About the caucuses: Triangular mediation

By Kelley Casino
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

“At worst, media exploitation of the Iowa caucus process (1) disrupts the normal functioning of the local political process, (2) may give a false image of the national political appeal of the candidates involved, and (3) subjects the national electoral process to the influence of a contrived event” (Winebrenner, p.7).

The outcome of thousands of precinct caucuses in Iowa could never be made public throughout the entire nation without the help of the media. Since the inception of the caucuses and the publicity surroung their outcomes and aftermath, critics have debated the impact of the media on the campaigns.

In The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Hugh Winebrenner argues that media coverage of the Iowa caucuses can directly impact campaigns on a national level -- in most cases, negatively. Because the caucuses are the nation's first test or indicator of voter sentiment about the candidates, information about their outcome is nationally desirable, regardless of its accuracy or scientific backing, he says.

In 1846, the political parties of Iowa adopted a caucus and convention system without ever attempting a primary election system. Under this process, informal meetings in each of Iowa’s precincts are sponsored by the Republican and Democratic parties to elect delegates to county conventions; later, selection of delegates to district, state and national conventions follows suit (p. 25).

For both parties – which have separate caucuses run in different fashions – the meetings are typically held in churches, schools, libraries or other public venues. Although the voting procedures are left up to each caucus meeting, suggestions are made by state party officials.

For the Republican caucuses, the Republican state central committee suggests that participants vote by secret ballot (p. 29). The Democratic process, however, is different. After registering as a Democrat or proving party affiliation, participants stand in various parts of the room, indicating the candidate they support.

For both parties, any candidate with at least 15 percent of the voters in the room may compete and send delegates on to the next level of the caucus system.

Massive media attention to the caucuses began in the 1970s. The growing media coverage, along with a new role as the first-in-the-nation test of a candidate’s strength, quickly made the Iowa caucuses a “uniquely American political Olympic contest” (p. 4). The caucuses were soon turned from grassroots organizations into media frenzies, and the candidates used the publicity to their advantage.

Although the outcome of the caucuses is far from scientific, according to Winebrenner, they play a very important role in the candidate’s campaign for party nomination. No candidate who has done poorly in Iowa has ever received the party’s nomination, he said, so candidates see the caucuses as a crucial early indication of likelihood of national success.

“ The national media seemed to rely heavily on national and state public opinion polls in developing the two-candidate-race scenario. Critics argued that polls of the general public tend to reflect levels of name recognition, not organized political support, which is so crucial in the early nominating events,” Winebrenner said (p. 116).

Media coverage of the campaigns and the media’s perception of the viability of a candidate’s campaign can change results of the polls, as happened t for Republican George Bush and Democrat Ted Kennedy in the 1980 contest.

During the presidential caucuses, media perception that Kennedy was in “deep trouble after Iowa” was seriously damaging to his campaign (p. 102). Reporters concluded that as a result of the Iowa caucuses Kennedy could not viably challenge President Carter for the Democratic nomination – making Carter the front-runner and permanently injuring Kennedy’s campaign.

“ But Iowa has gained its reputation as an early indicator in the presidential race not only by exposing weakness. The precinct caucuses also produce ‘surprise winners’ – candidates who do better than expected and as a result gain media momentum,” Winebrenner said (p. 130).

Although he was not the front-runner for the majority of the race, Bush’s unexpected victory in Iowa, where he captured 31.6 percent of the caucus preference vote -- more than Ronald Reagan or any other Republican candidate --created a national hubbub in the media and immediately put the Bush campaign in the forefront of conversation.

The New York Times concluded that "Mr. Bush’s unexpected comfortable victory and the failures of others suddenly made the Republican race more of a two-man contest," reducing the remaining five Republican candidates to the status of also-rans after only one primary event (p. 95). "Bush may never have seriously threatened Reagan’s bid for the Republican nomination, but the media brouhaha generated by the Iowa caucuses gave him sufficient momentum to make him the vice-presidential nominee," Winebrenner said (p. 96).

The media’s assigning of metaphoric labels to Kennedy, the long shot, and Bush, the front-runner, completely changed the outcome of the remainder of the race for their respective party’s presidential nominations. But it did so in different ways: It made Bush’s campaign gain momentum while it drove Kennedy’s into the ground. Winebrenner said the media evaluate candidate performance in caucuses and primary elections "according to the expectations created by the labels. Meeting or exceeding media expectations is crucial to the campaigns of presidential candidates” (p. 9).

The 1988 presidential caucuses had a similar effect on the candidates' campaigns. When Gary Hart reentered the Democratic race, media coverage switched to his campaign, creating the perception that Hart was a front-runner in the campaign.

“ The media spotlight shifted to Hart, and that affected poll results, fund-raising, and perceptions of who was hot and who was not,” Winebrenner said (p. 148).

Throughout The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Winebrenner gives little credit to politicking or actual voter support for a candidate’s status following Iowa’s precinct caucuses. Rather, he credits the national media coverage of the caucuses for creating public perception of the candidates, and by extension, their popularity and success or failure.

Being in the good graces of the media and staying in the spotlight, candidates are able to use the media to forward their campaigns for their party’s presidential bid. The media are the mediation between the voters and the candidates.

E-mail Kelley Casino at kelley-casino@uiowa.edu

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