"We're Ready to Go": Iowa Caucus Signals 2020 Kickoff for Television News Networks

joe biden and bernie sanders - campaigning in iowa-Getty -Split-H 2020
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images; Fernando Leon/Getty Images

News networks have spent months preparing to cover the first electoral contest of the year tonight, with the New Hampshire primary just days later.

After months of campaign events, polls, debates and candidate interviews, the first votes of the 2020 presidential election will finally be cast tonight, in the convoluted process known as the Iowa caucus.

Because the results of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus historically presage success or failure for the Democratic nominees, media networks have been preparing for tonight's vote for a long time.

"It's incredibly exciting," says Rashida Jones, senior vp, specials, for NBC News and MSNBC. "We've been planning for this for over a year. I have goosebumps thinking about it. It's history, and we get to be in the front row of it."

The NBCUniversal family of news networks has more than 250 people working in Iowa, Jones says.

Vaughn Hillyard is one of NBC's "road warriors" who has been traversing the state with 2020 hopefuls. He estimates that he's been to more than 100 campaign events this cycle in Iowa.

"NBC and MSNBC have given everyone here the resources to really get a great grasp of what's happening here on the ground," says Hillyard, who will be trailing Pete Buttigieg today. "NBC has literally given us the car keys and said, 'Go tell us what the story is.'"

But, after all the votes have been counted in Iowa, attention — and media resources — shift immediately to New Hampshire, where the second primary will be held Tuesday, Feb. 11. 

From there, it's a free-for-all, with key primaries (or caucuses) scheduled for Feb. 22 (Nevada) and Feb. 29 (South Carolina), culminating in the so-called Super Tuesday on March 3.

News networks, which have been forced to split resources and talent between the 2020 election and the Senate impeachment trial, are rolling out their star personalities to cover the Iowa caucus. (There's also the president's State of the Union address Tuesday.)

"It's kind of a divide and conquer process," Jones says. "I don't think we expected that we would be covering in the same day the Iowa caucus, the impeachment, preparing for a debate, preparing for a State of the Union and the New Hampshire primary. There's no way to predict that's going to happen, but we're ready for it."

"It's a little bit of a three-ring circus," says CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham. "We've got a lot of balls in the air, but we're well-covered."

Lester Holt will anchor coverage for NBC News (with an assist from Chuck Todd), while Rachel Maddow, Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace will steer the ship for MSNBC.

Anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who recently signed a multiyear contract extension, will headline Iowa coverage for Fox News.

ABC News' coverage will include chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, World News Tonight anchor David Muir, chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, senior White House correspondent Cecilia Vega, senior congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce, senior national correspondent Terry Moran, FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver, special correspondent Matthew Dowd and contributors Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel and Yvette Simpson.

Norah O'Donnell will be anchoring CBS News' primetime coverage, with CBS This Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil reporting from Iowa in the morning. 

"To actually see the votes coming in and people actually being forced to make a choice, I think that's always exciting," Isham says.

Jones is confident that NBC News and MSNBC are well-positioned to cover the Iowa caucus thoroughly, authoritatively and from a multitude of angles and perspectives.

"It's the first time voters are weighing in on this cycle, so it's important for us to get right," she says.

For Hillyard, caucus night will be the culmination of years of advance work in Iowa. "I can only be on one place in caucus night, but it's about everything that's been built up over the last four years," he says. "We're ready to go. This is the moment that will provide a lot more clarity as to where this race stands."