The Iowa Caucuses: Do They Actually Mean Anything?

So, it’s the day after the Iowa caucuses. The first votes in the 2012 presidential nominating contest have been cast, and we’ve seen some results that are surprising, some not. What do we now know, and what have we learned?

Well, at this point what we know is easy to see. Mitt Romney won the Republican caucuses by a mere eight votes, in a statistical tie with Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania US Senator who will soon undoubtedly be dubbed “the Comeback Kid” by some blogosphere pundit somewhere. In an unexpectedly strong second place, Ron Paul more than doubled his 2008 caucus vote count and demonstrated his dominance in the constituencies of young and first-time caucus voters – groups that are far less likely to vote in big state primaries. So it is likely that the news media will continue to frame Paul as an iconoclastic also-ran with little chance of winning the nomination (as they still focus more attention on Newt Gingrich, who trailed in an embarrassing fourth place)… with the end result for public opinion that Paul will be an iconoclastic also-ran with little chance of winning the nomination.

The booby prize for the most precipitous fall from glory is a bit harder to determine: is it Michelle Bachmann, who went from Ames straw poll winner to near-last-place cellar dweller (beating only John Huntsman, who didn’t seriously compete, and two former candidates who are out of the running), who dropped out of the race today? Or is it Newt Gingrich, who saw his meteoric rise to front-runner status after the downfall of Herman Cain (prompting no small amount of front-runner braggadocio) melt away in the face of an attack ad blitzkrieg? In any event, less clear is how these results affect Rick Perry, who rapidly moved from “suspending the campaign” back to “here we come, South Carolina!” faster than the scrolling news ticker on the bottom of a cable TV news screen.

That’s what we know (and what we don’t). But what have we learned from Tuesday? As Alice observed, the GOP nominating contest becomes “curiouser and curiouser.” The lessons?

You can’t buy an Iowa win, so don’t bother trying.  In 2008 Romney tried to leverage his financial strength to buy the Iowa caucuses, starting early by engineering an undoubtedly expensive Ames straw poll win paired with a ubiquitous carpet-bombing of the TV airwaves with advertising.  He lost to the surge of social conservative Mike Huckabee, who had far less money but a better connection with evangelicals and the party’s right wing. This time, Romney played a more strategic long game, basically conceding the Ames poll without a struggle (or a resource investment), publicly  toyed with the notion of writing off the caucuses entirely (and thus lowered public expectations nicely, staying in a safe second-choice position while his more volatile and less disciplined right-wing competition burned bright and flamed out fast, in rapid succession), and held off on serious TV ad investment until a month out from the caucuses, when voters actually started to pay attention.  So, rather than spend his way into a front-runner position that couldn’t sustain itself, Romney maintained a steady and reliable (albeit milquetoast and uninspiring) just-short-of-frontrunner position without frittering away resources. He could have come out of Iowa with a more decisive win, but a win in New Hampshire and a decent showing in South Carolina will leave him sitting pretty for the multi-state primary season, where his superior financial and organizational resources will likely squash the rest of the field.

New media doesn’t matter nearly as much in Iowa as one might expect.  As discussed recently by the Denizens, the presidential pre-primary season has been framed by the media as the “year of the debate,” with numerous debates on cable television news dominating the attention of the political chattering class. They made for great entertainment, as we watched unexpectedly strong debate performances elevate frontrunners like Bachmann, Gingrich and Herman Cain, while problematic performances sunk the prospects of Tim “T-Paw” Pawlenty and nearly did in the candidacy of Rick Perry, whose frontrunner-upon-entry status was rapidly lost due to awkward and uncomfortable debate responses, a problematic command of policy details, and… um… what was that third thing? At the same time, many of the candidates attempted to leverage the organizational and communicative power of new internet-based media to develop organizational resources and support. Ron Paul was perhaps most successful in this regard, using such resources to reach out to young voters, less partisan and otherwise unengaged voters in surprising numbers.

However, cable TV debates and new media savvy did not make the difference yesterday. Just ask Rick Santorum, who regularly received embarrassingly marginal stage position and bottom-rung speaking time in every campaign debate, and whose web presence has been rather pedestrian to date. But he has been committed to the “retail politics” of in-person, small group meeting, flesh-pressing and baby-kissing in every Iowa county for quite a while now. As a social conservative “not-Romney” candidate, Santorum has largely been ignored by the news media (who refused to frame him as a contender) and his competitors (who bought into the media frame, which was buttressed by public opinion polls that perpetuate it). But it was the retail politics that helped him connect with Iowa voters who have come to expect it over the decades (and not the far less intimate politics of TV debates and internet-based viral advertising that his competition seemed to prefer until the last minute).

