The Iowa Precinct Caucuses
The Making of a Media Event
By Hugh Winebrenner Dennis J. Goldford
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Media and American Polities: An Overview
BEFORE THE 1970s, studies of elections and voting behavior by political scientists paid relatively little attention to the role of the media in elections in the United States. The landmark study of electoral behavior, The American Voter (1960), devoted few pages to the mass media or their impact on election outcomes. Most of the early studies concluded that the media's effects were not of primary importance and focused on party loyalty and attitudes about the issues to explain electoral choice (Patterson 1980, vii).
The growth of television news coverage in the 1960s and increased media interest in the presidential nominating process, particularly in direct primary elections, stimulated research on the role of the media in electoral politics. Although Florida established the direct primary for the selection of national convention delegates in 1904, followed closely by Wisconsin in 1905 (Ranney 1977, 4), the presidential nominating process was dominated by party leaders until recently. The existence of a relatively short primary campaign in less than half of the states did not promote the democratic nature of the process to the extent that early-twentieth-century progressives had hoped. Rather, party leaders, although periodically inconvenienced by primary elections, continued to dominate the nomination of presidential candidates through the caucus and convention system utilized in most states (Crotty and Jackson 1985, 13-18).
In the 1960s the direct primary assumed a more prominent role in the nomination of presidential candidates and began to pose a challenge to the control exercised by party leaders through the caucus and convention system. Several factors contributed to the democratization of the nominating process. Presidential candidates, particularly those who lacked the support of party chieftains in important states, increasingly attempted to demonstrate their voter appeal in primary elections. Although early attempts by Harold Stassen in 1948 and Estes Kefauver in 1952 to gain their parties' nomination via primary elections proved unsuccessful, the increased emphasis on the primaries by presidential candidates contributed to their becoming the dominant component of the nominating process. It was not long before presidential candidates had first to demonstrate their voter appeal in primary elections (Davis 1967, 3-5).
The growth of media coverage, particularly television, was largely responsible for turning presidential primaries into a uniquely American political Olympic contest. Although common now, comprehensive television coverage of the presidential primaries dates only to the 1960s. Television provides a viable, cost-effective alternative to the face-to-face contact between candidates and voters previously considered so important in American political campaigns. Moreover, by providing presidential hopefuls with a means of bypassing the party leadership and appealing directly to ordinary citizens, television focused the nominating process on the candidates themselves rather than on the activities of political party leaders (Davis 1967, 5-9). Austin Ranney concludes that "the advent of television as the principal source of political reality for most Americans has altered the political game profoundly, perhaps more profoundly than all the parties' rules changes and new state and federal laws put together." Furthermore, "it has had an enormous impact on the kinds of persons who become successful politicians and on how they conduct their business" (Ranney 1983, 89).
An additional democratizing factor in the presidential nominating process was the series of party rules changes undertaken by the national Democratic party beginning in 1968 and continuing into the 1980s (Crotty and Jackson 1985, chap. 2). The new rules were designed to increase the impact of citizen participation and to limit the role of party leaders at all levels of the delegate selection process.
The new party rules succeeded in further diminishing the role of party leaders and centering attention on the primary elections. During the period from 1968 to 1980 the presidential primary was very much in vogue, and the number of states selecting national convention delegates by primary elections grew dramatically. (Democratic party primaries increased in number from seventeen to thirty-five and selected 72 percent of the 1980 convention delegates. Republican primaries grew in number from sixteen to thirty-four and selected 76 percent of the 1980 convention delegates [Crotty and Jackson 1985, 631].)
But not everyone viewed the primary movement as a positive development. By 1980 party leaders and elected officials were being excluded in increasing numbers from the national conventions, which now did little more than ratify the results of the primary elections. Dissatisfaction increased to the point that by 1984 the primary election trend had been reversed; only twenty-five states held binding Democratic primaries, compared with thirty-five in 1980, and only thirty conducted Republican presidential primaries, a loss of four states (Crotty and Jackson 1985, 63). According to the National Journal, party officials had become increasingly "concerned that the proliferation of primaries was largely responsible for the prolonged, costly, divisive, and media-dominated campaigns and that they further served to undermine organized party control" (1983, 2215). The renewed interest in the caucus and convention system, however, may represent a final effort on the part of state party organizations to save themselves from extinction.
