Spring 2019 IOP Fellow David Yepsen is a career long journalist, working thirty-four years with the Des Moines Register, including as the paper’s chief political writer, political editor and political columnist. From 2009–2016 he was the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He currently is the host of Iowa Public Television’s weekly “Iowa Press” public affairs program.
David sat down with the Gate to provide insights into the upcoming presidential caucuses held in his home state, how big money has influenced political reporting, and his advice for up and coming journalists.
The Gate: You have covered nine presidential campaign cycles. What has changed in presidential elections and what remains the same?
David Yepsen: The arrival of social media has speeded up everything. You don’t have a news cycle because it’s always a news cycle. It’s just faster. There is less civility. We live in crude times: social media and anonymity can foster a lot of incivility. I think it’s generally true in our culture. The use of the f-word, candidates say[ing] they are pissed off—those actions were not common even a few cycles ago. I think that’s the biggest change. For better or for worse, passions are running high, and I think that’s good. People are interested and turnout is going up. People are engaged and rightly so.
Gate: What has remained the same?
DY: Nothing beats one on one contact with a voter. There are still voter turnouts going on, even though you have computers to decide who the target voters are. Running a caucus or “get out the vote” campaign looks the same as it did many years ago in the City of Chicago ward race for alderman.
The interesting thing is that we are so awash in media information, television, radio.The messaging is online, and we can't avoid. Good campaigns are going back to the future and saying the best way is to find a voter, talk to them, get them registered, know who they are for, and get them to their polling place. We are back to one-on-one human contact right at the doorstep. Campaigns are won on the doorsteps.
Gate: In your experience, what are Iowa voters receptive to? What will make the candidates in a crowded field stand out?
DY: People think of Iowa and they think of farmers and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. You can set that aside. Activist democrats in Iowa are no different than they are here in Illinois and other places in the country. They are constituency groups, labor, civil rights organization, social justice people. They are left of center, tend to be higher educated with higher incomes. What they care about is no different than what those people care about around the country. Their first issue would be climate change. The weather we have reminds us of that every day. In Iowa, there is record rainfall. Stories are today in the paper that many farmers will let their fields lie fallow. They can’t get in to plant them, and even if they could, the crop is just not worth anything. This is unheard of. It’s the one thing on everybody’s mind.
The word ‘caucus’ is thought to be a Algonquian term that means a meeting of tribal leaders. You can think of it as a meeting of leaders of the Democratic tribe. They care deeply about beating Trump—electability. It’s always been an issue, who can win. You hear that people like so and so but they don’t think they can win. All that’s happening now: auditions for who can win.
Gate: Will Trump be involved in Iowa at all? What influence does the incumbent party have in primaries?
DY: Republicans worry that with all this activity on the Democratic side they have got to do things to fire up their base and turnout. They don’t want to be caught up short. At the end of this process, there are two thousand precincts and both parties have a really good list of who their respective Democrats and Republicans are. These are people they go back to in November.
Mike Pence has been to Iowa a couple of times.
I expect Donald Trump to be campaigning in Iowa the day before the caucuses. In 1984, it was the same thing. Reagan was president and running for a second term. All the activity was on the Democratic side. There was half a dozen candidates, Walter Mondale was the leading candidate, and they had crisscrossed the state for a year or two. So Republicans brought Reagan into the state the day of the caucuses, went to the two largest media markets, and then left thirty minutes before the caucasus started. He controlled the news cycle, as the president does, crowded out the Democrats, and took all the oxygen out of the room, and reminded Republicans “hey, we gotta get out too.”
But even that gave the Democrats an advantage. Senator Harkin, who was elected to the Senate that year, in 1984, [by] defeated an incumbent Republican, told me one of the reasons he won was that all the activism in his party gave him a great ground game in every part of the state and he was able to defeat the incumbent. The Republican just did not have that energy and activism, because Reagan was going to win. That’s what I expect from Trump.
Now, Trump being Trump, what he is doing now is a huge amount of tweeting. He may try to influence something. He has tweeted a lot about Biden. Trump by what he does affects how Democrats react. He’s clearly acting like he’s afraid of Biden, because he’s running him down. That has the effect of telling Democrats, “You know, maybe Joe Biden is the guy we should go with.” Biden’s poll numbers have gone up since he announced, so you get a situation where “Biden may be too old and I like Elizabeth Warren’s economic inequality stuff, but Biden can win and Trump is scared.”
The President always sets the agenda. It’s about what he does and doesn't do. There could be a foreign policy crisis. We call them October surprises, in February caucuses we call them January surprises.
Gate: When is the exact date of the Iowa Caucus?
DY: February 3. That might change—sometimes Democrats fight over who is going to go first but it looks pretty solid.
Gate: When Americans from around the country turn their eyes to the on the ground battle of the candidates in Iowa, what should they know that might not come across in the news coverage?
