Covering presidential politics used to be fun.
You’d get on a plane and fly to Iowa. You’d drive to a restaurant and order a 5-inch-thick steak, a baked potato and a quart of beer, and the bill would come to $3. And that was breakfast.
You’d get back in your rental car and drive for five minutes, and there’d be a guy on a tractor wearing a seed company cap, and you’d ask him whether he was an average American.
“‘Course I am,” he’d say. “I’m up on a tractor and wearing a seed cap, aren’t I?”
So who do you want for president? you’d ask.
And the guy would tell you. Just like that. Because he was an average American. And his wife and 2.4 kids were average Americans. And his tractor was an average tractor, and his seed cap was an average seed cap.
You didn’t need any deep data or cross tabs or spin to write your story about how average Americans felt.
You’d drive to the town square and interview the people sitting on benches and then go to the local diner and talk to the people there.
Then you would drive to your hotel and type up your story on your portable and fax it to your newsroom and then go to the hotel bar and drink lunch.
Sometimes you and a few other reporters would lure an actual candidate to dinner and he’d show up without his imperial guard, allowing you to talk to him as if he was a real human being, which he sometimes was.
And the next day, you would join a giant conga line of rental cars blasting through the corn and soybean fields, all trying to follow one candidate in the hope that he would slip up and commit news.
That was covering presidential politics in Iowa.
Today? Today it’s demographics and cross tabs and margins of error. Today you interview a guy on a tractor and, at the end of the interview, he’ll say, “Tell me about your binomial proportion confidence interval.”
And Iowa? Well, Iowa is nervous. Anxious. Jumpy. We live in a disposable society, and the political pooh-bahs in Iowa are worried that the press is going to dispose of Iowa.
It all began with a Politico piece last week with the headline “Is Iowa Over? The caucus state fears it won’t be a kingmaker in 2016.”
It was written by an Iowa TV guy and author, and it spoke of “angst” in Iowa and “a palpable anxiety in political circles” and “rumblings that Iowa’s king-making days might be over” and the rest of the country “will pay less heed this cycle.”
This was followed two days later by an article in The Des Moines Register headlined “Some see Iowa GOP’s power waning in presidential race.” It said GOP leaders are fearful that the state “is losing some of its cachet.”
I know what some of you are thinking. You are thinking, “What cachet?” and “What king-making powers?” and “Where is Iowa?”
Iowans used to have a rueful sense of humor about themselves. Gift shops in Iowa would sell T-shirts that said, “Iowa: The Great Potato-Corn-Tire State,” making fun of how people confused Iowa with Idaho and Ohio. (They are three different states. Really. You can Google it.)
Iowans enjoy their status as the first Americans to vote in a presidential contest, even if very few of them bother to do so. (The Republican turnout in 2012 was 5.4 percent of eligible voters.)
And the caucuses rarely make kings. Only Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have won contested seats in the Iowa caucuses and then gone on to win the presidency.
Iowa is not a microcosm of America. It is small (less than 1 percent of the U.S. population) and 92.5 percent white. Every few years, articulate arguments are made for starting the presidential selection process in a larger and more diverse state, such as California, Illinois or Missouri.
But that won’t happen. Tradition is too powerful. And reporters still enjoy Iowa. People are friendly. They will open their doors to you — and will often invite you in for dinner. Sometimes they enjoy playing the yokel for East Coast reporters who have never done anything in the Midwest except fly over it. But that’s just friendly joshing.
Yes, things have changed; things always do. But reporters want something more than polls. They want actual people casting actual votes, and Iowa provides that.
So relax, Iowans. The caucuses are not in danger. If you hold them, we will come.