Green Room

How the media got Iowa wrong

posted at 10:49 am on January 2, 2012 by

Ben Smith, from his new perch at BuzzFeed Politics, offers a nice media audit as the Iowa caucuses loom:

This was the year politics changed forever, we thought. The old habits of handshakes and diners had been replaced by new ones: virtual candidates who entered voters’ living rooms through their paid gigs on Fox News. Celebrities, freaks, and inspirational speakers — like Donald Trump and Herman Cain — who dominated opinion polls through the sheer volume of their media presences.

***

The candidates themselves, most of all, believed and fed our hype, and without the thoughtful hedges toward the end of those articles. People like Newt Gingrich and Cain ran what would more traditionally be thought of as godawful, miserable, terrible campaigns. We wrote that they were trying a new method. They were encouraged to keep trying.

But we misunderstood what was really happening. The candidates weren’t inventing a new paradigm. They were just doing it wrong.

And in last night’s Des Moines Register poll — a crucial final measure that typically accelerates whatever trend it finds — the three men in the lead were the three [who] have spent the most time in Iowa over the last six years: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum.

Although I made my share of errors in 2011, this wasn’t one of them. The track record of these new types of candidacies or phantom candidacies has not been good. Indeed, in the case of Rick Perry, we didn’t yet know how much his campaign was ignoring the basics, to his detriment. While Santorum’s campaign was largely ignored by the establishment media, it turns out he’s been doing traditional retail:

Poll numbers capture the attention of the public. But among political staff members here a single metric is prized above all else: the number of people recruited to deliver the candidate’s impassioned final arguments to voters on caucus night.

The wide gap between the figures for Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum say much about their organizations in Iowa, which has more than 1,700 precincts.

As of midweek, Mr. Santorum, who traipsed to even the most rural of Iowa’s 99 counties over many months, had secured speakers in 1,000 of the precincts. Mr. Gingrich, who opened an office here only a few weeks ago, had nailed down about only 200.

Though that number had doubled by the end of the next day, Mr. Gingrich’s own aides acknowledged that the shortage of speakers could be a problem. “Iowans have a deep belief in organization,” said April Linder, a staff member, “and when you don’t have a speaker, it shows a lack of organization.”

Perry reportedly has 1,500 precinct leaders now; although he’s stuck in the second tier, he’s currently the second choice of many voters (although I wonder whether Santorum’s momentum will affect that in the final two days). If Perry exceeds expectations, organization will be a big part of it. The value of traditional campaigning turns out to be less mythical than some thought.

Update: Cindy Cooper informs me via Twitter of this Jennifer Rubin report from Dec. 22, quoting an Iowa state official to the effect that Newt had only a few hundred precinct captains. Although Rubin’s agenda is transparent, the official’s count suggests the more recent NYT story did not show much progress on Newt’s part.

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Although I made my share of errors in 2011, this wasn’t one of them.

All right already, Karl. Enough with the self-flagellation. ;)

gryphon202 on January 2, 2012 at 11:24 AM

gryphon202,

The point here was to note I’m not gloating, but that if even I can get that bit right, people who cover campaigns for a living should have been more skeptical.

Why weren’t they? Perhaps people in the media liked the idea that the media was becoming more influential in the process…

Karl on January 2, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Perhaps people in the media liked the idea that the media was becoming more influential in the process…

Karl on January 2, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Which is a good reason why Obama was elected with little “real” vetting, imo.

Rovin on January 2, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Rovin on January 2, 2012 at 12:22 PM

ding ding ding

cmsinaz on January 2, 2012 at 1:37 PM