The Press's Post-Iowa Tailwinds: As Nature Intended It?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007; Page C01

On the morning of Jan. 4, 2008, the winners of the Iowa caucuses -- one Democrat, one Republican -- will blast into the stratosphere as if they were strapped to a booster rocket.

It's an immutable law of political physics that those who prevail in Iowa will hurtle toward New Hampshire with bulked-up poll numbers, gathering blinding momentum on the path to nomination.

(United Press International)

But the chief reason for the Iowa effect is an explosion of media coverage that treats the winners as superstars and the also-rans as lamentable losers. Without that massive media boost, prevailing in Iowa would be seen for what it is: an important first victory that amounts to scoring a run in the top of the first inning.

"It stinks," says veteran political reporter Jack Germond. "The voters ought to have time to make a considered decision, and the press ought to be a little less poll-driven, and we're not." Between the coverage and the hyper-compressed campaign calendar, he says, "the whole system this year is absolutely a disgrace."

The morning after John Kerry won the 2004 Iowa caucuses, ABC's George Stephanopoulos credited him with a "gutsy campaign" that produced "a big, shocking comeback." Charlie Gibson called it "an extraordinary turnaround," telling Kerry: "I had the temerity to suggest that your campaign was dead in the water two weeks ago."

CBS's Harry Smith sounded a similar note, telling Kerry: "It's kind of amazing, isn't it? A couple of weeks ago, you were ruled out." Ruled out, that is, by the media.

As for Howard Dean, who had been leading in the polls weeks earlier, every interview began with some version of "Why did you lose, and can you possibly recover?"

That evening, CBS correspondent Randall Pinkston began a report by saying, "John 'Comeback' Kerry stepped up the battle for votes in New Hampshire today." And some commentators pronounced last rites. Fox's Bill O'Reilly declared that "Howard Dean is finished." Kerry, of course, won New Hampshire and rolled to the nomination.

His Iowa win packed extra punch because the previous November his candidacy had been described as "troubled" (The Washington Post), "faltering" (USA Today) and "in disarray" (Boston Globe). But with Democratic voters obsessed with finding someone who could beat President Bush, the saturation coverage bestowed on Kerry an aura of electability.

Tobe Berkovitz, interim dean of Boston University's College of Communication, sees "an agenda-setting battle" between the press and the losing candidates. "Howard Dean screams and he's gone. The media so overblow everything that unless you have the skills of a Bill Clinton and can say 'I'm the comeback kid' after failing to win a primary, the media manage to drive a stake through your heart."

Perhaps, he says, a creative candidate can use alternative outlets, such as blogs or a popular cable news show, "to reframe the story, to let air out of the tires of the boys on the bus. I'm not betting my farm on that."

Winning Iowa hasn't always done the trick. In 1980 George H.W. Bush declared that he had the "big mo" after Iowa, but lost New Hampshire to Ronald Reagan. (The primary, however, was 36 days later; this time, New Hampshire will vote five days after Iowa.) Dick Gephardt also flamed out after capturing the 1988 caucuses.

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