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Trump dominance and snowy weather put Iowa caucus economy on ice

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Even before a snowstorm grounded Des Moines Friday, the city felt decidedly quieter than it usually does around the Iowa caucuses: quiet restaurants, empty streets, bartenders with few things to do.

The numbers bear it out: the 2024 caucuses are expected to bring to the capital less than 40% of the direct economic impact brought by the 2020 contest – an estimated $4.2 million, down from $11.3 million. Four years ago. Direct economic impact measures what visitors do, such as sleeping, driving, eating and drinking.

This is a striking decline that reflects, among other things, diminished media engagement in a presidential race that is less competitive than in previous years, when the state was flooded with presidential candidates, their campaigns and teams of journalists on their heels.

“Media is down,” said Greg Edwards, executive director of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, which provided the numbers. “The big networks aren’t sending out their main anchors like they have in the past.”

The $4.2 million figure does not represent the total economic boom from the Iowa caucuses. Tens of millions of dollars have flowed into the state in recent months, culminating this week in a frenzy of events. Campaigns and the super PACs supporting them spent $119.6 million on television advertising in Iowa, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media tracking company.

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Downtown Des Moines on Friday, when presidential candidates canceled several events.Credit…Hilary Swift for the New York Times
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The caucuses’ economic side effect, in the form of increased visitor spending in the state, was lagging this season, even before the snow arrived.Credit…Jordan Gale for the New York Times

The caucuses’ impact on Iowa’s economy generally manifests itself through two main channels. First, campaigns and political committees spend millions on Iowa-based consultants, strategists, ad agencies and television time as candidates attempt to introduce themselves to Iowans, generate interest and motivate potential participants to the caucuses.

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Will Rogers, a Republican operative in Des Moines, said a “generation of consultants” has developed in Iowa, working to guide candidates to the caucuses. He assumed that there were more political consultants per capita in Iowa than almost anywhere else.

“The caucuses made a lot of money,” he said.

The caucuses also have a side effect on the economy, in the form of increased footfall at hotels, car rental agencies, cafes, restaurants and even clothing stores. (Newbie political journalists, for example, might forget to bring warm socks.)

This is the measure that was late this season, even before the blizzard hit.

Steve Cook, who runs an audiovisual company in Iowa City, is one of many beneficiaries of Iowa’s four-year boom in economic activity.

His company, Steve Cook Sound, managed events for several Republican candidates this cycle. To cope with the increase in work in January, it brought in additional crews, covering dozens of events each week. In 2023, its gross income increased tenfold, compared to three in 2019, when it was primarily a subcontractor.

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Steve Cook, who runs an audiovisual company in Iowa City, at an event for Nikki Haley at the Olympic Southside Theater in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
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Mr Cook’s company had to reposition teams across the state this week as snow disrupted campaign plans.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“The caucus is a huge boost for me,” Mr Cook said. “Iowa’s economic boom is incredible.”

But on Friday, Mr. Cook was holed up in his Iowa City office with his dog, ordering his staff to stand down, or even turn around, while campaigns reassessed their plans because of the weather.

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“I had to juggle a lot to position people,” Mr. Cook said. He wasn’t even thinking yet, he said, about “the income I could have gained compared to what I’m going to lose.”

This season, Iowa’s boom has been affected by several factors, officials and political observers said, including Mr. Trump’s runaway lead in primary polls. On the Democratic side, President Biden abandoned Iowa in favor of South Carolina at the top of the nomination calendar — and, anyway, he faces no serious challenge in the primaries.

In 2020, more than 2,000 media representatives signed up to cover the on-the-ground caucuses in Iowa, Edwards said. This time there are only 900. In a city center with 1,800 hotel rooms, that makes a big difference.

The weather also complicated things. The arrival of snow led to flight cancellations. Negative temperatures are expected to set in over the weekend.

The BeechWood Lounge, located in the city’s East Village neighborhood near the Capitol building, is a local favorite. In previous caucuses, the small space was filled late at night with production crews and camera operators during their off hours.

“CNN had eight to 10 people every night” in 2020, Eric Olson, the bar’s general manager, said Thursday. “The talent goes to bed and the team goes.”

“Every four years, for once, everyone cares about Iowa,” he said.

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“Every four years, for once, everyone cares about Iowa,” Eric Olson, general manager of a bar in Des Moines, said Thursday.Credit…Hilary Swift for the New York Times
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Before previous caucuses, Mr. Olson’s small bar was packed late at night with after-hours production crews, but it has been quieter this year.Credit…Hilary Swift for the New York Times

He saw an increase in business of around 25% in 2020 and estimates that this year it would be around 15%. He had hired an extra bartender for the week, but canceled it after seeing the weather forecast, which called for snow overnight and temperatures dropping to single digits over the weekend.

“At 5 degrees, no one is going to want to walk a block,” he said.