The Day Before The Iowa Caucus: Media Figures Try To Decipher An Atmosphere Of Indecision


On the final day before the Iowa caucuses, few of the hundreds of reporters, political strategists and campaign consultants are bold enough to say with certainty just how the results will reshape the presidential race.

Instead, as media outlets from around the world descend on Des Moines, it’s an atmosphere where every nugget of information takes on extra significance.

On Sunday, there was the chatter over the size of candidate crowds for their closing arguments. Or there was the story of the afternoon, an NBC News report that John Kerry was overheard discussing what he would have to do to enter the 2020 race. And there was the most common topic, that many Iowa voters are still up in the air, making for an even more uncertain outcome on Monday night than in previous cycles.

Even Pete Buttigieg joked about the number of voters still on the fence, joking to the crowd at his Des Moines event on Sunday that he has heard voters tell him, “Oh, that was a really good speech and a really good message. Now you are in my top seven.”

Most of the day was a reminder of just how much the caucuses are a media event, promoted by civic boosters ever intent on being first-in-the-nation and now fueled by the saturation of traditional and social media. This year, the Iowa Caucus Consortium, a group set up to host outlets at a downtown Des Moines convention said, said that they credentialed more than 2,600 members of the press from more than 240 outlets. 

Just on the outskirts of downtown, NBC News set up shop at West End Architectural Salvage, a coffee house and antique store, giving many of the network’s shows a backdrop of exposed brick and repurposed wood furnishings.

By 7:20 a.m., Buttigieg had already come and gone, having pre-taped an interview with Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, the first stop in a campaign blitz across almost all of the Sunday morning talk shows and a local Des Moines station.

“I think what Pete realizes it’s especially older voters who dominate primaries and caucuses. Older voters still watch television,” Todd told Deadline afterward. “You’re Pete Buttigieg, the best way to talk to voters in the last second if you can’t afford any more advertisements, is to do these selections, and I think that’s why he’s saturated.”

By contrast, Todd said, Joe Biden has avoided Meet the Press and other Sunday shows, even though he holds the record for appearances along with Chuck Schumer — 47 guest spots. Biden did tape an interview later in the day with Savannah Guthrie for Today, but has been selective in his choice of sitdowns.

“I’ve been surprised by his lack of wanting to engage, because his whole career has been a guy that loves the back and forth,” Todd said. “And to me it is one of his great strengths over the years, is the pairing back and forth. And we have not seen a lot of that.”

Sunday’s Meet the Press was focused on the caucuses, but the big “get” interview this morning was with Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator whose vote against witnesses in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial dashed Democrats’ hopes of calling figures such as John Bolton.

Executive producer John Reiss said “that proved also to be a logistical nightmare because [Alexander] wanted it only in Washington face to face with Chuck. So Chuck was in New York late on Friday night, flew down to Washington first thing Saturday morning, did the interview, flew to Des Moines, got in last night.”

He added, “It’s impeachment. It’s 2020. The news cycle has just accelerated, and we can no longer say, on Thursday or Friday, ‘This is our show, and we know this is what we are going to have.’”

On set, as the Buttigieg and Alexander pre-taped interviews played, Todd riffed off camera with the four members of the week’s Meet the Press panel, doing even more sizing up of the candidates. 

“How can you be from Indiana and not go to a Pacers game?” asked Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson, a reference to Buttigieg’s comment last week that he had “not had the pleasure” of going to a pro NBA game.

“Not only that. Indiana. Hoosiers,” Todd responded.

When they returned to air, their roundtable discussion resumed, but this time the sound of a blaring train horn became louder and louder, to the point of threatening to drown out the live show. 

Members of the crew started to laugh, and Tom Brokaw, waiting for his appearance on the show, looked up for a moment from his iPad and smiled. Todd just ignored the noise.

Brokaw, in Iowa for his 11th time covering a caucus, offered a bit of wisdom when he made it to the air near the show’s end.

“The one truism about all of these [caucuses] is the unexpected will occur,” he said. “I mean, that’s what’s been true of every one that I’ve covered during this time.”

At 2:10 p.m., Todd, Fox News’ Bret Baier and what seemed like a good chunk of the White House press corps showed up to Lincoln High School in Des Moines for Buttigieg’s final rally before Monday’s vote. 

The crowd of over 2,000 people included a number of out-of-towners (including Michael Lynton, the chairman of Snap, who was there with his family), and Buttigieg made the most out of delivering a closing message in an Obama-like cadence. As he paced back and forth on the stage, he recalled volunteering in Iowa for Barack Obama in 2008, and he also used the signature campaign one-word slogan, “hope.”

As energetic as the rally was, some attendees came away still torn about their decision.

Eileen Rohwer, 62, of Urbandale, said that she was attending her first rally this campaign season, and she came away very impressed, but she had not yet decided.

“Early on, when Elizabeth Warren jumped in too, I was really all about a Warren-Buttigieg ticket,” she said. “… I still lean toward that way. I think either one could be president and vice president together. But then when I watched the two of them in the debates I am like, maybe not. So I am just back and forth.”

At 4:30 p.m., as Bernie Sanders was starting a Super Bowl watch party (with guests including Susan Sarandon), Joe Biden was just starting his final rally at Hiatt Middle School gymnasium on the east side of Des Moines. In contrast to many of the other campaigns, his event started with the Pledge of Allegiance and, perhaps to counter perceptions that he’s too old, the crowd visible as a backdrop was made up of quite a few attendees in their 20s and 30s.

As he took the stage, Biden spent little time going through policy prescriptions and instead focused on Donald Trump. Then he turned to Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican senator who in an interview earlier on Sunday suggested that if Biden were elected, Republicans would move to impeach him.

“God love her,” Biden said.

The buzz in the media, however, was over Kerry, one of Biden’s campaign surrogates. 

Just hours earlier, NBC News’ Jonathan Allen reported that he overheard Kerry chatting on the phone at the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel, explaining to someone what he would have to do to enter the presidential race if Sanders were to start running away with the primary. Kerry, who has been campaigning for Biden throughout Iowa, denied that he was mulling a presidential bid, and he later tweeted about it.

“Any report otherwise is f—-ing (or categorically) false,” Kerry wrote on Twitter, before deleting it and reposting the message without the expletive.

The story was magnified, but only for the moment.

Biden called out Kerry at the rally as one of his supporters, and said that he was  “a guy who should have been president.”

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