John Maynard Keynes famously likened playing the stock market to judging a beauty contest where, rather than choosing the most beautiful girl, you had to choose the girl that everyone else would choose as most beautiful. "We devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be," wrote Keynes. This is, with some minor modifications, true for judging the results in Iowa, too.
Consider a question that doesn't get asked enough: Why does it matter who wins Iowa?
In theory, the answer should be: "because whoever wins Iowa gets Iowa's delegates." But it isn't. The Iowa caucuses award about one percent of the nation's delegates. That's not nothing, but it's not much.
The real answer is both widely known and difficult to discuss. Winning Iowa matters because the outcome in Iowa governs the subsequent actions of the political media and party elites. And it matters for them because, as Jonathan Bernstein puts it, "What Iowa does is it produces information" -- information that allows them to plan their next moves, and information that thus changes the outcome of subsequent primaries.
The media doesn't like to discuss this too forthrightly because it makes our role as a political actor -- rather than a simple observer -- uncomfortably explicit. As Duke political scientist Brendan Nyhan writes at CJR, there is "a refraction effect" in which "journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its 'effects' without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates."
Party elites don't like to discuss it because their role in the presidential nomination process can seem undemocratic. But the process is undemocratic. A democratic process would be one in which the whole nation votes today; not one in which .04 percent of the nation caucuses today.
Ezra Klein, Wonkbook, the rest here.