Networks are heavily promoting their night of Iowa caucus coverage, with reporters fanned out across the state and, throughout the day on Monday, anchors doing their best to stir up excitement in the waiting game before voting actually begins.
But as large as the investment is for broadcast and cable networks, the coverage is facing heavy competition on the night of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Fox has the Emmys, and ABC has what is likely to draw the biggest audience, the NFL playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Broadcast networks are sticking to their regular schedules with the possibility of news updates, leaving the ongoing coverage to their streaming and cable channels.
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Four years ago, about 8.5 million watched Iowa caucus coverage across the three major cable news networks, but it was for a Democratic primary with a tight race for first place. In 2016, some 10.2 million watched across the three networks, but that was a close race for candidates in both parties.
This time around, expectations are that former President Donald Trump will win handily, setting up a competitive battle for second place between former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Iowa is the beginning of the road. The question is, whether, by the end of this evening, it will be the end of the road for some candidates,” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny said from Des Moines. “There is no doubt that the Trump organization has been preparing for this evening for months and months.”
Zeleny and other reporters also raised questions of just how wide of a margin of victory Trump will get out of the evening, something that will be chewed over extensively as the results come in.
In the numbers race, the impact of Iowa is small — voters will select 40 delegates out of 2,429 total. And while Iowa is influential in driving media exposure and momentum going into New Hampshire, it is not the be all and end all.
On Fox News, analyst Brit Hume reminded viewers, “Iowa for some time has not been a predictor of the Republican nomination contest. It could be a source of momentum, but momentum has often fizzled after Iowa. It’s worth keeping that in mind.”
The race in Iowa has been a treasure trove for local stations and cable operators. According to research firm AdImpact, almost $120 million has been spent by campaigns and PACs on ads in the state, with Nikki Haley leading the pack with $35.5 million.
Candidates spent the day going to get-out-the-vote caucus events, while Trump spoke briefly to reporters at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. “We’ve won it twice, as you know, in two elections, and I think we are going to have a tremendous night tonight. … In Iowa I have never seen spirit like this.” Trump actually lost the 2016 caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Democrats countered with their own press conference, with Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) joined by campaign co-chair Jeffrey Katzenberg. While they warned of an extreme MAGA-Trump agenda,” they also got in a few comments about the weather, with the state facing its coldest caucus on record. Appearing earlier on Morning Joe, Katzenberg told Joe Scarborough, “It’s minus 10 degrees, headed to a frigid minus 40. I don’t know whether you have ever experienced that before. Not sure you need to. But trust me, it’s special.”
The chill has been an ongoing theme throughout the day, as reporters highlight the tundra-like atmosphere and its potential impact on turnout. Unlike a primary, voters in caucuses have to show up at a designated time — 7 p.m. CT.
Trump provided a much viewers soundbite on Sunday, when he told his supporters, “You can’t sit home. If you’re sick as a dog … even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it.”
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