DY: I think that it is such an upfront and personal campaign many of the people who will go have met candidates, or know someone who has. The biggest influencers a voter has is someone they are close to, whose judgment they respect and knows something about politics, telling them what candidate they like. That’s something you don’t see.
Gate: How does one maintain the integrity of objective political analysis when political views are inherently subjective?
DY: I tell people that I don’t think there is any such thing as objectivity. We are all a product of our environment. The key to that is not objectivity but being fair and treating people the way you want to be treated and identifying your own biases.
I am a sixty-eight year old white male from college educated, born and raised in a town of 4,200 in Iowa, in the Midwest. That gives me a worldview that's different from a young African American woman living in an underserved neighborhood in Chicago. I know I am looking at things through my lense, and that might not be accurate. You have to be careful. The golden rule has a lot to do with it. Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. If you take a shot at somebody, make sure someone has a chance to reply. I always saw it when I was covering campaigns. Everyone you deal with on campaigns, even candidates, you let them know you’re trying to be fair and if there are any problems try to get them fixed. People know you care and want to be fair and you’ll let them have their say. It’s hard to do in these times.
That’s the important thing: treat people fairly and recognize that you might not have the same view.
Tangentially, that’s one of the reasons I’m really big on diversity. It’s not so much about political correctness to me: it’s about having people who can get the story. Where bias enters in is not so much in the way a story gets covered, it’s on the decision what get covered and what doesn’t. It’s called agenda setting. On a given day, there are five possible stories and I can only do two of them. What do I do and what do I leave behind? That’s where those subliminal biases come in. I happen to think infrastructure is an important issue and abortion is a hot button issue that a lot has been said about. So if a candidate is talking about infrastructure I might write about that and not an abortion issue. Well, is that because I’m a guy and infrastructure is a guy thing? Am I blowing off reproductive rights as an issue? A woman might look at that and same situation and come to a different conclusions. The way biases come into journalism is the decision of what we cover. I won’t change someone’s mind on a hot button issue such a abortion, but I can sure make them think about it. If I put a page one story or a newscast, people will think about where they stand. They will think about abortion, and not infrastructure or income inequality. That’s why I think diversity is important, in terms of the news decisions as to what gets covered.
There’s a lot more diversity in the media than ever before. Not just in terms of news media, but bloggers. Everyone is empowered to be a news source. But even in traditional news organizations. I think that the majority of the people out on the road are women. That was not true when I started. When you look at the scrum around candidates when they get off the plane, it’s mostly women.
Gate: How has political analysis changed in the age of big money politics?
DY: We are awash of money. A lot of people are beyond being angry. The courts have ruled, it’s a free speech right. At best, you may try to explain who is giving money. But even there, nobody is surprised that trial lawyers give money to Democrats or that the Koch brothers are giving money to Republicans. Campaign finance stories tend to read like they are written on an adding machine: “these people gave to that candidate, and those people gave to that candidate.”
Tell the news consumers something they don’t know about money in politics and you might have a story, but everybody knows. Messaging, Facebook, all that comes at a price and people start to tune in out after a while. Especially a place like Iowa. You had it here in Illinois when you had two wealthy candidates funneling a lot of their own money. It just gets annoying.
Gate: How does money influence policy discussions and narratives, and what is the role of the journalist in explaining policy situations that have been contorted by monetary influence?
DY: First of all, you need to explain to people what is going on and explain the forces at work. You can’t outlaw monetary influence, but you can explain it. You can write a story about the campaign contributions that key committee members are getting from industries. At least people can be aware. If you are a columnist, you can express outrage. But a journalist can explain how monetary influence is a factor in the debate.
Gate: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Go into it with your eyes open. It is very rewarding. It’s a tumultuous time though, be flexible. You’re going to be working in media that has not even been invented. Ten years ago, nobody had heard of Politico. It used to be radio, TV, and newspaper. Now it’s digital. The medium you will be working in may change.
Journalism is very rewarding, but it has its downsides. It’s addicting because there is always something going on. But after a while you have to strive for some work life balance.
I think you need to be a diverse person. You don’t need to know the answers, but you need to know the right questions to ask. Being a diverse person can help you be a better reporter because most reporters are such generalists now you are going to have to do a variety of assignments. You might have to go interview the candidate running for governor in the morning and the new director for the arts center in the afternoon.
Being diverse means being well read and informed. I urge students to eat a good news diet. Figure out what credible news sources you like, and what are ones you don’t agree with. You need to have a variety of news sources coming into your mind so you don’t get a distorted worldview. If you the read New York Times, which is left of center, and the Wall Street Journal, which is right of center, then you’ll get a balanced view and understand the questions that have to be asked.
But start building your database now. The issues in this campaign cycle such as climate change and healthcare—they are not going away anytime soon. In a few years, you’ll be covering this stuff.
Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.