Iowa: Self-fulfilling Prophecy

January 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why Iowa?

As Gail Collins says in today’s New York Times,
The identity of the next leader of the most powerful nation in the world is not supposed to depend on the opinion of one small state. Let alone the sliver of that state with the leisure and physical capacity to make a personal appearance tonight at a local caucus that begins at precisely 7 o’clock.
It’s not supposed to, but it does.

In part, it’s self-fulfilling prophesy, and the media play a central role. The media coverage makes the caucuses more important than they should be. The media stories focus far more on the horse-race aspect than on policy. They pay far more attention to who’s ahead and why than to substantive positions of the candidates. The result, like that of a horse race, is framed in the language of winners and losers. I’m sure there are good organizational, contextual reasons for media coverage being what it is, but the result is to magnify the importance of Iowa, with its 7 electoral votes, and New Hampshire with four.

Pennsylvania has three times as many electoral votes as Iowa; California has nearly 14 times as many as New Hampshire. But candidates aren’t spending collectively $14 for every person of voting age in those states. Spending per Iowa caucus-goer is closer to $300.

So all the news tonight and tomorrow will be about who won and who lost. Candidate X will not just be the person who got the most Iowa caucus votes; he or she will be “a winner.” Those who got fewer votes will be tarred as “losers.”

Those labels probably won’t directly affect the views of voters in other states. But they will affect how the media cover the candidates. And most important, the winner/loser distinction will affect the money people. As John Edwards (quoted in Collins’s column) says, “The winner of the Iowa caucus is going to have huge amounts of money pouring in.”

Because the media think Iowa is important, it in fact becomes important: self-fulfilling prophecy.

What would happen, I wonder, if the media paid as little attention to the Iowa caucuses as they do to the preferences of some other non-representative aggregate of a few thousand people? Or what if the candidates and media gave that other aggregate the attention they give the Iowa caucusers? How about the 60,000 people in my zip code? Hey dude, here’s my $300 of ad money?

No comments: