A New York political reporter once asked me during an interview: “Who’s that guy who gets his ring kissed by everybody every four years because he’s it for Iowa?” She was explaining her decision not to move to Washington—the draw of becoming “that guy” to whom everyone in the country turns for local analysis, when needed—but couldn’t quite remember the name trapped on the tip of her tongue. “He’s a columnist for The Des Moines Register ” she said, pressing her memory harder before we moved on, leaving the name hanging.
She was thinking of David Yepsen, it turns out. For thirty-four years at The Des Moines Register, where he was eventually political editor and a political columnist, Yepsen was the reporter to whom interstate, national, and international journalists most often turned for everything Iowa caucuses. Now teaching at Southern Illinois University Carbondale—he left the paper in 2009—Yepsen remembers his phone ringing daily with calls from reporters seeking his guidance, and often, a moment in front of their cameras or microphones. “Who are you seeing with boots on the ground?” they would ask. What was he thinking about a candidate’s chances? And, of course, who was up, and who was down, in the race to the race to the White House.
“It never stops,” Yepsen told me recently. As soon as one president is seated, the press fixates on the next, and the calls go on. But there are peaks. One day, weeks out from the 2008 caucuses, Yepsen arrived at his office to find twenty-two voicemails from news outlets requesting his time. “It took me forty-five minutes just to call them all back and tell them I couldn’t,” he recalls. “We’re Iowans, we like to be helpful and courteous, but you do reach a point where you’ve got to do your own job first.”
With Yepsen now in Illinois, that courtesy will be the work of a small group of Iowa journalists, who, like him, have been fielding caucus queries for most of their careers. The big three to look out for this cycle are Radio Iowa’s news director, O. Kay Henderson; the AP’s Mike Glover, who has been at the newswire’s Des Moines bureau for thirty years; and Kathie Obradovich, who stepped into Yepsen’s columnist role* at the Register when he left, and who says that so far this campaign season one name is generating more media interest than any other: Sarah Palin.
Each has his or her fishing stories from caucuses past. Obradovich recalls the frenzy and “fun” of a live 2004 Hannity and Colmes appearance, filmed on the steps of the state capitol, in which she politely reminded her hosts that General Wesley Clark wasn’t running in Iowa. Glover remembers the media-magnet 1988 caucus—Gephardt! Dukakis! Bush! Robertson!—when it is said that half the live TV trucks in the country were parked in Des Moines. And in 2008, Henderson had to change her holiday plans when the caucuses were moved to January 3, the earliest they had ever been. “My family kindly enough agreed to have Christmas on January 5,” she says.
This year that may not be necessary. Iowa caucuses will be held February 6, 2012—for now—leaving plenty of time to pause, carve, and toast in December. And with no likely primary challenger to the president, it is just the GOP that will be caucusing, which would traditionally lighten the load. But with more outlets than ever poised to cover the presidential elections, a growing schism in the Republican Party, and a group of colorful candidates pitched either side of that divide, Iowa’s political press isn’t expecting the calls to slow down too much, if at all.
The AP’s Glover was there for the caucus year that many say brought Iowa its kingmaker status: 1976. It had been four years since the Iowa Democratic Party pushed the state’s caucuses forward, making them the country’s first primary event, and he was reporting for The Messenger, a small paper in Fort Dodge, north of Des Moines. Ex-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter—a relative unknown outside of the south—caught his eye with some early moves in the state.
Campaign lore has it that Carter saw the early vote as an opportunity, and came to Iowa about a year out from the January 19 caucuses to earn a following and a first-off-the-blocks win. The plan worked. The Register covered him heavily and positively in his first months in the state, encouraging him to set up a permanent Iowa operation as part of his national campaign. On the day of the precinct caucuses, Carter won thirteen delegates to his closest competitor Birch Bayh’s six. Even though “uncommitted” won eighteen, Carter was declared the winner in the media’s eyes. And after Iowa, everybody knew who Jimmy Carter was.