Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
The Republican primaries as farce
Illustration by Nate Sweitzer

Illustration by Nate Sweitzer

On the Saturday before the Iowa caucuses, the super PAC supporting Florida governor Ron DeSantis staged a “drop by” for the candidate at its headquarters in West Des Moines. Outside the modernist office park, much of the Upper Midwest was under a deep freeze brought on by a low-pressure system that had deposited more than a foot of snow in advance of a surge of arctic air that brought the wind chill into the negative thirties. Despite the atrocious road conditions, DeSantis was keeping his schedule as a “special guest” of the Never Back Down PAC, beginning the day at the far western end of Iowa, in Council Bluffs, and concluding it three hundred miles east, in Davenport.

The media, on the other hand, was mostly looking to stay within the cozy confines of the handful of hotels in Des Moines that have become mainstays of the Beltway set that condescends to visit Iowa every four years, most notably the Marriott Downtown and the Fort Des Moines. While only about fifteen journalists were present to document DeSantis speaking to a room of about sixty Iowans that morning in Council Bluffs, the ratio was completely inverted in West Des Moines. As reporters swarmed into Never Back Down’s office suite, they piled their coats in front of conference rooms and withdrew notebooks, microphones, and cameras, circulating under the drop ceiling in hopes of finding a prospective caucusgoer who hadn’t already been interviewed.

After being propositioned by someone from Bloomberg, I pressed past a super PAC employee in a Miami Dolphins Starter jacket and a cloud of bored journalists watching college basketball. I finally found some air behind the camera well where Noel Phillips, the North America correspondent for Good Morning Britain, was surveying the room. Encased in a blue parka, Phillips said he’d arrived on Thursday, just before the storm hit. “Maybe it’s the weather, but every day getting up is like. . . ,” he said, trailing off into a laborious groan.

While the weather didn’t exactly improve matters, it was hardly responsible for the malaise of the reporters tasked with covering the 2024 Republican primaries. Donald Trump had maintained a gargantuan lead in the polls for months, the margin only growing as the field of credible rivals winnowed to just DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. By January, his lead over both stood at fifty points nationally and thirty points in Iowa. The former president’s hold over his party was so complete that, starting in the fall, much of the news media had resigned itself to covering the “race for second place,” a phrase that became widespread after a debate in Alabama that Trump declined to attend. nikki haley tops ron desantis for the first time in iowa poll went the Washington Post headline for a write-up of a poll finding that 54 percent of respondents backed Trump, while the Wall Street Journal announced that as iowa prepares to vote, focus is on who places second to donald trump.

When I asked New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi if she’d be making the trip to Iowa for the caucuses, she replied, “There’s not really a story there.” At the same time, she allowed that “anything could happen . . . it’s not like there’s no point in covering this.” Nearly every journalist I met in Iowa and New Hampshire over the next two weeks was walking that tightrope between “not really a story” and “anything could happen,” with only a handful coming down decisively on one side or the other. For those like Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who left Iowa before the caucuses began, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. On the other side of the spectrum was Philip Wegmann, of Real Clear Politics. “I’m so sick and tired of the arrogance of the press saying this is over,” Wegmann told me. “In ’16 it was ‘Trump is impossible’; now it’s ‘Trump is inevitable.’ At a certain point, shouldn’t we have a bit of humility?”

While less than half as many credentialed journalists visited Des Moines this year as in 2020, the fact that upwards of a thousand reporters did show up indicated a persistent desire across much of the media to cover this primary season like any other. No outlet took that charge more seriously than the New York Times, which sent more than fifty staffers to Iowa, including the paper’s managing editor, Carolyn Ryan. However strong the belief that the press would somehow repeat the mistakes of the 2016 primary season by believing the polls instead of dismissing them, the desultory atmosphere at the packed event in West Des Moines made it clear that, though anything could happen, hopes were not particularly high that anything would.

As Ron DeSantis’s opening act of Bob Vander Plaats and Chip Roy (one of the only members of Congress who had risked Trump’s ire by endorsing the governor) took their turns onstage, word spread that DeSantis himself would answer questions in the lobby after he addressed his supporters. I followed the exodus into the office building’s glass entryway, where a Never Back Down apparatchik in a red fleece instructed us to stand on one side of a green strip of tape he had just laid down on the tile floor. Next, he led a line of DeSantis supporters over to the doors. For a few minutes, we stood there: a dozen voters and a hundred members of the press, staring one another down across the gap of space that had been left open for the man who would not be president.

Vander Plaats, a conservative activist who has run unsuccessfully for governor three times, was the first speaker to stride out and fill the void, but as the jovial Iowan started talking about how the weather might affect turnout, the Times’ Maggie Haberman slunk out from the interior of the scrum, muttering “no DeSantis.” Still, most of the journalists stayed put until the PAC produced another surrogate, Florida state senator Blaise Ingoglia. At that point the media melted away, a handful of the TV people leaking back to the office suite to try to corral any volunteers who might have stuck around to clean up, while most of the print folks simply peered through the windows, watching the vicious wind scatter snowdrifts across the parking lot and wondering what to do with themselves. On the way to grab my coat, I had to edge past Phillips in the hall, where he was doing a walk-and-talk with Ingoglia in a bid to wring some usable footage out of the event. The money quote: “We need strong leadership, and Nikki Haley, unfortunately, has proven that she’s not up to the task.”

As I trudged from event to event, first in Iowa and then New Hampshire, it became obvious that the political press has not yet adjusted itself to the realities of the digital era. Both Haley and DeSantis were running traditional retail campaigns, built on marathon trips from VFW hall to BBQ joint, and they were getting crushed. But unlike in earlier eras, when embedding with a campaign at least provided reporters with regular access to the candidate, the contenders for second place largely remained under lock and key. There was little to be gleaned from the retail stops and few opportunities to develop sources within each campaign, yet most reporters continued to follow a journalistic playbook written in the Sixties even as they spent the bulk of every event staring at a phone or a laptop in order to stay engaged with the virtual space in which Trump was lapping the field. Only the most intrepid reporters recognized the campaign trail as an opportunity to build a network of forthcoming aides and prioritized those private conversations over shadowing the candidates at every single event.

The decision of mastheads and program directors to throw so many resources at the race for second place was even harder to stomach given that, just as campaign coverage kicked into high gear, the business of news itself entered free fall: more than eight hundred journalists were laid off in January, adding to the more than three thousand who had lost their jobs in 2023. Despite all that, here we were, cycling through the same set of venues that we visit every four years and writing the same sorts of stories that have been published for decades, to little demonstrable result. The best articulation of the mood of 2024’s political press came from the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whom I met at a Haley event in Exeter, New Hampshire. “We’re all going through the motions,” he said, looking around a high school auditorium where a clutch of colleagues were gazing into their laptops. “Can I go home yet?”

To understand how presidential campaigns are covered in the digital era, it’s necessary to get one popular misconception out of the way: There is no bus. No shared hotel. In short, no access. Theodore White sitting with John F. Kennedy as he watched returns from the Wisconsin primary; John McCain ensconced in the back of the Straight Talk Express, barking, “Ask me another question!”; Barack Obama inviting reporters over for a round of beers on the eve of the Iowa caucuses—that age is over.

In the 2024 Republican primaries, the closest any journalist came to a campaign bus was a Sprinter van. Starting in the summer of 2023, Never Back Down provided transportation to a handful of reporters following the DeSantis campaign, including representatives from each of the major broadcast networks, the Times’ Nicholas Nehamas, and occasional guest appearances from the Post, NPR reporters, and other national and local press, depending on the candidate’s schedule. The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, the Haley campaign adopted the same tactic. On the first day, there was a festive atmosphere in the van, with reporters joking and chatting between stops. But by the morning before the primary the novelty had worn off, and the van was silent on the way to the candidate’s first event in Franklin, save for an anonymous reporter’s baroque snoring.

