The Iowa Caucuses- A Made For TV Reality Show
What purpose do the Republican Iowa caucuses really serve? They are an unofficial primary in a state with an overwhelmingly white population unlike the national demographic, with the Republican caucuses even more lily-white than the state as a whole. And since 1980, only two of the Republican winners eventually became the Republican nominee for president, Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000. (Seven of the Democratic winners of their last ten caucuses went on to claim the nomination.) In the caucuses, delegates are chosen for county conventions in each of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties, in proportion to the popular vote for the candidates. The county conventions then choose delegates to a state convention where the nominee is eventually anointed. So why have the caucuses at all? Wouldn’t a primary vote be simpler? But then it would lose some of its unique entertainment value.
The Republican Iowa caucuses must be considered a cross between a TV reality show and American Idol. Instead of “The Biggest Loser” we are viewing a contest for “The Biggest Conservative.” The countdown on television starts shortly after the previous presidential election ends. It is retail politics at its best with TV cameramen following the candidates everywhere, filming their handshakes and sound-bites, in coffee shops and supermarkets, school auditoriums and churches. Every word uttered by the candidates is parsed by the pundits and opposing campaign staffers, searching for slips and stumbles that might influence the outcome. However, both the candidates and Iowans love the attention. And it gives the TV networks and cable stations supplementary programming at a minimal cost.
Part of the attraction is that in the run-up to the caucuses ordinary citizens are turned into television stars. Their views on the candidates, the economy and other issues reverberate over the airways, their pictures and ideas featured in national newspapers and magazines. They have opportunities to question and pose with candidates, one of whom may ascend to the presidency.
The caucuses also stoke Iowa’s economy with a welcome infusion of cash starting a year or more before the defining event. Out-of-state visitors jam the hotels and lodging places, patronizing restaurants, supermarkets and pharmacies. Iowa’s TV stations are bolstered by political advertisements round the clock, building to a crescendo in the last months of the contest. The whole state of Iowa gets extra exposure as well, a boost to its tourist industry.
As an extra benefit during this particular election cycle, the competition enhanced the reality-show aspects of the caucuses, increasing the television ratings. Tension grew over the last six months as the lead frequently shifted among the candidates in this popularity contest. At various times, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Romney were on top in the polls, with Paul and Santorum surging at the end. There were three lead changes in the last month alone, the outcome in doubt until the vote was counted. Even the final results that had the leaders, Romney and Santorum, separated by only eight votes, played to the image of a reality show.
One might go to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to summarize the actual impact of the Iowa caucuses- “it is a tale…full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” But the entertainment value of the process should not be discounted. As long as the TV cameras are rolling, the pundits pontificating and the viewers tuning in, the reality show Iowa caucuses will retain its regular place on the media schedule.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.