The Iowa caucuses: politics as spectacle

The Republican showdown at Iowa confirms how much spin and personality now dominate US politics.

Nathalie Rothschild

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After 13 debates, four different frontrunners, one dropout and countless polls, the American public has finally had the opportunity to shape the Republican presidential race in real terms. Tuesday night’s caucuses in Iowa – the first in the country – provided some actual evidence of how voters view the six GOP presidential hopefuls. In the end, Mitt Romney pipped Rick Santorum to be declared the winner. But regardless of what voters put on their ballots, to the candidates it’s really how to spin the outcome that matters.

Some 100,000 Republican Iowans voted in 1,774 precinct caucuses across the rural state’s 99 counties. The voting took place at evening meetings in schools, churches, libraries and even in individuals’ homes. Candidates will now be awarded a number of delegates for the Republican National Convention, assigned in proportion to the candidates’ share of the vote. Iowans elect 28 delegates in total to the convention, which will take place in Florida in August. There, the GOP formally selects its candidate to take on Barack Obama in November’s presidential election.

All in all, there are 2,286 convention delegates, so the number selected by Iowans is very small, representing just over one per cent of the total number. Still, because it is the first state to vote, Iowa has a disproportionate influence and is widely regarded as a scene-setter. Along with residents in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the next two states to vote, Iowans end up narrowing down the options for the rest of country, as some candidates’ campaigns flounder. In this case, it was Texas governor Rick Perry who suspended his campaign while he went home to ‘determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race’.

For a few weeks in every presidential election cycle, Iowa becomes a media-courted state. TV viewers have been bombarded with ads, hotels have been booked up for months, diners have had a hard time reserving restaurant tables, and gift shops have stocked up on GOP t-shirts.

Yet, looking at past outcomes of the Iowa caucuses, it is also clear that the outcome can tell us little more about the future of the GOP and the American political leadership than tea leaves. In the past few weeks, there have been endless speculations, statistical analyses and predictions based on past patterns. For instance, we have been reminded that since 1976, only two candidates have gone on to become president after winning the Iowa caucuses for their parties: George W Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. Also, history shows that Republican candidates who win the Iowa caucuses generally do not win the party’s nomination. For instance, in 1980, George HW Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa, but it was Reagan who went on to win the party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. Eight years later, Bush Senior won the party’s nomination and the presidency, despite having lost out to Bob Dole in Iowa. More recently, in 2008, the guitar-strumming Mike Huckabee’s surprise victory in Iowa did not end with him occupying the highest seat in American politics but with landing a slot on Fox News. That year, eventual GOP nominee John McCain shared third place with Fred Thompson in Iowa.

So, yes, the outcome of the Iowa caucuses will impact on the candidates’ campaign strategies and it can be of great symbolic significance. In 2008, Obama had his first big win in Iowa and now legend has it that this turned him into an instant frontrunner and rocketed him to the White House. But, despite Iowa being on every political pundit’s mind, for the voting public, the caucuses are only the first, very tentative steps towards nominating a presidential candidate. Yes, it’s the first time in the election cycle that American voters get to make their mark on the race after months of polling and media speculation. But, as a New York Times blog points out, ‘The Iowa caucuses are a two-step process: first comes the voting, then comes the spinning’ and ‘the post-caucus spin plays a crucial function in mediating the relationship between a political party and its voters’.

In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the Iowa vote is a non-event that has been transformed into a pivotal moment not so much because it symbolises the weight of voter power but because it epitomises politics as spectacle. As one commentator points out, ‘The race to be first — first to host the economy-jolting arrival of hordes of reporters on expense accounts and the airwave saturation of campaign ads — has resulted in other states’ jockeying to get a piece of the pie. So Iowa has gradually pushed up its caucuses from late January in 1972 to early in the month, while New Hampshire has leapfrogged its primary from March back in 1952 to 10 January this year.’

For the press corps, Iowa is the place to be; for the candidates, Iowan babies are the photo ops to grasp; and for their campaign managers, the results are the thing to spin. Meanwhile, the voters and the issues that affect them seem to be forgotten. The 2012 election campaign more and more resembles a horse race rather than a political race. Who’s up, who’s down? Who will fold? What will the candidates’ next move be? How organised are they? Who’s got more cash? Who could do with more airtime? What percentage of the political TV ads has been negative and what percentage has been positive? These kinds of questions have dominated the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. More substantial questions – like the future of the US economy or foreign policy – take a backseat because it is clear that the candidates have little of substance to distinguish themselves on such matters.

In no time at all, Iowa will be forgotten. The press corps, the candidates and the spindoctors are about to descend on New Hampshire, where it will start all over again.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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