The Anti-Spin Spin on Iowa

When Al Gore ran for president in 1988, he derided the Iowa caucuses as "madness." A small state with nonsecret voting and a turnout of under 10 percent had the ability to create the appearance of inevitability in the race for United States president.

Back then, he spoke frankly. But after the event in 2000, Al Gore thanked Iowa for "the biggest victory of the contested caucuses." And George W. Bush, the GOP winner, proclaimed a "record-shattering victory." Both statements are true but miss the mark.

In Iowa, the two men did have the appeal, organization, and money to carry the day. And now they will use that front-runner status to win primaries.

It was Jimmy Carter who first turned Iowa into a campaign bellwether back in 1976 by his "surprise" win - with just 14,000 votes. But ever since then, it's been difficult to seriously use Iowa as a benchmark.

Mr. Carter has been the only Iowa winner to become president. That fact alone forces today's candidates to resort to even more media spin than usual to weave appearances out of shaky reality.

And since 1976, the media has descended in droves on Iowa, raising the caucuses far beyond their worth. The media and pundits, of course, whose numbers in Iowa were about 1 percent of total voters, resort to a relative analysis by measuring results against "expectations" and polls.

Candidates play off that strategy by trying to lower expectations in a contest of contrivance more critical than the vote itself.

Bill Bradley, for instance, tried to convince the media that his Iowa showing needed to match Sen. Edward Kennedy's 31 percent performance against President Carter in 1980. By that measure, he "won" the Jan. 24 contest. On the GOP side, Steve Forbes gained headlines after beating the polls by 10 percent and tripling his percentage from 1996. John McCain skipped Iowa, perhaps judging it as a passing illusion, while still seeing New Hampshire as a contest against expectations: "We can surprise them all - the inside-the-Beltway gasbags who said we didn't have a chance."

So Iowa may be what historian Daniel J. Boorstin has called a "pseudo-event" - where publicity and celebrity can make someone "known for his well-knownness."

We hope voters in coming primaries will see through the packaging and staging that Iowa represents.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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