Des Moines, Iowa — Before my time here and in Urbandale, the small city outside the capital where several candidates set up Iowa headquarters, watching last night’s near tie, I couldn’t decide how I felt about the Iowa caucuses. The structure itself isn’t difficult to understand — candidates are running, people argue in hierarchical meetings and vote there instead of quietly casting a ballot. From a distance, it’s hard to understand or rationalize the massive media coverage that descends on a usually lethargic state.
If you’ve turned on a television or read a newspaper in the past two weeks, you’ve seen reporting on the caucuses. News junkies begin to follow Iowa coverage even before the Ames Straw Poll in August. Iowa coverage. The state isn’t terribly demographically or economically representative of the country. In 2010, the U.S. census found that 91.3 percent of Iowa was white — nearly 20 percent higher than the rest of the country. At the campaign events we went to, the lack of ethic diversity was apparent but unsurprising.
Why pay so much attention? The question is hardly revolutionary, and it’s part of the answer.
Journalists from around the world have convened to answer this question of “Why?” Stephen Bloom, an Iowa resident and a visiting journalism professor, is one of many journalists to question Iowa’s judgment and relevance. In a piece for the Atlantic, he summed it up well: In Iowa, “you’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with [it]. No, that’s not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.”
Simply put: New York City and Washington, D.C. are not Iowa. The East, West and Southern Coasts aren’t Iowa. Ann Arbor is not Iowa — I’ve yet to notice a single yoga studio here.
Yet, every four years the media circus ensues. Journalists cover the caucus in every niche imaginable. Take the word “circus” literally. Observing the hundreds of reporters and media sources in Des Moines is as much as a spectacle as anything many are writing.
At Ron Paul’s Polk County Whistle Stop on Monday, I watched a French reporter and his British cameraman talk to a man in a vest wallpapered with buttons and stickers and a floppy, red Dr. Suess hat. They asked him what about Paul excited him and stifled their chuckles when he answered excitedly, “It’s the energy, man. He’s got this thing.”
I met reporters from a Danish newspaper, talked to a German master’s student at Oxford University and even shook hands with Anderson Cooper. In the Des Moines Marriot, the hot spot for candidates and journalists, I spoke to New York Times reporter and University alum Mark Leibovich. He’s one of about 25 reporters from the newspaper in Iowa, and he spoke to the difficulty all journalists face in the days around the caucus. There are always niche stories to be written — an article about Santorum’s sweaters comes to mind — but many times it comes down to journalists fighting over a 10-minute advantage on a story only slightly different from countless others.
For student journalists, as the caucuses approached it was increasingly difficult to find a story that hasn’t previously been written by an expert in the field with more money, sources and credentials. And if they didn’t write it this week, it was written in 2008.
The sheer quantity of press coverage is astounding. Trying to keep up reading and watching it all ranges from overwhelming to impossible. When a poll comes out it’s not just followed by analysis, it’s followed by analysis of the analysis. By that point, it’s outdated and the results are irrelevant.
When I spoke to Randy Brubaker, managing editor at the Des Moines Register, he described Iowans as open-minded, friendly and, most importantly, used to the circus. The Register becomes nationally relevant every four years, but still reports on city council meetings and schools. In the same vein, Iowans appreciate the attention, but remain above or below the national frenzy — it’s so 2008.
The reality is the Iowa caucuses serve two important purposes and are two distinct but overlapping caucuses. The capital-C Caucus is celebrity reporters and international camera crews. It’s the national and international media’s best chance to get up close to the candidates, and it’s the first opportunity for the country to get to know them in painstaking detail.
The lowercase-C caucus is Iowans voting for their presidential nominee — they just happen to do it first. Yes, the candidates put in more effort in and pretend Iowan interests are their own. Yes, the average Iowan has shaken the hand of Ron Paul — twice. But in the end, 7 p.m. on Jan. 3rd is just a calendar appointment for about 110,000 people.
Iowa is a big deal because the capital-C caucus makes it big. The media creates a monster from a creature that left alone probably wouldn’t have such sharp teeth. Is it deserving of the attention? Probably not. Is it fun anyway? You betcha.
Andrew Weiner can be reached at email@example.com.