Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Why Iowa Matters

By Shawn Healy
I spent the past three days attending a reporting institute in Des Moines, IA, executed by the Poynter Institute in conjunction with Drake University and underwritten by the McCormick Tribune Foundation's journalism program. The institute addressed the challenge of covering the presidential nominating process for all media outlets, national and local, print, broadcast, even the Internet. The context was the first in the nation Iowa Caucuses, a landmark political occasion every four years since the surprise victory of an obscure Georgia Governor (Jimmy Carter) 31 years ago. Several observations are worth noting, both about the Caucuses and the media's coverage of them.

1. Iowans (at least the Caucus attendees) take their responsibility seriously. Caucus going is no casual affair. It's a 2-2.5 hour commitment on a cold Monday evening in January. Democratic Party participants engage in a verbal and physical display of their commitment to a candidate. If their candidate of choice does not meet the 15% threshold at any given caucus, attendees are subject to persuasion by devotees to more popular candidates. Participants also engage in determining the party platform for the coming election, and delegates must carry these preferences to countywide, congressional district, and statewide gatherings as the winter yields to spring and summer. Politics in Iowa is an ongoing commitment, and voters separate the wheat from the chafe through a lengthy vetting process well underway seven months in advance of D-Day.

2. The media faces a variety of challenges, from uncooperative campaigns to marginal candidates to redundant messages from the candidates themselves. Some are aware of a perceived liberal bias that permeates the media and take proactive measures to ensure objectivity. Others fail on this mark, challenging conservative candidates while lobbing softballs to their liberal counterparts.

The media as a whole faces resource constraints. While the number of reporters covering a campaign shrinks, the campaigns themselves are devoting an ever increasing percentage of resources to interacting with and at times manipulating the press (this too works both ways). As Internet coverage blossoms, reporters are asked to perform their old jobs along with commenting on blogs, recording audio and video snippets, and are thus pulled away from covering candidates as they engage in the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. This leaves much of the on-the-ground coverage to local reporters and news outlets. I met several of them in Iowa and saw in them the idealism and talent wanting of reporters who play the dual role of gatekeepers and watchdogs.

3. Iowa plays an unquestionably disproportionate role in determining the major party nominees for President. The state is not representative of the nation as a whole. It's the 4th whitest and 3rd oldest. The majority of caucus goers are over the age of 55! Only 250,000 of 2 million Iowans registered to vote actually participate, this figure then divided by the two parties. Candidates spend an unreal amount of time in the state (John Edwards has been there roughly 2 dozen times since the last election), and with this comes financial resources.

The August Straw Poll in Ames, for example, is seen as an early indication of support for GOP candidates even though its mostly a sham of the campaign paying supporters to buy straws. Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain saw through the facade this time around and withdrew from the poll. As a result, they stand in contrast to conventional wisdom should they overcome current Iowa poll leader Mitt Romney and win the Caucuses.

On a deeper level, whether or not we are satisfied with this year's frontloaded primary process with small, unrepresentative states setting the tone, it's the reality with which we operate as voters. The nominating process will be effectively complete three weeks after the Iowa Caucuses on February 5th (big states like California, New York, and Illinois hold primaries this day, with Florida the week before on January 29th), and the long march to November will commence with the victors raising even more money to lampoon one another. As voters, we'll pick up the pieces and ask our leaders, and the media that covers them, for something better.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at