Presidential candidates tend to flock to Iowa. Here are 5 takeaways from the history of their visits

Despite being in the thick of midterm election campaigns and an uncertain future looming ahead of Iowa's premier political event, it's not too early to start thinking about the next Iowa caucuses.

By this point in the 2020 caucus cycle — the beginning of September 2018 — there had already been more than 250 Iowa visits by a total of 31 potential presidential candidates.

That's based on data from the Des Moines Register's Iowa caucus candidate tracker, which, for the first time, has historical data available in database format for Register subscribers to peruse.

The database includes the 2012, 2016 and 2020 caucus cycles, and goes back to the weeks following the 2008 presidential election. Included are venue names, candidates, cities and short descriptions of each visit. The database is sortable and filterable, so you can use it to see where specific candidates visited the state during their campaigns, or which candidates came to your city the most.

See the database: Presidential candidate visits in Iowa during the 2012-20 Iowa caucuses

Here are some of the most interesting notes we found while exploring the data:

Which Iowa towns get the most presidential candidate visits?

There are few surprises at the top of the list of Iowa cities that candidates visited most over the past three caucus cycles: Des Moines lapped the field, with more than 1,000 events. Iowa's next most populous cities — Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Sioux City — are among the other five most-visited places, along with Ames and Iowa City for candidates looking to court the college vote.

But there are smaller Iowa towns that get visited more often relative to their population — think of it as candidate visits per capita.

Democratic presidential candidate, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg removes his tie during a campaign event after bee landed on it and refused to leave September 23, 2019 in Elkader, Iowa.

Of the 100 Iowa cities with at least 10 candidate stops documented in our database, none had more visits relative to their size than Elkader, in Clayton County, population 1,362. Johnson's Restaurant drew in 12 separate candidates, some more than once. Over the past three caucus cycles, Elkader has had more than 11 candidate visits per 1,000 residents. None of the other top 100 Iowa cities had more than 8.

In addition to Elkader, Democratic candidates visited a handful of other cities in north and central Iowa a disproportionate amount, compared to their size. Panora, Tama, Clear Lake and Grinnell are among the smaller towns (all have populations less than 10,000) that could see fewer visits if the Democratic nominating calendar is reshuffled.

Republicans tended to visit smaller cities in the western part of the state at disproportionately higher rates. They held more events per resident in Rock Rapids than any other city, followed by Winterset, Greenfield, Corning and Onawa.

Which candidates have practically made Iowa their second homes?

Each caucus cycle sees at least one candidate — and sometimes more — make Iowa their functional second home, choosing to focus heavily on the Hawkeye State in an effort to win one of the fabled "three tickets" out of Iowa.

In the 2020 cycle, that was Democrat John Delaney, who held 270 events in the state, according to the Register's candidate tracker. (That same cycle, Marianne Williamson actually bought a condo in Des Moines when she was running for president.)

In 2016, Martin O'Malley led Democrats with 173 events. Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee, both Republicans, each held more than 200 events in the state in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

But over the past three cycles, nobody spent more time in Iowa than Rick Santorum. The former Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania made 274 stops in Iowa in the 2016 cycle, more than any other candidate in any of the previous three cycles... except 2012 Rick Santorum, who made 329 stops. Together, his 603 visits are more than double those of the candidate who held the second-most events, Democrat Bernie Sanders, who competed in two cycles.

Unless one of those candidates makes another run at the presidency, the data can't predict who might be making the most appearances ahead of the next caucuses. But it certainly suggests someone will plant their flag in the state and try to connect with as many Iowans on the ground as possible.

More: Potential 2024 presidential candidate Mike Pence putting $400,000 behind Iowa 3rd District TV ad

But does making a lot of visits to Iowa matter?

Santorum's 329 visits worked out for him in 2012: He edged out Mitt Romney to win the Republican caucuses that year.

It was a less effective tactic in 2016 — despite making 274 visits, he only earned 1% of the vote share. And in 2020, Delaney withdrew from the race before caucus night despite making a similar number of appearances in Iowa.

But ignoring the state won't do a candidate any favors, either. Charting the caucus results against the number of visits to Iowa for each candidate reveals a cluster of politicians who made few stops in the state and earned few votes on caucus night.

There's a slight, if any, correlation between making more visits to Iowa and earning more votes. You need to show up to have a chance in the Iowa caucuses, but it takes more than just showing up to win.

Want to see a presidential candidate? Go to the Iowa State Fair...

Former Vice President Mike Pence visited the Iowa State Fair this year, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — both considered potential Republican candidates for president in 2024.

Next year, they'll likely be joined by considerably more candidates. Over the past three cycles, 55 different potential candidates have held scheduled events at the Iowa State Fair, with many of them speaking at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox.

And that total doesn't include unscheduled drop-ins to the fair, nor does it include events held at the fairgrounds during other times of the year.

If you can't make it out to the state fairgrounds, don't worry — there have historically been numerous events held at county fairgrounds, not to mention local businesses and restaurants, such as...

...or go to a Pizza Ranch

Presidential candidates hold a lot of events at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, but they've held even more events at Pizza Ranches across the state. The Orange City, Iowa-based pizza buffet chain has more than 70 locations throughout Iowa, and after Mike Huckabee leveraged appearances there to earn a 2008 caucus victory, they've become a popular spot for visiting candidates — particularly Republicans.

Over the past three caucus cycles, candidate tracker data shows that more than one out of every 25 Republican caucus events has been held at a Pizza Ranch.

Those events have been spread throughout the state, too. More than 50 different cities in Iowa have at least one Pizza Ranch that hosted a presidential candidate at some point in the last 12 years.

While Democratic candidates only held a handful of events at Pizza Ranches in the 2020 cycle, it's a good bet that Republicans could once again return to the chain en masse in what's expected to be a more competitive caucus cycle in 2024.

More: Sen. Tim Scott for president? 'Of my homeowners' association,' he says in Iowa

Explore every caucus visit with the map below

Want to check out the candidate tracker data for yourself? You can view it in database form here, or in map form below.

Having trouble seeing the map? Click here.

Tim Webber is a data visualization specialist for the Register. Reach him at, 515-284-8532, and on Twitter at @HelloTimWebber.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Takeaways from past presidential candidate visits amid Iowa's caucuses