Nominating a President 2016: How to Cover the Iowa Caucuses


The Iowa Caucuses are the first official chance for voters to weigh in on the presidential candidates. It garners a huge amount of attention for the state and its residents. Some journalists spend weeks or months getting to know the voters, issues and candidates in Iowa before turning their attention to other contests. Only the New Hampshire primary, the first primary, is likely to get a similar amount of media scrutiny.
Resources on this page will enable journalists to meet the challenge of effectively covering the Iowa Caucuses, the later caucuses and primaries, and the whole of the 2016 presidential election. These resources are provided as part of a Specialized Reporting Institute, "Nominating a President 2016: How to Cover the Iowa Caucuses," hosted by The Poynter Institute and Drake University on June 21-24, 2015. The SRI was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Find an Expert

Tim Albrecht, director, Redwave Digital, has worked with a number of political figures, including caucus campaigns as Iowa communications director for Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and an organizer in 30 northwest Iowa counties as field director for Steve Forbes in 2000. Email: tim@redwave.gop

Becky Beach, RSB Associates, is a fundraiser and consultant for numerous Republican candidates, including Sen. Charles Grassley, Pres. George H.W. Bush, Pres. George W. Bush and John McCain's presidential campaign. Email: beckysbeach@me.com

Trip Gabriel, a political correspondent for The New York Times, is covering the 2016 presidential campaign. He most recently covered the mid-Atlantic region for the National desk. Email: gabriel@nytimes.com

Don Gonyea, national political correspondent for NPR; Don travels throughout the U.S. covering campaigns, elections and the political climate. Email: DGonyea@npr.org

O. Kay Henderson is the longtime news director for Radio Iowa (Iowa Public Radio), with extensive experience covering the Iowa Caucuses. Kay also serves as a regular panelist on Iowa Public Television's weekly Iowa Press program. Email: khenderson@radioiowa.com

Sasha Issenberg is a contributor to Bloomberg Politics and Washington correspondent for Monocle, where he covers politics, business, diplomacy and culture. Email: sashaissenberg@gmail.com

Laura McGann is deputy managing editor for politics and policy at Vox.com, where she covers the 2016 presidential campaign with a focus on candidates' policy positions. Email: Laura@vox.com

Kathie Obradovich, Des Moines Register, is currently the Register's political columnist. Kathie has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than two decades. Email: kobradovich@dmreg.com

Dave Price, WHO-TV's political director, is the host of the Sunday morning show, The Insiders, and anchor of Channel 13 News on weekend evenings. Email: dave.price@whotv.com

J. Ann Selzer, president, Selzer & Company and director of the Iowa Poll, published in The Des Moines Register. Email: jaselzer@selzerco.com

Joe Shannahan is an LS2 Group, founding partner; he served as communications director for Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin's 2002 campaign and for the Iowa Democratic Party. Email: jshannahan@ls2group.com

Matt Vasilogambros, a staff correspondent for National Journal, covers economic empowerment in a demographically changing country. He has covered Washington politics, foreign affairs and the 2012 presidential election. Email: matt.vasilogambros@gmail.com

Twitter Tags to Follow

@JenniferJJacobs: Des Moines Register's chief politics reporter

@TimAlbrechtIA: Tim Albrecht, director, Redwave Digital, a next-generation data and digital marketing firm; has worked with numerous politicians and campaigns

@tripgabriel: Trip Gabriel, New York Times political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential campaign; in Iowa to cover the caucuses

@nytpolitics: News, analysis and dispatches from The New York Times political team

Blogs Worth Reading

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEightPolitics blog features posts by Nate Silver, Harry Enten and others

The New York Times' politics blog, FirstDraft, provides comprehensive coverage of politics and elections

OpenSecrets Blog offers the lates news from the Center for Responsive Politics

Key Resources

What's a Caucus, Anyway?

