The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).
So elemental is this eternal connection between sports and politics that even underdog presidential candidate Rick Perry gets it.
“The only scoreboard that matters is tomorrow, and it’s the scoreboard when the caucuses meet and we win the big Iowa caucus tomorrow,” Perry told the cheering crowd at his final campaign rally yesterday, sounding like the coach of a broken-down wildcard NFL team.
It’s not that the Iowa caucus doesn’t matter to the long-term prospects of the Republican candidates. It does, but not that much. Last week, while trying to inflate the relevance of the Iowa caucus, ABC News had to admit how inessential the contest is. “The Iowa caucus has had about a 50 percent ‘success’ rate when it comes to predicting the nominee” from either party, the site reported. The reason we hear so much about the caucus is because it matters a lot to the press corps, which should—but doesn’t—downplay the event into something less meaningful than a coin toss.
Who to blame for Iowa? I hold Jules Witcover responsible because he touted in his 1977 book “Marathon: the Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976″ the vital role the caucus played in Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976: He finished second to an uncommitted slate but used that showing to declare “victory” in Iowa. Some pundits say Iowa helped make him front-runner and win in New Hampshire. Even if it’s true that Iowa was the secret to Carter’s eventual success, it’s hardly fair that we should be paying for his good luck 36 years later.