Campaign Crawlers

Able Was I Ere I Saw Iowa

How the primaries rewrite history.

By 1.21.04

Send to Kindle

Naw. That doesn't make a palindrome, but it makes as much sense as Napoleon reflecting on a vacation on Elba. Or Howard Dean wondering why the wheels came off. The casuistry necessary to wring logical prophecy out of either Iowa or New Hampshire is not yet known to man. First off. Each of these early events is subject to interpretation by media. How many here think Jimmy Carter won the 1976 Iowa Caucuses? Raise your right hand. Okay, your left if you insist. Now, how many here think Eugene McCarthy won the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary? My, a lot of hands up there.

Carter was beaten in Iowa in 1976 by ten points by "uncommitted." Of the named candidates Carter did finish first, with a delegate strength of some 27 percent. Morris Udall, considered a favorite by many, trailed with 6 percent, to be vanquished by Carter later in New Hampshire.

In 1968 Lyndon Johnson did not even go to New Hampshire to campaign, but he won the primary over Eugene McCarthy by a margin of 8 percent of the vote. By then, however, the media had fallen so in love with Sen. McCarthy that it decided he had "won," and the word was usually but not always encased in quotes. He had "won" because, after all, Johnson was a sitting President and for an insurgent to come that close to an incumbent, well it was just the same as winning and, well, we really like Gene. Like so much that the mythology of media gradually overtook fact. So much so that this week there was at least one crawl across the bottom of a major network screen informing viewers that McCarthy had won the 1968 primary in New Hampshire.

In watching television there is one bifurcate truth to remember. Television producers and performers need and want to know two things about a subject, be it a sit-com or a presidential election contest: How long is it, and how does it end? This need is so urgent that long ago the pollsters fell to collaring voters as they left election precincts, quizzing them about their vote, churning the material into a mathematical mixmaster, and coming up with an election result before the polls had closed! In Iowa this week, they did themselves one better: one group collared participants going into the caucus sites in order to extract a pre-caucus result. "Entry polling" they called it.

For a variety of reasons, exit polling was unreliable in the 2000 general election and major networks floundered. By that time the natural competitive natures of the major broadcast networks had been subdued by this overweening need to know and they were getting their information from a super agency they themselves helped create and hence one fail, all fail.

But we digress. If you should be dragooned into a watering place this weekend, before making good your escape, ask your fellow prisoners, "Who won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire in 1968?" Have a trustee hold the money. Be prepared to run.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.