01/02/2008 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Big Caucus Winner

When the three leading Democratic candidates blanket the airwaves with one final push on the local evening newscasts in Iowa on Wednesday night, it'll be clear who's winning the state's caucus: The media.

Unprecedented amounts of money have been showered on the state's local TV and radio stations, which have reaped more than $40 million worth of TV advertising, or more than 50,000 spots, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. It will be a windfall so great that Hearst-Argyle, which owns a CBS affiliate in Des Moines, is telling investors it expects robust ad sales as it heads into the election year.

But the media is benefiting in other ways --- namely that the Iowa caucuses really are all about the media.

Given the sheer amount of attention that is being showered on the state --- with some reporters staked out there almost for a year now --- it's hard to remember what came first: The candidates seizing on its first-in-the-nation vote opportunity, or the reporters sent to cover their every move. By this week, according to the New York Times, some 2,000 reporters were in the state, perhaps rivaling the paid staffs in the state of all of the campaigns combined, and turning Des Moines into what one donor called a political junkie's Sundance.

This year Iowans have delivered reporters a true gift: a real horse-race. With academic studies already
critical of the media for once again focusing on the sport aspects of the campaign, the tightness of the race at least gives some justification and vindication for doing so.

At the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, an exhibit on the history of the caucus counts the news media as a vital constituency in the whole shebang. Mixed in with displays of campaign buttons of candidates you long forgot ever ran --- Haig '88, Cranston '84, Hughes '72 --- is one room in which life-sized cardboard cutouts of news reporters hover in a cafe watching candidates as they stump in a small cafe.

While political reporters shiver in the single-digit weather and navigate strange mixtures of snow and ice, there's a reason why they like Iowa first. Displayed on the wall at the caucus exhibit is a 2004 quote from political columnist David Broder: "These people are so straightforward, so uncynical; they are irresistible. It's a great place to start the process."

And why wouldn't he say that? It is mutual admiration. When I was in Des Moines a few weeks ago, residents were plotting a week-long holiday of the best restaurants to see various media stars.

As much as Californians and New Yorkers resent Iowans as having all too great an influence, or of not being a representative sample of the country, the Hawkeye State's constituency is nothing short of friendly, unassuming and easy to talk to, and sometimes more articulate than the candidates themselves. (My bias: My paternal grandparents were born and raised in the state).

What's more, most of the residents I have interviewed have spoken in sound bytes, and many show their media savvy. Last week, talking to college adminstrator Renee Bay at a John Edwards event in Decorah, she went on to frame how his messaging resonated across the rural parts of northwest Iowa. "When he talks about his grandparents and his parents and his family home, we can all relate to that," she said. "If you grew up in a small town, you understand what he is talking about." Or residents take on the role of strategist. When I asked potential caucus goers whether Oprah Winfrey's campaigning for Barack Obama would influence their vote, most denied that it would, but they went on to provide their own analysis of how it would impact others.

Iowans also are quick to show that they aren't interested only in the issues you'd think they'd be. After Obama finished his stump speech in Mason City, Iowa, one of the first questions he got in a Q&A was not about ethanol or free trade, but from a resident wondering how he'd end the Writer's Guild strike. The candidate was a bit startled, and being there from Variety, I was afraid I'd be accused of planting a question.

Obama answered the query, for candidates who ignore the Q&As do so at their own peril. The same goes for local reporters. A few months back, when Fred Thompson ducked out of an event without holding an expected press briefing, he drew the ire of a Des Moines TV station's political correspondent, who caustically reported it on that evening's newscast.

Sure, it seems like an electoral oddity to give a rural state such a great say in the next president --- particularly if turnout hovers in the 20% range as it has in the past. In his book, "The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event," Hugh Winebrenner, a professor at Iowa's Drake University,
created a bit of a stir among fellow residents by doubting that the caucus is even representative of the state's electorate.

But as the race moves into the larger states, and the juggernaut that is Feb.5, the personal touch between candidates, electorate and even the news reporters will be fast and furious. The media will still benefit, from what will likely be a new round of ad wars in even more expensive markets. News coverage undoubtedly will be more diffused and difficult, and the campaigns themselves will be played out via satellite links and airport tarmacs.

It just won't be the same.

Now playing in downtown Des Moines is Robert John Ford's "Caucus! The Musical," in which the national media identifies a rural family as a "typical Iowa caucus goers" and the presidential candidates trip all over themselves trying to win their vote.

The irreverent show is not without grains of truth. The caucus is as much spectacle as it is serious, and many in the media wouldn't have it any other way.