IOWA — The rise of social media and the increasing prominence of cable news is making coverage of the 2012 presidential primary different than any cycle before it—and the changes present journalists with a new set of challenges while also offering some fresh opportunities, veteran reporters in the Hawkeye State say.
As The Washington Post and The New York Times have noted, many of the Republican candidates this year seem to be waging a “national campaign,” relying more on media outlets with broad reach and less on on-the-ground campaigning in early primary states like Iowa.
A tally maintained by The Des Moines Register, the state’s largest paper, bears this out. Mitt Romney, one of the GOP frontrunners, has spent just eight days in the state, while Jon Huntsman has bypassed Iowa almost entirely. And while it’s not unusual for some Republican candidates to de-emphasize Iowa, the limited presence here isn’t restricted to those two. According to the Register, Herman Cain has made only a handful of appearances in the state since August, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been to the state just 17 days in total.
The shift has had implications for Iowa’s journalists. In prior cycles, said Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich, local journalists effectively had the campaigns to themselves for a period, and candidates often appeared at town hall-style gatherings, where they fielded tough questions from voters. This year, national attention and wider campaigning has kicked in at an earlier point in the cycle—in part because many of the campaigns officially “launched” unusually late—and candidate appearances are more likely to consist of simple stump speeches.
“It’s hard to find candidates interacting with voters in a real natural way, a kind of low-impact campaign,” said Obradovic, who has been covering presidential campaigns Iowa since 1996. “You just don’t have that kind of thing anymore.”
Jason Clayworth, a political reporter at the Register, said the immediacy of Twitter, and its near-ubiquity among news and politics junkies, has made it possible for candidates to breeze through Iowa rather than engage in the type of grassroots campaigning the state is known for.
“I think that’s why some of these campaigns can get away from campaigning quite as aggressively here and focusing nationally, because it’s instantaneous,” Clayworth said.
Twitter isn’t just fast. It also allows the campaigns, and their supporters, more control over the news. “The rise of social media means the campaigns don’t have to rely on mainstream media to communicate with voters as much as they used to,” Obradovich said.
The quickened news cycle and reduced access to the candidates has at times produced “superficial coverage,” Clayworth said, with journalists just echoing what their competitors—or the candidates—are saying.
“It leads to something in our business that we wouldn’t have seen four years ago, re-tweeting something as news when it’s not,” he said. “Or it’s not real journalism, it’s just repeating what someone else said.”
Though not as new as Twitter, cable news networks—and in particular for the Republican primary, Fox News—are having a greater impact this year, and contributing to both a more national campaign and a more frenzied news cycle, say local reporters.
“If I’m a 24-hour cable news network I’ve got to fill 24 hours’ worth of programming, which means I’ve got to come out here and find the littlest thing to report and try to make it appear big,” said Mike Glover, a senior political reporter for The Associated Press in Des Moines who has covered presidential contests in Iowa since 1976.
There’s another factor, said Glover, that has pushed coverage away from in-depth looks at policy and toward a focus on politics: the ideological consensus within the Republican field.
With few exceptions, all of the candidates have staked out positions as both social and fiscal conservatives. “We’re all more into the horse race than we’ve ever been, in part because if you step back and take a big picture look at the positions these Republican candidates are taking, how different are they?” Glover said.
For all the challenges, some of the same forces that are driving the national campaign are also creating new opportunities for Iowa journalists. For example, Obradovich has begun “live tweeting” campaign events she covers from her Twitter feed.
That approach has pros and cons, she said. “Twitter coverage probably does emphasize the sound byte over what I would say is more nuanced coverage,” she said, adding that she uses it “as a way to generate interest and ultimately come back to my blog and column to color in the lines, provide that context.”
But using Twitter also allows for instant feedback, and even participation, from readers, Obradovich said. While tweeting what the candidates are saying during meetings with the Register’s editorial board, she’s had follow-up questions suggested by readers—and promptly posed them to the candidates.
And Obradovich remains optimistic that amidst a changing media landscape and with less access to candidates, local journalists can see past the horse race.
“If you look at the number of column inches over the last few weeks the Register’s devoted to issue coverage, it’s been significant,” she said. “That stuff’s not getting ignored.”