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The Media Verdict on the Iowa Caucuses is Loud and Clear

As the results from Iowa rolled in Jan. 3, the cable analysts grew increasingly unequivocal and bold in their analysis.

“The lead here is Obama wins,” declared MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “The second lead is Hillary loses.”

Over on the Fox News Channel, Des Moines Register political writer David Yepsen found the state’s voters to have sent an equally loud message, but he couched it in the context of theme. “Grassroots Americans in both political parties,” the soft-spoken Yepsen asserted, “are rendering some very populist verdicts.”

After a year of relentless coverage of the earliest-starting presidential race in American history, how did the news media respond to the phenomenon of actual voting in Iowa? What was the new media narrative?

A PEJ examination of 92 newspaper headlines, and the 30 top Google headlines online as well as the six cable and broadcast networks and a major political web portal found an unusually unequivocal message—though whether that narrative survives the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary is another matter.

  • With less than usual hedging, by and large, journalists treated the nine- and eight-point wins by Huckabee and Obama respectively as clear mandates with significant implications for the rest of the campaign. As commentator and newly minted New York Times columnist William Kristol said on the Fox News Channel on caucus night: “These are two very big results.”
  • The main thematic narrative in the initial burst of coverage revolved around two ideas—change and surprise. About 20% of the newspaper headlines focused on those as a key element, but it was more common in the mix of television coverage. One glaring example was the Jan. 4 edition of NBC’s Today show. Co-host Meredith Vieira declared that “Iowa’s voters came out in record numbers last night and they spoke loud and clear. They want change in Washington.” That was quickly followed by Tim Russert’s observation that what happened in Iowa “is a tremor which could become an earthquake.” In short, there was no diminishing of the significance of the victories, even for Huckabee, a candidate who only days earlier was being scoffed at by the media for making amateur mistakes and discounted for lacking funding and organization nationally.
  • The press was slightly more circumspect about the implications for the losers. The damage to Romney tended to be linked to his fate in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. As for Clinton, some of the media commentary suggested that it now was up to her to retool the message. Calls of her demise, however, were scarce—though not entirely absent.
  • With unexpectedly clear winners, much of the media stuck to the roll call of results. That was particularly prevalent on the front pages of the Jan. 4 daily newspapers where the overwhelming majority of headlines focused primarily on the victors. “Iowa’s Big Winners: Obama, Huckabee” declared the The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman. About a quarter of the headlines examined also stressed the travails of the losers such as this one in The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa California—“It’s Obama, Huckabee: Stunning Setbacks for Clinton, Romney Campaigns. Biden, Dodd Drop Out.”

In order to get a quick snapshot of that first wave of media interpretation (or “spin”) following the caucus results, PEJ monitored election night coverage on the three cable news networks, CNN, the Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. The following morning, on Jan. 4, PEJ looked at coverage on the three cable network morning shows as well as the three broadcast network morning shows—NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS’s Early Show.

(By the morning of Jan. 4, the election results were battling for time with footage of Britney Spears being loaded into an ambulance). PEJ also included the headlines and sub headlines of U.S. daily papers posted on the Newseum Web site on Jan. 4. In addition, it looked at headlines posted on Google News on the morning of Jan. 4 and 17 stories posted on the Real Clear Politics site that same morning.

Certainly, the Iowa caucuses are uniquely positioned as a media event. As the first exercise in voting in a year-old campaign, there is plenty of pent-up anticipation waiting to be unleashed on the part of political journalists. And with the busy part of the caucus and primary calendar still weeks away, the Iowa results get a long look under a powerful lens. Even so, the decisiveness of the media commentary coming out of Iowa was striking.

On Jan. 4, MSNBC’s morning man Joe Scarborough declared flatly that the results were “devastating for the Clinton campaign.” On the Fox News Channel, Kristol not only called the night “a very disappointing result for Romney,” but ventured that it was now “more likely than not” that Obama would be the Democratic nominee.

Some of that can likely be chalked to cable’s demands for instant and confident punditry. But some of that same certainty was evident in the newspapers. In a column on the Wall Street Journal site, Peggy Noonan had one basic response to the Obama victory over Clinton: It was “huge.”

The themes of change and surprise were all over the coverage. “Iowans Embrace Mavericks,” read the Omaha World-Herald headline while the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal said simply: “A Vote for Change: Huckabee, Obama win.”

[Huckabee and Obama]

On Good Morning America, the results were described as “a seismic shock out of Iowa,” with co-host Diane Sawyer wondering how long it will “take candidates to climb on the supersonic demand for change in America.”

ABC was not the only one to think in tectonic terms. The headline atop David Brooks’ Jan. 4 New York Times column—“The Two Earthquakes”—also seized on the theme of a dramatic shifting of political fault lines.

And while journalists were quick to anoint Obama and Huckabee as the big winners, many of them also recast the Romney and Clinton campaign in more dire terms.

“Romney is in trouble,” declared anchor Harry Smith on CBS’s Early Show. “A crushing loss in Iowa and behind now in New Hampshire.” The headline in the Union Leader in Manchester New Hampshire, noted that after the Iowa results, John McCain, Clinton and Romney would “fight for their political lives in New Hampshire on Tuesday.” Describing the Democrats’ results, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline stated that the “Illinois Senator breaks from pack, leaving Clinton in risky spot.”

On a day when no one was shy about picking winners, and to some lesser extent losers, the headline with perhaps the most direct contrast between victor and vanquished was in the Boston Herald, a former hometown paper of ex-Massachusetts Governor Romney.

Above a large head shot of Huckabee that accentuated his resemblance to the bumbling Marine sitcom character, Gomer Pyle, the tabloid headline read: “SHAZAM! ‘Gomer’ Huckabee whips Slick Mitt.” It was a baby boomer pop culture reference that reinforced the notion that even when people are casting votes in Iowa, in Boston, all politics is local.

Mark Jurkowitz and Dana Page for PEJ

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