Over the next five days the media will be playing an extraordinary amount of attention to the overwhelmingly rural, sparsely populated, state of Iowa in the Midwest. Via tradition, and really for no other reason, Iowa has been given the right to be the first state to pick from the many available candidates for president. Because Iowa comes first, and because the media has to anoint a winner as quickly as possible, Iowa holds tremendous importance for any candidate wishing to become president. The state can provide legitimacy to a relatively unknown candidate, as it did for then-Senator Obama in 2008. A poor showing from a candidate who was deemed to “need” the state can doom a candidacy. It is not at all uncommon for a number of once-promising candidates to quit after disappointing results in Iowa. Iowa is undoubtedly significant, but it is not altogether determinative in deciding who the next president is. Perhaps most important, the Iowa Caucus is not at all representative of the rest of the country.
Iowa alone does not pick the president. Notable winners include Mike Huckabee and Dick Gephardt, men who never even won the nomination from their party. Still, the state undoubtedly acts a as filter through which candidates must pass. The last three presidential nominees for the Democratic Party all won the Iowa Caucuses. Two of the past three Republican Party nominees, former President George W. Bush and Bob Dole, won the Iowa Caucus. Senator John McCain finished fourth, but that was successfully sold as a “victory” given McCain’s low poll numbers leading up to the race along with the lack of money and time McCain devoted to Iowa.
What Iowa effectively does is narrow the field, weeding out some while simultaneously lifting others to a platform they never approached before. One can afford to lose in Iowa, but only if the loss is deemed by the media as still “exceeding expectations.” In 2008 John McCain was “allowed” to finish fourth because he had always made New Hampshire his focus, but Fred Thompson was all-but-declared dead after campaigning hard in the state and finishing third. Failing to garner double-digit support (see then Governor Bill Richardson in 2008) is deemed an unpardonable sin, and the media promptly ignores the candidate until they announce they are leaving the race.
In contrast, a candidate who exceeds expectations in Iowa is immediately lavished with the kind of free media praise that campaign managers dream of at night. The candidate is praised for his or her ability to “connect” with the everyday person. The candidate must have a “winning message” and an outstanding organizing ability. If the candidate recovered from lower poll numbers they are given the “comeback” label and complimented on their grit and perseverance.
Finally, Iowa matters for fundraising. A candidate who finishes poorly may see their donations suddenly drop off, since no one wants to waste money on a hopeless candidate. Phone calls to previously reliable donors may go unanswered. A candidate who succeeds in Iowa may see their funds increase dramatically, as their supporters are encouraged by the first results. A candidate who establishes legitimacy in Iowa may have a much longer list of potential big donors to contact.
Finally, it is important to note that Iowa does not represent the rest of the nation, even if they do play a remarkably larger role in picking the man or woman for the highest office in the land. I will expand on this concept in a future column, but to summarize the average Iowan is much whiter, much more rural, and much less poor than the average American. These trends are all magnified when we talk about the Iowa Republican Caucuses, which tend to be even whiter, richer, and more rural. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post pointed out, the 2008 Iowa Caucuses had a record turnout of 120,000 people, which sounds like a lot of people until one realizes that this number is only four percent of all the residents in Iowa. That four percent tends to be much more conservative, meaning they do not even really represent all of Iowa Republicans, who tend to be more moderate. Gail Collins of the New Tork Times explained why the Iowa Caucuses would still be a poor sample even if a record 150,000 people attended, “That is about the same number of people in Pomona, Calif. Imagine your reaction to seeing a story saying that a plurality of people in Pomona, Calif., thought Newt Gingrich would be the best G.O.P. presidential candidate. Would you say, ‘Wow! I guess Newt is now the de facto front-runner?”