CNN’s 48 Hours in Iowa

Posted: September 17, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: Blog

The Cowles Library Reading Room on Tuesday the Sept. 15, ready for the CNN focus group. Photo by Haley Barbour

Twenty-four hours before the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, one would expect CNN to be creating a set and preparing for its primetime broadcast. On Tuesday the a set was certainly being built in Simi Valley, but another CNN set was going up at the Cowles Library at Drake.

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday a group of eight Drake students and about 10 CNN employees began unloading equipment and moving into the Reading Room. The equipment had been flown in from CNN offices in Washington D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, and more was driven down from their its offices in Chicago. After a quick pick up at a Des Moines hotel, the lighting equipment arrived and everything was ready to begin set up.

First a stage was constructed and carpeted. The audio and video equipment was being assembled and tested simultaneously. Myself and other students working the event wore headsets and did laps around the inside and outside of the library, asking each other, “Can you hear me now?” to test the range of the microphones. Once we had ensured that the audio equipment was in working order, we began arranging the chairs around the stage.


The Cowles Library Reading Room at Drake University hosting a CNN focus group of undecided Iowan republicans during the Sept. 16 debate. Photo by Haley Barbour.

Drake was playing host to a CNN focus group of undecided republican Iowan caucus goers during their debate in California on Wednesday. The supervising producer in charge of the event was Glen Dacy a Drake alum. Dacy was behind the hiring of the Drake students. His thinking was that events like the focus group are the perfect opportunity for students to get real life experience.

After some late-night lighting tests, it appeared that the set was ready for Wednesday’s focus group. By Wednesday afternoon the Drake banners had gone up, the CNN notebooks, and the souvenir Drake pens had been distributed to every chair, and forty water bottles had gotten Drake University labels.

In the meantime a group affiliated with CNN was tasked with calling all of the participants to confirm that they were coming. The focus group participants began arriving in time for the pre-debate, which was treated as a test for the lighting, audio and seating arrangements. Everything was in place for the prime time event.

The focus group laughed, grimaced, snorted and took detailed notes during the main debate. At the same time, a group from CNN was responsible for watching the participates noting when they laughed or shook their heads. During commercial breaks the participant’s were asked about their personal reactions.

One of the undecided Iowan republican voters being interview during the CNN focus group about her opinions on the debate.

One of the undecided Iowan republican voters being interviewed during the CNN focus group about her opinions on the debate. Photo by Haley Barbour.

It was those taped segments that would make it onto CNN later as they did post-debate analysis from Simi Valley. Most of the participants remained undecided on who they were going to vote for, though they were individually able to rule out a few candidates. An after-debate survey indicated that the group thought Carly Fiorina did the best among the candidates. After the debate, coverage in Simi Valley went live several times to Drake to get the focus group’s reactions firsthand.

It was nearly 11:30 p.m. when the participants were finally released. Within two hours the Reading Room was empty again, the lights had been turned off and the equipment packed away. The CNN trucks were loaded and we all began walking toward the exit. We were at the end of a long and exciting two days. Dacy and the rest of the CNN team would leave Iowa the next day to return to their own CNN hub or catch up with another event around the country. Drake is planning on hosting numerous presidential campaign events between now and the caucuses, so hopefully Dacy and the entire CNN team will be joining us again come February.


Barbour is a junior political science and international relations double major at Drake. She spent last semester abroad in Amman, Jordan, studying Arabic and Middle Eastern politics.