I flew into Iowa late last night and immediately did my part for the local economy -- a $47 cab ride to my hotel in West Des Moines. (The crush of visiting journalists had already taken up all the rooms in Des Moines proper.) With a surprisingly expensive hotel room bill, and a breakfast and lunch already under my belt, I'm beginning to think there may be more to Iowans' zealous embrace of their caucuses than civic duty.
Not so, says David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University. Or at least not so much. Swenson published a paper in 2008 in which he said that the Democratic and Republican candidates combined had spent a paltry $15.5 million in Iowa in the last two quarters before the January 2008 caucuses. The economic impact of presidential politics on Iowa's roughly $150 billion gross domestic product is negligible.
But as my journalistic peers and I can attest, candidates are not the only ones who spend money on the caucuses. The Greater Des Moines Visitor and Convention Bureau says the 2008 campaign actually produced about $100 million of economic activity in the state, $25 million of that in Des Moines. Tiffany Tauscheck, vice president of marketing for the convention bureau, says there are an estimated 1,500 journalists visiting the state right now, down from about 2,500 in 2008. But the number of "political tourists" -- people who just want to see the candidates and the process for themselves -- has increased.
Also, let's not forget the economic impact of pandering to the interests of the first-in-the-nation state. According to the Environmental Working Group, Iowa benefited from about $22 billion in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2010. And would the history of the federal ethanol subsidy, which ended Jan. 1, have been different if presidential candidates were battling for position in, say, the Delaware primary instead of in the Corn Belt? To quote a one-time candidate, "You betcha."
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
For a look at Bloomberg View's full coverage of the Iowa caucuses, see our latest entry at Storify.