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Friday, January 4, 2008
By Steven L. Taylor

Let’s face facts: everyone is quite excited to finally have some real voting going on after over a year of campaigning, speculating, kibitzing and the like. It is therefore natural to want to read more into the results than is warranted. For example, David Brooks calls the Obama/Huckabee wins “The Two Earthquakes” in his column in today’s NYT. In the piece he waxes poetic about the fact that an African-American won in white, rural Iowa and how Huckabee is a different kind of evangelical1 . The Obama win is noteworthy in a historical and cultural sense, I will allow and even a healthy thing for the country, but let’s not get carried away. Further, the notion that the win means that “Obama is changing the tone of American liberalism, and maybe American politics, too” seem a bit premature. Likewise his assessment of the transformative nature of Huckabee’s evangelicalism is strained as well. Given that these two gentlemen have a high probability of moving from winners to nothing more than pieces of trivia within months means that it is rather early to proclaim that the revolution has come.

Others have been likewise a bit over the top. For example, Andrew Sullivan’s post on the results is entitled “The Mold is Smashed” wherein he states “the hope they [Obama and Huckabee] have unleashed is palpable.” It just seems that we need to move along a bit before anyone can be said to have unleashed much of anything. The theme continues with a Peggy Noonan piece entitled “Out With the Old, In With the New: Obama and Huckabee rise; Mrs. Clinton falls,” a post by Chris Bowerrs at Open Left called “A New Generation Takes Charge of the Democratic Party,” and a NY Post headline that declares “Clintons no Longer the Life of Party.” While I agree that it is very possible that Obama will eventually get the nomination, could we actually look at the results and then place then in the broader context of the process before making dramatic claims? Clinton hardly suffered a devastating blow last night.

Honestly, much of these assessments appear to me to be reactions based more on quick deadlines and influenced by the drama of media coverage last night rather than a calm evaluation of the actual facts.

Further, we need to keep perspective on what the Iowa Caucuses really are. Indeed, as the NYT Editorial Board rightly stated yesterday: “Democracy it ain’t“:

The next president will serve 300 million Americans. The process of selecting the president, however, starts off in a state of 3 million, in which fewer than 300,000 people are expected to caucus. Because the media attention on Iowa is so intense — and the outcome is expected to have a strong effect on states that follow — a swing in 1,000 votes here could have a dramatic impact on who is elected president. That is too much power to give to such a small group of voters.

Indeed. And likewise this is too small a number of persons to use as the basis for declaring much of anything about the significance of who won and who lost.

Along the lines of putting Iowa itself into perspective, Kim Zigfeld writing at Publius Pundit rightly notes:

The Iowa Caucus failed to correctly predict the eventual candidates in three of the last seven presidential elections: 1992 (it said Bush-Harkin, actually Bush-Clinton), 1988 (it said Dole-Gephardt, actually Bush-Dukakis) and 1980 (it said Bush-Carter, actually Reagan-Carter). That’s a failure rate of nearly 43%.

So, while the results from last night were interesting, it is quite premature to be drawing dramatic conclusions from them.

For another overview of the significance of last night (with a good bit of news and blog linkage) see James Joyner.

  1. A fact I am not convinced of. While he may have a sense of humor and may be playing down Culture War stuff, he still comes across as a Baptist preacher enough of the time to make me wonder how “different” he really is. And, I suspect I know my Southern Baptist preachers a bit better than does Brooks []
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4 Responses to “Evaluating Iowa”

  1. Independent Liberal » Call It A Parade Says:

    [...] I hope some will forgive me this moment of hyperbole, as I don’t normally gush over candidates like this.  I’m also not one for endorsements, since it can stymie your ability to objectively report on politics with complete credibility (see Hugh Hewitt).  Perhaps it should go without saying, but these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of PoliGazette or RCP.  However, in my own humble little opinion, this is a rather significant day for Liberalism.  We mustn’t diminish today what may well become a footnote in American history.  Ronald Reagan called it the “time for choosing” on behalf of Barry Goldwater, but more importantly, on behalf of a new direction for his party.  Well, another choice has been offered, and all of the comfortable options were tossed aside in one evening.  The divisive populism of Edwards and the assumptive electability of the Clinton dynasty were rejected.    [...]

  2. Carrington Ward Says:

    Iowa wasn’t all that significant for Howard Dean either. At least for the few weeks between his loss in Iowa and his concession.

    On the Democratic side, Iowa would not be all that significant if the “front runner” hadn’t run on being a “front runner.”

    It’s all too easy to see “Iowa isn’t all that significant” as more talking points from the (ex) front-runner.

  3. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Except it was no surprise, despite the way it is being covered, that Clinton lost Iowa.

    The bottom line is that regardless of what happened on Thursday, Iowa’s significance is substantially over-rated.

    Of course, the main point of my post is that many are reading the results in Iowa as some sort of watershed, and it is clearly too early to make the case that it was in any way a transformative event.

  4. PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Some Concord Grape Jelly for Your Toast? (It’s the Pre-NH ToM) Says:

    [...] Gazing into the Polished Stainless Steel of the Toaster. Much was made of the Iowa results, yet I continue to argue that only so much can be derived from those results. For example, while it is possible that Obama can go into New Hampshire and take a clear lead (not that would end the race). However, it is also quite likely that Clinton will win and we will find ourselves without a clear front-runner. Edwards, I think, missed his chance to make it a three-way race by failing to win in Iowa. Indeed, barring an unlikely surge in NH, he’s done and isn’t veepable1 [...]

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