Iowa Caucuses

by Scott Culpepper

Dordt College


The 2004 Iowa Caucuses took place on January 19, 2004.  They were a primarily Democratic affair due to the incumbent status of Republican President George W. Bush.  Senator John Kerry (D-MA) placed first in a field of nine major Democratic candidates.  CNN reported that Kerry had received thirty-eight percent of the total vote (twenty delegates) while his nearest rival, Senator John Edwards (D-SC), received thirty-two percent (eighteen delegates).1 Both of these candidates had seemed like a long shot going into the primary.  They battled their way to the top two spots in Iowa and ultimately the 2004 Democratic nomination for President and Vice President.

In the months leading up to the Iowa Caucuses, many considered Congressman Dick Gephardt (D-MO) an early favorite to win in Iowa.  Gephardt was from Missouri and had narrowly carried Iowa in the 1988 Democratic caucuses.  His Midwestern connections and previous success in Iowa seemed to position him well in 2004.  Gephardt actively courted the labor interests in the state, speaking a great deal about the harmful consequences of free trade agreements like NAFTA for the American labor force.  He started campaigning early in Iowa and poured most of his resources into securing a 2004 victory there.2

By September 2003, Gephardt’s leading competitor in Iowa appeared to be Vermont Governor Howard Dean.  Dean announced his candidacy in May 2002.  Both candidates had actively campaigned in the state since January 2003.  Dean advocated a universal health care program and touted his experience as a medical doctor to lend weight to his views.  The Vermont governor gained momentum in December 2003 when former Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, endorsed his candidacy.3  He also received the endorsement of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin on January 9.4

By the Summer of 2003, John Kerry, John Edwards, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and Representative Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) had also begun campaigning in Iowa.  Other names on the Iowa caucus ballot included Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Reverend Al Sharpton, and retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.  Lieberman, Sharpton, and Clark were not considered very competitive in Iowa and did not spend much of their time campaigning there in 2004.  Moseley Braun caused a sensation when she dropped out of the race and immediately endorsed Howard Dean on January 15, a mere four days before the Iowa Caucuses.5

John Edwards received an important boost when the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, endorsed him on the eve of the caucuses.  In an editorial published on January 11, the editorial board of the Register wrote, “On issues, the major contenders for the nomination aren’t far apart. They differ in emphasis and detail, but all have the same general thrust: Roll back some or all of the Bush tax cuts and redirect the money into health care and education. Conduct a foreign policy that is more collaborative and less bellicose.”6  The Register editorial board ultimately chose Edwards because, “The underlying theme of the Democrats is that the government under President Bush is serving the interests of wealth and privilege, not of ordinary Americans . . .  (Howard) Dean has the slogan, but it is Edwards who most eloquently and believably expresses this point of view, with his trial-lawyer skill for distilling arguments into compelling language that moves a jury of ordinary people.”7

Despite Dean’s momentum, Senator John Kerry secured the victory in Iowa with thirty-eight percent of the total vote (twenty delegates).  Kerry had battled his way to the top despite a general consensus that his chances in Iowa had appeared slim.  Kerry thanked his Iowa supporters for making him the “Comeback Kerry,” an allusion to Bill Clinton’s “Comeback Kid” label.  He then delivered a message to the Bush administration: “We’re coming, you’re going, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”8  John Edwards’ robust thirty-two percent (eighteen delegates) showing kept him firmly in the race and also exceeded expectations.

One of the most infamous and humorous events associated with aftermath of the 2004 Iowa Caucuses was the ”Howard Dean Scream.”  Dean was speaking to a group of Iowa supporters the night of the primary in celebration of his third place finish with a total of seven delegates.  As he encouraged his supporters to stay the course, Dean unleashed a howl through his microphone that became a media sensation and a subject of parodies throughout the 2004 campaign season.9

Dick Gephardt’s dismal fourth place finish portended the end of his campaign.  While Gephardt received eleven percent of the vote, he had been expected to do much better in a state where he had so many natural advantages.  Gephardt announced the end of his presidential campaign on January 20.  In reference to his long advocacy for worker’s rights, Gephardt said, “My campaign for working people may be ending tonight, but our fight will never end.”10

John Kerry capitalized on his momentum from Iowa victory to launch an energetic campaign in New Hampshire.  He won first place in the New Hampshire primary on January 27, 2004.  Their early victories in Iowa paved the way for Kerry’s presidential nomination and selection of Edwards as his running mate.

1Cable News Network, “America Votes 2004: Primary Results: Iowa, January 19,” , (Accessed May 12, 2014).

2Jeff Zeleny, “Gephardt hopes to repeat magic of 1988 in Iowa,” Chicago Tribune, November 23, 2003, , (Accessed May 12, 2014).

3Adam Nagourney, “Gore to Endorse Howard Dean for ’04 Presidential Nomination,” New York Times, December, 8, 2003,, (Accessed May 12, 2014).

4Associated Press, “Iowa’s Senator Harkin Endorses Dean,” January 9, 2004,, (Accessed May 12, 2014).

5Associated Press, “Moseley Braun ends campaign, endorses Dean,” December 15, 2004,, (Accessed May 12, 2004).

6Register Editorial Board, “John Edwards – – his time is now,” Des Moines Register, January 11, 2004,, (Accessed May 12, 2004).


8 MSNBC.Com News Services, “Kerry roars back to win Iowa caucuses,” January 20, 2004,, (Accessed May 12, 2004).

9ABC News, “January 19, 2004: Howard ‘Dean Scream’,” , (Accessed May 12, 2014).

10Cable News Network, “Gephardt to drop out of race,” January 20, 2004,, (Accessed May 12, 2004).