I’ve had a lot of fun covering the Iowa caucuses. It feels odd to be mostly sitting this one out.
Last week I noted that I think it’s time for Iowa to relinquish its place at the front of our nation’s political line (or for political parties or federal legislation to reform the process, giving other states a turn).
Today, as Iowans get ready to caucus, I’ll note that, whether the caucuses should be first forever or not, they’ve been a fun story to cover and I’ll share a few memories from covering caucuses in four decades. (Memories is a key word here. Most of these caucuses were long enough ago that news accounts are not easy to find online. I didn’t do extensive research to verify the accuracy of all my memories, though I did verify all the caucus results – and remembered them accurately.)
I did not cover the 1972 caucuses (I was in high school at the time, covering sports for an Iowa newspaper, the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel), but the caucuses weren’t really a big story. Some Iowans claim their state’s special first-in-the-nation role dates to 1972, but that’s a mere technicality. Candidates did not campaign heavily in Iowa that year and George McGovern’s surprising caucus finish, trailing Edmund Muskie and “uncommitted,” was not a big story at the time, even in the Des Moines Register (I’ve read the story in the files). McGovern did benefit from the caucuses, but the phenomenon of candidates campaigning for months in Iowa and the media anointing a frontrunner based on the results did not start for another four years.
During the 1976 caucus campaign, I was home in Shenandoah for the holidays during a break from classes at Texas Christian University and spent two or three weeks working at the Sentinel. Even in that rural corner of the state, candidates were campaigning for Iowans’ votes. I covered Shenandoah visits of Rosalynn Carter, the future first lady, and Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law who was much better qualified to be president than Jimmy Carter but he was a pedantic speaker who did not excite crowds in Iowa or anywhere (I later covered him in Fort Worth).
By 1980, I was at the epicenter of media coverage of the caucuses as an assistant city editor for the Des Moines Register. I edited dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories on candidates’ visits to Iowa and analyses of campaign tactics and dynamics.
In those days, candidate debates were rare. After Richard Nixon’s performance (and TV appearance) hurt him in the 1960 presidential campaign, candidates didn’t even debate in the fall in the next three elections (two of which involved Nixon, who wasn’t stepping into that ring again). I don’t recall any debates during the 1976 primary and caucus seasons. Incumbent Gerald Ford debated Carter in the fall, but Ford was harmed by an embarrassing gaffe (saying “there is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe”). So it was a big deal when the Register tried to play kingmaker by hosting candidate debates (I don’t recall whether it had done that in 1976).
Jim Gannon, the Register’s executive editor, organized the debates and decided to invite only Carter and Ted Kennedy to the Democratic debate. California Gov. (then and now) Jerry Brown was also challenging Carter, and demanded to be included in the debate, but Gannon said he wasn’t campaigning in Iowa and thus would not be invited. Brown grudgingly made a winter visit to Iowa (without an overcoat) and Gannon grudgingly added him to the debate. I won a lottery for a few of the employee tickets for the Democratic debate. Mimi was going to attend the debate with her sister, because I, of course, would be working that day, covering the debate. But Carter used the Iran hostage crisis as an excuse to back out, saying he needed to stay in Washington and manage that situation. The crisis, of course, lasted beyond the election and ultimately was perhaps the biggest factor in Reagan’s win over Carter.
The Republican “debate” was more like a candidate forum, quite similar to today’s debates with a huge slate of candidates: Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush and several others. This was just four years after Carter’s rise from obscurity in the Democratic primaries, and then as now, lots of Republican wannabes hoped Iowa might propel them on a path to challenge an embattled Democratic incumbent in the fall.
On caucus night, I was the Register’s lead editor on the Republican caucus story. But as you can see from the photo below, I had lots of help (and an ancient computer terminal and more hair than today, except on the face). This crowd assembled around me when we decided to declare Bush the winner right on deadline for our main state edition, probably about 10 p.m.
By the 1984 caucuses, I was the chief assistant city editor at the Register, essentially directing the day-to-day coverage of the caucus campaigns.
Also, in early 1983, as candidates were starting to visit Iowa, I created a board game celebrating and spoofing the caucuses (and the Register’s role in them). I persuaded the Register to produce and sell the game, pictured at the top of this blog post. The Register did next to nothing to market it, so sales were paltry. But it became a popular item with political reporters and candidates and aides on the campaign trail. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Newsweek, Today Show, CBS Morning News and BBC did interviews with me (every journalist should be interviewed now and then).
I heard from several people that year that the game was actually fun to play and heard from a Register colleague that Gary Hart played it on a campaign van with staff.
Because Reagan had no Republican opposition for re-election, his party’s caucuses were meaningless in 1984. But he came to Des Moines anyway, so his visit would steal some news-media thunder from the Democrats. I edited the story on Reagan’s visit, then edited stories on the Democratic caucuses. Walter Mondale, who beat Hart in the Democratic caucuses (though Hart did better than expected, so he claimed some momentum, whatever that means).
I’m pretty sure 1984 was the year the Register agreed to let a TV network (I think it was C-SPAN) do caucus-night coverage from the newsroom. House ads promoting the partnership included a cartoon (probably by the Register’s iconic front-page cartoonist Frank Miller) of an editor wearing an old-fashioned eye shade. Some smart ass (a commodity always in abundance in a newsroom) bought some cheap eye shades with green plastic visors at a novelty shop and several of us wore them on caucus night.
My last interview relating to the Iowa Caucus Game was with a reporter for TV stations in Denver and Salt Lake City who called me the day before, saying he was going to be in town for caucus day. I said we couldn’t to an interview in the evening, because I would be too busy, and I had to stay home during the day with our two youngest sons, who were 1 and 3 years old, because Mimi worked during the day. So he shot the interview at our house. I could put Tom down for a nap, but Joe wasn’t napping in those days and was intensely curious about the TV lights being set up in his living room. I’m sure the interview, if the reporter even used it, showed a distracted young father warily watching his son examine the light stands – and on one occasion, shooting a very stern look off-camera at the boy, who appeared ready to climb the stand to examine the light at the top. The interest was genuine and lasting: 28 years later, Joe is a theatrical lighting and production professional.
By 1988, I was national editor at the Kansas City Times. Bob Dole, from Kansas, and Dick Gephardt, from Missouri, were running for president, and my staff covered both campaigns closely, so I had several reporters up in Iowa covering the campaign as well as covering results on caucus night. Their Iowa wins were the highlights of the ill-fated Dole and Gephardt campaigns.
By 1992, I was in North Dakota, editor of the Minot Daily News, the only caucus campaign that I sat out in a stretch of three decades. But it was the least meaningful caucus campaign since they started mattering. On the Republican side, the elder Bush was unopposed for re-election. The Democrats had a spirited race to challenge Bush, but not in Iowa. Sen. Tom Harkin (for whom my youngest son, Tom, now works) of Iowa was one of the Democrats running that year, so the rest of the field conceded the caucuses to him. New Hampshire was the first battleground that year for eventual winner Bill Clinton and a lot of other Democrats most of us have long since forgotten.
In 1996, I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. Clinton was unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, so then as now, only the Republican caucuses mattered. Despite Dole’s 1988 win in Iowa, other Republicans did not concede Iowa to him. Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan and others did the Iowa routine. I was not involved much in the campaign coverage. But on caucus night, I covered a Republican caucus in Atlantic, a southwest Iowa town about an hour east of Omaha. I wrote the how-a-caucus-works story. I think Alexander carried that precinct, but Dole won the state again.
By 2000, I was back to the Des Moines Register, this time covering religion, which in the Republican caucuses in Iowa is pretty much the same as covering politics. 2000 was the bonanza of Iowa caucuses, the first time since 1988 that neither side had an incumbent running for re-election, so both parties had strong races.
The elder George Bush did a great job of raising money for his son, and insisting that donors support only the younger George Bush, rather than hedging their bets by giving to multiple candidates. This forced several potentially strong candidates – Elizabeth Dole, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney – to drop out of the race or never enter. Bush was already a strong leader in all polls on the Republican side in December when I saw him at a Des Moines debate. Debates were much more common then; this one was sponsored by NBC (moderated by Tom Brokaw and a local affiliate’s anchor or reporter). I wasn’t assigned to cover, just accompanied the metro editor, who had a couple of the tickets.
