About the caucuses: Perception becomes reality

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

The Iowa caucuses were boosted from an obscure local affair into national media attention and political prominence after a series of reforms in the Iowa Democratic Party led to the state’s caucuses becoming the first presidential nominating event in the nation.

Before 1972, the Iowa caucuses were held in the middle of the presidential nominating process, stimulating little if any national attention. Local political activists and party leaders dominated the event, leaving the caucuses largely unnoticed even within the state. Without its current status as the first indicator of how the presidential candidates are doing, Iowa played a small and relatively insignificant role in the race to the White House.

In The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, author Hugh Winebrenner argues that citizens of the state, particularly caucus attendees, were not representative of the typical American, with Iowa political participants being older, wealthier, more educated, partisan, liberal and ideological than their counterparts in other states (p. 22). Iowa’s small minority population and its emphasis on agricultural issues further kept it from being a characteristic state that might show how the presidential election would turn out (p. 21).

All of these factors didn’t seem to matter to the national media, however, when the Democratic Party changed the date of the caucuses to January 24 in 1972, placing them before the New Hampshire primaries on the political calendar. Suddenly, flocks of reporters and news organizations headed to Iowa, looking to the caucus results to see how the presidential candidates fared and how their Iowa showing might impact their future campaigns.

The Democratic caucus process was not suited to produce clear-cut winners and losers, Winebrenner said (p. 39). Although voters cast a single vote for the presidential candidate of their choice in a primary, caucus attendees are part of a more complicated process that ultimately determines what percentage of each candidate’s supporters will be sent to the county-level convention as delegates.

In Iowa’s many precincts, Democratic caucus participants initially group together with others who support their presidential candidate. If their candidate doesn’t receive 15 percent of the vote at that site, the candidate is not considered viable, and his or her supporters will regroup with other candidates’ supporters. Bargaining is common, with groups often promising supporters of non-viable candidates county delegate positions if they join a particular group and give that contender an impressive showing.

Because of these negotiations and the fact that delegates are subject to a change of heart between the caucus date and the state and national party conventions, Winebrenner said the caucuses are not a reliable or valid indication of a presidential candidate’s strength (p. 255).

News coverage surrounding the caucuses is often misleading but significant in the nation’s perception of the candidate’s potential to win the party’s nomination. The media focus on the candidate’s organization in the state and whether the candidates meet the expectations that both their own campaigns and the press have set for them on caucus night.

Since 1972, one of the top three contenders in Iowa has always become the party’s presidential nominee, so finishing fourth in Iowa could be fatal for a candidate’s campaign. Failing to meet expectations can be just as deadly, even for candidates who “win” Iowa by a surprisingly small margin when a sweeping victory is projected.

Though the Iowa caucuses have been known to break candidates, they have also been able to make them. Sen. George McGovern’s strong grass-roots effort in the 1972 Democratic caucuses led to an impressive showing against front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie, bringing McGovern greater media attention and helping him to emerge as a strong and viable candidate for the nomination. Meanwhile, Muskie’s campaign struggled to regain the limelight and prove it was heading in the right direction.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter reinforced the idea that in a caucus state, a dark-horse candidate could become the front-runner through extensive local campaigning. Other than in the South, the former Georgia governor was unknown and not expected to have significant returns in Iowa. Through persistence and investing time in Iowa, however, Carter was able to capture the state and the attention of the national media, elevating his campaign to a whole new level.

Since then, presidential candidates have modeled their campaigns after Carter’s, hoping to capitalize on the media interest that results from putting a lot of effort into Iowa and doing well in its caucuses.

The Iowa Republican Party decided in 1976 to move their caucuses to the same date as the Democratic Party’s, hoping to share in the media spotlight. Ever since, the parties have agreed to hold their caucuses on the same day in order to bring positive attention, economic benefits and political prominence to the state. Both parties have worked with the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and the media to make the most of Iowa’s claim to fame.

The Republican caucuses run slightly differently than the Democratic caucuses. Rather than split into preference groups, Republican caucus participants cast a secret ballot for the presidential candidate of their choice. Delegates for these candidates are then allocated proportional to the number of votes that candidate received. Without the 15 percent viability rule that Democrats have, the negotiations problem is eliminated, but the probability that delegates may change their mind between the caucus date and future conventions is just as likely.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have adapted to the media’s need for clear-cut results. Media outlets, independent groups and even the parties themselves conduct straw polls throughout the Iowa campaigning process. The Democratic Party provides weighted delegate equivalent results to reporters to try to simplify their outcomes.

Both techniques serve to document the candidates’ progress from their first visits to the state to their caucus night turnouts. In this way, Iowa serves as a testing ground for the contenders to see whether they have the stamina and resources necessary to advance in their campaigns.

For the most part, the Iowa caucuses have acted as a media event, boosting “winners” to new political heights, from Carter’s presidency in 1976 to George H.W. Bush’s nomination as vice president in 1980 (p. 261). Only once since Iowa has held its caucuses the earliest has the state not received a significant media following. When Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran for president in 1992, the press decided the state’s likelihood to vote for its “favorite son” would take the drama and importance out of the race.

Recognizing the impact of the Iowa caucuses on the presidential nominating process, other states have tried to move their primaries forward to rival the January event. Though the primary season has been front-loaded, Iowa has still been able to maintain its first-in-the-nation status.

The compressing of the nominating schedule and success of Steve Forbes’ television ads in 1996, however, have lessened the potential of an Iowa victory for dark-horse candidates. Candidates such as Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996 are prime examples of how contenders have recovered from losses in the Iowa caucuses with well-funded campaigns, while the high but almost necessary cost of television advertising makes it difficult for a less-financed candidate to emerge as Carter was able to do.

Even so, the media continue to extensively cover the Iowa caucuses, considering them the earliest evidence of the progress each presidential candidate has made in his or her campaign. Though the results are often misleading and unreliable, reporters use them to interpret who is winning and losing the race, affecting voter decisions and the candidates’ chances for success further down the road (p. 262).

The Iowa caucuses, then, are a collaborative effort between the state parties, presidential candidates and media in which perception, rather than reality, is enough to send one candidate packing and another to the White House.

E-mail Shelbi Thomas at shelbi-thomas@uiowa.edu.

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