Against Bad Journalism on the Iowa Caucuses

Frontloading HQ’s Josh Putnam has a fine post on dubious early Iowa 2016 stories that begins with a memorable analogy:

The news stories about the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses are less deja vu these days than they are like the constant, repetitive backgrounds in cartoon chase scenes. The pattern is pretty clear at this point:

1. Some combination of Hillary Clinton lost Iowa in 2008 and/or frontrunners often “stumble” there.

2. Iowa is terrible at picking nominees/presidents.

3. A new poll is released showing Clinton up on any and all Democratic challengers.

4. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Presumably, this will continue until Iowa in 2016. Maybe the cycle will begin anew for 2020 shortly thereafter.

[I]t is relatively easy to find examples of frontrunners losing (relative to expectations) in Iowa. [That game can be played with New Hampshire too!] Within that group there are two subgroups: 1) those frontrunners who “lose” Iowa and go on to win the nomination and 2) those frontrunners who “lose” in Iowa and lose the nomination. The latter group is fairly limited and often leads to the conclusion in #2 above. [More on that momentarily] There are, though, other groups of cycles that often get short shrift in this discussion. Most people remember recounts in 2000, but understandably forget the two (mostly) cakewalk nomination races that year. Many also fail to include the favorite (regional/state) son phenomenon that hit Iowa in the 1988-1992 period when Gephardt, Dole and Harkin won the caucuses.

In other words, there’s a limited data set of presidential cycles since Iowa’s emergence on the scene in the mid-1970s as a major nominating process event. And all sorts of things have happened–all of them including some casualties, at least where large fields are involved.

The logical follow up is to ask why Iowa is first when it is so bad a choosing nominees/presidents. But please don’t do that. That’s just keeping Fred and Barney running past that doorway and potted plant. Iowa just does not derail front-running candidates with any level of regularity. It tends to winnow the field, leaving the determinative job to some subsequent state or series of state contests. That is the cycle we should be paying attention to.

And thank you, Josh, for not extending your argument to the silly demand some make that we all ignore early soundings in early states altogether. The ’16 campaigns are mostly in the “invisible primary” stage right now, but Iowa’s the one place where meaningful activity tends to happen first and quite early, given the complex process and the expectations of activists that they will be paid attention to or else.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.