Monday, November 16, 2015

Scenes From A Debate Day

If you get offered a ticket to a live show, you go. Doesn't matter that you'd hear the band or see the game better at home, you go. It's about the experience itself.

With that attitude, I set off on the road to Des Moines way too early Saturday and got home way too late in the wee hours of Sunday morning, to experience the on the ground vibe of a presidential debate. It's only two hours on stage, but it was two days of action on the Drake campus, And those experiences, rather than the actual dialogue of the debate itself, are what are sticking with me.

(As I review the day I'm cringing at the massive typos. In the Olden Days of liveblogging, I could go back and clean up.)

My first event of the day was a 10 AM session explaining caucus night process that was officially "off the record." Which was amusing because it was the exact same Power Point presentation I had seen the previous Sunday at our local caucus chair training - right down to and including the use of the four Beatles as "candidates" to explain preference group math. Poor Ringo always had the smallest group.

The out of state media questions were more skeptical than the questions my chairs had asked the previous weekend. More along the lines of "this is insanely hard, why do you do this?" The staffers gave the approved answers, not the real answer of "because if we report the vote totals the New Hampshire Secretary of State thinks it's a primary and we lose first in the nation." I gamely tweeted an offer to have on the record talk about this with other press, but none of them seemed to be among my followers.

I bailed on the caucus training - in fairness, I could have taught it - and signed onto the main media event of the morning, a tour of the debate hall itself.
Most shots were taken inward, not out, as the hall tour was basically a big excuse for selfies. One would think that journalists would picture themselves as moderating a presidential debate, but no one sat down at the moderator table. I was one of the few who even looked at it very long (glass topped with monitors underneath). Instead, they posed at the candidate platforms. Despite the alleged media hate, Hillary's was by far the most popular.

I'm not a selfie taker...
...but if someone else catches me in action I'll use it. I did also get photographed at the Bernie podium, but I was merely trying to find a place in a crowded room to tweet, which lasted about three seconds till a tech tossed me.

A debate hall is a TV set, and the sound, video, and lighting techs were visibly bristling at the unnecessary presence of the lower tier of the media. You get the idea that they saw even the audience as an inconvenience and would rather have just had the whole thing in an actual TV studio with just the three candidates and the four moderators, so they didn't have to haul the lights and the generators. One poor soul had the bad luck of spilling her coffee on the stage, and soon after that were were politely but firmly shooed out.

Also, it appears Mitt Romney provided the office supplies, as each candidate's notepad had a Staples logo. Later in the debate there was an exchange about a $12 vs. $15 minimum wage; when I moonlighted at Staples I made $8.25.
I was wrong; Timer did make a brief on camera cameo at the start of the debate.

The famous Spin Room fired up soon after the tour, but my pass didn't get me access. I had Super Bowl tickets but upper deck seats. Thus began a roughly four hour stretch of mostly down time at the filing center, punctuated by a massive burger and mountain of onion rings at the Drake Diner.
At my right is my unofficial partner for the day, Katrina Markel of Happenstance landed us in the same place a couple times so we just sort of informally stuck together. We positioned ourselves almost in the exact middle of the filing center.

The filing center was two blocks away from the actual debate. The long rows of tables could seat about 400 and got maybe 3/4 full by show time. Electricity was adequate - I carry my own power strip so that gave me a couple more slots and a little more elbow room. The organizers tried to send a message with the wifi; at least week's GOP debate the press password was StopHillary. So the Dems named their network 13MillionNewJobs and had no password. Some people grumbled on line about security risks, but I heard of no incidents.

No one appeared to be In Charge at the filing center, but everything just seemed to happen. Coffee and water appeared, then cookies and granola bars closer to debate time. 

Around 3:30 my batteries were re-charged and I'd visited with all the in-state journalists I knew. So I headed off to my next planned stop, the Bernie Sanders campaign's pre-rally.

Though a series of misadventures including a box of caucus supplies, confusion about the terms "ream of paper" and "CASE of paper," and running into miscellaneous friends, it took me an hour and a quarter and two and a half trips across the Drake campus to get there.

I also, briefly and almost literally, ran into Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her posse leaving Spin Room. My prepped and pointed questions were forgotten and she was moving away fast so I mumbled a Hi.

By this point, the security line was starting outside the debate hall.
Despite the delay, I was far from late and stragglers were still arriving as the sun set. I'm guessing about 300 total by the time speakers started. Ran into my old Iowa Independent colleague Douglas Burns (the western Iowa reporting god, newspaper magnate, and famous cat lover) and we both commiserated about how tightly the Indy could have had this multi-venue event nailed down.

There's a definite feel to a Sanders crowd, a mix of Iowa City Ped Mall and Island of Misfit Toys. This is an outsider campaign that is proud of being outsider. Also, though the more savvy ones try to keep it in check, there's no hiding the visceral distaste for Hillary Clinton. (The Clinton campaign may feel likewise, but they are much better at keeping to the official line of Taking Nothing For Granted and Staying Positive. Either way, the challenge of unity is going to be interesting, and challenging in direct proportion to the margin of victory.)

I was still full from the Drake burger but the Jethro's BBQ was tempting me to abandon my objectivity. I grabbed a water and settled for orbiting the crowd two or three times.
Bernie world, like Ron Paul world before it, has an interesting contradiction: a cult of personality around a candidate who insists on issues over personality. There's also the same very loud support: A Paul Supporter and a Sanders supporter walk into a bar. How do you know? Because they tell everyone. There's the same dismissiveness of all rivals, and the same "revolution" rhetoric, the same love of winning online polls. I still don't get why no one national is picking up on Bernie Sanders as the reason Rand Paul has collapsed. Maybe it's just an Iowa City thing.
Cornel West was the keynoter at the Sanders rally. He is even more intense and fiery than Sanders himself and scathing in his attacks on, mostly, Clinton. "She didn't 'evolve'," West said of Clinton's switch on marriage equality. "She checked the polls."

I wondered if West could be the in that Sanders has needed in his thus far unsuccessful effort to draw competitive support in the African-American community. The question is whether West and his style would play in the black precincts of South Carolina, and I don't know enough about the internal politics to answer my own question.

Still, Cornel West from 15 feet away on the back of a pickup truck is an Only In Iowa wonder to behold.

The Sanders group marched away to a movie theater for their debate watch party. Also playing: Spartacus. I veered away, hoping to catch a bit of Martin O'Malley's visibility.

Despite their smaller numbers, Team O'Malley plays a good sign war. Bonus points for "Gimme an O! Gimme And Apostrophe!" And they won Sign War by forfeit as Team Hillary had called their visibility off in the wake of the Paris attacks.

But I missed the show, arriving just in time to see them breaking up and walking across campus. O'Malley himself had stopped by to thank his troops and shake hands.

At this point I was back at the security line and visited with the carious dignitaries waiting their turn. The attendees were mostly mid to upper level activists. I don't know all my donors but I know a lot of elected officials. These are people who WILL be at caucuses and who lead opinions, so the applause in the hall was probably a pretty good indicator.
Also crossing campus I ran into Griff, the Drake mascot. Drake was plugging Griff as a potential 2016 candidate through the day. He was definitely a Good Boy, but I left my Jimmy Carter button pinned to the beret.

By 7, or what we in Iowa City called Kickoff Time,  I was back in the filing center. There were three YOOGE TV screens to the front and right, and three more living room size screens to the left. I hoped that one of them would get tuned to the game. Instead, the front two where showing debate logos while CBS Radio audio plated. 

The one on the right was showing Twitter metrics. Twitter was a debate co-sponsor and had piled the ends of the press tables with buttons:
They were largely ignored by the press, but I scooped up a few at a time till I had a couple dozen. I know a lot of people who will like them more than the press did.

The twitter metrics were measuring tweets about the debate and mentions of candidates. The mentions jumped from 1200 a minute pre-debate to 8000 a minute during the debate, making the hashtag #DemDebate essentially useless. The mentions of candidates started with a strong Hillary lead and ended with a narrow Hillary lead; O'Malley jumped from 3% pre-debate to 12% during and after.

From following my regular tweeps I saw that the in-hall preliminaries started just after 7 with patriotic ritual and introductory remarks from Wasserman Schultz and from IDP chair Andy McGuire. None of this was on screen at the filing center, though we did get a visit from Griff.

The CBS radio feed continued till about 7:50. Mostly it was caucus discussion, with pollster Ann Selzer trying to explain realignment and viability in a sound bite. At one point the announcer mentioned that the Hawkeyes were ahead 7-0; I was the only one who cheered.