Media-dominated, candidate-centered presidential campaigns have stimulated research into the role of the media in political campaigns. Most studies have concentrated on presidential campaigns, and their areas of research include the media's emphasis on a candidate's "image" (Nimmo and Savage 1976), the media as kingmakers (Graber 1980; Paletz and Entman 1981; Patterson 1980; Ranney 1983), and media influence on the campaign strategies of candidates (Arterton 1984; Barber 1978; Robinson and Sheehan 1983).
Recent studies indicate that the media have replaced political parties as the "main link between presidential candidates and the overwhelming majority of the public" (Paletz and Entman 1981, 32). As a consequence, political parties have become less significant in electoral politics. The modern presidential race is a media campaign, "and campaign managers believe, almost uniformly, that their most efficient means of persuasive communication is these pre-established communications media" (Arterton 1984, 1).
Citizens may be passive consumers of electoral politics and may pay little attention to political parties, but with their televisions playing six to seven hours a day, it is very difficult for average citizens to ignore presidential campaigns. The broadcast media in particular give Americans the opportunity to assess the presidential hopefuls personally, even though they may simply be evaluating their Madison Avenue images. Furthermore, the media seem to have altered the two-step flow of political information, in which information and opinions are transmitted first from elites to attentive publics and from them to citizen voters (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). Today the media seem to have assumed the role formerly played by political parties, and the political "reality" consists of the information transmitted from elites to the public by way of the news media.
Research also indicates that the news media play a major role in agenda setting in American electoral politics by determining which candidates the public should take seriously (Robinson and Sheehan 1983,262-72). Presidential candidates that media correspondents perceive to be viable, serious contenders are portrayed as such and receive extensive coverage. Those whose candidacies are judged to be frivolous or unlikely to succeed find it difficult to gain coverage. The task for presidential hopefuls becomes one of persuading reporters that their candidacies should be taken seriously and covered regularly. Since the 1970s they have often accomplished this by exceeding the media's expectations in polls, primary elections, and caucuses.
The news media, and television in particular, influence the form as well as the content of electoral politics. As a visual medium, television tends to emphasize candidates or, more specifically, images of candidates that they either create or help to develop (Robinson and Sheehan 1983, 269-70). Both Gerald Ford's clumsiness, although he had a strong athletic background, and John F. Kennedy's vigor, although he suffered from back problems that limited his physical activity, are images created and nurtured by the media. In the modern presidential race, style is substance, and since most potential voters cannot experience political campaigns directly, they rely on the media to delimit and interpret the substance of campaigns.
The news media have become increasingly important in American electoral politics in the last thirty years. They have enormous impact on both the content and the form of political campaigns, influencing who chooses to run for the presidency and how they conduct their campaigns. Style and image have become the substance of politics as the broadcast and print media have replaced political parties as the principal linkage between presidential hopefuls and the voters.
This book will examine the media's impact on the Iowa precinct caucuses and the significant role the caucuses have assumed in the presidential nominating process. By highlighting the Iowa caucuses as the first nominating event in the presidential race, the news media have centered national attention on the caucuses and have profoundly affected the process itself. With the enthusiastic cooperation of the officials of the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties, the media have influenced when and how the Iowa caucuses have conducted their business and, in the process, have created a media event. In an article on the media's impact on the presidential nominating process, Michael Robinson coined the term mediality to describe "events, developments, or situations to which the media have given importance by emphasizing, expanding, or featuring them in such a way that their real significance has been modified, distorted, or obscured" (Robinson 1981, 191).
The Iowa precinct caucuses provide a dramatic example of media events, or medialities in Robinson's terminology. The media have obscured the basic local functions of the caucuses-selecting delegates to county conventions, generating issues for party platforms, and providing the grass-roots party connections to the citizens-by attributing a meaning to caucuses that does not exist. The media's tendency to interpret Iowa caucus "results" as "hard news" about the progress of the presidential campaign is at best questionable. At worst, media exploitation of the Iowa caucus process (1) disrupts the normal functioning of the local political process, (2) may give a false image of the national political appeal of the candidates involved, and (3) subjects the national electoral process to the influence of a contrived event.
