Iowans prepare state for national spotlight

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses garner the state political prominence and worldwide media attention every four years and so Iowa tourism promoters and party leaders are gearing up to take full advantage the spotlight once again.

“We’re probably never going to have more national media coverage than at the caucuses, so this is a great time to build up Iowa’s image,” said Greg Edwards, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.

It’s also an ideal time for an economic boost. Since the candidates first visited the state to scope out supporters for their presidential campaigns two years ago, Iowa has enjoyed the economic benefits from scores of campaign staffers and reporters spending money statewide.

Though no one knows exactly how much of an economic impact the Iowa caucuses have on the state, it is estimated to be in the millions of dollars, especially when the preceding months of campaigning are taken into account.

“It certainly helps [the state's economy],” Kristin Scuderi, communications director for the Iowa Republican Party, said, “because the candidates are raising money nationally and they’re spending it here on staff and commercials, as well as hotels and media and staff traveling with them.”

Ben Foecke, the director of the caucuses for the Iowa Democratic Party, estimated the 2000 caucuses and related campaigning brought $70 million to $90 million to the state, though he is unsure of how he arrived at the figure.

“It’s like Christmas time,” Foecke said. “The economic impact is biggest right around caucus time, just like during holiday seasons.”

Foecke credits part of the economic boom to political activists from around the country coming to Iowa to participate in the campaigns. As early as two years prior to a presidential election, campaign workers from about 30 states flock to Iowa to work on a governor or senator's election campaign, in anticipation of the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

“Working on a campaign in Iowa is proving ground if you want to get involved in politics,” Foecke said. “It retains its professionalism, because of the caucuses, and we keep a staff here year-round because there's an election going on every two years. Few other state parties compare.”

Four presidential campaigns have between 50 and 100 staffers in Iowa right now, with organizations often doubling in size on caucus night and occasionally reaching up to 500 members, Foecke said. Add the influx of political reporters to the state, and Foecke is certain that Iowa's restaurants, taverns, hotels, car rentals, gas stations, shops, and other businesses will benefit.

Susan Ramsey, who coordinates the Greater Des Moines Partnership's efforts to welcome visiting media and candidates to the capital area during the Iowa caucuses, said that although the economy is undoubtedly helped, the impact is not as great as when a sports tournament is held in Des Moines.

“I don't know that anyone has put a number on it,” said the senior vice president of the partnership's communication and marketing. “I’d be skeptical of any number, because of the difficulty of tracking reporters.”

The value of the caucuses comes instead from the opportunity for Iowans to be the first to address issues of concern to presidential candidates and help shape the image of their state, Ramsey said.

“Iowans have the opportunity to talk one-on-one with who might be the next leader of the free world, something that most citizens don't have,” she said. “Whatever the issues are, we get to be the voices of the nation, something we treasure.”

With herds of reporters coming to the state to cover the caucuses, often for the first time, Ramsey said it is important for Iowans to give visitors a positive experience and an accurate portrayal of what the state has to offer.

“When we're talking to people who've never been to the Midwest, they have the impression that most of the population lives in rural areas, which is certainly not the case,” she said. “Or perhaps they do not have an impression of Iowa at all or its geography. We want to give them their first look.”

Through the Greater Des Moines Partnership's caucus resource Web site, located at www.iowacaucus.info, the organization is reaching out to reporters and other visitors to the state, providing them with information about the caucuses, local politics, and community resources. The partnership also has sent out mailings to political reporters across the country, providing them with materials on local business information, demographic profiles, and maps of the area.

“We make sure they have everything they need and can help them get obstacles out of the way,” Ramsey said. “We have a wealth of resources to draw from that can help them with background for a story or if they need a dry cleaners or cell phone battery while they're in town.”

The Greater Des Moines Partnership also offers briefings and receptions for reporters, like one at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, DC, in June, when the Web site was launched. Another media briefing is planned with the State Economic Development Department as more reporters arrive in Iowa closer to the caucuses, and the group also plans to do an outreach for candidates to address issues it thinks are significant to Greater Des Moines, like world trade, health care, investment opportunities, and continuing economic development.

Ramsey has helped CNN and MSNBC find permanent offices in Des Moines and many television correspondents find a good backdrop of the city's skyline. She said that reporters are often surprised to learn of Des Moines’ status as the third largest financial and insurance center in the world and see all the startup businesses and expansion amid a national recession.

“The image is overall improving dramatically, and we have the citizens of Iowa to thank for that, because they are engaged and stay informed, and that's coming out,” Ramsey said.

Edwards, who also promotes the Greater Des Moines area through the Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he hopes the media will portray the state as a good place for businesses and families to grow and as one with highly educated and friendly citizens.

“Hopefully, reporters will show some of that instead of showing pigs and cornfields,” he said.

The bureau has done a pre-publicity campaign with major media outlets, sending them film clips about the area and general information packets. Once these reporters arrive in Iowa, the organization also hopes to meet them, “doing little things for them like leaving them gifts in their hotel,” Edwards said.

Foecke, as director of the Iowa caucuses for the Democratic Party, will work with reporters and candidates more directly, training the media on the caucus process and how to interpret the results, and informing candidates of the locations and number of delegates elected from each caucus site so they can figure out their strategies.

He said the caucuses were moved a half-hour earlier this year, at 6:30 p.m., to assist television reporters in getting caucus reports on the 10 p.m. news. Foecke said reporters will be located at more than 60 percent of Iowa’s caucus sites, particularly in the bigger precincts or in more quaint settings, like barns.

“They portray Iowans as genial, laid-back folks who are politically astute, because this is not a simple process,” he said. “The fact that ordinary folks are participating in a complex process says a lot about our educational image.”

Foecke said the Democratic and Republican parties of Iowa have been working together to maintain the state's status as the first presidential nominating event on the political calendar, but that it is a continual struggle.

“We fight every four years for it, because we realize the benefits of it, not only for the [political parties], but to the people of Iowa,” he said.

E-mail Shelbi Thomas at shelbi-thomas@uiowa.edu.

This story was published in The Sac (City, Iowa) Sun on November 11, 2003.

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