FLASHBACK: The Media’s Skewed Coverage of Past Iowa Caucuses

January 14th, 2024 10:18 AM

With Iowa Republicans voting tomorrow in the kick-off contest of the 2024 presidential cycle (Iowa Democrats are mailing in their ballots, with results to be announced on March 5), a look back shows the national media have always twisted their caucus coverage to fit their liberal political narrative.

Thus, religious conservatives like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz have been mocked by the media elites as “creepy” “bigots,” as reporters declare that embracing a conservative agenda would lead to disaster for Republicans in November. Yet the media always seem to be thrilled by their Democratic choices, spinning radicals as “moderates.”

And for all of the media hype leading up to Iowa, the media have also been let down by weirdly inconclusive caucus results several times in the past few years — most spectacularly in 2020, when Democrats had no caucus results at all for nearly 24 hours.

From the NewsBusters archives, here’s a sampling of how the liberal media have spun the most recent Iowa caucuses:

■ 2008: While both parties held caucuses in 2008, liberal journalists were clearly most excited by Barack Obama’s first-place showing over John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in the January 3 Democratic caucuses; Mike Huckabee’s victory over Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain in Republican contest was treated as a second-tier story.

“If he [Obama] wins tonight, that’s the shot heard ’round the world. This is Lexington and Concord with the target being not King George but President George this time,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews enthused that night, adding: “I’ll bet there’s not a Peace Corps volunteer in the country who served in the Peace Corps in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or recently that won’t vote for this guy.” Presumably including himself: Matthews was in the Peace Corps from 1968 to 1970.

“The votes have been cast and history has been made,” CBS’s Harry Smith cheered the next morning on The Early Show. “Democratic voters in Iowa give African American Senator Barack Obama a giant victory.”

“It’s one of the most exciting nights that I can ever remember,” his colleague Bob Schieffer quickly echoed.

“There is no getting around it, this man who emerged triumphant from the Iowa caucuses is something unusual in American politics,” Michael Powell wrote in the January 5 New York Times.

Iowa Republicans gave Huckabee as big a win (34 percent of the vote, 9 points ahead of Romney) as Iowa Democrats gave Obama (38% of the vote, 8 points ahead of Edwards), but the media painted that as a debacle for the GOP. The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser mocked Huckabee as unelectable. “Are we going to elect a president who dismisses Darwin? Are we going to elect a Baptist minister? I doubt it.”

■ 2012: With Obama facing no opposition from Democrats for re-election, the only contest was among Republicans. The January 3 race was extremely tight, with the Iowa GOP initially declaring Mitt Romney the winner by just eight votes; sixteen days later, on January 19, Iowa Republicans announced Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes.

Deprived of unambiguous results to chew over on caucus night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews blathered that today’s GOP was comprised of the worst elements of the old Democratic coalition: “The Republican Party has, unfortunately for it, built itself over the droppings of the Democratic Party for about 50 years.... The neo-cons have closed down their mind just like the segregationists closed down their mind about civil rights and the Moral Majority closed down their minds about social issues. The party is dying of this intake, effluent from the Democratic Party.”

Knowing only that Santorum had at least a near-win, the media quickly began mocking the former Pennsylvania Senator’s Christian faith. “I LOVE it that he is now considered a front-runner,” the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten hooted in an online chat. “He is a little boy. He LOOKS and SOUNDS like a little boy. I think he may not be a hypocrite, though. He announces that he is a bigot, and that’s just the way it is.”

MSNBC contributor and New York Magazine writer John Heilemann took his own jab at Santorum on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show: “The night started with Rick Santorum in kind of an uncomfortable position for him, sort of like a nightmare scenario, right? He found himself in a three way with two other men.”

Whether the true winner was Romney or Santorum, the media insisted that Republican extremism would help re-elect Obama. The morning after the caucuses, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos told Romney he risked becoming unelectable if he wooed conservatives: “As you try to appeal to these Republican voters looking for a true conservative, are you worried at all, as you try to reassure them, that you might then turn off those moderates and independent voters you’ll need in a general election...?”

That same day, CNN’s John King told Santorum that his “extreme” conservative platform would make him unelectable, too: “A lot of Democrats were celebrating, if you will, Senator Santorum, last night, saying, in their view, you’re on the extreme right on many of these social issues and they think, for them, it’s a good thing that these issues will be front and center.”

■ 2016: As in 2008, while both parties had vigorous contests, the media’s headlines after Iowa were about the Democratic showdown, this time between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As happened with the 2012 Republicans, the caucus night returns showed a virtual tie between the two. Iowa’s Democratic Party reported Clinton had a slight lead in “state delegate equivalents,” but there was no record of whether she had won a plurality of actual votes from Iowans.

