent, his or her supporters are asked to choose someone else. The process is dynamic, with friends and neighbors trying to convince those supporting an invalid candidate to come to their side.

7. Unlike primary voting, there is no mail-in absentee option. Only people who are physically present for the caucus may participate—with one exception, new just this year. For the first time ever, the Democratic Party is allowing Iowans living abroad and military members stationed outside of the state to telecaucus, while the Republicans have announced their own system. 

8. The Iowa caucus isn’t a surefire indicator of which candidate will go on to win the party nomination, but for Democrats, it’s a good predictor. Democratic winners since 1972 who went on to get the party nomination include Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton (second term), Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (both terms). That means Iowa only got it wrong when they picked Edmund Muskie, Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin (a representative from Iowa).

9. When it comes to predicting the Republican nominee, however, Iowa’s accuracy rate plummets. Republican winners who got the party nomination include Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (second term), George H.W. Bush (second run), Bob Dole, and both of George W. Bush’s terms. They got it wrong when they picked George H.W. Bush against Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988, Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012.

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The Time Ben Franklin and John Adams Shared a Bed
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Ever been on a road trip where the sleeping conditions were less than ideal? Such indignities aren’t just for average citizens like you and me. Even Founding Fathers and future presidents had to bunk with one another on occasion. 

In September 1776, just a few months after the thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Britain, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams got stuck shacking up together for a night. As part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress, they were on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. As they passed through New Brunswick, New Jersey, the negotiators—Franklin, Adams and South Carolina politician Edward Rutledgedecided to stop for the night and find a place to sleep. 

The local taverns and inns were nearly full, though, and there were only two rooms for the three men. “One bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, “in a chamber a little larger than the bed, without a chimney and with only one small window.”

That window would be a problem for the two men.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

Adams, who was “an invalid and afraid of the air in the night,” closed the window before they got into bed. 

“Oh!” said Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.”

When Adams explained that he didn’t want to catch an illness from the cold night air, Franklin countered that the air in their room was even worse. 

“Come!” he told Adams. “Open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”

Contrary to the lay wisdom of the day (and everybody’s grandmother), Franklin was convinced that no one had ever gotten a cold from cold air. Instead, it was the “frowzy corrupt air” from animals, humans, and dirty clothes and beds, he thought, that led people to catch colds when they were “shut up together in small close rooms.” Cool, fresh air at night, he believed, had many benefits. 

Franklin’s ideas were inconsistent with Adams’s own experiences, he wrote, but he was curious to hear what Franklin had to say. So, even at the risk of a cold, he opened the window again and hopped into bed with Franklin.

As they lay side by side, Adams wrote, Franklin “began a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration.” 

“I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his philosophy together,” Adams wrote. “But I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep.”

The strange bedfellows were out like a light, and continued on their way in the morning. The peace conference they were traveling to lasted just a few hours and produced no results. 

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter
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Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. Carter is 93, and while a nearly-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. HIS CHILDHOOD DIDN’T INVOLVE MANY AMENITIES.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. HE DREW CRITICISM FOR REJECTING RACIST BELIEFS.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in the state. When he ran for governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. HE CAUSED A STIR BY DOING THE PLAYBOY INTERVIEW.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. HE NEVER LIKED THE PAGEANTRY OF THE PRESIDENCY.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. HE MAY HAVE SEEN A UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. HE INSTALLED SOLAR PANELS AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. HE WATCHED OVER 400 MOVIES WHILE IN OFFICE.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. HE BOYCOTTED THE 1980 OLYMPICS.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. HE WAS ATTACKED BY A RABBIT.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. HE WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE IN 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

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