Are you interested in how your presidential primary sausage comes to be encased for your consumption? Our own Mark Blumenthal passes along this Feb. 3 post from Business Insider, where John Ellis (yes, THAT John Ellis, but work with me here), helpfully explains how the process drives forward from the pre-Iowa caucus run-up through to the general election campaign:
To understand how the presidential primary process actually works, you have to understand the major media budgets for covering the 2012 campaign.
There are four parts to those budgets:
(1) pre-primary coverage,
(2) caucus and primary coverage,
(3) convention coverage, and
(4) general election and debate coverage.
What happened in the past and what will happen again in 2012 is that the media (broadly speaking) blow through their pre-primary budgets quickly, overspend on early caucus and primary coverage, and then cut back sharply to conserve funds for convention and general election coverage.
Per Ellis, this is why "the early state caucuses and primaries are disproportionately important to determining the eventual nominee." If you've ever kvetched about the way your state's late primary ends up being largely irrelevant year in and year out, and have suspected that the media had a large hand in that, congratulations! You were right!
Of course, this year, there won't be much of a Democratic primary season to cover. This means that there will be more money laying around to cover the GOP process more deeply, right?
[T]here won't be. Major news outlets are under relentless pressure to cut costs. Cutting the costs of covering the GOP primary race will offer a target-rich environment.
What this all means is that 10 or 12 or 14 men and women will be competing for the support of less than a million voters in four states. If they have a lot of money, they can focus that money on the first two states (Iowa and New Hampshire) and gamble that strong showings there will catapult them through the remainder of the primary calendar.
From there, Ellis lays out the implications for various figures who figure into all of the figuring. Huntsman needs to win in Iowa and New Hampshire! Huckabee will be "expected" to win Iowa, so he has to do that! Romney can't win without New Hampshire, so he should skip Iowa altogether, or should he? That's all well worth sacking away in your brain pan, if you've a yen to have some intelligent sounding discussions about politics over cocktails in a year's time.
But leaving that aside, it's worth remembering that even though the primary system is stacked heavily in favor of the early states, and that the media not only understands that to be the case but actively supports this structure with the way they outlay money to cover the process, come this time next year, you are STILL going to hear an endless amount of discussion of the importance of somebody's "surprisingly strong fourth place finish," and what it means.
When it happens, remember, it's not because anyone actually believes these data points to be important. It's more a product of the need of political touts to fill 24 hours of news and the entire internet with several million metric tons of horsecrap. There's a reason that everyone still jokes about "Joementum."
Here's How The Presidential Primary Process Actually Works [The Business Insider]