“Why Nobody ‘Wins’ the Iowa Caucus; Why the Iowa Caucus Matters – and Why it Doesn’t,” February 1, 2016, was deliberately written and posted by me before that evening’s Iowa Caucus even began – in order to eliminate any suggestion it was designed to favor one candidate over another. In that post I discuss the Caucus’ significance in terms of the national parties’ nomination process, the candidates’ campaigns, and the media. Not surprisingly, I concluded that its primary significance results from how the results are reported in the media. At that time, two days ago, I had no idea how prescient it was.
Before we get to how the media reported the Iowa Caucus, let’s start with some facts.
The Iowa Poll, considered to be among the most accurate for the Iowa Caucus, is our source for this data, available from “Tracking the Candidates in the Iowa Poll,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 3, 2016, p. A8.
How have the candidates fared over time? The data is from seven polls conducted in January, May, August, October and December of 2015, and early January, late January – and then the Caucus results on February 1, 2016.
Most candidates have gone up and down in the polls. Hillary, for example, went from a high of 57% in May to a low of 37% in August, and continued to fluctuate until the Caucus. Ted Cruz was at a high of 31% in December, dropped to a low of 23% in late January, and ended up with 28% in the Caucus. (the most of any Republican). Since August, Trump has ranged from a high of 28% to a low of 19%.
However, there are two candidates whose poll results have had unbroken increases every time they were measured.
Senator Marco Rubio started at 3% in January. The numbers in the following polls, in order, were 6%, 6%, 9%, 10%, 12%, 15% and finally 23% on Caucus night.
Senator Bernie Sanders started at 5% in January, and proceeded to climb in each succeeding poll to 16%, 30%, 37%, 39%, 40%, 42%, to a Caucus finish at 49.6%.
From December to Caucus Hillary increased from 48% to 49.8%, and Bernie went from 39% to his 49.6%.
Let’s compare these two candidates.
So how were these results reported by the media?
James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart, “Rubio Leaves Iowa with Third-Place Finish, ‘Marcomentum;’ Florida Senator’s Surge to Third Place Propels Him Forward,” The Gazette (online), February 2, 2016, 3:32 p.m.; hard copy: James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart, "Surge Propelling Rubio in GOP Race; Florida Senator's Third Place is 1 Point Short of Trump's Finish," The Gazette, February 3, 2016, p. A1. Note that Rubio was not even compared in the headline with the one who finished with the most support; he was compared with Donald Trump. (The Washington Post home page for February 3 headlined, "Establishment Candidates Target a Surging Rubio.”)
When I wrote “Why Nobody ‘Wins’ the Iowa Caucus" I wasn’t thinking about ties. My point was about the genuine story, and significance of the outcome of this first opportunity for citizens to participate in the nomination process. The Caucus can tell us which candidates demonstrate enough popular support to warrant their continuing to campaign into the subsequent primaries. For this purpose, probably something like 20-35 percent of the “state delegate equivalents” would be enough to warrant continuing.
There will be a winner and a loser next November 8. One can "win" an election. But there is nothing to “win” in the Iowa Caucus. Even if there were, it is clearly not "winner take all." Candidates are not elected president at the Iowa Caucus; they are not even nominated to run for the presidency. Even if, after the Iowa state conventions, a single candidate ended up with all of Iowa’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention it would have a minuscule impact on the Party’s ultimate selection of its presidential nominee.
The media can declare that the Caucus is a competitive contest that one candidate “wins” and all the others lose, but that doesn’t make it one –- except for the media owners looking for viewers and subscribers.
Moreover, to speak of a Democratic Party “winner” of the 2016 Iowa Caucus is even sillier than it normally would be -– because this year it was, from any rational and reasonable perspective, literally “a tie.”