As well, just ask Newt Gingrich, whose fate in Iowa was likely decided by two far-from-new elements of political campaigns: closet skeletons from his past (as an ethically challenged member of Congress and as a high-paid lobbyist for current elite villain Freddie Mac), and good old-fashioned negative TV advertising, which bludgeoned Gingrich (and the Iowa viewing audience) with the details of said past acts from his opponents and “independent organizations” supporting his opponents. No new media there. In brief, while the future of campaigns based on televised debates and net-based networking and viral media is by no means foreclosed, it doesn’t seem to be a game-changer for Iowa.

Iowa’s preeminent status, and the caucus system, will once again come under fire. Yesterday’s caucuses were pushed up to January 3rd, and at one point threatened to take place in December 2011, because of the efforts of other states to have an earlier, more significant impact on the presidential nomination process. Iowa’s “first in the nation” status has become something of a mythic commonplace in presidential politics. It’s important to remember, however, the processes of primary and caucus elections involving more people than just party insiders to determine major party nominees for the presidency has really only been in full swing since 1972, and the Iowa caucus has been nationally important only since the 1976 win of Democrat Jimmy Carter, whose underfunded dark horse campaign received momentum after a successful use of retail politics in a contest requiring less money to succeed. It’s not a magic event, and there’s no guarantee that the Iowa caucus will remain as important as it currently seems to be.

As a resident of the Illinois Quad Cities (some of whose best friends are Iowans), I certainly take issue with the recent inflammatory  characterizations of Iowans made by University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom. In some ways Iowa provides a more diverse cross-section of different kinds of Americans than many might perceive, due to the stereotypical image of Iowans as white rural conservatives. However, there is no denying that the population profile is less diverse than the nation as a whole. In addition, given the reality that, due to the required hours-long commitment of a precinct meeting on a Tuesday night in winter, Iowa caucus participation (much like primary and caucus voting over much of the country) is usually low, and over-represented by partisan voters that tilt ideologically further from the center. This means that, while Ron Paul successfully won young voters and new voters, the lion’s share of GOP Iowa caucus voters were older, more conservative, and split between those who favor electability and those who favor ideological purity in their candidates.

This profile explains, in part, not only yesterday’s outcome, but also the fact that Iowa winners (particularly Republicans) are by no means tightly correlated to eventual GOP nominees.  In seven contested Iowa GOP caucuses since 1976, only three went on to gain the nomination: Gerald Ford in 1976, Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000. The campaign dynamics of Iowa (retail politics for smaller, homogenous audiences) are simply not the campaign dynamics of multi-state primaries and a national general election (media advertising, televised debates and news coverage, new media organization and viral marketing). So a compelling argument can be made (and doubtless will be made by folks like Gingrich) that an Iowa win means not much, if not nothing at all. This argument is made more compelling by the voter turnout this year: while a record turnout for the caucuses, the voters comprised 122,255 ballots, only 5.4% of Iowa voters. This means that both Romney’s “win” and Santorum’s “surge of momentum” were generated by a little over 1% of Iowa voters each. And according to Iowa caucus rules, no delegates are awarded to anyone based on the results of the vote (they are unbound delegates who can ultimately support anyone at the national convention), so from one point of view the results from yesterday mean absolutely nothing.

This, of course, won’t stop the news media from suddenly devoting far more attention to Rick Santorum for the next week or so (especially since, as the NYT’s John Sides points out, he exceeded the media’s expectations, and thus will earn more media attention), despite the fact that they have virtually ignored him up to this point as a dark horse`with little realistic chance – much the same pattern as that of Mike Huckabee four years ago. Only time will tell if the drama provided by a first contest in a mythic “first in the nation” media frame will prevail… but it is certain the Iowa caucus process will receive some measure of post-game criticism, especially once Paul and Santorum drop out of contention once the primary race starts getting multi-state and expensive.

Note: Pretty much all of the above applies to New Hampshire as well, except for the time/participation structure of primary voting as opposed to a caucus, so look forward to Santorum and Perry responding to their likely poor New Hampshire showings with similar rationalizations. In any event, the New Hampshire primary will take place on Tuesday, January 10, 2012, and in all likelihood the Denizens will be scratching their heads about the outcome along with everyone else, just like this time in Iowa.

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