How media called the Iowa caucuses
Following the logistical disaster that was election night of the Iowa caucuses, 62 percent of the results finally came in the following day at 4:15 p.m. The most common narrative to emerge was that Pete Buttigieg was leading in Iowa. This was based on a 1.8 percent lead in state delegate equivalents (SDEs), which serve as proxies for pledged delegates that go to the Democratic National Committee. Because each caucus precinct is allocated a set number of SDEs, there can be an imbalance between the number of votes a candidate receives and their SDE count.
When these initial results were released, Bernie Sanders led Pete Buttigieg in the popular vote in the first round and after voters realigned to viable candidates. However, news outlets overwhelmingly reported Buttigieg as the victor of Iowa. In their primary forecast model, FiveThirtyEight initially gave Buttigieg 85 percent of the credit for winning Iowa because of this.
By that Friday, results had been released for every caucus site, still placing Sanders ahead of Buttigieg in both vote counts and narrowing Buttigieg’s state delegate lead to less than 0.1 percent. What’s more, irregularities with precinct tallies, led DNC chair Tom Perez to call for a complete recanvass of the caucus results and the Associated Press announcing that it would not declare a winner.
But the narrative had been set. Buttigieg won and would reap the fruits of being first in the most influential state in the primaries. Tracking polls for New Hampshire from Suffolk University and Emerson College had him gaining 10 and 12 points respectively over three days since the caucuses. FiveThirtyEight’s polling model for the state has him up from 13.1 percent on Monday to 18.9 percent on Friday. That’s not to say a recanvass would show that Buttigieg wasn’t the winner, but news media set the narrative that he won despite not knowing the final results and heavily emphasizing the least democratic metric of the Iowa Democratic Caucuses.
The behavior that news outlets are showing isn’t the product of individual journalists’ choices, but rather, it is a result of how corporate media as an institution is structured. Coverage of the Iowa results is just representative of an ongoing pattern that they’ve shown throughout the Democratic primaries. While he was running, Cory Booker often received one of the highest shares of media coverage despite hovering between one and three percent in support throughout his run. In the weeks following the Dec. debate, election pundits often talked of a “Klobucharge"; post-New Year’s polling revealed this had never materialized.
The night before the Jan. Democratic Debate, CNN published a story on a private meeting between Warren and Sanders in 2018 in which Sanders allegedly told Warren he thought a woman couldn’t win. A debate moderator from CNN asked Sanders “why he said that”. After denying that he did, the moderator followed up by asking Warren what she thought when Sanders told her “a woman could not win the election”. During that same debate, another moderator asked Sanders about his vote against the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. She then asked Warren, who voted for the deal, “why was Senator Sanders wrong?”. Former Senate and Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s political future lived and died by the news media’s desire to give him oxygen. Consistently, outlets have been motivated to construct attention-grabbing narratives full of twists and plot development that will keep audiences “informed”.
The institutional framework of media to react immediately, sensationalize, and endlessly construct narratives wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, there were three television networks for Americans to get their news from, while today’s highly competitive media market has an overwhelming number of choices. Each kept regular schedules with one hour of news reporting each night, rather than the 24/7 news cycle with a toddler’s attention span. Outlets largely veered away from alienating any demographics, rather than sensationalizing news to hold the attention of specific groups.
In his book Why We’re Polarized, Vox Editor-In-Chief Ezra Klein writes, “the news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover — decide, that is, what is newsworthy.” The chaos and confusion that people experienced on the first election in the Democratic primary were worth reporting on. It would be good for people to understand what happened to make light of it. But not waiting longer to cover the results once we knew their accuracy and completeness signifies a failure in the media institution. Media outlets should have waited to make the results the main part of their stories, or at least severely hedged their reporting, but our news outlets are incentivized to get us “breaking news” fast.
It’s woefully easy to criticize news media, but solutions to bad reporting won’t come from finger-wagging and Twitter ratios. We need to reform the institution of media itself, not turn to nihilistic hatred of the press as though what we have now is inevitable. This doesn’t mean going back to the way things were before cable news and social media; that is, having three networks to inform Americans presented its own issues.
There is always the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize our institutions. With media in arguably the most important position to shape our elections, while simultaneously facing growing public distrust and loss of faith, we might be reaching a critical tipping point for realizing those reforms.