IOWA — With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the country is beginning to lock its political gaze on the state that every four years holds what amounts to the first official vetting of presidential candidates—the state that has launched, cemented, or dashed the fortunes of so many seeking the nation’s highest office.
It’s easy to see why voters who haven’t yet paid much attention will have to play catch-up this time around: the political terrain has shifted countless times, with the front-runners becoming the forgottens, the bottom-of-the-pack surging to take the lead, the polls continuously anointing new anointed ones.
But regardless of scandal or spin, one piece of the election terrain is sure to go unchanged between now and January 3: the vast expanse of Iowa where this wintery political showdown will take place, as it has every year since 1972. To that end, news organizations are—correctly—now attempting to paint for their readers and viewers a clear picture of this section of Middle America that holds such political sway.
This process operates differently that it once did. Just eight years ago, my old newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, set up hotel-based, three- to five-person bureaus in Des Moines and Nashua, N.H., more than a month in advance of those states’ votes. Today, with presidential campaigns changing and becoming more nationally focused, most news organizations simply do not have the budgets or the desire to “embed” their reporters at the height of political season.
The result is reporters who are rarely experts on the terrain on which they tread. Worse still, many don’t recognize it. Where reporters once got to know the terrain of a state and its voters personally, by crisscrossing the better part of it and talking to hundreds of people along the way, most of them now fly in for big debates, critical campaign appearances, or when they absolutely need to catch up with a candidate who is either on the rise or fall. They rarely spend enough time on the ground to gravitate toward telling nuanced stories about how voters are feeling and why. They can rarely, with any real certainty or conviction, truly capture the zeitgeist of the place behind their dateline.
Against this backdrop, journalism from within these states, written by people who are ostensibly experts, may have greater force. Unfortunately, The Atlantic last week released a story that, in its depiction of Iowa, is more laughable caricature or confusing Picasso abstract than realistic still life.
Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa professor and 20-year Iowa resident, attempts in the magazine’s online edition to profile the place, its people, and the circumstances shaping its voters this political cycle, and in the process to argue that the state’s unique status in selecting future presidents is unjustified.
I disagree with that conclusion, and I wish that an Atlantic editor had pushed Bloom harder to explain why the nation shouldn’t be influenced—even inspired—by a state where generations of voters have cared so much about presidential elections that they are willing to participate in the caucuses, a system that requires them to debate their views and then cast their votes and stand on their principles in public. But the bigger journalistic problem here is that the argument is buttressed by a story about meth addicts, hunting dogs, and tractor pulls that has very little to say about the real issues that will be motivating Iowans to caucus for their candidates—and one whose errors and omissions reinforce its stereotypical portrayal of the state and its people.
Bloom describes Iowa as “schizophrenic,” “economically depressed,” and “culturally challenged.” (The piece originally and inaccurately stated that Iowa is 96 percent white, despite 2010 census data showing that number is actually about 91 percent; the error has since been corrected.) His essay invokes a 2008 quote from then-candidate Barack Obama stating that people from the Midwest who are unemployed and frustrated “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” It argues that the state is not accepting of racial or religious diversity, and that it is “insular” because farmers from one county do not know all the farmers from another. It derisively suggests that a state filled with people who like to hunt is not a suitable demographic for choosing the next president. And, in the sentence that has aroused more fury in my home state than any other, it asserts, “Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts.”