Campaign lore has it that Carter saw the early vote as an opportunity, and came to Iowa about a year out from the January 19 caucuses to earn a following and a first-off-the-blocks win. The plan worked. The Register covered him heavily and positively in his first months in the state, encouraging him to set up a permanent Iowa operation as part of his national campaign. On the day of the precinct caucuses, Carter won thirteen delegates to his closest competitor Birch Bayh’s six. Even though “uncommitted” won eighteen, Carter was declared the winner in the media’s eyes. And after Iowa, everybody knew who Jimmy Carter was.
“We covered him and we figured out what he was doing,” remembers Glover, “but there was much less focus on it until the event actually happened.” Glover did not see Carter’s victory then as a turning point for the caucuses. “We thought it was interesting and that Carter had pulled a nice little tactic out. But nobody thought that it would mushroom into what it mushroomed into.”
Hugh Winebrenner, former dean of Drake University’s College of Business and Public Administration, argues that what the caucuses mushroomed into was a manufactured “media event,” which it remains to this day. In his book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Winebrenner says that the number of delegates eventually awarded to each candidate does not greatly matter; in a sense these are so few as to be negligible. What matters is that, in 1972, Iowa became the first official “result” in the presidential election—the first concrete election news that journalists could report and analyze. And in 1976, Carter showed how those reports could become part of a campaign strategy.
“The reporting of Iowa caucus results is 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,” Winebrenner writes. “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.” Though he was writing decades ago, you could keep onetime “underdog” Barack Obama in mind when following his logic. (For a more damning take on the Iowa media frenzy, read this Slate piece by Christopher Hitchens.)
Drake’s Dennis Goldford, who
authored co-authored an updated 2010 edition of Winebrenner’s book, agrees with Winebrenner’s theory, though not necessarily with his co-author’s sporting metaphor. “It’s more like judging ice skating or gymnastics,” he told me when we spoke late last month. “What matters for the candidates in the caucuses is, to some extent, where they finish, but more importantly, whether the candidate met or failed to meet expectations. I always say every candidate has the same opponent, and that opponent’s name is ‘Expected.’ Did the candidate do better than Expected? Or worse that Expected?”
“Expected”—as you might expect—is defined by the media.
That’s where Yepsen, Obradovich, Henderson, Glover, and Goldford himself come in. Since Carter’s victory set him on course for the White House, each successive set of Iowa caucuses have drawn more and more media attention. Double whammy years, in which both parties fielded candidates—1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008—drew particularly large throngs of outside reporters to Iowa hungry for a first kick-off result. Knowing how to read those results, and predict them, means getting in touch with the Iowa press, whose ears are perennially close to the ground. And reaching out starts early.