What Caucus season is really like for journalists in Iowa

It's not often, living here in Virginia Beach, that I get homesick for Iowa in the middle of winter.

But I do have fond memories of Caucus season -- despite the fact that I spent only one election cycle in Iowa, as graphics editor of the Des Moines Register.

You have to understand a little about Iowans: They're a proud people, but -- never mind all the banking and insurance work done there -- at heart, the place really is a relatively uncomplicated farming community. I found Iowans to be warm, well-read -- thank goodness! -- and to have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves. (Unless, perhaps, they are the target of what they consider to be unfair shots. Then: Watch out!)

But Caucus season is Iowa's one time, every four years, to be in the national spotlight. Iowans take pride in their admittedly small role in the election process. And they put on their best face for the TV cameras and the hordes of reporters that descend on the state like so many locusts.

Except locusts aren't nearly as noisy.

"The attention is nice," writes longtime staffer Dave Elbert, the Register's business columnist. "I think everyone in town enjoys it, even the people who complain about it."

As you may have read, the lobby bar at the downtown Des Moines Marriott has been the unofficial gathering point for the nation's political correspondents. What you might not realize, however, is that the Marriott shares a block with the state's largest newspaper.

Photo by Google Maps.

This time of year, hardly anyone walks on ice-slickened sidewalks. In order to walk from the Register to the Marriott via Des Moines' circuitous skywalk system, one walks out the South end of the newsroom, across Locust Street through the office building and atop a food court, back across Locust Street and up the block. A short escalator ride then places one smack in the middle of the political universe.

I ventured over there only a time or two during Caucus season. The place was indeed a zoo.

As is the newsroom itself, from time to time.

Register managing editor Randy Brubaker tells me:

Just as Iowans generally enjoy their moment (or months) in the spotlight with the caucuses, the same is true for the Register.  It was a treat, for example, to see the Twitter universe awaiting our poll results last Saturday night. Not often do you see Tweets like this on New Year’s Eve, from Howard Kurtz:

The politics team has done tremendous work for the past several months under politics editor Carol Hunter. They (along with the photo staff) may be getting a bit weary as they’ve criss-crossed the state at the candidates’ sides for the past several weeks. But this whirlwind is part of what we live for here at the Register. In addition, editor Rick Green, Carol, politics columnist Kathie Obradovich, chief political reporter Jennifer Jacobs and others have spent a lot of time doing TV and radio segments in the past two weeks. And we’ve hosted journalism students in the newsroom from LSU, Michigan, Oxford University, among others, over the past week, too.

As in the past, we’ve supplemented the politics team with staffers from across the newsroom, and many, many hands will be involved in our efforts tonight – delivering results and reaction and DesMoinesRegister.com, then publishing a 12-page special section for Wednesday’s central Iowa print readers.

Elbert writes:

We’ve had TV crews from all over the country (world, actually) coming up to the newsroom since mid-summer, so everyone is pretty much used to the attention.

It’s also been fun to see the candidates parade through the newsroom. Last month, we had Rick Perry and Mitt Romney back to back. Perry literally went out the back door as Romney was coming in the front. It’s always interesting to see what they look like in person. For example, I pictured Romney as much taller than my 6’1”, but when I walked past him, my impression was that if anything he is shorter.

I've met a few politicians throughout my journalism career. But nothing like what I went through in Iowa in 2000. Nearly every candidate that year crisscrossed the state -- and the Des Moines metro area -- leaving no hand unshook, no baby unkissed.

My graphics editing station was located at the far end of the Register's newsroom, with a commanding view of both the largest conference room as well as the entry to the editorial department. Therefore, I had a bird's eye view of the entire parade.

Apple in the Des Moines Register graphics department in 2003. Photo by Robert Nandell, Des Moines Register.

I recall the day former Sen. Bill Bradley dropped by. One of my staffers stared with her jaw open as he strolled past with his handlers. "My gosh, he's tall!" she finally said when he was out of earshot. She was unaware the 6-foot-five-inch Bradley had spent 10 years as a star for the New York Knicks.

Vice-President Al Gore showed up very late for his meeting with our editorial board. When he finally reached the newsroom, he looked around at all the reporters and editors and -- blowing off the meeting -- walked up and down the aisles, shaking every hand in the room. Dennis Ryerson -- then the Register's executive editor but now editor of the Indianapolis Star -- stood near my desk with arms folded, watching the spectacle and fumed: "He's lost the good will of the editorial board."

Perhaps so, I countered. But he's picked up 50 votes in the newsroom. Dennis could only laugh and agree.

When Gore reached my cube -- the last stop before the meeting room -- he stopped and chatted a moment, remarking about the action figure collection on my desk. I found him to be warm and funny and relaxed and very chatty. Not at all the way Gore seems, to this day, on TV. Go figure.

Earlier that day, I earned what is surely my claim to Caucus season fame. A secret service detail made a quick sweep through the newsroom with explosive-sniffing dogs. While they were poking through the stacks of tearsheets in my cabinet, I wisecracked to a friend that I reckoned President Bill Clinton has a similar dog patrol. Except they're drug sniffing dogs. And they're for procurement.

Apparently, I spoke too loudly. The secret service agents cracked up laughing. I was proud to have brightened their day. And I'm mildly surprised I'm not on some sort of watch list today.

A section of Caucus-day front pages from around Iowa. Pages from the Newseum.

My strongest Caucus season memory, however, is of the day former Vice President Dan Quayle passed through. Quayle didn't have a chance in Iowa and everyone knew it. So he strolled across the newsroom with relatively little fanfare and only two handlers.

He turned the corner by my cabinets, took one look at my cube and came to a dead halt. I watched his face light up like a 5-year-old's. With delight, he blurted out one word: "TOYS!"

His two handlers, each a pace behind, looked at each other with exasperation and rolled their eyes.

I'll never forget the way they hustled him past my desk.

The Iowa Caucuses. You have to love 'em.

  • Charles Apple

    A longtime news artist and designer, Apple is the former graphics director of the Virginian-Pilot and the Des Moines Register. He teaches design and graphics workshops, does some consulting work and blogs for the American Copy Editors Society.


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