About the caucuses: Wholesome and hyped

By Amy Jennings
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

Wholesome, small-town quirkiness paired with national media hype have caused the meaning and significance of the Iowa presidential caucuses to undergo many transformations over the years.

Although participants in one of the nation’s first presidential events do not select a single candidate as a winner, the media have nevertheless portrayed Iowa as the early success indicator for presidential hopefuls.

In recent years, experts have examined the caucuses to ascertain the actual value and accuracy of the outcome of the Iowa caucuses. In his book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Hugh Winebrenner concludes that although the results mean little, the hype surrounding the political process is perpetuated because it benefits the state political parties, the media and the individual candidates.

The Iowa caucuses are unlike the direct primary voting practices in other states and are usually misunderstood by people who are not active in the Iowa political process. To begin with, the local caucuses are party-sponsored events that select delegates to attend county conventions, which in turn elect delegates to district and state conventions, where the delegates to the national convention are chosen. This process is different from state primary elections that count votes for a specific candidate.

The caucuses are also used to determine platform issues for the parties.

Republican and Democratic caucuses are run differently. In order for a candidate to be considered viable at a Democratic caucus, the candidate's supporters must make up at least 15 percent of the participants. The members of preference groups that do not meet that minimum have the opportunity to realign with other, more popular candidates.

Delegate selection takes place from these final groups, and the chair reports the number of delegates who are committed and uncommitted to each candidate. In a system of proportional representation, the Democratic party calculates the “delegate equivalents” of each candidate from each precinct.

While Republicans have the option of using proportional representation, they usually elect delegates to a county convention on an at-large basis. Winebrenner gives the example that if a precinct were electing six candidates at large, then a caucus participant could vote for up to six candidates and the individuals who received the most votes would be elected regardless of their presidential preference.

In the 1970s, the Republicans initially did not report the preferences of the delegates elected, but the party now reports to Des Moines the results of a poll that it conducts prior to delegate selection.

The political process described above does not occur in a vacuum. Since the 1970s, the media attention focused on the Iowa caucuses has caused the importance of the so-called “results” to be magnified. Political candidates and campaigns now spend large quantities of time in money in a state that, as Winebrenner points out, represented only 1.3 percent of delegate totals for both Democrat and Republican conventions in 1996.

By surveying important caucuses in the history of presidential races, Winebrenner asserts that construction of greater importance for the Iowa caucuses is the result of the interaction of the media, the state political parties and the candidates themselves.

Winebrenner begins his argument for the inflated importance of the Iowa caucuses with an examination of the 1972 Democratic caucus, which was the first event to gain substantial attention following changes in party rules. Sen. George McGovern was the first candidate to concentrate support in the caucuses, and he seemed to correctly predict that Iowa would become an important first success indicator for presidential hopefuls.

That year, the Democratic Party made adjustments to deliver tangible results to the members of the national media that showed up by calculating “national delegate equivalents” and “state delegate equivalents” from sample precincts. Winebrenner argues that projections made in this manner are invalid and unreliable because no actual votes are counted. In addition, participants whose first choice candidates that don’t reach the 15 percent threshold can realign with other candidates, which skews the supporter totals.

Winebrenner points to the 1976 Democratic presidential caucuses as the first evidence of the media creating a set of expectations for candidates based on the caucuses. That year, presidential nominee hopeful Jimmy Carter launched an early campaign in Iowa. After Carter won a straw poll at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, The New York Times reported him to be a front-runner in the campaign.

After the media made this designation on the basis of a single straw poll in Iowa, Winebrenner says that the media “framed” Carter with the expectation that he would win the caucus and his performance would be judged within that frame. According the media sources cited in Winebrenner’s book, such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Carter fulfilled his expectation to win, making his an “impressive” victory rather than a “surprising” one, which could have been the case if Carter had been framed earlier as an underdog.

Winebrenner asserts that events in the 1980s heightened and solidified media attention to the political process in Iowa. Coverage by 300 reporters as well as TV crews marked recognition of the caucuses as an important political event. Winebrenner asserts that the 1980 caucuses are the first to have a substantial effect on the presidential election, when the media interpreted the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Ted Kennedy to be in trouble after a loss in Iowa. He says the validity of the reporting mechanisms used by the state parties to produce tangible results for reporters also was called into question during the 1980 caucus.

Just as the media and political candidates made Iowa an important event, they also wielded the same power to diminish that importance in some ways. The author says that the front-loading of primaries and the reliance of candidates on paid TV ads caused the caucuses to become less important after 1984. He cites George Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996 as examples of candidates who had enough money to recover from early losses in Iowa.

Although Iowa may not be as crucial a venue as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, Winebrenner points out that the field of candidates also was substantially narrower in some later years.

Winebrenner examines the caucuses in depth from 1972 to 1996 to determine that although the Iowa caucuses do not produce viable results, the media often overlook this fact in a quest for reportable results. As a consequence, early media interpretations based on the Iowa caucuses become the reality of the campaign and a frame in which candidates must solicit support. Winebrenner challenges the media to find a better way to serve the political needs of the American public than creating frames from insignificant events like the Iowa caucuses.

E-mail Amy Jennings at [email protected]

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