‘No, It's Iowa’: When TV Dramas Go to Caucus

From The Good Wife to The West Wing, shows have used the Hawkeye State to emphasize the human stakes of America’s national politics.

Alicia Florick (Julianna Margulies) and Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), Hawkeye State-ing (CBS)

Iowa is no longer, electorally speaking, a winner-take all state. As of 2012, for Republicans and Democrats alike, the state has relied on a system of proportional allocation: Win 29 percent of the state’s electorate, get 29 of the state’s electoral vote. As a matter of lore, though—which has a sneaky way, via media-aided alchemy, of turning itself into political reality—the Iowa stakes are high. It was his win in Iowa in 2008 that helped build momentum for the candidacy of Barack Obama. It was his win in Iowa in 2000 that did the same for George W. Bush. The caucuses enforce a mingling of expectations and reality, of gauzy punditry and grassroots politics; their results are at once scientific and ineffable. Through these great pageants of American democracy, political fictions become political realities. Push, as it were, meets Shove.

It’s no surprise, given all that, that Hollywood—which loves nothing more than juicy dramas that are at once high-stakes and deeply human—would do its part to celebrate the events that Iowans euphemize as “gatherings of neighbors.” Television in particular has tended to treat the caucuses not (just) as defining moments for its fictional politicos, but also as defining moments for its characters more broadly. TV shows, essentially, have echoed what political pundits have taken for granted: that political dramas are human dramas. That campaigns are battles, fundamentally, of character. That political campaigns are best understood not in terms of dueling policies, but in terms of dueling people.

Take, most recently, The Good Wife. One of the few awkward elements of the show—an otherwise excellent drama enjoying an otherwise excellent seventh season on CBS—has been this: its tendency to relegate to a B-plot the fact that its protagonist’s husband is running for president. (Of the United States.) Audiences have gotten reminders of Peter Florrick’s presidential bid every once in awhile—an extremely reluctant Alicia Florrick was once forced to appear, with her mother, on the local talk show Mama’s Homespun Cooking—but for the most part, the show has insisted that its characters live in a world in which campaigning to be First Lady is a forgettable side gig.

For Iowa, though, The Good Wife shed its illusions. The show dedicated a full episode to Peter’s attempt to come in second in the caucuses—an attempt that found the entire Florrick family, enthusiastically (Peter, Zack, Grace) and less so (Alicia), traveling together on a bus through the state’s counties and precincts. (On advice of the Florrick campaign manager, Ruth Eastman, the family attempts a “full Grassley,” or a visit to every county in Iowa.) And yet the real contest of the episode is not the campaign (which rather awkwardly makes mention of “Hillary” to put things into a 2016 IRL context). It is instead the long-simmering uncertainties between Alicia and Peter about the future of their marriage. Alicia spends her time on the campaign bus immersed in her memories of the man she’d loved before marrying Peter. She spends her time in the episode doing the duties of a “full campaign wife,” but dreaming, all the while, of what might have happened had she married the other guy.

The caucuses, in the episode, come and go—and yet their political outcomes (and here is the show reverting to its traditional posture) are secondary. The real stakes here are emotional. The real caucus here has an n of 1: The real decision, the episode suggests, is the one Alicia is making about Peter and her relationship to him. As per Iowa’s wont, Push is coming to Shove; it’s just that the collisions between expectation and reality aren’t, primarily, about politics.

House of Cards’s Iowa episode—the series’s third season finale—offers a similar emotion-over-election theme. These caucuses find Frank Underwood engaged in a neck-and-neck fight against his Democratic challenger, Heather Dunbar. And while it’s an open question throughout the episode, whether Frank—by now the sitting president—will be able to eke out a victory in the caucuses, the real drama, as in The Good Wife, concerns the fate of the protagonists’ marriage.

The episode opens with Claire informing her husband that “we have been lying to each other”; it closes with the question of whether Claire will show up to support him as he delivers his speech—regardless of whether that speech be a matter of victory or concession. Quickly, though, things escalate—so that the real questions become existential: Can the Underwood marriage survive Frank’s campaign for president? Are Claire and Frank a true partnership? Were they ever a partnership at all? “We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so,” Claire tells her husband. “But that was a lie. We were making you stronger.”

Iowa, making-or-break-ing once again.

Similar themes are on offer in other recent political shows. In Scandal, Olivia Pope’s original political sin—the thing that taints her White Hat—is revealed to be her participation in the election-rigging scheme that started with Fitzgerald Grant’s defeat in the Iowa caucuses. And in The West Wing, the Iowa episode “King Corn,” which superficially revolves around the Democratic candidates’ internal debates about whether to take “the ethanol pledge,” more directly concerns the growing sexual tension between Josh Lyman and Donna Moss. The episode finds the two—the Sam and Diane of The West Wing, coming ever closer to answering the will-they-or-won’t-they question in the affirmative—realizing that their hotel rooms in Cedar Rapids are directly across the hall from each other. It emphasizes their parallel mornings. It emphasizes their parallel days. It ends with Josh, aaaalmost deciding to knock on Donna’s door when the day is done, and then deciding against it.

And yet, the episode does the work that will be necessary for Donna and Josh to become a couple: It insists on their equality. All those parallels—rooms and days—suggest how far Donna has come from being, simply, Josh’s assistant. They suggest that Donna and Josh becoming a couple would not be a boss-and-secretary affair, but rather a marriage—or, you know, a committed relationship—of equals.

It’s just another instance of Iowa doing, on television, just what it claims to do in IRL politics: putting people on equal footing. Flattening them, in the best sense. Allowing them to compete, and converse, and consider their options. (“Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”) The stakes, on TV—just as they are in politics writ large—may not be winner-take-all. They’re nuanced, and messy. But the stakes, for all that, are also high. Iowa, just as it will in IRL politics, helps to define the path its characters will take the rest of the way.