The old saying “All politics is local” can officially be tossed in the dustbin of history. The local kingmakers and specific issues that used to dominate early-state primaries and caucuses don’t matter as much in an increasingly nationalized, polarized environment. And that’s because local news outlets have been hollowed out—leaving voters less attuned to local issues, and the stations and papers themselves with much less leverage to force candidates to answer questions important to the local audience.
In 2018, the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, had a print circulation of 129,000. That’s roughly a quarter what it had been a few decades earlier—and by 2022 it had plunged all the way to 40,000, according to Nieman Lab. Gannett, which owns the paper, and its chief rival, Lee Enterprises, have both drastically slashed staff and payrolls across all their publications. It’s just as bleak in New Hampshire, where once-powerful newspapers like the Union Leader and Concord Monitor aren’t what they used to be.
Reduced circulations and viewership lead to reduced influence, and in recent years candidates have had relatively little reason to spend time indulging state outlets and the issues they cover. Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor and publisher of the Storm Lake Times, a small paper in Northwest Iowa. He’s interviewed numerous presidential candidates, and often pushed them on key local issues—like when he sat down with Bob Dole in 1996 for an extended interview about the industrial crop program. This year, Cullen noted that the only local issue that got any regular mention from the candidates in Iowa was ethanol—and it was rarely more than a talking point. “Now the only thing [candidates] talk about is ethanol or ‘We’re going to put China in its place.’ How does that help the sixty-seven of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties that are losing population? How does that discussion really move that ball forward?” he said. “There was no serious discussion of the erosion of rural communities.” The only candidate who granted him an interview was Asa Hutchinson, who consistently polled under 1 percent and dropped out right after the caucuses.