‘Stingy’ Campaigning Brings Reporting Opportunities

For now, Nevada's political reporters aren't running from rally to rally

NEVADA — Asphyxia is often fatal, so it’s probably not a good idea for political reporters in Nevada to hold their collective breath, hoping to see a Republican presidential candidate anytime soon.

Yes, the weeks are counting down to the GOP caucus on Saturday, February 4, yet not a single candidate has set foot in the Silver State since the Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas on October 18.

The candidates, as Las Vegas Sun political reporter Anjeanette Damon wrote on Sunday, “have been stingy” with “early state love” so far. Damon described— echoing the Washington Post and New York Times— how “the plethora of nationally televised debates have done more to shape the dynamics of the 2012 campaign” thus far than grassroots campaigning in early primary states.

In Nevada, Grand Old Party members were slated to caucus January 14, but agreed under pressure to reschedule to three weeks later, moving the state from third to fifth in the campaign sweepstakes. The spotlight, and the candidates, quickly shifted their attention elsewhere.

Given that switch, journalists here aren’t surprised by the complete absence of candidate visits. In fact, the Sun’s Damon (who also hosts a weekly public affairs program, To The Point, on KSNV-TV in Reno) views it as a bit of a blessing.

“It’s good and bad,” said Damon in a recent phone interview. “There’s not this flurry of activity that you have to run from rally to rally to rally and keep up on who has staff and who’s moving staff out and all those procedural process stories about how a campaign runs. There’s not a lot of that to have to keep up with, which frees you up to write more about the issues.”

In Nevada, those issues are largely economic, as the state has the highest unemployment and home foreclosure rates in the nation.

When the candidates were in Nevada in October, the Sun “spent a lot of time nailing [them] down,” Damon said. “We got interviews with six of the seven candidates to talk about Nevada issues,” she added, noting that Rick Santorum was the only candidate who didn’t respond to the Sun’s requests.

“We asked them, ‘What are you going to do about the foreclosure crisis?’ We…look[ed] at what their proposals, or lack thereof, are for the foreclosure crisis. …We have time to pursue those issues more in-depth to give, hopefully, Nevada voters more information on which to make their decisions.”

Asked about her approach to covering a campaign thus far light on campaigning, Laura Myers, political reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (the other daily serving Southern Nevada and its nearly two-million residents), offered, “You still have to tell readers, ‘Okay, so now Nevada’s not number three (in voting). What does that mean?” Myers did just that in her piece this past Sunday.

Myers added that it’s “retail politics” stops, so far in short supply, that help candidates at least appear to connect with voters. The President, however, is the only one to employ that tactic recently in Nevada. “President Obama is pretty good at that,” said Myers. “The last time he came to Southern Nevada [on October 24], he went out to a neighborhood that was distressed and had a lot of home foreclosures and announced some new program to help Nevadans who were very far underwater in their mortgages. I think you’d see more of that [from Republican candidates] if Nevada were voting in January.”

As the Sun’s Damon has reported, it’s the President—the lone candidate without a caucus fight—who appears to be the most organized on the ground here. It’s an observation also made recently by political reporter Ray Hagar in the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Nevada’s Democratic machine—which produced wins for Obama in 2008 and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2010— was turning over its engine.

For the Democrats, it was the call of “game on” at the most basic level of politics.

Hagar’s December 10 story followed his visits to a meeting of members of the Washoe County Democratic Party and to a smaller get-together of Democrats in a Reno neighborhood.

For Hagar—in Reno, a metropolitan area just one-fifth the size of Las Vegas south—there have been no one-on-one interviews with the candidates, either in person or by phone. He attended the October 18 debate in Vegas (a seven-hour drive to the south) but did not have access to the candidates.

“We were as far away from the candidates as you could get,” he lamented. “It was a day’s ride from where the press watched the debate to where the debate actually took place in that huge Sands Convention Center.”

Hagar doesn’t expect his lot to improve, either. He understands that the much-larger Las Vegas will see the lion’s share of the campaign activity during 2012.

“As far as the presidential race, when you’re in Reno, Nevada, you do what you can do,” he said. “There are many ways to cover a campaign.”

Hagar noted that he’s able to keep readers abreast of candidates’ positions through closely watching their visits to states such as Iowa and New Hampshire and through interviews with in-state campaign staffers (he quoted Kate Wilson, Obama’s regional caucus director, in his most-recent article).

For Hagar, a veteran reporter in his fifties, the current election cycle has a new, somewhat-alien, key player: Twitter.

“I can find so much stuff out by going to Twitter and following specific people who follow the campaign,” Hagar said. “It’s an invaluable resource.”

Invaluable for the campaigns, as well. Twitter’s immediacy and near-ubiquity —as an Iowa campaign reporter observed earlier this month— enable Twitter-savvy candidates and campaigns to do less “grassroots campaigning” in early primary states.

Free for now of the burden of covering daily campaign rallies and photo-ops, Nevada’s political reporters should continue to focus on where the candidates stand on Nevada’s most pressing issues.

And, breathe.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.