Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Politics and Current Events

Why Iowa?: The median state on the media

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As New Hampshire voters take to the polls in today’s Republican primary, more and more media analysis continues to emerge on the role played by the Iowa caucuses, and whether or not such a “primary” position is warranted by the state’s demographics.
In Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process, David P. Redlawsk (five-time former Iowa precinct caucus chair), Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan argue that not only is Iowa’s impact warranted, but it reveals a great deal about other informational aspects of the campaign. Iowa’s exceptionally well-designed caucus system brings candidates’ arguments, strengths, and weaknesses into the open and—most importantly—under the media’s lens.
A recent piece by John Sides for the NYT‘s FiveThirtyEight blog focused on Iowa’s dramatic finish, where a late surge by Rick Santorum left Mitt Romney with a narrow, eight-vote victory. Sides’s appealed to media data and commentary from the Why Iowa? authors, in addition to polling data from Nate Silver. The result? In Sides’s words:

Why does this matter? Mr. Redlawsk and his colleagues demonstrate that not only do candidates who do relatively well in Iowa do better in New Hampshire—see also Nate’s analysis—but this shift in media attention may play the causal role. The media’s attention matters too, and their attention depends on how candidates perform versus expectations. Mr. Redlawsk and his colleagues then show that the results in New Hampshire shape the candidates’ overall share of votes in the primaries as a whole. So Iowa affects New Hampshire, and New Hampshire affects everything else. . . .

In the run-up to the caucus, Redlawsk spoke with Ezra Klein at the Washington Post about how Iowa rose to its current first-in-the-nation status and why so many candidates care about such a small number of delegates. As Redlawsk commented:

Probably what Iowa does best is winnow the field: eliminate the also-rans, the ones who just can’t build a campaign. That’s really what Iowa does. It teaches them to build a grassroots campaign. Those who do well get to move forward, and those who don’t drop out. That said, in the last few cycles, Iowa has played a very significant role. There’s no question that it launched Obama. But in the end, it’s not so much winning Iowa as it is generating attention because you beat expectations.

Tolbert chimed in for a piece by Gail Collins for the NYT, which presented a dissenting perspective on Iowa, where as Tolbert noted, “Caucuses tend to foster more grass-roots participation.”
Redlawsk also sat down for Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, and offered some wisdom about the caucuses unpredictable results and what the truth is about their effect on candidate selection:

It’s the media that’s the primary king-maker here. What the media does is interprets the results of Iowa, the results of New Hampshire, as we go forward in a sequential process.

For more information about Why Iowa?, check out the authors’ interactive website, which includes excerpts, interviews and talks (including recent mentions on the BBC and Southern California Public Radio’s Madeleine Brand Show, and other information about the book and its scholarship.
In the meantime, here’s some coverage of the 1988 Republican and Democratic Iowa caucuses from PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour (including some vintage Roger Mudd) that grapples with some of same questions Why Iowa? continues to debate: