the caucuses: Triangular
Iowa Presidential Politics.com
“At worst, media exploitation of the Iowa caucus process
(1) disrupts the normal functioning of the local political process,
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
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
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
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
participants vote by secret ballot (p. 29). The Democratic process, however,
different. After registering as a Democrat or proving party affiliation,
participants stand in various parts of the room, indicating the candidate
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,
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,
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
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.
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.
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
or any other Republican candidate --created a national hubbub in the media
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
the expectations created by the labels. Meeting or exceeding media expectations
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.
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