In the debate, the local TV guy posed a pretty lame question, asking the candidates which “political philosopher” had most influenced them. As I recall, the first candidates gave answers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Bush replied that it was Jesus. This placed the debate on my turf, so I wrote about the name-dropping.
By the way, Jesus was not a political philosopher and he did not influence Bush at all on the topics of capital punishment (Jesus’ advice: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”) or taxes (Jesus: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”) or handling enemies (Jesus: Love them). Iowa Republican evangelicals were not at all offended at his ignorance about what their savior actually was or that Bush often practiced politically the opposite of what that savior taught. While I think my straight reporting on the topic was good by the standards of the day, in retrospect I think I should have taken a fact-checking approach and been much harder on Bush at the time. (I wrote about Bush’s hypocrisy four years later for Poynter.)
After that debate, the campaign heated up and I pretty much became part of the political coverage team. I helped cover subsequent debates (sponsored by the Register). I got two employee tickets again, so Mimi got to attend the Al Gore-Bill Bradley debate 20 years after Jimmy Carter had canceled on her. She took along our oldest son, Mike, a political science student who would be graduating from Creighton University that May.
On caucus day, I tagged along with Gore, the Democratic winner, from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines, and reported on his day.
Update: One of my 2000 Register colleagues, Charles Apple, has also blogged some reminiscences for Poyter.
By 2004, I was back at the Omaha World-Herald (yes, I have moved a lot). I wasn’t involved much in coverage of the caucus campaign, but covered a Democratic caucus at a school gymnasium in Council Bluffs. With Bush seeking re-election, only the Democratic race mattered. I can’t recall which candidate won the caucus I was covering. I remember that Dennis Kucinich had a couple staffers or volunteers who didn’t live in the precinct attending to help, but only had one person at the caucus supporting him. If you were uncommitted or if your candidate didn’t meet the threshold (I think it was 15 percent) that qualified for a delegate to the county convention, you gathered in front of the stage, where the supporters of other candidates tried to woo (badger might be a more accurate word) your vote. After everyone regrouped into huddles of 15 percent or more, the precinct chose its delegates to the county convention. I don’t remember whether John Edwards or John Kerry (the Iowa winner) carried that precinct.
In a previous post, I already noted how ridiculous Stephen Bloom’s essay for the Atlantic was. I’ll add a note here: In his laboriously long lead, Bloom said the caucuses are known as “Chat ‘n’ Chews” and that people gather to “eat and debate” Back in the Jimmy Carter days, it was not uncommon for caucuses to be held in someone’s living room, and I’m quite sure that refreshments would have been served in such cases. But I cannot recall ever hearing anyone call a caucus a “Chat ’n’ Chew.” And I don’t recall any refreshments at either of the caucuses I covered (schools and churches are much more likely caucus locations these days).
I was out of newsrooms for the 2008 caucuses, working at the American Press Institute, so I watched the campaigns and coverage from afar, completely uninvolved. I did become editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in June of 2008, so I was in charge of our coverage of the conventions, the fall election and Barack Obama’s inauguration as president. At every stage, of course, our coverage noted that his road to the White House began with his Iowa win.
The 2012 caucus campaign literally started in November 2008, barely a couple weeks after Obama’s win. I remember at least two Republican wannabes (2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal, as I recall, both of whom eventually decided not to run) visiting our coverage area around Thanksgiving. But I left Iowa in 2010.
Digital First Media has no Iowa newspapers. I made a few suggestions about how our newsrooms might want to engage their communities in discussion of the caucuses this week, but I’m not responsible for actual political coverage. Because of my years in Iowa, my old TBD colleague Erik Wemple, who blogs about media for the Washington Post, asked me for suggestions and I emailed him a few, but I don’t think they were helpful. Beyond that, these two blog posts are pretty much the extent of my 2012 involvement.
But if I can find that green eye shade, I might wear it tonight while I check out the coverage online and on TV.