Meet the Iowa Press

Local reporters in demand at caucus time

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.

“We covered him and we figured out what he was doing,” remembers Glover, “but there was much less focus on it until the event actually happened.” Glover did not see Carter’s victory then as a turning point for the caucuses. “We thought it was interesting and that Carter had pulled a nice little tactic out. But nobody thought that it would mushroom into what it mushroomed into.”

Hugh Winebrenner, former dean of Drake University’s College of Business and Public Administration, argues that what the caucuses mushroomed into was a manufactured “media event,” which it remains to this day. In his book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Winebrenner says that the number of delegates eventually awarded to each candidate does not greatly matter; in a sense these are so few as to be negligible. What matters is that, in 1972, Iowa became the first official “result” in the presidential election—the first concrete election news that journalists could report and analyze. And in 1976, Carter showed how those reports could become part of a campaign strategy.

“The reporting of Iowa caucus results is part of the game focus of presidential campaigns: essentially meaningless caucus outcomes are reported to satisfy the media’s need for results or hard news,” Winebrenner writes. “Much like the handicapper in a horse race, the media assign metaphorical labels—such as favorite, front-runner, long shot, or dark horse—to the presidential candidates and then evaluate their performance in caucuses and primary elections according to the expectations created by the labels.” Though he was writing decades ago, you could keep onetime “underdog” Barack Obama in mind when following his logic. (For a more damning take on the Iowa media frenzy, read this Slate piece by Christopher Hitchens.)

Drake’s Dennis Goldford, who authored co-authored an updated 2010 edition of Winebrenner’s book, agrees with Winebrenner’s theory, though not necessarily with his co-author’s sporting metaphor. “It’s more like judging ice skating or gymnastics,” he told me when we spoke late last month. “What matters for the candidates in the caucuses is, to some extent, where they finish, but more importantly, whether the candidate met or failed to meet expectations. I always say every candidate has the same opponent, and that opponent’s name is ‘Expected.’ Did the candidate do better than Expected? Or worse that Expected?”

“Expected”—as you might expect—is defined by the media.

That’s where Yepsen, Obradovich, Henderson, Glover, and Goldford himself come in. Since Carter’s victory set him on course for the White House, each successive set of Iowa caucuses have drawn more and more media attention. Double whammy years, in which both parties fielded candidates—1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008—drew particularly large throngs of outside reporters to Iowa hungry for a first kick-off result. Knowing how to read those results, and predict them, means getting in touch with the Iowa press, whose ears are perennially close to the ground. And reaching out starts early.

“People were talking about Iowa the day after the 2008 elections—who’s going to run, who has a leg-up,” says Yepsen, who still fields Iowa caucus calls from his Illinois office. “There is always a kind of presidential subtext to reporting on politics in Iowa.” I asked Obradovich back in December when inquiries start coming into her—aware that I was one such query—and she told me that they had begun long before I called. “There was a wave this fall when Palin came to Iowa for a big Republican dinner,” said Obradovich, who spoke about the dinner with journalists from as far afield as The Guardian. “They’re mostly interested in hearing whether we think a candidate is going to run, and what their prospects are.” They also want to simply know who’s hanging around. As Goldford quips, “You don’t come to Iowa for the weather and you don’t come to Iowa for the landscape.”

It’s not just reporters calling. Radio Iowa’s Henderson recalls that on the day of Clinton’s second term inauguration, Steve Forbes’s staff contacted her about the next presidential race. And Goldford once received a direct call from Chris Dodd in the summer of 2006. “He was in his house on the west coast of Ireland,” says Goldford, “but he was thinking of coming out to Iowa and wanted to touch base with me.”

As the caucuses draw nearer, queries intensify and the focus of the questions narrow: the world knows who’s on the ground, now they want to know who’s going to win. Obradovich, who was busy managing a team of ten Register reporters leading up to the 2008 caucuses, says that in the weeks before the vote her phone was ringing “off the hook” with calls from the UK, Australia, and Canada; she fit six interviews in on the day of the caucuses themselves while coordinating the Register’s own coverage. “I field as many requests as I can and I don’t discriminate between who’s a really big request and who isn’t,” she says. “But getting my own job done is a priority.”

Henderson can sympathize. In 2008, the Radio Iowa reporter received invitations from a number of national outlets to hit the air as a caucus night pundit. She had to turn them down because she was already scheduled to be on air: on Radio Iowa.

Like Glover, Henderson remembers 1976’s historic caucuses well—though, as a fifth-grader, she was not on hand to report. Henderson’s parents took her to a Republican precinct caucus held in the back of an insurance agency in her hometown of Lenox, Iowa, where the ballot basket being passed around “looked like a church collection plate.” Her first caucus as a reporter for Radio Iowa was the 1988 double whammy won by Dole on the Republican side and Gephardt on the Democratic side. She says that media attention has only grown since those historic caucuses. “Interest in the presidential race now mirrors our new 24/7 situation in the news media as a whole,” says Henderson, who, incidentally, was born on Election Day 1964.

Goldford, who fields so many caucus calls that he’s considered a career in full-time punditry, began writing down every interview he did in the lead-up to the 2004 vote, just to keep track. In 2003, Goldford tells me he did 250 media interviews; and 140 more in the first two weeks of 2004. In 2007, he took part in 553 media interviews, most, though not all, caucus-related. “My wife jokes that she was the hostess in the green room,” Goldford says. “I had people here at my house stacked up in the living room, Fox, NBC, CBS, Australian TV, various people. I’d sit in the other room giving time to people.”

Being “that guy” or “those guys” in Iowa can be exhausting, according to Yepsen. “I got overwhelmed,” he told me. “It will happen to Kathie and it will happen to Mike and O. Kay.” Yepsen also says that the caucuses, and the way they are reported on, have changed as interest has grown. “Reporters swamp in almost to the point where it gets in the way of the story. You don’t have the old days when you could just hop in the back of the car with George Herbert Walker Bush and it was just him, and a driver, and an aide and me.”

While this year’s caucuses should draw less attention than 2008, with only one party caucusing, new media outlets like Politico are already promising more primary coverage than ever. In this feverishly competitive environment, that could mean more extracurricular work for Iowa’s political press than ever—though there are reinforcements by way of popular bloggers at Iowa Independent and Iowa Republican.

Yepsen’s primary successors know what’s coming. They’ve dealt with it before. Each knows to plan a vacation ahead of time—Henderson relaxed with family in Texas following 2008, Obradovich has spent her post-election time-off in India, England, and Brussels. And each knows to steel themselves for the onslaught, and for some, to prepare for what follows: the caucus comedown.

Obradovich says she is relieved when the caucuses pass; others feel at a loss. “I feel like the Maytag repairman,” admits Goldford. For Henderson, the feeling is a mixture of exhaustion and contentment. “You sometimes hear sports figures talking about how they ‘left it all out on the field,’” she says. “It’s a sounds a little bit weird. But there is a feeling that I’ve done everything I possibly could to cover the caucuses and now it’s someone else’s football to carry it down the field.”

Or someone else’s turn to take the ice.

*Note: This story originally said Obradovich also stepped into Yepsen’s political editor role—she was actually already political editor and moved from that position into the columnist role.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,