By many accounts, the shift in access first took hold in 2008. On the Republican side, McCain transitioned from one of the most open candidates in memory, during his 2000 run, to increasingly guarded, partially because of his campaign’s unfamiliarity with nascent social-media platforms. Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, remembered his campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, telling her he’d had to fire a staffer for putting out “something nasty about Obama” on “this thing called Twitter.” Bash said, “I was like, ‘What’s Twitter?’ and he said, ‘I have no idea!’ ”

More consequential was the rapid adoption of smartphones: suddenly not only could everything a candidate said be easily recorded, but they might be captured on video as well. Though Obama had been fairly accessible in the early going, things began to change on a flight from Boise to Minneapolis ahead of Super Tuesday, when a casual chat with the candidate became a standoff. Obama noticed a few reporters had begun recording the exchange on their phones and insisted the conversation was off the record. Naturally, the Times’ Jeff Zeleny objected, since it’s bad practice to retroactively impose restrictions on a conversation that’s already in midstream. “We’re not on the plane, in my view, to have private talks with presidential candidates,” Zeleny later wrote. “We’re here to report what they are saying and give our readers a better idea of their campaigns and their candidacies.”

Between the shifts in both technology and norms around how chummy reporters ought to be with their subjects, campaigns have stopped making candidates available for anything beyond discreet, pre-planned interviews or short press conferences. That trend culminated in 2016, when Donald Trump swept to the nomination while all but ignoring access journalism in favor of earned media. No wonder the man initially seen as his prime competitor for this year’s nomination, Ron DeSantis, oversaw a campaign that was somehow even more hostile to the press.

In his capacity as governor, DeSantis’s aides only released his public schedule at the end of the day; instead of engaging journalists from mainstream national publications, they cultivated relationships with right-wing influencers. Even conservative outlets like National Review and The Dispatch were kept at arm’s length because of their association with the Never Trump wing of the party—a curious demographic to shun, given that DeSantis was in fact running against Donald Trump. As far as talking to actual voters went, DeSantis was notoriously awkward at town-hall-style events and meet and greets, which reporters recall were patrolled by two jacked bouncers in black shirts.

The atmosphere began to loosen in the summer, after DeSantis’s early strength in the polls began to evaporate. But even when Never Back Down started providing transportation to some journalists, DeSantis himself hardly warmed to the media. In June, a reporter for the Associated Press asked the candidate why he wasn’t taking questions from voters at the same moment he posed for a picture with a supporter. “People are coming up to me, talking to me,” the governor said with exasperation, snapping, “Are you blind?”

Then, in late December, after several staffing reshuffles failed to buoy DeSantis in the polls, the Times published a premortem of his campaign that included a quote from one of his advisers to the effect that it was time to “make the patient comfortable,” a phrase the trio of reporters on the story noted was evocative of “hospice care.” The campaign responded by temporarily banning the Gray Lady’s reporters from events. That prohibition included Nehamas, and the next day, when DeSantis appeared at a venue in Davenport that happened to have large windows, Nehamas stood outside and watched from the parking lot. His presence behind the glass—in a knit hat and winter coat—drew enough curiosity from the other journalists that the campaign was soon facing questions about why Nehamas was being literally left out in the cold. Apparently realizing that vindictively banning reporters was hardly the behavior of a winning campaign, DeSantis’s people quietly relented.

As DeSantis floundered, Nikki Haley began to take his place as the GOP’s leading also-ran. This may have had something to do with her campaign’s relative openness: in the summer of 2023, if a reporter inquired about an event, they were likely to receive follow-up phone calls and text messages from a staffer confirming their attendance. Haley also made herself available for TV interviews, appearing a number of times on CBS’s Face the Nation and CNBC. Once her poll numbers perked up, the press responded with a predictable spate of sympathetic stories about Haley’s “surge,” like an October dispatch in the Post that stated, “Haley is gaining some steam in New Hampshire,” and noted the “independent streak” of the state’s Republicans and its “history of elevating women.”

But just when reporters seemed most excited to have a new Trump alternative to focus on, Haley’s campaign closed ranks. Between August and mid-January, the candidate addressed the press corps only once every few weeks. When an attendee at a town-hall event in December asked her about the cause of the Civil War, Haley offered a meandering response that neglected to cite slavery; after her apparent ambivalence on the subject drew headlines, she stopped taking questions from her audiences entirely. The seeming correlation between public accountability and poll numbers meant that, as a glass case was descending around Haley, DeSantis embarked on a new, open phase of his campaign. In the days before the Iowa caucuses, Haley’s people deployed TSA-style barriers to separate the press from supporters and neurotically checked credentials; meanwhile, DeSantis took questions from his audience at every event and gaggled with the press on a daily basis. (Yes, campaign reporters use “gaggle” as a verb.)

