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Hassett: The Importance of Iowa

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As the 2016 presidential pre-campaign (the wink-wink-nudge-nudge “I’ve given thought to running in the next election”) rolls along, a lot of interesting attitudes have been revealed.

I previously wrote about the Iowa Freedom Summit and how it has brought certain traits in the candidates who attended to the forefront. But it’s necessary to keep these traits in context. Specifically, that context is how Iowans and their (perceived) electoral preferences have shaped the resulting rhetoric that we get.

First things first, you may be asking yourself: just why exactly is Iowa a big deal? Has this guy been eating too much corn?

The simplest answer is that Iowa’s presidential caucuses are the first in the nation for each election cycle, and they have been since 1972. Iowa is flyover country, except for the caucus every fourth year. At that moment, national media descend upon the state like buzzards, hoping to “gauge the political temperature” or something like that. Caucuses provide the first official reading. Polls may show peoples’ opinions, but they don’t show which people vote.

That’s not to disregard the prominence of Iowa’s polls, like the Ames Straw Poll. For better or worse, the straw poll comes with an ensuing media circus, largely because of its unexpected results. Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann was catapulted to the forefront of political discussion when she won the poll in 2011, even though she wasn’t able to hold onto that momentum for very long. Think about how crazy things would have gotten if Ron Paul, who finished a narrow 2nd, had taken the crown.

Regardless, all of this is a long-winded way to say that Iowa holds a special place in candidates’ hearts. Coming to the state is a way to build buzz. That used to be some sort of intangible factor, but luckily we can now measure it via Twitter.

A quick note on this measurement. Using QuickCount, one can perform a search for the candidate’s name, along with “Iowa,” or, say, “New Hampshire” or “South Carolina,” where other early primary votes are performed. The tool will gather all the tweets that have this combination and display them.

According to an analysis of this data performed by a class of political science students here at the UI (full disclosure, I’m one of them): Iowa blows everyone else out of the water in terms of the number of tweets. In January, Jeb Bush + Iowa garnered 3,752 tweets. For New Hampshire, that combination was 206.

This holds especially true for more conservative candidates, which are perceived to have a greater chance in Iowa. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Iowa were mentioned in 9,612 tweets in February after he came to speak. Compare that with 947 for New Hampshire and 131 for South Carolina.

Whether it’s the caucus, the straw poll, or just good old-fashioned buzz, these candidates come to Iowa because the state is an indicator of what to expect. That’s not to say we’re particularly accurate at predicting who gets the nomination, but the discussions and the rhetoric that candidates bring here set the agenda for the coming campaign.

That’s the Importance of Iowa™.

(It’s not really trademarked, but it looks good, doesn’t it?)