The usual criticisms of the Iowa caucuses–that the votes of a small, demographically unrepresentative slice of America gobble up too much airtime–are basically correct.
As David Sirota noted in Salon (1/3/12):
The same journalism industry that pleads poverty to justify cutting big city newspapers' editorial staffs, gutting coverage of state legislatures and city councils, and eliminating every other critical topic not related to Washington's red-versus-blue fetish from news content–as writer Joe Romero recounts, this same industry has for months devoted a massive army to cover Iowa's small contest.
Just one example of the absurdity: At least one of Rick Santorum's final campaign stops was so mobbed by reporters that some of actual residents of Iowa he was supposed to be talking to couldn't squeeze into the meetings, as noted by the Washington Post:
The evidence of Santorum's recent surge was obvious: The overwhelming crush of media members at the Polk City stop included reporters from Italy and Australia. Dozens of voters–who two weeks ago probably could have had the candidate to themselves–were pressed out of the restaurant and stood in the cold.
"I'm actually from Polk City," one said to another as he was unable to squeeze his way inside. "Yeah, we don't count," the other responded.
Of the storylines that have emerged so far, one is that Mitt Romney has yet to dominate the competition. This has been present in the campaign coverage for months, and continued in the papers this morning. Susan Page in USA Today wrote:
By favoring a conservative, a moderate and a libertarian in nearly equal doses, visitors to the state's 1,774 precincts did little to clear up what has been a topsy-turvy contest to choose President Obama's opponent next fall.
In the New York Times, Jeff Zeleny writes that "Mitt Romney's quest to swiftly lock down the Republican presidential nomination with a commanding finish in the Iowa caucuses was undercut on Tuesday night by the surging candidacy of Rick Santorum." And Zeleny added later, "The Iowa caucuses did not deliver a clean answer to what type of candidate Republicans intend to rally behind to try to defeat President Obama and win back the White House."
Also in the Times, courtesy of Jim Rutenberg:
But more than anything else, the Iowa caucuses cast in electoral stone what has played out in the squishy world of polls and punditry for the last 12 months: The deep ideological divisions among Republicans continue to complicate their ability to focus wholly on defeating President Obama, and to impede Mr. Romney's efforts to overcome the internal strains and win the consent if not the heart of the party.
There is no reason in the world that voters in any state in the country should line up behind any single candidate. The fact that the voters in a particular party are split between different candidates who represent different factions of their party is a sign that people have different views about who they think should lead the country. Which is, after all, a good thing.
The alternative would be to deprive voters everywhere else a chance to have a say about who their party's nominee will be. There's a curious sort of tension at work. On the one hand, you get a sense that reporters want the primary season to continue for months, if only for the sake of giving them something to cover. On the other hand, they spend an awful lot of time puzzling over why Mitt Romney can't manage to wrap up the Republican nomination after one state has voted.