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The Iowa caucuses: Hope and hokum in the heartland

COMMENTARY | June 07, 2007

It’s crisis time: Millions may pick their presidential preferences very early next year--before the Iowa caucuses and thus without the wisdom of a handful of Iowans to guide them. Will the media be able to handle that? The first in a series.

By Herb Strentz and Gilbert Cranberg

DES MOINES—Here in the "Heartland," where we take our letters seriously, consider the 4 H's of the Iowa Caucuses.  An appreciation of the presidential caucuses, like the quadrennial gatherings themselves, is a curious mixture of Hopes, Hokum, Humor and, of course, History.

We intend to cover all of that in a series of occasional posts with special attention to the way the news media cover the caucuses.

Like would-be Tom Paines, we write at a time of crisis because Iowa souls will soon be tried by the shocking news that perhaps millions of their fellow Americans will express their preferences for presidential candidates BEFORE a relative handful of Iowans go to their precinct caucuses, now scheduled for Jan. 14, 2008.

These early votes will be cast before the national news media can inform the citizenry as to which of the score of Democratic and Republican candidates will gain bounce or be bounced by Iowa savants on a winter evening in churches, schools, and living rooms across the Hawkeye State.

Iowa's efforts to be the first in the nation to express a presidential preference – a point of state pride and even state law for several presidential elections – will be ignored by voters in many other states. Through absentee ballots, these voters will express their preferences for president weeks before Iowa wisdom is packaged and delivered by the news media.

Eleven states already have scheduled primary elections for Tuesday, Feb. 5, and nine others are considering Feb. 5, too.  (Click here for schedule details.)

Early absentee voters in these states will mark their ballots without knowing which front runners met or exceeded expectations in Iowa, without knowing which candidates are deemed to have gained or lost momentum and without knowing which of the dark-horse candidates has been crowned a legitimate candidate thanks to the news media – which had so much to do in bringing about the Iowa scenario in the first place.

All the more reason to come to grips with Iowa caucuses and electoral mania and have an idea about what is going on here. In addition to our upcoming posts, a recommended guide is a 1987 book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses, The Making of a Media Event (Iowa State University Press) by Hugh Winebrenner.  Winebrenner, a Drake University professor of public administration, is now retired. His theme in part was that "the caucuses have become a media event with an impact on presidential politics totally out of proportion to the reality of their purpose or procedural methods."

After all, Iowa is an electoral pipsqueak when it comes to numbers. Of the 20 states potentially voting on Feb. 5, only four – Arkansas, Delaware, Rhode Island and Utah – have populations smaller than Iowa's 2.9 million. When some 4,000 GOP delegates gather in neighboring St. Paul, Minn., in 2008 to select a presidential candidate only 38 will be from Iowa – less than 1 percent. On the Democratic side, of the 4,380 national convention delegates in Denver, 56 or 1.2 percent will be Iowans.

Yet about 20 presidential hopefuls from both parties have been criss-crossing Iowa for months, opening campaign offices, hiring full-time staff, button-holing Iowans and collectively spending tens of millions of dollars. (The ballpark estimate of what it costs to mount a caucus campaign in Iowa is $5 million, and a Clinton adviser put her Iowa tab at $15 million.) And for what?

For openers it is a matter of hopes and expectations. Dark-horse candidates hope to impress enough caucus goers to bring some legitimacy to their campaigns. Front runners hope to validate their positions. It doesn't really matter if you win or lose, but whether you top or fall short of what the news media have reported you will do. In that regard, a candidate can get, say, 14 percent of the caucus support – not the same thing as the percent of the votes – and be a winner (as Alan Keyes was in 2000) and get 35 percent and be a loser (as Bill Bradley was in 2000).

In addition to working out the kinks in campaign strategies, all are competing for the upbeat headline in the day-after, Jan. 15, caucus story, which won't even reveal how many delegates the candidates actually won.

Call it a form of electoral madness. It's difficult to explain, but we will try.

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