“Nothing is more important than watering your indoor house plants, and that isn’t important either.”—Fran Liebowitz
Other than the lively diversion it provides us political junkies, along with the chance for overpaid, self-absorbed pundits to stand on their hind legs and pretend to know something, and, of course, the considerable revenue generated by increased viewership of networks like MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, the Iowa Caucus is about as reliable an electoral “barometer” as a Tarot deck.
What makes this venerated event so “important” can be answered in one word: Media coverage (okay, two words). The media have frantically sought to keep the Iowa Caucus not only relevant, but vitally and historically important, and they’ve done it in much the same way that Dr. Frankenstein reanimated the corpse.
The media have infused a meaningless thing, an inert thing, with artificial life by deluding themselves and the general public into believing that whoever wins in Iowa actually matters, that it makes a difference—that the winner of the celebrated Iowa Caucus must now be regarded as the genuine “front-runner.”
But the facts tell a different story. For one thing, if the Iowa Caucus is so damned important, why can’t anyone remember it? Just as football fans remember who won the Super Bowl, but can’t remember who won the Pro Bowl, we can’t remember who won in Iowa. That’s because winning in Iowa is as evanescent (and meaningless) as winning the Pro Bowl.
For instance, how many can recall who it was, in 2012, who basically finished in a flat-footed tie with Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee? It was the disturbingly religious Rick Santorum. And how did his magnificent and unexpected showing in Iowa work out for him? Alas, Santorum sank like an anvil.
Sticking with the Republicans, let’s go back to 1988. Not only did George H.W. Bush, the eventual nominee, finish a distant third, he was soundly beaten by wacked-out television evangelist and apocalyptic prognosticator Pat Robertson.
When you get beaten in a key race by the likes of Pat Robertson, you might consider throwing in the towel. But this was the Iowa Caucus, and in no way resembled a “key race.” Bob Dole finished first, with 37%, Robertson second, with 25%, and GHWB third, with 19%. Bush brushed aside Iowa and went on to win the nomination. (Fun fact: Pat Robertson graduated from Yale Law School.)
Let’s stay with the Republicans. In 2008, John McCain got a meager 13% of the vote, which left him in a tie for third place with Fred Thompson, who got bored and dropped out shortly afterward. The big winner was Mike Huckabee (who had proudly stated that he didn’t believe in evolution), with 34%, followed by Romney, with 25%. The guy who thinks the earth is only 6,000 years old beat the eventual nominee. That’s Iowa.
Moving to the Democrats, let’s consider what happened in 1992. Not only did Bill Clinton get clobbered by Favorite Son Tom Harkin, who came away with a whopping 76%, he got beat by “Uncommitted,” with 12% of the vote, and Paul Tsongas, with 4%. Clinton finished with 3%. A presidential candidate getting beaten by “Uncommitted” has to be humiliating, not unlike a major leaguer being unceremoniously traded for a “player to be named later.”
Another Democratic contest that meant nothing was 1988. The big winner that year was Dick Gephardt, with 31%, followed by Illinois Senator Paul Simon, with 27%. The eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, finished third, with 22%, and Bruce Babbitt finished a distant fourth, with only 6% (still twice what Clinton was to receive four years later). That’s Iowa.
But after last night’s Caucus, where Donald Trump was edged out by Ted Cruz, an MSNBC talking head actually described Trump’s loss as “devastating.” Urged by the show’s producers to hype the event for all it’s worth, he actually resorted to that hyperbolic adjective, even though Trump is already favored to win in New Hampshire, the first “real” primary.
What we need to remember is that Iowa is only as important as the media make it. And for the last 40 years, they’ve chosen to make it “very important.” No disrespect to the good folks of Iowa, but in truth, your moment of “democracy in action” amounts to little more than a glorified prank.