Also at her first caucus was Keely Kemp, a reporter for IowaWatch.org, an investigative start-up recently co-founded by University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Berry. A 22-year-old senior at the U of I, Kemp recently completed “Iowa Caucus Campaign Coverage,” a coveted quadrennial fall course at the university that trains students in the essentials: how to interpret polls, fact-check, find sources off the beaten path, and generally cover a political caucus.
“Everything has led up to this day,” said Kemp, who over the course of 2011 had reported on Mike Huckabee (before he announced he was not running), the short-lived candidacy of Thaddeus McCotter, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Kemp says IowaWatch strives to steer clear of traditional horse race coverage, in keeping with its emphasis on explanatory and investigative journalism, though she admitted her own tastes are not always so high-minded—she confessed to loving MSNBC, even though she knows “it’s biased,” and she was thrilled to see Hardball host Chris Matthews ambling around the complex.
Down the table from Kemp were Fengfeng Wang, a reporter for China’s Xinhua news service, and two of his colleagues. Wang, who has been covering U.S. politics out of Washington, D.C., for two years, said the caucus beat has been “a bit of a party”—and extended the analogy by comparing journalists covering the candidates to paparazzi covering celebrities. (He did say, though, that the political reporters made for “diligent” paparazzi.)
Also well-represented at the filing center were local television journalists like Jason Fechner, the evening news anchor for WQAD, the ABC affiliate in the Quad Cities market, which straddles the Iowa-Illinois border. Fechner, who was polishing his script and preparing to anchor the 5, 6, and 10 o’clock newscasts from the center, was eager to be approaching the end of the station’s Caucus 2012 coverage, which he said got underway a year ago.
Like many observers, Fechner noted the national tone of this year’s campaign. Even when the candidates came to the state this year, “there are so many cameras; it’s not just shaking hands,” he said. Fechner also suspects another consequence of the national, web-savvy campaign: with the rise of Internet advertising, ad sales at his station are down.
Every so often, an exciting—or “exciting”—moment would strike and bring the scattered journalists together in a scrum. Around 1 p.m., DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wandered into the filing center for an interview on Andrea Mitchell Reports. She was quickly swarmed by journalists, who came over with their cameras and recorders, the crowd growing as recognition of her presence spread. She entertained questions for ten minutes, pressing Democrat talking points—“not one of these Republicans polls better than Obama”—mostly in response to questions from the right-leaning media outfits like Town Hall and Breitbart.
Wasserman Schultz appeared eager to get her message out in the complex; she turned up later in the afternoon and then again, later that night.
Around caucus time, I ran into Al Jazeera English producer Ilona Viczian and a network freelancer, Bruno Arena, in the Google Hangout room. They were eating Google-provided baked ziti and grumbling about being denied access to both the caucus where Romney was speaking and his victory party planned for later in the night. They had been told there was no space left, but both were certain they were kept away because they were foreign press. Arena, now covering his fifth presidential election, said campaigns become more and more restrictive towards international media. “There’s no pay-off to have us there,” he said. “But it’s arrogant and short-sighted, and it’s a form of censorship.”
With the countdown clock approaching zero, I left the journalists and headed over to the on-site caucus. There were not enough seats for caucus-goers—a couple with a baby stroller had to stand in the back—and just a handful of press, mostly camera-bearing overseas outlets that had come over from the main center for footage.
I stood in the back as participants continued to file in, waiting for the caucus to begin. It was a few minutes after 7—I checked Twitter to discover the results of the NBC and CNN entrance polls were already pinging around. Intrade was responding accordingly; predictions were coming in.