All this seesawing access effectively thwarted the long-held belief among journalists that candidates’ accepting scrutiny in the early states primed them for the national media environment in which they would seek to win over voters. Before he joined the Boston Globe, James Pindell covered the 2004 Democratic race for a local outlet in New Hampshire. “The first time John Kerry got a question on the Iraq War, his answer was over fifteen minutes. I timed it,” Pindell remembered. “By the eve of the primary, it was down to four.” Only after months of interactions with reporters had the famously grandiloquent senator managed to tame his rhetoric into sound bites that might work on cable.

Twenty years later, it seems doubtful that any amount of access would have helped DeSantis or Haley become a candidate capable of catching Trump, but that doesn’t mean either’s press strategy was well-founded. “Presidential campaigns are a lot about media,” DeSantis reflected in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt. “I spent a lot of time on the ground in Iowa, and it’s good—when you meet people, you convert them, but there’s just so many voters out there.” After spending approximately $160 million on a retail campaign that won him only 23,420 votes, DeSantis realized that his only chance at knocking Trump out would have been to play in the same mass-market arena. “We had an opportunity, I think, to come out of the gate and reach a much broader folk,” he said. “I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything.”

On the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary, Nikki Haley’s advance team secured a middle school library in Derry for the candidate. This being the first event of the day, it proceeded according to a set choreography: First to be admitted were the TV crews, lugging their Pelican cases to a riser in front of the circulation desk that the campaign had designated as the barrier between press and supporters. Next to trickle in were the print and radio reporters. John McCormick and Eliza Collins of the Wall Street Journal were two of the early arrivals, with McCormick immediately taking over the librarian’s office. As he sat inside on his laptop, the press pen began to fill with National Review’s Audrey Fahlberg and Pindell from the Globe, then representatives from Politico, Bloomberg, the Epoch Times, the Post, and the Times. Last to enter were the network embeds, disgorged by the campaign’s new Sprinter van.

Once the supporters were finally unleashed into the library, the reporters descended, doing pull-aside interviews for their stories on Haley’s desperate charge to deny Trump the nomination. The press corps fell back behind the circulation desk only after New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who was squiring Haley across the state all weekend, took the stage. For the duration of the event, the reporters remained on their phones or computers, either writing stories or thumbing through Twitter. As soon as Haley finished her remarks, they surged back out from behind the campaign’s bulwark, some hoping to nab another interview from a supporter waiting to take a selfie with Haley, while others idled in close proximity to Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman who might, at any time, announce a gaggle. No dice. By the time Haley slipped out, the TV people had already stowed their gear and begun the migration to the next event, in Epping, while the handful of print reporters who remained were left to scatter to their rental cars and follow suit.

The assembly and disassembly of an ad hoc press corps before and after each event served two purposes. The first was mere documentation: cameras and microphones were present in the room to record what the candidate and her surrogates said in the unlikely event that it was interesting. This made the taking of notes seem hopelessly antiquarian. “Sometimes I see people with notebooks at events and think, ‘What are you doing?’ ” joked Reuters reporter Gram Slattery. “Just record it!” When one of Dana Bash’s producers was packing for Iowa, she told her, “ ‘Don’t forget to bring a felt-tip pen, because a ballpoint freezes.’ Then I got there and I realized: I don’t need a pen. You just record on your phone, or you open your notes app and you type. There’s no pen.

What this means is that the second, and only real, reason to have a warm body in the room is to gather local color, in the form of voter interviews and incidental details about the venue or circumstances surrounding the event, both of which are thought to help readers, viewers, and listeners better understand the parameters of the horse race. In its most banal iteration, this gathering of color has a paint-by-numbers quality. But the savviest practitioners, like Danielle Kurtzleben, an NPR reporter who grew up in Iowa, argue that electoral politics is best understood through deep conversations with voters.

Before an appearance by Donald Trump Jr. at a restaurant in Ankeny, Iowa, Kurtzleben and I grabbed a booth next to the billiard table where the Trumpworld celebrity Blake “Brick Man” Marnell was shooting pool with some friends in MAGA hats. Kurtzleben said, “It’s not just being like, ‘Where are you from? What do you think?’ but actually engaging with someone and saying, ‘All right, how does your faith play into this? How long have you supported Trump? What made you change direction?’ I think those conversations are worth having, even if it’s in the context of the story that Trump’s up by thirty points. It’s worth it to get at the people who say, ‘You could not pull me away from Trump if you try,’ to get at the almost cultish devotion of some of his supporters.”

