Iowa Caucuses: Networks Dive Into “Most Intense Period” Of Politics


The news anchors and network producers trekking to Iowa this weekend for the Iowa caucuses will be just at the start of what will be a frenetic schedule of impactful breaking news events.

On Sunday is the Super Bowl, which will feature Sean Hannity’s pre-game interview with Trump. On Monday is the caucus. The State of the Union is on Tuesday, followed by the Senate’s final impeachment vote on Wednesday and the ABC News/WMUR-TV/Apple News New Hampshire debate on Friday. The Oscars follow soon after on Feb. 9 — and it’s likely to have some kind of political tinge.

“It is the most intense period I can ever recall in politics,” ABC News’s political director Rick Klein said from Des Moines. “It is uncanny how many things are converging as big storylines at the same time.”

The Iowa caucuses are the official start of voting in the 2020 presidential race, and with it the start of an ultra-competitive period for network news divisions, as they try to capitalize on an expected uptick in viewer interest in an election year.

As results come in on Monday night, ABC News plans special reports with chief anchor George Stephanopoulos and World News Tonight anchor David Muir along with Jonathan Karl, Cecilia Vega, Mary Bruce, Terry Moran, Nate Silver, Matthew Dowd, Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel and Yvette Simpson. Muir will anchor World News Tonight from Iowa that evening. Tom Llamas will anchor coverage for ABC News Live, along with Klein, Devin Dwyer and contributors Heidi Heitkamp, Stephanie Cutter and Deirdre DeJear.

Other networks also are firming up plans for coverage —- a bit more last-minute given the uncertainty of what is taking place on Capitol Hill.

Fox News will present a two-hour special, Democracy 2020: The Iowa Caucuses, starting at 6 PM ET on Monday, with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum hosting from the Iowa Event Center, followed by coverage of the results starting at 10 PM ET. Baier and MacCallum also will host a two-hour special on Sunday at noon ET.

On Saturday evening, CNN is having special coverage of the reveal of one of the final major polls before the caucus —- the CNN-Des Moines Register-Mediacom poll —- in a one-hour 9 PM ET special anchored by Chris Cuomo. Politico called it the “most important, most anticipated public opinion poll in politics,” and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote on Twitter that it was the “rare instance” where “a poll itself could have an impact on the race by influencing media and voter behavior.” 

On Sunday morning, just about all of the major Sunday shows will share a guest in common: Pete Buttigieg. He’s scheduled for CBS’s Face the Nation, ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press and CNN’s State of the Union, as well as MSNBC’s AM Joy with Joy Reid and WHO-TV in Des Moines.

Additional details about network plans are expected in the next day or so.

The caucuses also are a platform for new ventures to make a splash. Among them is Recount Media, the company founded by John Heilemann and John Battelle, which launched a podcast series The Victory Lab, featuring Sasha Issenberg. They also have episodes featuring Fred Davis, the colorful Republican media consultant and ad maker, and Ann Selzer, the pollster behind the numbers that will be released on Saturday.

The biggest difference in Iowa from previous cycles has been that the state is only this weekend starting to get the laser focus from national media. The impeachment trial has dominated news coverage for weeks.

Klein said that has made for an unusual environment on the ground in Iowa, given that “half the major candidates are not here.” “It has been a challenging news environment for anyone to break through,” Klein said.

The state, though, is famous for “late breakers,” as voters are prone to decide between candidates right up until the last second.

“What a lot of people do not understand about the state is how strategic voters tend to be,” Klein said. He’s struck by how “some of them think like pundits,” as they gauge the impact that a candidates performance will have on the rest of the race.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are used to the media onslaught that comes every four years and well attuned to the news cycle. “I think people are dialed into it hour by hour,” Klein said.

“There is so much attention here, so much money and so much organizing,” Klein said. If you are a resident, “you can’t help but think what your role is here.”

He added, “This is a strange caucus in the sense that there are now 11 candidates who are running. There used to be twice that number [in the race]. So Iowa to come extent already has had an impact. It is not just the caucus results on Monday.” 

In this final weekend, candidates are sprinting across the state, often to large- and at-capacity crowds. Through the day on Saturday, reporters posted pictures of packed venues for events featuring Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Later in the day, Bernie Sanders is planning an arena concert in Cedar Rapids on Saturday with Vampire Weekend.

The next few days will see campaigns do a “dance of expectations,” as Klein calls it, setting the bar lower for what would mean a victory for their candidate. That may be ever more important this year, as the cluster of candidates toward the top of the polls has made the caucuses somewhat unpredictable. 

“The challenge for us on caucus night is to make sense of a very confusing process,” Klein said. “I fully expect that multiple candidates will declare victory based on different metrics.”

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