Saturday, September 19, 2020
Sept. 19, 2020

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Camden: Media fuels anger over Iowa caucus


A failed app has some people predicting the beginning of the end for the Iowa caucuses as the three-ring political circus to kick off the nation’s quadrennial presidential sweepstakes.

Not solely because the caucuses are a 19th century system that doesn’t adapt well to 21st century sensibilities. Heck, caucuses didn’t adapt to late-20th century sensibilities.

It was inevitable that what the caucuses were meant to do — start a long and involved process for picking a few delegates to another meeting, the Democratic National Convention, almost six months later — wouldn’t measure up to the needs of the 24-hour news networks and their drive to pick instant winners and losers in the presidential race.

But last week’s caucuses didn’t really fail in their main function, which is to start the process of picking delegates for the Democratic National Convention.

Despite problems with producing a count of delegate strength for the cluster of Democratic candidates Feb. 3, the Iowa Democratic Party will eventually figure out how many delegates for each candidate will move on to the next round of meetings, where they will be winnowed again before the next round of meetings, and so on until the state has a representative sample for this year’s convention.

Even after they were elevated to vaunted “first in the nation” status, the final results of the Iowa caucuses often weren’t known that first night, because it took so long to get and tabulate results from thousands of meetings across the state. That doesn’t much matter to the people who were at those meetings, because if they were chosen to be a delegate to the next round of meetings, they knew it.

The only people really inconvenienced by Monday’s computer issues were the talking heads on the 24-hour news networks. And for that, they should not blame the Iowa Democratic Party, but themselves.

The national media, primarily round-the-clock cable news, built the Iowa caucuses into a seminal event on which they could rely for a mixture of folksy features and navel-gazing analysis for months. Sure, Iowans were somewhat complicit in this by being so darn nice. They agree to answer any foolish question that a well-coiffed, overdressed reporter might ask as they eat breakfast at a diner, visit a county fair, milk a cow or push a stroller down Main Street. Full, quotable answer, equal parts insightful comment about a candidate’s policy and folksy observation about his or her demeanor.

It’s likely the Iowa chambers of commerce had a hand in this too, because once every four years they have the opportunity to fill up the hotels, restaurants and bars, not just in Des Moines and Iowa City, but in Davenport, Keokuk, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Ottumwa.

The problems with using Iowa as a bellwether for the United States are well-known: It’s not as demographically or racially diverse as the nation as a whole, it’s more rural and the average age is older.

The national media usually spend about 45 seconds telling us those shortcomings before spending a half-hour discussing what the latest poll says. It’s sort of like the long list of side effects read by the announcer at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial after the audio and video has proclaimed a new drug is a miracle cure for some condition.

So it’s not surprising that the gathered media were perturbed by a lack of losers to deride and numbers to dissect when the untested app didn’t work. But the need for that app was a response to the candidates and the news media’s need for quick results on caucus night.

One can expect a bit of reflective hand-wringing about whether they put too much emphasis on the Iowa caucuses and possibly a task force to discuss whether they should change tactics for 2024.

But I’d be happy to take the money of anyone who’s betting reporters won’t be traipsing all over the state in 2023, hanging out in diners, camping out at the state fair and interviewing county chairmen about how many candidates they’ve had in their front parlor.