Sanders' accomplishment was remarkable in light of the conventional wisdom that his support was limited to Black Hawk, Johnson, and Story counties, where the Regents’ three public universities are located. In fact, as one might expect in a tie, both candidates had support in counties all across the state -– with both usually well within percentages between 40 and 60 percent. However, Sanders' appeal to young people was unprecedented. “Of the estimated 31,000 young people who caucused for the Democrats on Monday, 84 percent supported Sen. Bernie Sanders — a much higher percentage than even Barack Obama garnered during his first run for the White House in 2008. During Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses eight years ago, then Sen. Obama won support from 57 percent of both the 17-24 age group and the 25-29 group . . ..” Vanessa Miller, “Percent of Youth Caucusing for Bernie Sanders Surpassed that for Obama in 2008; 'They're wanting to be a part of his political revolution,'” The Gazette (online), February 2, 2016, 5:20 p.m.; hard copy: Vanessa Miller, "Election 2016: Wide Support for Sanders Among Young Iowa Voters; Obama Received Smaller Ratio in State's 2008 Caucuses," The Gazette, February 3, 2016, p. 8A.
And Sanders did all of this coming from nothing, an unknown in Iowa, with no pre-existing political machine in place, and no money -- refusing PAC money, he had to pay the bills with 2.3 million contributors averaging $27, finding supporters one at a time, while attracting the largest crowds of any candidate (nationally as well as within Iowa).
So how was Senator Sanders’ incredible accomplishment described by the media?
The CNN headline was typical: Tami Luhby and Nia-Malika Henderson, “Hillary Clinton Wins Iowa Caucuses,” CNN, February 3, 2016, 12:23 p.m.
In fairness, the Iowa branch of the Democratic Party Establishment contributed to this misrepresentation, whether deliberately or inadvertently, that Hillary was “the winner” (as she herself declared). Erin Jordan, “Slim Win for Clinton Sign of Lengthy Nomination Process; ‘Iowans Like a Contest , Not a Coronation,’”, The Gazette (online), February 2, 2016, 8:11 p.m.; hard copy: Erin Jordan, "Election 2016: Slim Clinton Win Signals Lengthy Fight Ahead; Close Race Raises Questions of Just How Well Caucuses Were Run," The Gazette, February 3, 2016, p. A1 (“The Iowa Democratic Party declared Clinton the winner at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday with all but one of the 1,683 precincts reporting. . . . Clinton had 49.8 percent of state delegate equivalents and Sanders had 49.6 percent, with 171,109 Democrats participating. . . . ‘The Iowa Democratic Party is declaring Hillary a winner and that is a victory for her,’ said Chris Larimer, University of Northern Iowa associate political science professor, who did not caucus Monday.”)
So why this disparity in reporting? Why is Hillary "the winner"? Why is Rubio “surging” and “propelled,” despite this “loser’s” third-place finish? Has not Sanders been "surging" and "propelled" as much or more than Rubio along the same glide path? Yet the media tells us that, notwithstanding Sanders’ at least equal, if not much greater unprecedented accomplishment, we should think of him as the "loser" and Hillary as the “winner” of the Iowa Democrats’ Caucus. Why is that?
How could I know the answer? I don’t. But there are some things I do know.
”[T] he media's owners are, by definition, well within the 1%. They have every possible financial, political, ideological, and social motive to try to prevent him [Senator Bernie Sanders] being taken seriously. Savvy media employees who wish to stay employed can't help but be aware of the advantages offered them if they will cut back on or eliminate coverage of him (see description of the shameful exclusion of him by "Meet the Press" in "Bernie's Media Challenge," June 19, 2015), and when unavoidable (perhaps because he is getting the largest number of contributors and audience members of any candidate) diminish his reputation with ridicule, marginalization, and dismissal as "a socialist" whose views are "out of the mainstream."”Senator Bernie Sanders and America's 'Mainstream',” July 25, 2015, 8:45 a.m.
