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Making the Caucus Myth a Reality

Posted: January 18, 2016 | By: Dennis Goldford Tagged: About the Caucuses

By Sarah Fulton

Sarah Fulton is a senior Journalism and History double major at Drake University. She is a research assistant for David Redlawsk, Harkin Institute Mabry Fellow and Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. This post synthesizes her reactions following the caucus campaigns this past fall semester.

Every four years since 1972, in the early part of the year, the nation has focused its attention on the small state of Iowa. As the first in the nation nominating event the Iowa caucuses hold a near mythic reputation. They are touted as the first step in winning a presidential nomination. Tradition has it that there are only three tickets out of Iowa and if presidential hopefuls want to be seen as a contender they had better grab one.  Fail in Iowa and the race is over.

This level of mythos raises some questions. Why does this small, unrepresentative state hold such power? There are 49 other states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 29 of them have larger populations. New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina also vote early, and while New Hampshire has some history, where is the mythic legend of Nevada and South Carolina?

It is true that without all of the hoopla and attention the Iowa caucuses themselves would not be a straight and narrow path to a presidential nomination.  What makes them so powerful and so deserving of attention is the fact that they garner so much attention.  Their myth is self-perpetuating. Everyone talking about how important the caucuses are makes the caucuses important. All the attention draws certain actions from candidates, the media, and Iowans that make the myth a reality.

Candidates make the myth a reality by focusing on Iowa. They pander to Iowans and visit the state again and again. According the Des Moines Register Candidate Tracker as of this writing, low-tier Republican candidate Rick Santorum had hosted 213 events in the state since 2012. Democrat Bernie Sanders in a three-day stretch in January hosted 11 separate events. Candidate actions show they believe it is important to win in Iowa.

It goes far beyond simply boots on the ground. At times during the caucuses it seems like candidates will do almost anything to win the affection of Iowans. In the 2015 Rose Bowl the University of Iowa faced off with Stanford University. Stanford alumni Carly Fiorina tweeted, “Love my alma mater, but rooting for a Hawkeyes win today. #RoseBowl”. Fiorina later said the tweet was tongue-in-check but many, as Politico reported, saw if as a poor attempt to curry favor with Iowans. The $12.5 million spent on pre-caucus advertisements in 2012 show Fiorina is not alone.  Candidates affirm the caucus myth by focusing their time and energy in the state.

The national media follow the candidates to the state and build up the myth with their reporting. National news sources report on who is winning in the Iowa polls weekly or more often. They closely watch how candidates relate to Iowans. News sources came out in force when Donald Trump’s twitter account retweeted, “#BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain?” The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Hill, CBS, CNN, and many others followed the story from the beginning to the end. Speculation over how Iowans responded filled news feeds. It is doubtful that a Trump tweet about people from Maine being stupid would see such widespread media attention. Each year the media waits to see who does well in the caucuses and then produces thousands of stories on it. That positive attention is incredibly valuable to candidates. By covering Iowa so much the media also helps to make the legend of the caucuses true.

Iowans seems to love every minute of the attention they receive. They literally wrote being first in the nation to host a nominating event into state law. At campaign events they speak openly about how they demand grassroots politics in a way that no other state could. At the Polk County Fall Democratic dinner I spoke with a retired couple from Buchanan, Iowa, who proudly told me that they been with only a small group to see Jimmy Carter during one caucus season. They were firm that the Midwest deserved to have the light shine on it because of how they made the candidates campaign. Iowans show up to campaign events expecting to get to ask tough question and receive answers. By being so consistently demanding of candidates and so proud of their role in primary season the help perpetuate the myth.

The caucuses have an effective because people think they do. The frenzy over the event is generated by the expectation of frenzy.