Trump’s Dominance and Snowy Weather Put Iowa’s Caucus Economy on Ice

Even before a snowstorm brought Des Moines to a near standstill on Friday, the city felt decidedly more subdued than it usually does around the Iowa caucuses: quiet restaurants, empty streets, bartenders with little to do.

The numbers confirm it: The 2024 caucuses are expected to bring less than 40 percent of the direct economic impact to the capital that the 2020 contest provided — an estimated $4.2 million, down from $11.3 million four years ago. Direct economic impact measures what visitors do, like sleeping, driving, eating and drinking.

It is a striking decline that reflects, among other things, diminished media engagement in a presidential race that is less competitive than in past years, when the state has been inundated by presidential hopefuls, their campaigns and teams of journalists in hot pursuit.

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

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

The impact of the caucuses on Iowa’s economy typically comes through two main channels. First, campaigns and political committees spend millions on Iowa-based consultants, strategists, advertising firms and television time as candidates try to introduce themselves to Iowans, generate interest and motivate likely caucusgoers.

Will Rogers, a Republican operative in Des Moines, said a “crop of consultants” had grown up in Iowa, working to shepherd candidates toward the caucuses. He guessed that there were more political consultants per capita in Iowa than almost anywhere else.

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

The caucuses also have a secondary effect on the economy, in the form of increased patronage at hotels, car-rental agencies, coffee shops, restaurants and even clothing stores. (Neophyte political reporters, for example, might forget to bring warm socks.)

It is this measure that was lagging this season, even before the blizzard hit.

Steve Cook, who runs an audiovisual company in Iowa City, is one of the many beneficiaries of the quadrennial surge of economic activity in Iowa.

His company, Steve Cook Sound, has handled events for several Republican candidates this cycle. To accommodate the increase in work in January, he brought in extra crews, covering dozens of events each week. In 2023, he had a tenfold increase in gross income, compared with threefold in 2019, when he was primarily a subcontractor.

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

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

“I’ve had to do a lot of juggling as far as positioning people,” Mr. Cook said. He wasn’t even thinking yet, he said, about “revenue I could have made versus what I’m going to lose.”

This season, the Iowa boom has been hurt by a few factors, officials and political observers said, including Mr. Trump’s runaway lead in primary polls. On the Democratic side, President Biden has jettisoned Iowa in favor of South Carolina at the front of the nominating calendar — and, in any case, does not face any serious primary challenge.

In 2020, more than 2,000 media representatives registered to cover the caucuses on the ground in Iowa, Mr. Edwards said. This time, there are just 900. In a downtown with 1,800 hotel rooms, that makes a big difference.

The weather, too, has complicated things. The arrival of snow has led to canceled flights. Subzero temperatures are expected to set in over the weekend.

The BeechWood Lounge, in the city’s East Village area near the Capitol building, is a favorite local haunt. In past caucuses, the small space has been packed late at night with production crews and camera operators in their off hours.

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

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

This year, it has been quiet. “We’ve been expecting them to come in this week, but the snow …” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s kind of ruining the whole week we’ve been planning on.”

He had about a 25-percent bump in business in 2020 and estimated this year would be about 15 percent. He had hired an extra bartender for the week, but called it off when he saw the weather forecast, which called for snow overnight and temperatures plummeting into the single digits over the weekend.

“In 5 degrees, nobody is going to want to walk a block,” he said.