Kurtzleben excused herself as the event began, hefting an industrial-grade microphone and scanning the small crowd of Gen Z-ers and elder Iowans for potential sources. I kept to the back of the room, where David Smith, the Guardian’s commanding Washington bureau chief, was chatting with a cameraman from France 24. Smith said that, in planning their coverage of the primaries, the Guardian’s editors had called a meeting in which they asked, “Hang on, don’t we know who’s going to win already?” Assuming that Trump would indeed be the presumptive nominee by February, Smith said the paper had settled on an approach animated by the idea that “it’s not about the odds, it’s about the stakes.” Rather than get too immersed in the race for second place, he wanted to “dig deeper, ask, ‘What does it say about America that Trump has such a hold over the party?’ ”

I’d raised the same question about the value of in-person reporting to Slattery, who was covering his first presidential-election cycle after spending seven years as a foreign correspondent in South America. “We can cover some gaps by watching things online,” Slattery said, “but when you’re there, you actually see how voters are reacting to a message.” This made town halls particularly intriguing, “because the candidates will give a roughly similar stump speech in any given spot, but the audience questions, that’s when I think a lot of journalists are paying the most attention, because you never know what you’re going to get.”

A few days before we first spoke, Slattery had filed a story from Waukee, Iowa, about a retiree named Christopher Garcia challenging Ron DeSantis on the question of why he wasn’t criticizing Trump more forcefully. “DeSantis took exception, cutting him off and maintaining that he has been tough on Trump,” Slattery and his co-author, James Oliphant, wrote. Although this was hardly an exclusive (Nehamas also highlighted the exchange in the Times), it did a neat job of articulating both the impossible position DeSantis had found himself in—campaigning as “Trump without the drama,” against the man himself—while also illustrating the prickliness that had made him such an ineffective retail candidate.

For the inattentive reporter, however, the rote proceduralism of the campaign trail can have a narcotic effect. The predictability extends even to the venues: the manager of the Country Lane Lodge in Adel, Iowa, told me she’d hosted at least four presidential candidates that cycle, and twice as many in 2020. I was there for Haley’s turn under the lodge’s grand, peaked ceiling, held at bay, like the rest of the press, by an airport-ready, retractable-belt stanchion. In the middle of Haley’s speech, there was a commotion at the door: local law enforcement was physically blocking a cameraman from entering. Outside, I found crews from Germany and from Britain’s Channel 4 that had been refused entry by the campaign. Outright hostility toward the foreign press was typical of Haley’s people, but sitting on a bench next to the journalists was a group of confused supporters. “We just want to see Nikki!” one of them said, her teeth chattering in the bitter cold. Back inside was a legion of reporters who remained stubbornly uninterested, never mind how the confrontation illustrated the amateurishness of the Haleyites—who misconstrued control over individual events as control over the broader campaign—that many reporters were constantly grousing about in private.

The massive gap between public events and the story unfolding in the background was even more apparent during Haley’s stop at the Beach Plum, a seafood place in Epping, New Hampshire. Though Ron DeSantis had only one event scheduled that day, he was the focus of nearly every conversation, as reporters tried to puzzle out the governor’s bewildering itinerary since getting blown out in Iowa: a midnight flight to South Carolina with traveling press in tow, canceled network-TV appearances, reports that he was pulling out of New Hampshire entirely, only for his campaign to schedule an event in Manchester that evening.

However distracted the media may have been, there was little question that the Beach Plum event would be covered like any other. There were soon ten times as many reporters inside as people getting lunch. Once Haley and Sununu entered, the press corps formed a bubble around them as they went from table to table, shaking greasy hands and smiling at flustered children. As the pack shifted from one side of the restaurant to the other, I found myself pressed against a trash can while another reporter squatted on top of it, ignoring the fishy stench. Sununu announced to the nearest reporters that Haley would be taking a couple of questions after she was done conversing at her current table; word reverberated through the oozing mass of reporters, who soon calcified into a phalanx of cameras and upthrusted cell phones, ready to record.

The excitement was palpable: this was Haley’s fourth gaggle in as many days, a veritable windfall of availability that represented a chance to get her on the record about any number of issues relevant to the job she aspired to, from Biden’s bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen to the percolating Senate negotiations over a bipartisan immigration bill. Instead, the questions Haley fielded were all horse race: Would she consider pursuing the presidency under the No Labels ticket? Why was she winning over independents but not registered Republicans? Was she concerned about the polls? No, really, was she concerned about the polls?

Photographers lifted their cameras high above the throng, and print reporters stretched their phones toward Haley, who talked for approximately nine minutes without saying anything of substance. Nevertheless, after the gaggle broke up, one of the reporters who’d gotten in a question retreated to a table with his colleagues, all of them giddy that he was co-starring in a clip that they could now upload to social media. Within minutes, their video, along with the rest of the non-news from Haley’s appearance in Epping, had been drowned out by reports of a genuine development: Ron DeSantis was abandoning the race for second place.

“I’m James Pindell, and I’m sad.” Pindell and I were seated in the bleachers at SNHU Arena in downtown Manchester, a former minor-league hockey venue where Trump was slated to speak that evening. The day before, Pindell had published a story for the Globe about the moribund feel of the New Hampshire primary, which was “quite literally small in every metric” when compared with past races. Fewer candidates, fewer events, fewer reasons to spend any time at all in the Granite State. Sitting a few rows down, NPR’s Tamara Keith agreed with that assessment, telling me, “We have the same number of reporters, the same number of voters, and two and a half candidates.”

Slouching low in his chair in a half-zip sweater and black-framed glasses, Pindell explained his growing sense that the age of presidential primaries as a microscale, handshake-based phenomenon had passed. “This is what I live for. I’ve dedicated my whole career to these two states,” he said. Pindell had attended college in Des Moines, in no small part because of the intrigue of the caucuses, and was later mentored by the legendary Des Moines Register politics writer David Yepsen, before spending more than a decade working in New Hampshire. “I have never experienced a more boring primary week,” he said, shaking his head.

The rally in Manchester featured cameras from every network, along with the right-wing outlets that were mainstays of Trump’s events, like Real America’s Voice, whose correspondent wore all black save a gold paisley tie, like a character out of a David Lynch movie. At least four reporters from the Times were covering the event, along with Slattery and the Guardian’s David Smith, while Semafor columnist Dave Weigel live-tweeted from his seat in the bleachers. When I greeted him, Weigel looked up from his laptop only long enough to tell me, “The primary’s over.”

That opinion was hardly universal. Pindell, for one, insisted that “the stakes in New Hampshire couldn’t be higher—if Donald Trump was going to be knocked off, it would be here.” Not that the reporter had much confidence that Haley had a path to victory. I took his solemn mood as confirmation that the folkways of retail politics had been lost to a glossier, national style of campaign that demanded creativity and chutzpah to understand beyond a surface level. And some of that reporting was indeed happening around the margins as the press corps made its rounds to each perfunctory event ahead of an election whose outcome was hardly in doubt.

I sat next to one reporter in a high school auditorium in Exeter while a surprisingly understated Judge Judy introduced Nikki Haley. In the darkened theater, the preponderance of screens in the media section meant that the faces of reporters were all lit up in blue—aside from that of my seatmate, who was craning his neck to seek out an aide he needed to interview for a story about how the campaign would reorient itself in response to DeSantis’s departure. Once the reporter spotted his quarry, he edged his way out to the aisle and two-stepped down the stairs. After a whispered exchange, he and the aide disappeared into the lobby.

For all the hoopla of the trail, the sharpest reporters recognized that their job was less about relaying public events than helping an audience understand the machinations and dynamics that inform and drive them. That didn’t mean covering terminally online campaigns by remaining in the thrall of a smartphone, but neither did it necessitate tailing candidates to every ill-conceived public appearance. While in New Hampshire, Slattery had found time to stop by the Sheraton Nashua, where Trump’s people were staying, and ended up spending most of the evening getting to know the aides who happened to be around over drinks. Coincidence or not, he was one of only a handful of reporters invited backstage a few nights later for a rally in Laconia to talk with Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator who had just endorsed the former president. Wegmann, the White House correspondent for Real Clear Politics, likened campaign coverage to reporting on the presidency itself. “Who are the two best White House reporters in the business? Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan. Do you ever see them hanging around the White House?”

