Somewhere behind all the bloviation and declarations of historical significance last night, there was an actual vote going on, and the beauty of the Iowa caucuses was that, unlike your typical primary, you could actually watch them on TV. C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 carried a live video feed from a Democratic and Republican caucus, though because of the horse-trading involved in the Democratic vote it was by far the one more worth watching. At precinct 53 in Des Moines, Jim Sutton kicked off the proceedings by asking a room of caucus-goers: “Are you ready to cha-cha?”
And cha-cha they did, but kindly and delicately, breaking up into affiliation groups after the preliminaries, then gathering in little gaggles to convince the members of smaller groups to make a second choice. The proceedings were quaintly polite: “I should have brought a treat,” one Richardson supporter said, chatting up a Dodd guy about her own candidate. It was so sweet! It was so touching! Here were people on TV talking about Richardson and Dodd as though they were honest to God candidates with positions worth hearing out, and no one laughed at them!
The highly produced cable-news coverage of the caucuses, on the other hand, was as slick and soundbitten as the actual caucus was homely and deliberate. But in a way it was a similar social phenomenon: groups of political junkies getting together, engaged in discussion, but in this case the aim was to goad one another into ever more grand statements and flights of rhetorical fancy. It was a little like one of those rap slams from the movie 8 Mile, except for dorks.
“A man of the Third World!” Chris Matthews of MSNBC kept calling Barack Obama, as though he were the president of Kenya rather than the son of a guy from Kenya. On CNN, Jack Cafferty settled for that old standby, “Articulate.” (To his credit, he eschewed “clean” and “has a great sense of rhythm.”) By 9 p.m., the races were called in both parties; by 9:30 p.m., pundits across the cable dial were thoroughly into overexcitement mode.
While inserting all the necessary caveats, they had all but declared a general election between Obama and Mike Huckabee, and who can blame them? Momentum doesn’t stop at the TV green-room door, and you could feel the excitement of the night’s results surging through the broadcast studios like a curtain of lava. The media is biased–biased toward a great story–and the battle of two previous unknowns with funny last names was the biggest imaginable outcome. (Is anyone in the Washington press corps truly jazzed about covering Clinton vs. McCain, or Romney vs. anyone?) It was the passing of a generational torch (Howard Fineman)! No, it was a repudiation of professional politicians (Matthews again)! No, it proved the death of the expensive 30-second TV ad (admittedly biased Huckabee adviser Ed Rollins)!
Or it was the result, widely predicted in the day’s earlier polls, of an important but early event in a campaign with a number of them left. But when in doubt, you go with the bigger headline. Thankfully for the political media, Iowa provided them with the biggest possible, at least until the next news cycle.