Thomas Patterson provides an interesting explanation of the media's motivation in emphasizing events like the Iowa caucuses. His systematic analysis of the 1976 presidential election suggests that media distortion of the Iowa caucuses stems from a structural bias in the way presidential elections are covered. Patterson's content analysis of news reports of the presidential nominating process provides clear evidence of the media's tendency to exaggerate the "game" aspects of the campaign (Patterson 1980, 22-24). Since media interest centers around who is winning and who is losing the game, the candidates1 strategies and tactics are emphasized at the expense of the substance of the campaigns: the public problems, the policy debates, and the candidates' leadership qualities. Patterson forcefully argues that the bias in selecting "newsworthy" events has more to do with the interests of the media-conflict, drama, measurable outcomes-than the reality of the campaign. He demonstrates that media bias influences the public's image of presidential campaigns and perhaps their voting behavior.
The reporting of Iowa caucus results is a part of the game focus of presidential campaigns: essentially meaningless caucus outcomes are reported to satisfy the media's need for results or hard news. Further, the media not only report the outcome of the primary games, they also interpret the outcomes for the American public in terms of the expectations that the media themselves often had helped to create (Patterson 1980, 43-48). Much like the handicapper in a horse race, the media assign metaphorical labels-such as favorite, front-runner, long shot, or dark horse-to the presidential candidates and then evaluate their performance in caucuses and primary elections according to the expectations created by the labels. Meeting or exceeding media expectations is crucial to the campaigns of presidential candidates. Since 1972 Iowa has been the first major event in the presidential nominating game, and media expectations and interpretations of caucus outcomes have made Iowa a very important component of the game.
This case study will focus on changes in the Iowa precinct caucuses since 1972 that have been associated with their becoming a media event and will examine the caucuses as part of the presidential nominating game. It will explore the profound impact of the mass media both on the Iowa precinct caucuses and on the presidential nominating system generally. As such, this study is a special case of the broader public problem of setting the public agenda through media initiatives, in this instance the agenda for the presidential nominating process. It is argued that since the media choose to emphasize the outcomes of early nominating events, Iowa plays a major role in setting the presidential nominating agenda, perhaps to the disadvantage of the country.
Chapter Two Iowa: A Political and Demographic Profile
IS IOWA A GOOD PLACE to start the presidential campaign? Is it a representative state? Party officials in Iowa-and some local and national writers-have asserted that Iowa is a good place to begin the presidential campaign because it is a two-party state whose politics are competitive, clean, and open. Moreover, Iowans are hardworking and fair and take their duties as citizens very seriously. Finally, the state is small enough that less well known and less well financed presidential hopefuls have a chance, through hard work and good organization, to establish themselves as viable candidates. This "legend of Iowa" has gained credibility in many circles even though it developed after the fact; that is, as an attempt to rationalize the role Iowa has assumed in presidential politics.
This chapter examines the political and demographic characteristics of Iowa and shows that although its politics are clean and competitive, Iowa caucus participants are not typical of the national electorate demographically or ideologically. The small-town, agrarian nature of the state and the nature of caucus participants work to the advantage of some candidates and to the disadvantage of others.
In 1968 political scientist Samuel C. Patterson characterized the dominant political style of Iowa as "highly pragmatic, non-programmatic, cautious and moderate" (202). In a later work, Patterson states that Iowa is characterized by its "middleness" (1984, 83). Historian Dorothy Schwieder, who titled her history of the state Iowa: The Middle Land, finds in Iowans "a sense of centeredness that connotes balance in both perspective and behavior" (1996, xi). Iowa is located in the geographic middle or center of the nation, and its people are politically, economically, and socially moderate. Unlike its northern neighbors, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa has seldom been in the vanguard of progressive change, but neither has it lagged far behind other states. Within Iowa, particularly in rural areas, politics can be very conservative, but that is balanced by the moderate, and occasionally liberal, politics of urban areas, which include a majority of the state's population.
Excerpted from The Iowa Precinct Caucuses by Hugh Winebrenner Dennis J. Goldford Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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