Why the Iowa Caucuses Affect the Larger Presidential Race So Much

It's pretty weird: Essentially, the Iowa caucuses are important because the media, the candidates, and the political world more broadly all treat their results as greatly important in determining who can win. And this plays out in several interacting ways. Full story: http://bit.ly/1OS2A1S
  1. The media hypes up the Iowa results, branding candidates as winners and losers based on how they performed there. So the winners get tons of excited coverage, but the losers become afterthoughts. And, particularly in multi-candidate fields, winning media coverage is hugely important.
  2. Donors and activists, too, look at the Iowa results to judge whether the candidates they’re supporting are still viable. A poor Iowa performance will likely mean fewer campaign donations and endorsements, which make it more difficult for a candidate to stay in the race.
  3. Voters in other states — especially those trying to make sense of complex, multi-candidate fields — can take the Iowa results (and the media coverage of those results) as cues about which contenders can actually win.
    "There’s no better evidence that you can win than having won," says longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Accordingly, poll results in other states can change incredibly quickly after the Iowa results sink in. "Up until the caucus, across the country people are only paying attention on the margins," says John Norris, who's organized for several Democratic candidates.
  4. The candidates naturally take this into account, and many of them invest huge amounts of time and money to try to do well in Iowa. And when the results come in, candidates who do poorly often take the hint and quit (spurred by donors who won't fund their campaigns, media outlets who won't cover them, and polls showing they’re performing poorly).
    This shrinking of the field is a process known as winnowing.
  5. And all of these amplify each other: This behavior from candidates further assures the media that the caucus results are really important, which justifies even more coverage of Iowa.
    "It’s a symbiotic relationship," says Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. "So long as the candidates think the caucuses are important, the press will think the caucuses are important. And vice versa."
  6. All of these dynamics also apply to New Hampshire (and, to a decreasing degree, to other states as the process continues).
    The media, the candidates, political elites, and to a certain extent voters elsewhere all act on the signals they believe Iowa and New Hampshire are sending them. And that's how these early state contests dramatically reshape the nomination landscape long before the vast majority of the American people get to weigh in.
  7. The Iowa caucuses begin tonight at 7 pm Central time. Want to learn more? You can find all of our coverage here: http://bit.ly/1NMWYnP