Iowan Silos

In debate analysis, journalists should use locals for more than just color

There was a debate last night out in Iowa, hosted by Fox News and The Washington Examiner. And sure enough, there was a good supply of pundits willing to weigh in on the matter this morning and to sort the winners from the losers. Most, unfortunately, didn’t bother to ask any Iowans what they thought.

Kevin Robillard of Politico’s Playbook got the list started with a sample of press excerpts and a roundup of tweets. Obama tweeted the middle class lost. Ezra Klein, in a smart post at the Washington Post said nobody won.

But the general consensus quickly settled around Rick Perry—who didn’t participate in the debate and hasn’t (officially) announced he’s running—as the night’s big winner.

Stephen F. Hayes, in a post at The Weekly Standard titled “The Winner in Ames. None of the Above,” wrote “They’re happy tonight in Austin.”

Alex Burns of Politico concurred:

Indeed, virtually all of the candidates helped confirm—in one form or another—that Romney will likely face a tougher political challenge from a late-announcing candidate like Texas Gov. Rick Perry than from any of his currently declared rivals.

The Guardian ran the headline: Rick Perry’s chances spurred by underwhelming Republican debate.

A number of others noted that Romney was a winner in that he didn’t attract the scrutiny a front-runner should, thanks to the back-and-forth bickering of Minnesotans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, whose shared home state continued to provide ample fodder for the most annoying of narratives “Minnesota Nice” turns “Minnesota Ice/Nasty/Mean.”

Tim Pawlenty was a winner to some, a loser to others. And even a winner AND a loser to Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post’s The Fix, who gave one of the fuller analysis of how the field fared.
His winners: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty, for his first hour.
Losers: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty

Stephanie Condon at CBS’s “The Hot Sheet” also neatly sorted the field (save rogue Ron Paul, who by a metric of vocal audience approval would likely have come out on tops).
Winners were Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman.
Losers: Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum.

Now, while this is all great sport, and winners and losers is a fun game to play, but what does a win or a loss in a debate, a couple days before the Republican fundraiser known as the Ames straw poll and more than a year before the Republican National Convention, mean?

As was evident in June, the winner and loser narrative, particularly when political events are few and far between, can be persisting and persuasive. When someone is perceived as losing a debate—a perception the media largely drives—they draw a lot less cash in the days that follow.

No doubt Tim Pawlenty’s notoriously unaggressive performance in the New Hampshire debate back has haunted him and been part of his recent problems.

So these assertions of winners and losers can influence things. And it’s interesting these assertions are not made by polling members of the public, but pulled from the pundit hivemind and spin room—a point which Robert Stacy McCain makes at The American Spectator’s blog.

Interestingly, the Iowa pundits, perhaps with different stakes in mind, pronounced a very different set of winners and losers this morning. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the losers of the national media, were the winners in Iowa.

And the assertion was based on some actual reporting.
Des Moines Register chief political writer Jennifer Jacobs writes:

A handful of prominent Iowa Republicans interviewed by the Register thought former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich helped their causes.

Pawlenty hurt himself with attacks on Bachmann, said U.S. Rep. Steve King, a western Iowa Republican. “He came out on the losing end,” King said.
Chuck Laudner, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, agreed, and added that he thought Santorum and Gingrich were the stars of the night.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said, “I think Santorum got in an awful lot of points by being aggressive.”

David Yepsen, the retired dean of the Iowa caucus press corps who I interviewed about the straw poll for a story earlier this week thought nobody lost, and that Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty gave the best performances.

John Hedgecoth, for Cedar Rapids-based SourceMedia’s Iowa Caucus website:

The Minnesota candidates’ sideshow eclipsed a quite solid performance on policy by former Speaker Newt Gingrich and some zippy one-liners from businessman Herman Cain. The biggest distraction in the debate was a “time’s-up” bell that sounded disturbingly like the one you used to drive over at the gas station. I kept expecting some guy in coveralls to try and clean my windshield. Other distractions included weird allusions to dog food, Mickey Mouse, and high fences and open doors. But what can you expect from a debate in which one of the co-sponsors is the D.C. equivalent of the Penny Saver?

The Iowan Republican blog also named Gingrich, Santorum and Pawlenty the winners.

This all goes to show you can bring the media to Iowa, but you cannot necessarily channel Iowa in the media. The press may will be there in body and spirit, wide-eyed and lapping up all the Midwestern hoo-ha the state can throw at them. In the past 24 hours, Slate’s Dave Weigel was marveling at the line for deep-fried butter (Iowa ups the ante again!), while ABC’s Jake Tapper has been tweeting up a storm about butter cows.

But they will report, (at least last night’s debate) like they’ve never left the beltway. Perhaps the beltway has just been transplanted to a spin room in Ames or a Playbook breakfast table in downtown Des Moines.


While we’re on the subject, there was some post-debate coverage of substance, that did more than just separate the winners from the losers and report the back and forth between the “Minnesota twins.”

The New York Times’s Michael Cooper fact checked the debate and called Bachmann out for her false claims about the nation’s lowered credit rating.

Ezra Klein commented on how they debate was not about policy, but about fealty to policy.

Foreign Policy also got into the fact checking game with Josh Rogin providing insight into the accuracy of debate over foreign policy issues.

Kudos to this kind of reporting. It’d be great if journalists did more of this, and let the voters and donors decide who’s a winner and who’s a loser.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.