Dave Price, one of Iowa’s resident political experts, recently penned an article for Politico entitled “Is Iowa Over?” In his article, Mr. Price suggested that this caucus season “looks different” and that various Iowans are worried that our first in the nation contest is about to pass into history. Mr. Price’s article was a hit and has been the talk of political media for the better part of two weeks.
The worry that Iowa is over is, obviously, wrong. No need to take my word for it. Within hours of the story being posted, Game Change author Mark Halperin appeared on Morning Joe to say, no, the caucuses are going strong. Politico’s resident columnist, Roger Simon, similarly debunked Mr. Price’s story. Not to be trumped by the national media, the Des Moines Register published an editorial affirming the importance of our caucuses. Those guys know more than I do and I don’t need to rehash their articles. Instead, I want to talk about the damage done by Mr. Price’s article.
I assume that a lot people visiting this website are fairly well versed in Iowa politics, but for background, Mr. Price is the head political reporter for the NBC affiliate in Des Moines. He also wrote one of the few books exclusively devoted to the 2012 Iowa Caucus, Caucus Chaos. I generally enjoy Mr. Price’s local reporting but have mixed feeling about his book. On one hand, it is the best source of information I have come across regarding the Republican caucus night vote-count debacle. On the other hand, the book glosses over Iowa-centric analysis in favor of the ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding the rise and fall of the various candidates. (For a full break down of the pros and cons of his book, checkout the Amazon reviews, the longest of which may have been written by my brother.) Anyway, regardless of his past work, I think his story in Politico does a disservice to the responsibility Iowans’ have for the caucuses and to his credibility as an expert on the topic.
I believe the caucuses are important. (Climbs on soapbox…) More and more, campaigns are abstract activities carried about by media consultants and funded by billionaires. On both sides of the aisle politicians spend most of their time raising money, while strategists formulate tweetable talking points for the Sunday morning shows. The design of a modern presidential campaign has more in common with how Disney plans the next Avengers movie than anything either President Roosevelt could have imagined. Iowa and New Hampshire are the last exceptions to the trend.
Yes, sometimes Iowa events are reduced to offensive, stereotypical, photo-ops. (Hay bales at the State Fair, I’m looking at you.) But Iowa and New Hampshire are also where politicians are forced into the unpredictable situation of talking to, answering questions from, and trying to convince real people. (Hopefully you can take my word that candidates talking to real folks is important. But, if you disagree, congratulations, you’ll probably love the post-Citizens United future we are entering.)
But, as important as Iowa is, I also understand that its status is precarious. Various groups are constantly advocating that Iowa’s place in presidential politics is overblown. The arguments against Iowa are two-fold: argument one is that Iowa is an underpopulated, unrepresentative backwater that should not get to influence future American history; and argument two, which is primarily articulated by Wall Street Republicans looking to blame-shift the parties’ right-ward tilt, is that Iowa voters are so extreme that they can’t possible nominate an electable candidate. For a lot of people outside of Iowa, these arguments resonate. It is easy to say, “Hey Iowa, let someone else go first.” (Of course, I can write extensively on why Iowa is uniquely situated to go first – purple state with small population – but that is another discussion for another day.)
Because Iowa’s situation is precarious, I think it is irresponsible for someone with the credibility of Dave Price to write the article he did. Instead of focusing on Iowa’s unique place in presidential politics and the great responsibility that comes with Iowa’s great power, Mr. Price’s article unreasonably presents Iowans as a group of pampered ‘the sky is falling’ worry-warts who are more concerned about being coddled than about their responsibility to the political process.
The reason Mr. Price’s article is so off base is that Iowa has received demonstrably more attention this cycle than EVER BEFORE. That’s right. Iowa is more important than ever. In his book, Mr. Price provides what, I am sure, he considers an extensive over-view of each Republican candidate and their campaign. In his analysis, he almost exclusively discusses events that take place shortly before the Straw Poll through the actual caucus. Comparing the 2012 cycle to the 2016 cycle, we haven’t even gotten to the point where Mr. Price’s 2012 book starts its analysis. And, this time around, more than a month out from the Straw Poll, the campaigns are already in full swing.
There is a fair argument the Democratic caucus campaign started when Hillary Clinton appeared at the Harkin Steak Fry, while her (current) main challenger Bernie Sanders held a counter-event down the road. THE HARKIN STEAK FRY OCCURRED IN SEPTEMBER 2014, NEARLY A FULL YEAR BEFORE THE STRAW POLL (Update: well, when it was going to be anyway) AND A YEAR AND HALF BEFORE THE ACTUAL CAUCUS. Hillary, who famously doesn’t like Iowa, and arguably has little competition for the nomination, has come to Iowa again and again early this cycle. She started her campaign with a van tour of the state, returned to Sioux City immediately after her first major rally in New York City, and has future trips already booked.
On the Republican side, without a doubt, the campaign was in full swing by Steve King’s Freedom Summit in January 2015 … NEARLY SIX MONTHS BEFORE THE STRAW POLL (Update: while the straw poll actually isn’t happening this cycle, I’m simply using it as a timeline reference). No future history of Caucus 2016 will be able to gloss over the Freedom Summit, as it both created Scott Walker as a top tier candidate and completely destroyed any pretense that Sarah Palin could run for president. Since the Freedom Summit, the preponderance of the Republican field has returned to Iowa for at least three other ‘all in’ events and numerous solo trips. If you check out the candidate tracker, you’ll see there has hardly been a day in the first six months of 2015 without a candidate campaigning in Iowa. This is, undisputedly, more attention, earlier, than Iowa has received before.
I don’t dispute that Mr. Price talked to people who are worried that the caucuses are losing their luster. But just because someone tells you something, doesn’t mean you have to act on it, much less write a story giving it credence. (A man once told me that the Government puts mind control devices in farm-raised turkeys, and yet, my order at Jimmy Johns remains the same.) Based on sheer volume of campaigning that has already occurred in Iowa, the suggestion that Iowa is over is, in a word, absurd. Mr. Price’s story was irresponsible. At the very least he should have balanced his story by reporting about the amount of campaigning that has already occurred, earlier than ever before. Instead, he played up a stereotype of an entitled Iowa caucus goer for the benefit of a national political audience. By writing that article, Mr. Price did a disservice to both the caucus and serious, Iowa-based, political reporting.
by Jason Winter