Second, with rare exceptions, profit-driven media do not have the space or time, or a sufficient number of highly educated, informed and analytical journalists, to present lengthy print, online, or televised discussions of major public policy issues in a way that will involve, inform, and hold an American audience. (See "Three-Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy's Media," Dec. 1, 2014.) Thus, even if media owners were supportive of Senator Sanders' views, they aren't really set up to present anyone's views at length. Thus, political coverage tends to focus on fundraising (e.g., Senator Rand Paul's mediocre contributions; Jeb Bush's $100 million), poll results (e.g., leading Republicans excluded from Fox News debate), gotcha moments (e.g., Governor Rick Perry's 2012 "oops" moment), the bizarre (e.g., Donald Trump's behavior, characterized by Dan Rather as somewhat similar to "a manure spreader in a windstorm"), physical appearance (e.g., the Donald's hair; women's clothing), and those portions of candidates' past history they'd rather forget (e.g., Hillary Clinton's Arkansas Whitewater, 1990s healthcare efforts, Benghazi, 50,000 emails).
And, from ”Bernie’s Media Challenge,” June 19, 2015:
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting's research discloses that between January 3rd and May 3rd of 2015, Meet the Press (NBC; host, Chuck Todd) made no mention whatsoever of Senator Bernie Sanders, notwithstanding 16 mentions of Hillary Clinton, 13 of Jeb Bush, 12 of Scott Walker, 11 of Chris Christie, and 10 each for Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. In total, 24 presidential candidates received mentions during this four-month period. Bernie? Zero. "Meet the Press Breaks Its Silence on Bernie Sanders," Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), June 2015, vol. 28, no. 5, p. 3 ("Meet the Press host Chuck Todd . . . declared on the show's May 3 episode . . . 'I'm obsessed with elections.' Yet the one major candidate who had announced he was running that week -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who declared on April 30 he was running for the Democratic nomination -- was strikingly ignored on that same broadcast.")Only following FAIR's report was an invitation extended, which Bernie accepted. "Meet the Press Transcript - May 31, 2015." While it certainly counted as an after-the-fact "mention" of his candidacy, it was scarcely an effort to explore his past and approach to the issues.
Bernie Sanders is the only avowed "Democratic Socialist" serving in the United States Congress. Defeating both Democrats and Republicans, he served as Vermont's only member of the House of Representatives for 16 years (1990-2006). Sanders has now served in the United States Senate for more than nine years (2006 to the present). As acknowledged by Todd himself . . . , in all those years, Meet the Press never saw fit to have Sanders appear on "America's most watched...Sunday morning public affairs program" until September 14, 2014 when Sanders was interviewed about his "possible" run for the Presidency. (One month earlier than the October date initially cited by Todd in response to FAIR.)Ernest A. Canning, "Bernie Who? Media Watchdog Documents NBC's 'Meet the Press' Marginalization of Sanders," The Brad Blog, May 11, 2015
[T]he interview degenerated into full horse-race, candidate-personality mode. Specifically, Todd sought Sanders’s views on . . . Hillary Clinton. He began indirectly by asking Sanders to weigh the relative merits of Bill Clinton’s presidency versus Barack Obama’s. . . . [H]e asked Sanders to comment on Hillary Clinton’s apparent leftward movement on a number of issues, including “same-sex marriage, on immigration … on NAFTA, on trade, on the Iraq War, on Cuba. She has moved from a position, basically, in disagreement with you, to a position that comes closer to your view. So I guess is, do you take her at her word?”Matthew Dickinson, "Bernie Sanders and Chuck Todd's 'Meet the Press' fiasco: 50 shades of bad; Bernie Sanders deftly refused to engage in media-generated controversy and expressed hope that 'the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign,'" Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2015.
Cue the horse race! To his credit, Sanders refused to take the bait. Instead, he expressed hope that “the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people” and tried to move the conversation to his policy views. Todd, however, had no interest in having a serious debate on the issues . . ..
Both Clinton and Sanders have now agreed to an additional debate this Thursday evening at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Alan Rappeport, “Bernie Sanders Says Yes to Debate Thursday Night,” New York Times (online), February 3, 2016, 11:18 a.m.
And who has NBC selected as a moderator for that debate, along with Rachel Maddow? That’s right, Chuck Todd.