David Yepsen, Former Des Moines Register Reporter, Talks Iowa Caucuses
INDIANOLA, Iowa -- For 34 years, David Yepsen was, as the Washington Post once called him, "the king of the Iowa caucuses." Now he's given up his throne, but, as the Republican candidates descend on his state's 99 counties, he still has plenty to say.
As a political reporter, editor and columnist for the Des Moines Register, Yepsen covered every presidential campaign from 1976 to 2008. Yepsen became renowned to the point that one candidate hand delivered press releases to him. He was the kind of journalist who could borrow a hotel clerk's car to go grab midnight pizza with Joe Biden.
In 2009, he left Iowa to become director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He sat down to answer some questions from The Huffington Post after giving a speech here last week.
What's different about the caucuses this time around?
I think the caucuses are in some ways becoming victims of their own success. They just keep getting bigger and bigger. Everyone with a laptop and minicam can shoot stuff for TV around the world. So you have more and more reporters and it just gets saturated. I started doing this in 1975. In those days you could hop in the back seat of a car with a candidate and an aide and a driver and go to the next town. Those days are gone. It's much more of a general election campaign, even with more than a year to go. There's a huge retina of press. The size of the media -- and I still consider myself a reporter -- changes the event. It's not the fault of Iowa or the press corps -- wherever you start the selection of an American president is a big story, so off we go and you wind up with thousands of reporters.
There's all this talk about the date of the caucuses moving up to December instead of January -- does that matter for anyone other than journalists?
Not really. It helps the cachet of the caucuses a bit to have them in the election year, in 2012, but for the most part the issue is about hotel reservations. Since 1983, it's been agreed that Iowa will take the first caucus and New Hampshire will take the first primary, about a week later. So it's simply the case that the New Hampshire Secretary of State sets the date for the Iowa caucuses.
But what about these other states racing to get in on some of the early action?
We see this same drill play out every four years. What the states racing to get to the front of the line don't understand is that compressing the calendar just makes Iowa and New Hampshire more important. If you take away the time to recover, to raise money and give speeches and get media attention, then it's really just about impossible for anyone to compete without a strong showing in Iowa or New Hampshire.
What's your advice to candidates trying to gain traction here?
People, if they want to try to understand the Iowa caucuses, they have to shed their stereotypes of Iowa. There are three million people in Iowa and less than 80,000 of them are farmers. It's a universe of 200,000 people in each party who turn out to these caucuses. They tend to be higher income and better educated and pay more attention than your average voters. These are activists who show up at meetings on a cold night for a couple hours. They pay attention -- a candidate who flubs in a debate in Florida is going to fare poorly with activists in Iowa. They expect candidates to spend time in Iowa and to have something to sell. You gotta have a message that resonates with the times. A lot of times candidates have spent a lot of time in Iowa but they don't take off.
Does Herman Cain have something to sell? Does he have a chance here?
I think he's becoming more real all the time. When I look at Herman Cain now, I'm thinking there's Mitt Romney's running mate. Despite nobody taking him seriously, Herman Cain has doggedly stayed in there and one event at a time impressed people. He's earning himself more and more respect every day. I think Romney will probably be the last man standing, but even if it's Rick Perry [who's] the nominee, he will have to reach out to the Tea Party and that's one way of doing it. What do you want your running mate to do? That's the guy who goes out and says things you can't say. He can go out and attack Barack Obama and there won't be any race card and he'll fire up the Tea Party.
What about you? Do you miss being part of this?
I have mixed feelings. On one level, I did this for 34 years and I was just ready for another chapter. I'm running a nice little public policy institute and I like what I'm doing. And I get around the campaign a bit -- I just happened to be back and caught some of the straw poll. But I also turn on C-SPAN on a Saturday night, and there's some cattle show a candidate is attending and I'll see the reporters and I'll think, 'Oh god, that used to be me.'