The Des Moines Register 2016 Iowa Caucuses Web page: Complete coverage and history of the Iowa Caucuses from the center of it all

Confused About the Iowa Caucuses?: An NPR guide to the caucuses from the 2012 election cycle

Northeastern University's U.S. Political Conventions and Campaigns website explains why the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary are so significant in this Iowa and New Hampshire discussion

Resources from the "Covering Campaigns" Conference

In May 2015, Nieman Foundation at Harvard and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics hosted a joint conference on reporting on the 2016 presidential election. The videos page offers links to key talks and roundtables from the conference. These are:

  • Will Money Buy the Next Presidency?
  • Open Toolbox: How to Follow Money in Politics (And Why)
  • Nieman Storyboard: Live Annotation
  • Covering the Invisible Campaign
  • Learning From Elections About Learning in Elections
  • Engaging Audiences in the Age of Participatory Media
  • Beyond the Horse Race: Covering What Matters in the 2016 Election

Web Resources

The Center for Responsive Politics informs and educates citizens about money in politics. The site tracks campaign contributions and slices and dices the information in multiple ways. Its Top Organization Contributors page lists, for example, total contributions from a huge range of organizations, from the American Federation of Teachers to the United Parcel Service

Democratic National Committee website offers information about issues and demographics that the party is focusing on

On the Issues: Find out where national and state candidates stand on issues, compare them, find text of their speeches and excerpts from their books and more

Republican National Committee website: What is the official GOP platform? What issues is the party focusing on? How is the party targeting different demographic groups?

Alternative-Format Stories

Election coverage can become boring to readers if it is always presented in a straight text-plus-headline format. The examples below, presented at the SRI workshop, illustrate alternative formats that can aid you in educating your audience about the caucuses and other election-related topics.

Video can veer from the straight coverage of a campaign speech into something unexpected:

A BuzzFeed-style quiz can address issues, candidates' positions, history, anything:

Highlighting top quotes is a way to provide important or newsworthy information in an accessible way:

A Vox-style card stack is a great way to present fast facts and easy detail. You don't need a fancy CMS to do this; turn your text into images and upload the images to a slideshow.

An annotation or fact-check of a speech can be presented using DocumentCloud:

You might not get the chance for a long sit-down interview with a candidate; finding those who know more about a huge issue can help you build a narrative:

A well-designed graphic, perhaps created using Infogr.am, Tableau or Census Reporter, can answer questions and provide basic information:

Social media and the Internet are playing a huge role in this election. Pay attention to trends — maybe using Google Trends — and controversies. But don't forget to fact-check!

Last but not least ... don't forget to have some fun, maybe with a parody:

Training

Webinar Replays

Covering a Presidential Campaign from Outside the Beltway: Learn how to offer smart and meaningful presidential campaign coverage, even if you can't be on the trail with the candidates.

Fueling Investigative Reporting for 2014 Elections: Learn to sniff out the connections between campaign donors and political candidates and figure out the influence that prominent donors have on candidates and issues. This Webinar and Resources Page grew out of a 2014 Specialized Reporting Institute.

Money in Politics: Investigating Campaign Finance in Your State and Nationally: The National Institute on Money in State Politics tracks the campaign finance contributions through its website FollowTheMoney.org. This Webinar replay guides you through this and other online databases that track the money flowing into political campaigns.

How to Work with Campaign Finance Data: Thanks to Citizens United and other recent court decisions, campaign finance has become more confusing, more varied and more important than ever before. This Webinar replay will help you better understand how to interpret and analyze campaign finance data and generate story ideas.

Political Fact-Checking: Tips and Tricks for the 2012 Election: Learn to write clearly, concisely and accurately. Bill Adair, the editor of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site, discusses the best practices in political fact-checking.

Election 2012 Reporting: Understanding Opinion Polls: Confidently pull the legitimate numbers and sort good data from sloppy surveys; learn to effectively evaluate polling methods and data.

Poynter Broadcast

Examining PunditFact and Its Role in Journalism: A Poynter Broadcast: An in-depth look at the impact of PunditFact's work and how the fact-checking of pundits can improve, expand and further help ensure an informed electorate. This is a replay of a free two-hour Poynter NewsU broadcast held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10.

Reporting on Super PACs

A 2012 Specialized Reporting Institute examined the impact of the Citizens United decision on campaign finance. This Resources Page compiles resources from the workshop and the Web.