So the next morning on NBC’s Today, a worried Matt Lauer claimed Hillary was “technically” the winner, but “this had to be a near-death experience for the once-presumptive nominee.” Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd agreed: “A win is a win. It would have been a disaster if she would have lost.”

With Clinton struggling, her media allies worked to boost her image. During caucus night coverage on February 1, CNN’s Van Jones gushed that during “the past two to three weeks, Hillary Clinton has blossomed into the kind of candidate that you dream about.”

The day after the caucuses, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews reinforced her campaign talking points as he praised Hillary as the last firewall blocking a socialist takeover of the Democratic Party: “The only person between a confirmed socialist, who’s calling for political revolution in this country, winning the nomination of the Democratic Party — which has always been more moderate than that — is you.”

But there were Bernie Bros in the media, too. ABC’s David Wright, for one, gushed on the February 3 Nightline: “Bernie Sanders’ campaign is on fire right now....Integrity and authenticity are words his supporters use....Bernie Sanders has given them a voice.”

As for the Republicans, the media’s first reaction was to disparage Iowa winner Ted Cruz as too extreme and too unlikeable. “The good news coming out of Iowa is that he [Ted Cruz] gets a whole load of media attention,” the BBC’s Katty Kay snickered on PBS’s Charlie Rose on caucus night. “The bad news coming out of Iowa is that he gets a whole lot of media attention.”

Writing at Salon.com, Amanda Marcotte slammed Cruz’s backers as creepy: “[F]or the religious right, especially the most skin-crawlingly creepy folks in the religious right, Cruz’s edging Donald Trump...represents a huge victory.”

Even MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, who would later distinguish herself as one of the most unhinged anti-Trump voices on television, announced on caucus day that Donald Trump was preferable to the conservative Texas Senator: “I am an establishment Republican....What the establishment has sort of concluded, if I may deign to speak for the establishment tonight, is that they could live with a President Trump or nominee Trump a lot easier than a nominee in Ted Cruz.”

■ 2020: Last time around, the only contest was among Democrats hoping to challenge incumbent President Trump, but as in 2012 (among Republicans) and 2016 (among Democrats), the results were once again inconclusive: an essential tie, with the added twist that the final tally was delayed for days due to the failure of an app used by Iowa Democrats.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed that the Democratic dysfunction was playing into Trump’s hands: “The guy in the White House is chuckling all night here, showing the Democrats can’t even get a three car funeral organized....This has not been a success.”

The next day on CBS This Morning, chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett mocked that “this morning, the two chief political exports of Iowa are uncertainty and embarrassment.” CBS co-host Tony Dokoupil agreed: “Not a good look for Iowa, not a good look for the Democrats.”

Over on NBC’s Today, correspondent Cynthia McFadden swatted down conspiracy theories of a hack: “The headline is it wasn’t the Russians in this case. It appears to be the Democrats who did it to themselves.”

NewsBusters’ video editor Bill D’Agostino assembled some clips showing the media’s flummoxed and frustrated response to the 2020 Iowa debacle. It’s still fun to watch:



Without official results, journalists filled the airwaves with other boneheaded observations. “The Iowa caucus is essentially the perfect example of systemic racism,” Zerlina Maxwell huffed the next day on MSNBC. “91% of the voters in Iowa are white. The reason you see a drop in turnout — I’m just speculating here — it could be perhaps that white children are not in the cages. So when you’re talking about the tangible pain that black and brown people are feeling, they feel a sense of urgency because their kids are being put in cages, right? So if you have 91% white electorate, that sense of urgency may not be reflected in the turnout numbers.”

By Tuesday evening, nearly 24 hours after the votes were cast, the first partial results showed Pete Buttigieg with a slight lead over Bernie Sanders, with former Vice President Joe Biden an embarrassing fourth. (Just weeks earlier, New York Times columnist David Brooks had confidently predicted “Biden will win Iowa, he’ll come in second in New Hampshire, he will easily win Nevada, he will dominate in South Carolina.” Oops.)

Trying to dress up the Democrats’ radicalism as sensible centrism, the New York Times tagged Buttigieg as “a moderate millennial,” while NBC’s Chuck Todd proclaimed that “Bernie Sanders won the progressive primary there in Iowa, and Pete Buttigieg won the moderate one.”

Next week: The Media’s Skewed Coverage of Past New Hampshire Primaries

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.