Why Iowa Matters
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.