At 7:50 CBS News appeared on the screens moments after Pat Rynard tweeted about the lack of video. The screens showed Paris coverage until the top of the hour.

From there, we got the same feed as the viewers at home. Kathie Obradovich got a loud cheer from her Des Moines Register colleagues, seated in the front row of the filing center, when she was introduced as a moderator.

The debate itself, you know about. During one commercial break, the video and audio went out. After a few seconds of hushed murmurs, the screens came back just before panic ensued. The whole thing felt a lot shorter sitting in the filing center than it does sitting in the basement home office.

I had some comment commitments to Politico and the Des Moines Register post-debate that I started drafting near the end. I also started pre-emptively packing. I also got grabbed by another reporter for a quick react.

These comments seems to have gotten me into a little trouble in Bernie World, especially since the more negative drew more focus. But at least I was accurately quoted. There seems to be a mindset that anyone who doesn't explicitly Feel The Bern is an establishment enemy, and that ignores all the other nuances that people may feel. 

But I'm Neutral Leaning Carter and I'm fair. And one of the reasons I'm neutral is so I can write honestly. It's yet to be seen how much the Wall Street 9/11 thing hurts Hillary, or whether O'Malley has finally had his breakthrough, but two minutes after the debate, I felt that they had a better night than Sanders.
Obligations met, I powered myself down with one last look at the score - Hawkeyes ahead with two minutes left!

I'd been invited to the Hillary post rally and told she would be arriving a half hour after the debate ended. (For whatever reason I didn't see any of my usual Bernie contacts all day, but did run into my Hillary and O'Malley people.) My seatmate Katrina decided to join me and we launched on an epic fast walk/slow sprint on our dead feet the three blocks to the after-rally hall, with neither of us 100% certain of the location.

We arrived to what was, amazingly, my first security line of the day. The line was maybe 70 people long, mostly young and leaning female. Some staffers recognized me and zipped me, Katrina, and maybe four other press to the front of the check in line.

By this point my bag was loaded down with all my usually excess of gear AND the two dozen Twitter VOTE buttons, so I thought I'd screw the whole line up. But I passed muster and was ushered upstairs.

I detoured for just a moment to say hi to Dave and Terry Loebsack - Tom Miller was also on hand - then walked into the back of the hall.

The post-rally hall had been the scene of Team Hillary's debate watch party. They'd gone with pizza so lots of empty boxes. The press tables were already full. In the Iowa Independent days, one of us would have gotten the Hillary post-rally beat and been in place, but as a one man show I just have to run across campus with Katrina.

I'm guessing maybe 700 in the crowd, but I never really got a good look as the stage was barely visible.

Later I was told that Hillary had taken extra time to handshake in the debate hall. That was my salvation as barely 90 seconds after I walked in and with almost no warning we heard the bare minimum introduction


That's the best look I got.

Hillary spoke for about the length of one Ramones song, praising the organizers, repeating a couple talking points, and emphasizing the caucus date, voter registration, and voting rights.

That's a big difference. Bernie talks about a political revolution, Hillary talks about voter registration. It's a difference I see in action on the ground, too.

No idea how long she shook hands at the post-rally, but the crowd quickly thinned. I carefully checked for the OK, as I did not want to get tackled at the end of a very long day, and sought out various contacts on Team H for beret-off conversation.

I also checked the football score. 10 and O, baby! Then I stopped back at the filing center to see if I'd left anything behind. My half finished Diet Coke was still there; I'd heard word that fluids were verboten at the Hillary rally. So I grabbed that and another half dozen Twitter VOTE buttons, and hit the road.

Inevitably, a story that ends with "I drove home and went to sleep" is anticlimactic.

On the drive west to Des Moines, I had seen every SUV in the state headed east to Iowa City. With the game just getting out, I saw the pattern repeat in reverse.

When I drive at night I keep thinking I see deer. The shadow patterns look like deer to my fifty-plus eyes. So I tend to drive a little too slow and too cautiously. In this case, I was driving in my socks, as my feet REALLY needed a break.

About a mile from my exit to home, I saw police lights ahead. No one was pulled over. As I passed I looked left and saw, sure enough, A deer that someone had hit. The cop was apparently there as a warning till removal. Senator Grassley's whereabouts at 2 AM Sunday are unknown.

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