Iowa: Exit Stage Right

Iowa CaucusesIn her article “Feel Free to Ignore Iowa” in the New York Times last week, Gail Collins made a very strong argument as to why Iowa doesn’t matter in the overall political panorama as much as the media likes to make it seem.  However, as much as we may wish that this statement was true, Iowa does matter.  Yes, the frontrunner in Iowa doesn’t always win the election, the population who attends the caucuses is not an accurate representation of the United States as a whole, and the caucus process itself differs greatly from anonymously filling out a ballot on Election Day.  However, in the theatrical display which has become our presidential elections, Iowa is Act One.

During the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, this somewhat invisible state becomes like a small town where they shoot a big Hollywood movie.  For a short but glorious time, everyone there “matters” and as the comet that is Iowa streams across our conscious minds, the media focuses on it like Galileo on the night sky.  Iowa’s citizens can pretend that they hate the attention and that what they are doing is merely their civic duty.  However, if they suddenly found themselves in the position of not being the launch pad for the presidential primaries, they would probably react like the primary’s losers: smiling on the outside, bitter on the inside.

Iowa is the ultimate display of the relationship between the media and government.  It is no mystery that the media needs a constantly changing diet of information to the feed the ever-hungry news cycle, and the presidential primaries are a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of video clips and sound bites. To the media, the presidential elections in America are equivalent to the World Cup in the rest of the world: it happens every four years and everyone seems to become obsessed with it.  The candidates need this media attention.  To the candidates, the media is like a rich, old relative nobody in the family likes; they constantly seek their undesirable company, hoping for a big payoff in the end.

It is possible to argue that in the absence of the 24-hour news cycle, Americans might not pay much attention to the primaries.  It is not as if the participants are truly charismatic individuals about whom we really care.  That is why the media must turn the primaries into a theatrical production, which in many ways follows the plot of a well-made play or Freytag’s pyramid.  The candidate decides to run for office, that’s the inciting incident, cue flashbulbs.  The debates and news-show appearances are the rising action.  The primaries themselves are the climax, the counting of the ballots is the falling action, and the victory/losing speeches are the denouement.

Whether or not you view this demonstration as a drama or comedy is dependent upon how much you have at stake in the coming election.  Obama supporters can sit back and laugh at the current proceedings, knowing that the real drama will not start until the GOP candidate is chosen.  However, many republicans are biting their nails waiting to see if a hero (who is not Mitt Romney) will emerge to defeat their democratic foe.

Like ads for Christmas toys in October, it seems that the intensity with which the media covers every new presidential election starts earlier and earlier every four years.  This type of creep into our psyche will most likely force many Americans to become outwardly jaded with reference to the political process.  However, no matter how much we would like to return to the Christmas spirit of our imagined pasts, when Black Friday comes, we still fight over two-dollar toasters and half-price game consoles.  In the same vein, when Iowa is over  we will most likely fight over who will be the most qualified millionaire to run our country.

Iowa’s primary has become the clarion equivalent to the double clang that opens every Law and Order episode.  Once the results are in, we are conditioned to believe that we must pay attention to what comes next.  After all, who doesn’t love a good drama?