And now, we’ll act as though the results are profoundly, deeply, epically meaningful, for no reason other than the fact that no one else has voted yet.
So before we all lose our minds over-interpreting the caucus results, here are some things to be on your guard against as you watch the coverage.
- “This changes everything.” When you’re covering a single story over an extended period, you need the story to change in order to keep driving it forward. There’s a reason that “news” is the plural of “new” — it’s supposed to be new. So few reporters are going to say, after all this waiting, that things look pretty much like they did before. But they might! On the Republican side, we know that nationally, Donald Trump is in first, Ted Cruz is in second, and Marco Rubio is in third. The results of the caucuses could be exactly that. So what would Iowa have meant? Not much. Something similar could happen on the Democratic side.
- “This shows that what I’ve been thinking all along is true.” Journalists often look for events or statements — particularly those caught on video — that can provide vivid illustrations of their gut feelings. So for instance, after a poor performance in the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean gave a rousing speech to his supporters in which he said, among other things, “Yeaaah!” Reporters, who weren’t particularly fond of Dean and thought it was about time for him to go away, christened this the “Dean Scream” and explained that it showed he was a lunatic; later, they’d imply that the Scream itself was what destroyed his candidacy. On a broader level, we’ll all be tempted to interpret the results as a validation of what we’ve been thinking. So people will say that “the establishment” turns out to be powerless in the face of voter anger, or that voters’ anger was overblown, or that evangelical voters are still key, or that evangelical voters aren’t as important as they used to be, depending on what we thought before. There’s always enough ambiguity in the results, especially at this stage, to superimpose almost any interpretation you want on them.
- “This tiny difference between the candidates’ vote totals is hugely significant.” Given the polls, it’s possible that one or both races will be decided by a point or two. Since we’re talking about one state with a relatively small number of delegates to send to the national conventions, how much difference does it make if, say, Hillary Clinton wins by a point or loses by a point? That would mean a swing of just a couple thousand votes. Does that really tell us something important about how much support she has in the rest of the country or whether she well represents today’s Democratic Party? Obviously, you can go too far in waving away small differences; in 2004, Joe Lieberman said triumphantly after the New Hampshire primary, “Based on the returns we’ve seen tonight, thanks to the people of New Hampshire, we are in a three-way split decision for third place!”, by which he meant that he came in fifth. But if two candidates are very close, all it means is that they had about the same amount of support in the state, no matter which one came out ahead.
- “[Candidate X] exceeded/failed to meet expectations.” When I checked this morning, the Carolina Panthers were a six-point favorite to beat the Denver Broncos in next Sunday’s Super Bowl. But if Carolina ends up winning the game by two points, you won’t see any headlines reading, “Carolina Fails to Meet Expectations; Denver Shows Surprising Strength.” Any time someone says that a candidate failed to meet expectations, all that means is that the expectations were wrong. The expectations were a guess at how things might turn out. It was the people making the guess who performed badly, not the candidate. You can assess the results on their own terms — this candidate did better than that one — without pretending that the candidates are also responsible for what a bunch of reporters and pundits mistakenly thought would happen. In the end, expectations are nothing more than a meaningless parlor game we play to amuse ourselves. Their only real use should be to assess how good a job we in the pundit class did of predicting the outcome.
- “[Candidate X]’s support wasn’t as strong as we thought.” We also shouldn’t forget just how weird the caucuses are, and how difficult and time-consuming it is to vote in them, particularly on the Democratic side. This has presented a special challenge for Bernie Sanders, because many of his supporters are young people who haven’t caucused before, and may not be willing or able to invest the time. But what does that tell us about Sanders’s support in the rest of the country? Not much. Without re-litigating the question of whether Iowa deserves its hallowed place in the process, there’s no question that it’s different than other states, which is why Iowa winners so often fail to get their party’s nomination.
- “There’s no way [Candidate X] can stay in the race now.” Momentum matters a lot in primary races, and candidates who do poorly in early contests can indeed lose standing elsewhere as their supporters peel away and look for other alternatives. But that isn’t an organic process the news media observe from the outside; the media are essential to making that process play out. In the case of the second-tier candidates, their supporters elsewhere will now be exposed to a lot of news coverage about how their favorite candidate is a loser who really should stop wasting everyone’s time and pack it in already. If you’re a Jeb Bush supporter in Florida and you don’t vote for another six weeks, you may suspect that Bush won’t even be in the race by then, so it would make sense to start comparing the candidates the media tell you will actually be contending. But there’s no reason why anybody can’t stay in the race if they want to, and no reason why you can’t vote for somebody who isn’t going to win.
Always remember that the decisions the news media make about covering the race are just that, decisions. They might be justifiable, but they aren’t handed down on stone tablets. When one candidate comes in first and another comes in second, we’ll write stories about what the first one did right (stories that will inevitably be glowing, because they’ll focus on his success), and stories about what the other candidate did wrong (which will inevitably be negative, because they’ll focus on where he screwed up). One candidate who squeaked out a win because he got a few hundred more people out to brave the cold on a winter night, or because his campaign had a better grasp on the arcane Iowa caucus system, will be splashed on magazine covers and newspaper front pages giving a big smile and a thumbs-up, while the one who came in second will be depicted looking on in envy.
And when you see an analyst saying that one candidate is going to struggle to get coverage, or that the media will now shift its attention, or that that “the narrative” will focus on some trivial matter that came up, don’t forget that the person saying it is one of the ones doing the thing they’re describing. Self-fulfilling prophecies abound in coverage of campaigns.
I’m not trying to take all the fun out of the campaign, but as the wise news consumer you are, you should be on the lookout for these types of baloney as the Iowa results get interpreted. Because there’s a whole lot of it headed your way.