June 18, 2024

Maybe it was the apocalyptically cold weather, with wind chills reaching minus 43 Fahrenheit. Or the winnowed field of candidates and an anxiety-addled electorate that is dreading the prospect of the first rerun election since the Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson rematch of 1956.

For whatever reason, the usual media circus that accompanies the Iowa caucuses has felt smaller this year, literally and spiritually.

The number of credentialed journalists fell to 1,200, from 2,600 four years ago. Some big name TV stars stayed home. The lobby bar of the Des Moines Marriott Downtown, once a buzzing, gossip-soaked node of Washington- and Manhattan-based reporters, anchors and operatives, was a ghost town late Saturday night. The attenuated vibe was best summed up by a T-shirt on sale in the hotel gift shop:

“Election 2024: Welp, I Guess We’re Doing This Again.”

Between low levels of voter interest, diminished debate ratings and a polling advantage for Donald J. Trump that has sapped much of the usual suspense, signs of media malaise had emerged even before last week’s blizzard dumped 22.9 inches of snow on Des Moines.

Ahead of a CNN debate, Steve Peoples of The Associated Press observed that the spin room — usually a hothouse of jostling spokespeople — was “basically empty” except for Griff II, a jowly bulldog mascot “whose face tells the story of this campaign.” Dave Weigel, a trail warrior who reports for Semafor, called the caucus a “cold and miserable trudge to Trump’s inevitable Iowa win.” Jonathan Martin, another veteran correspondent, wrote about “this desultory excuse of a presidential primary.”

I called Mr. Martin, a columnist at Politico, on Sunday for his take on the Iowa media scene. It turned out he was already back in Washington.

“I just left,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Martin, who previously worked as a correspondent at The New York Times, spent a week in Iowa but went home once the snowstorm hit and campaigns canceled many of their events. “There’s definitely story lines that matter there, but there are so many fewer candidates still left in the race” than in 2020, he said. “And Trump’s advantage is considerably larger than past front-runners.” For the first time in a long career, he plans to watch the caucus results somewhere other than Iowa.

Some TV networks reduced their footprint, too. “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC mainstay that usually relocates to Iowa and New Hampshire in election years, is skipping both states. ABC’s David Muir, who reported from Iowa on caucus night in 2020, is anchoring in New York on Monday. Norah O’Donnell had planned to be in Des Moines, but CBS decided to keep her in Washington after the weather scrambled candidates’ plans.

On Saturday, as temperatures plummeted below zero, nearly every candidate event was scrapped. So reporters trekked to a West Des Moines office park for an appearance by Ron DeSantis, gambling that the 10-minute drive from downtown would be brief enough not to put anyone’s life at risk. (The occasional sight of a jackknifed trailer marooned on the interstate suggested otherwise.)

Inside, Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa Evangelical leader, dismissed the tough polls for his candidate. “The media doesn’t select our caucus winner,” he hollered. “You select our caucus winner!” Unfortunately, a healthy share of the crowd were, in fact, members of the news media. If there were Iowans in the room, they were tough to find: One journalist looking for local color approached an attendee who turned out to be an editor at The Times.

News networks still employ “embeds,” who follow candidates around the country, and dozens of TV journalists were in Iowa to cover the caucus. But while elections are usually a boon time for ratings and revenue — and star-making opportunities for plucky journalists assigned to an upstart candidate — this year’s circumstances are testing even that truism.

The recent Republican primary debates, which Mr. Trump boycotted, were among the lowest-rated in history. Networks are under economic strain — NBC News just announced dozens of layoffs — and some journalists wonder if Mr. Trump’s legal entanglements will prove more decisive than events on the trail.

“I look at the TV and half the time, it’s legal experts talking about Trump, not the reporters in Iowa talking about Iowa,” said Mr. Weigel of Semafor, as he nursed a rye manhattan at a Des Moines bar on Saturday night. “We’ve got reporters here outside in unhealthy conditions. I’m thinking, ‘I just watched your producer risk hypothermia to see Ron DeSantis. Put him on!’”

Whether candidates’ appearances can move the needle with voters is another question. With the increasingly nationalized nature of presidential politics, and the rise of social media, Mr. Trump is favored to take an easy victory on Monday despite spending far less time in Iowa than his rivals.

“Republican voters ask about what they saw on Fox News the night before,” said Pat Rynard, an Iowa journalist who oversees political coverage for Courier Newsroom, an online site. “There are far less Iowa-specific questions, or even questions specific to their own lives or their own jobs. What people are whipped up about the most is what popped up in their Facebook feed.”

Mr. Rynard, whose website Iowa Starting Line was a popular campaign read in 2020, said he expected voter turnout to be lower on Monday, regardless of the weather. This year’s caucus, he said, “just hasn’t been as interesting or dynamic.”

The same could be said for the reporters’ social scene. Four years ago, Tammy Haddad, the Washington doyenne, imported her A-list charity jamboree from Georgetown to Des Moines, calling it the Snowflake Garden Brunch. This time around, she opted out. “A Below-Zero Garden Brunch doesn’t have the same vibe,” she wrote in a text message.

A crowd did pop up at the recently renovated Hotel Fort Des Moines, headquarters for the Trump campaign crew and an assortment of MAGA semi-celebrities like Kari Lake, the former Arizona gubernatorial candidate. Trump aides gathered nightly in the Edison bulb ambience of the hotel’s cocktail bar, In Confidence, although for a speakeasy, the place insisted on a lot of rules: One barkeep forbid revelers from borrowing a stool from a completely empty table. So much for Iowa Nice.

As for the Marriott lobby, where a sighting of Mitt Romney toting his own wheelie bag in 2012 counted as a major event, the usual throngs failed to materialize. Vanity Fair once described the bar as “ideal for seeing whether anyone more important or attractive is behind the person you’re talking to.” This weekend, Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post was overheard calling it “moribund.”

On Sunday night, with the caucus mere hours away, a handful of journalists lingered over beers. By midnight, it had mostly emptied out.