Monday evening, five men battled in freezing temperatures and snow for a chance to win the world’s ultimate job. It might sound like an attempt by one of the major networks to pump out yet another reality show that is a cross between “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” but this I assure you, was reality television at its best. The five men were the Democratic presidential candidates, the battleground was Iowa, and the job is president of the United States. For political junkies and would-be media analysts like me, the media coverage of the first major contest of the election season was the ultimate in reality television. Historically, the media has received and continues to receive criticism for its election coverage, yet the relationship between politics and the media had a moment of glory with the coverage of the Iowa Caucus.
Quick not to repeat the mistakes of the 2000 presidential election, the media pundits dubbed the Iowa race “Too Close to Call” before the caucuses even convened for the evening. For in the days leading up to Monday, in a drama worthy of Aaron Sorkin’s pen, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Richard Gephardt and John Edwards were caught in a virtual four-way tie for possible victory in Iowa. Strategists and commentators were again left uncertain, and admittedly so, about the outcome of the race. Yet, with a surprise twist of fate, early numbers showed that Kerry was coming out on top, and with only approximately 30 percent of the delegates reporting their results, the race did not seem too close to call at all. Whether by accident or on account of being aware of something we were not, Dean essentially admitted, accepted and conceded to Kerry’s first-place finish to Larry King with only 30 percent of the delegates reporting and effectively did what commentators wanted to officially do: declare John Kerry the winner of the Iowa Caucus.
In an attempt to balance any liberal bias, all major cable networks had Republican politicians, strategists and consultants weigh in alongside Democratic ones, making it all a truly bipartisan analytical effort. Instead of using the airtime to espouse the Republican platform and act as cheerleaders for Bush, conservative commentators offered congratulations and positive feedback to the Democratic candidates. Of course, the media could give the spotlight to Democrats for one night since President Bush received the spotlight Tuesday evening with his State of the Union Address. Not surprisingly, much of the positive Republican attitudes ended the day after as they went back to making false statements about the plans of the Democratic candidates (i.e. Karen Hughes wrongly stating on CNN that Democrats would raise taxes if they won the White House). At least, however, the coverage appealed to all people across the political spectrum.
Still, the most important and interesting aspect of the media coverage of the Democratic presidential race in Iowa was that the media had little effect on Iowa voters. From media coverage alone, one could have assumed Dean would have easily defeated his opponents or at least come out on top. Since the summer, he has graced both covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week twice! From television coverage alone, it seemed that Dean was the preferred candidate, but Kerry’s victory and Edwards’s strong second-place finish has restored my faith in grassroots politics and proven that 30 second sound bytes carry little weight in Iowa. It could be that Iowa voters are simply a different breed than the rest of us, but one cannot deny that Kerry and Edwards both ran effective campaigns in Iowa, especially when one considers the relative lack of media attention afforded to their campaigns up until last week.
As the battle to win the Democratic nomination continues next week in New Hampshire, the increased media attention surrounding Kerry and Edwards will certainly give them an added boost, but I believe that effective grassroots campaigning, the staple of Democratic politics, will once again help decide who will be victorious. Nonetheless, the media frenzy will continue to add to the already overcrowded field of reality television, but this is reality television that depicts a process that will have a profound impact on the lives of all Americans.