IowaBy Dana Melcher, Corridor Communications Intern

For the past several months, presidential candidates have been making the rounds, stopping at schools, community centers and coffee shops, making an effort to win over the hearts of Iowans. The attention Iowa receives every four years brings the question, “Why should Iowa play such a large role in determining the next leader of the free world?”

I was personally asked this question while in Florida a few weeks ago when I  met a South Carolina man on a bus who, after hearing where I was from, said, “It must be pretty cool getting to hold the first caucus, but what makes y’all so special?” The question was most likely rhetorical, and the noisy bus prevented me from going into too much detail, but this is what I would’ve liked to tell him:

We may have stumbled upon this honor by “accident” in 1972, but ever since, once every four years, all eyes are on us.

There are those who say we should not be first, and that Iowa does not accurately represent the U.S., being a highly homogenous, agricultural and rural base when the U.S. as a whole is a highly diverse, urban and suburban country.

From the outside in, our state may look homogenous, but it’s not. Iowa is changing.  Two-thirds of Iowans live in cities and suburbs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Half of our population growth over the past 25 years has come from Latinos and immigrants. Specifically, Iowa’s Latino population increased five-fold between 1990 and 2010 to 150,000. Also, our political geography is anything but homogenous – just look at the 2012 presidential general election results.

As pointed out in this Politico article, in the middle of the 19th century, settlers from numerous cultures flocked to Iowa. Dutch separatists founded Pella, Oskaloosa was established by Pennsylvania Quakers, Yankee missionaries created Grinnell, Hessian Pietists settled the seven villages of the Amana colony, and refugees from Germany started new lives along the Mississippi River. We have also had our progressive moments. Iowa was the first to admit women to all degree programs at its state university (1857) and state bar association (1869); second to legalize interracial (1851) and gay and lesbian marriage (2007) first to elect a woman to public office (1869) and appoint one to statewide office (1871) and first to build a mosque (in 1934 in Cedar Rapids.) Our state’s history and settlement patterns may correlate to how different parts of the state vote. Iowans are not all the same.

Why else is Iowa special? We’re educated. Specifically, we have the highest graduation rate in the nation, and the highest average SAT score and second highest average ACT score in the country. Besides having the third largest undergraduate program in the nation that is consistently breaking enrollment records, we are also producing 2,000 engineering graduates per year and have seen a 54% growth in computer science and computer engineering degrees – far outpacing the national average of 27%.

Iowa in general is a pretty special place, but Des Moines deserves a closer look. The city has undergone an impressive transformation in the last decade and the rest of the country has taken notice. Des Moines has been named the country’s richest, by U.S. News, and economically strongest by Politicom.  Forbes declared it the best city for young professionals and best place for business and careers. Time stated it’s the best city for home renters, and Kiplinger noted that it’s the best city for families. According to a Gallup poll, Des Moines has the highest community pride in the nation and was at the top of a Bloomberg list of which cities are doing the best job attracting millennials to buy housing. Apparently Des Moines is “way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins,” said Fast Company.

Des Moines isn’t the only flourishing city that’s making the news. Ames was named the #3 Best Performing Small City in America by the Milken Institute, designated as the 9th Best Place to Live in the United States by CNNMoney.com, ranked in Livability’s Top 100 Best Places to Live list, named one of the top 25 places for STEM graduates, and was selected as one of the Best Places for Business and Careers by Forbes. Research also named Ames the #1 College Town in America, serving as the home to Iowa State University, one of the best colleges according to U.S. News. Ames is also home to Iowa’s top public high school, according to Business Insider.

When outsiders think of Iowa, a cornfield may be the first image that pops into their head. That image isn’t technically wrong to have, since we are turning those golden kernels into money, with the ethanol industry contributing more than $10 billion to Iowa’s economy and supporting 58,000 jobs.

But that’s not all we have. It may not be surprising that Iowa ranks #1 in the nation in the production of corn, pork and eggs. But that’s not all we do. Des Moines was dubbed the third largest insurance capital of the world. Our tech scene is also thriving, with Google and Facebook both having large data centers residing in the state, and Des Moines’ start-up scene is growing.

Iowa has the privilege of creating a make-or-break moment for candidates. Although we may have accidently fallen into this role over 40 years ago, we have embraced the honor, becoming educated and asking the tough questions, forcing candidates to appeal to the average American. Plus, Iowa is small enough for every candidate to make their way across the state and advertise accordingly, giving smaller candidates the opportunity to compete with the big dogs.

Iowa is so much more than what is seen in a Grant Wood painting. We are leaders in education, insurance and technology. We create renewable fuel. We feed the world.  So, in response to that South Carolina man, that is what makes Iowa special.