The Iowa fallacy

[Hi there – I wrote this a few days ago as a frustrated member of the media, pitched it a few places, and you know how that goes. But I put some time into it so now it’s here for your face to look at. I hope it at least helps put ongoing coverage of presidential primaries in a different perspective.]

Cartoon by Drew Sheneman/The Star Ledger

The early primary season is based on one uniting theory: the candidate who is going to win is the one that has the most momentum, and the candidate with the most momentum is the one that won the previous primary, which was wan by the candidate with the most momentum, etc etc, reductio absurdum.

It’s posited to us that the Iowa caucuses set the tone for the entire year, that they are the pre-pre games that determine which teams wind up in the Super Bowl. This is the problem of our media, in that we’re only able to cover the presidential contest as a horse race, more focused on measuring the inches between candidates rather than the issues that separate them. From above, you’d think they’re covering a particularly abortion-obsessed game of Plants vs. Zombies. Covering electoral politics like the NFL is what keeps CNN and Fox News burning on TVs all year long.

But did you know that only two candidates — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — who won the caucuses went on to win the presidency? And the rest of the stats are even less impressive: The caucuses have only picked the eventual nominee for either party 63 percent of the time since they first rose to prominence in 1972. That’s an awesome D minus average for predictability, yet we’ve been getting wall-to-wall coverage of it for months now, with the cable news stations treating it like every one of Iowa’s 3 million residents is some sort of soothsaying wizard consulting mystical corn husks until they finally share their wisdom with the rest of the world this week.

So the primary cycle looks like this, and all it takes is one catalyst win for pundits and lots of other people sitting behind tables on TV to spark the cycle into motion even when, it turns out, there are actually 49 other states in the nation that might have opinions of their own that are vastly different from Iowans:

And by the time the primaries have gotten around to parts of the country more varied in population than Iowa and New Hampshire, the unstoppable presidential campaign megalodon has declared the “feeling of inevitability” so why bother campaigning anywhere else in the country? Huh, Rudy Giuliani? Why were you so silly to think you can avoid places that set the tone for this whole circus and just do the logical thing and focus on Florida, where your base of support was? It’s like the Grammys: everyone in the industry knows it’s a ridiculous ceremony not representative of the actual state of taste for the year, yet everyone puts on their tux and dress and does a little bow in front of the old white guys who act like they arbiter national taste. Because that’s the way we do it, and it’s important if we say it’s important.

Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times last week that we should “feel free to ignore Iowa” because of not only its demographic misrepresentation of the rest of the country but also, notably, some of the major Republican candidates haven’t even spent much time there this year, when the whole point of the damn caucus in the first place is supposed to be that the informed Iowans got a chance to personally meet and talk with the candidates (again, that elevated class of wizened uber-voters supposed to represent the high-mindedness the rest of us don’t have  time to worry about — we’re very busy here on the coasts producing Culture, you know!). Collins summarizes: “On Tuesday, there will be a contest to select the preferred candidate of a small group of people who are older, wealthier and whiter than American voters in general, and more politically extreme than the average Iowa Republican. The whole world will be watching.”

Collins’ call to ignore these “ridiculous” Iowa system not withstanding, who are the people actually making these decisions that set that whole flow chart in motion? It’s the 1 percent! No, not the bête noire 1 percent of Occupy Wall Street, but the statistical 1 percent of people Who Have Time to Caucus and Care to Do It.

We’re talking about 1 percent of the population of Iowa, 1 percent that actually weigh in on these things that thenceforth become a barometer for the whole election year to come. Collins notes the Republicans were hoping for a turnout of 100,000 this week — an amount that is just 3 percent of the whole population of the state, slightly less than the amount needed to fill the Michigan Wolverine’s football stadium. In 2008, CNN touted both sides for having “record turnout:” 120,000 for the elephants and 227,000 for donkey town.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the caucus with about 36 percent of the vote— 1.2 percent of the population. Last time around in 2008, Mike Huckabee came out the winner, getting support from the practically brag-worthy 1.3 percent of Iowans. Even farther back, George Bush the First won about 1.3 percent in the 1980 caucus, and somehow that massive groundswell of support still wasn’t enough to beat Reagan for the nomination that year.  That 1 percent of Iowa population is barely .01 percent of the total US population, FYI.

Of course, this is the open secret among the media who know damn well that Iowa is just Iowa and that it’s not America, but they still stick to this now decades-old trope about the soothsaying of the caucuses because, well, what the hell else are they supposed to do to fill the time before the election run up materialized to a point where we could have some informed commentary on it. Go out and do ACTUAL REPORTING? But Begala! He doesn’t like the outdoors! If that happened, our nation’s television graphics and touch-screen display device economies would plummet dramatically.

Tuesday morning on WNYC, Brian Lehrer posited the idea that maybe we should rotate the dates of the early caucuses and primaries to give other states a shot at being noticed once in awhile during an election year. Would that ever work? It seems to me it would be a more representative way to make our nation feel like every part of it was involved in the electoral process (also, could we just do them all on one day? You guys could stop fighting over “firsts” like childish blog commenters then).

But the political machines, media and parties would never go for it, because they have their narrative and they’re loathe to diverge from it, because American democracy is best when reduced to a game of surges and polls, debates and gaffs, plants and zombies. And the rest of us are left tuning in to the dalliances of 1 percent of Iowans, wondering if maybe they would let the rest of us have a turn once in awhile.

Election data via:

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