I met Wegmann while killing time before Haley’s watch party on the night of the New Hampshire primary, in a Concord hotel ballroom where the advance team had placed metal barriers between the TV-camera risers and the bulk of the room. The equivalent DeSantis event in Des Moines had featured a line of tables in front of the cameras for print reporters and photographers to use as a filing station; here, everyone but the TV reporters had been shunted to a conference room with ranks of folding tables and a projector playing a glitchy livestream of the event. Wegmann, like the rest of the press corps, was incensed. “What’s going to happen if we go out there?” he said, jutting his chin toward the empty ballroom and taking a drag from a vape pen. “Are we going to stir shit up?”

To his point, the filing room was quiet as a morgue. Most of the print reporters sat typing or eating takeout and refreshing the New York Times live blog, just in case anything interesting was happening at Trump’s shindig in Nashua. Part of the dreary disposition had to do with the round of layoffs at the Los Angeles Times that had been announced that morning: one out of every five journalists had been cut loose. The few conversations were kept to a near-whisper, though it was possible, occasionally, to overhear wisecracks that clarified just how little regard the room had for the Haley campaign. “They keep saying, ‘We’re going to South Carolina!’ ” one reporter joked. “Well, you’re not going anywhere after that.” Indeed, even as polls showed Trump leading Haley by more than twenty points in New Hampshire, his margin in South Carolina over the woman who had once been the state’s governor stood at 37 percentage points. (Haley ended up staying in the race through Super Tuesday, only to give in after she was trounced in every state except that renowned bastion of conservatism, Vermont.)

While a reporter from the Epoch Times talked to an editor on the phone about Frank Luntz’s prediction that Haley would keep things tight in New Hampshire, Eliza Collins, from the Journal, tried to reframe the question that would be answered that evening around the Republican electorate writ large. “We’re down to two candidates, so we get to clearly see Trump and anti-Trump,” she said. At the same time, she admitted to some nostalgia for the more competitive election of four years ago: “That felt a little more exciting.” Indeed, after Bernie Sanders scored wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, the senator briefly seemed poised to capture the nomination.

Within the hour, any similar illusions harbored by the journalists assigned to Nikki Haley had vanished. With the ballroom now teeming with supporters, I leaned on a metal palisade next to a pair of writers from the AP, each of us trying to stay out of the way of the TV people as we watched the early returns on CNN, which was being projected behind the stage. Just after polls closed at eight o’clock, one of the reporters nudged me and showed me the screen of her phone, saying, “We just called it.” Two minutes later, the sound from the CNN broadcast was muted and replaced by music; a few moments after that, the visual feed disappeared.

The filing center emptied as the print journalists squeezed into the narrow space afforded them to watch Haley rush onstage to capitalize on the energized crowd that had not yet realized New Hampshire was lost. Announcing, “We got close to half the vote,” Haley indicated she would stay in the race through Super Tuesday. The reporters took crowd shots on their smartphones and then returned to their laptops in the filing room, which soon filled with the liquid clatter of keyboards. In the back, a TV producer held up a coat in front of the on-air talent while he rerecorded his audio for a segment. Eliza Collins moved to the hall outside to take a phone call, where a radio reporter read aloud from a laptop, rehearsing a script. Few I spoke to had immediate plans to head to South Carolina. There was no reason to—yes, Nikki Haley had won the race for second place, but in doing so she’d revealed the fallacy of that framing.

I thought back to my first day in Iowa and wondered what, if anything, the American electorate had learned about itself in the intervening weeks that it hadn’t already known. The last event that day had been in Davenport, where Ron DeSantis plowed through his set in a refurbished warehouse two blocks from the Mississippi River. The press corps that evening had been bare-bones—maybe three other print reporters plus a few photographers and local-TV cameras. Eventually, one of the photojournalists ambled over to a series of massive windows that looked out onto snowbound Iowa Street and lifted her camera. Almost immediately, an AP reporter and two other photographers followed, all of them squinting at the January gloom to figure out what they were missing. They lost interest after a minute or two and returned to the fringes of the audience to resume looking at their phones. The photographer shook her head in disbelief and whispered, “I’m just shooting the reflection.”

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now