Voting-rights activists in the District had a vision for Jan. 14, 2004. That would be the day when a resident in Lewiston, Idaho, would pick up his local paper and find a headline like this:

Dean Conquers D.C. Primary

Candidate leads charge to grant full voting rights to residents of nation’s capital

The story would have chronicled the tight race for the affections of D.C. voters as well as the brilliant political stagecraft of city bigwigs who leapfrogged Iowa and New Hampshire to make the District the first leg of the Democratic presidential race.

But the story never got written. The Lewiston Morning Tribune, a paper with a circulation of 29,000 in western Idaho, didn’t publish a single word on the District’s Jan. 13 Democratic presidential primary. “It really doesn’t count for much, in the sense that it’s kind of…” says Paul Emerson, the Tribune’s managing editor, trailing off. “Everyone views Iowa as the first one of any significance.”

That’s just the sort of traditionalism that the D.C. political establishment hoped to change. Last year, Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans proposed moving the city’s primary to early January to promote nationwide awareness of the District’s congressional disenfranchisement.

By the time the idea churned through the District’s various bureaucracies, the election had become a nonbinding contest with no implications for delegate selection. Five of the major Democratic presidential candidates stayed off the D.C. ballot, in deference to the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire. And D.C. polling stations on Tuesday had the feel of a schoolhouse on summer vacation—only 13 percent of eligible D.C. voters bothered to cast ballots.

And so papers across the country handled the primary as the piece of quasi-news it turned out to be. Some ignored it altogether. Some ignored it by running a well-buried wire story. Some folded it into other campaign coverage. And a few tried to make the story stand alone, as best it could. An annotated survey:

Publication: Miami Herald

Story and Placement: 84-word wire story, Page A7

Telltale Quote: “Most top-tier presidential hopefuls in the Democratic race opted out of the nonbinding D.C. primary, in which no convention delegates were selected.”

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: No

Editorial Rationale: “There are space issues and of course we’re now focused on Iowa…I can’t say we had a separate meeting” on D.C. coverage, says Herald Deputy World Editor Rich Bard.

Publication: Dallas Morning News

Story and Placement: 243-word wire story, Page A7

Telltale Quote: “City leaders moved the primary from May to December in an effort to call attention to the lack of voting rights, but the Democratic Party undermined the effort by insisting that the vote be nonbinding.”

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: Yes

Editorial Rationale: “The residents of the District of Columbia are hurt by the backlash of this quickened calendar. There isn’t a chance to break through the other news,” says Political Editor Mark Edgar.

Publication: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Story and Placement: Roughly 700-word wire story, Page A8

Telltale Quote: “Most top-tier presidential hopefuls in the Democratic race opted out of the D.C. primary, after national Democratic officials advised them to withdraw.”

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: Yes

Editorial Rationale: “Somebody finally voted. It was purely that. We didn’t think it would be crucial in the overall picture, but there were finally some votes to tally, and we had the space to do it,” says National Editor Daryl Kannberg.

Publication: Manchester Union Leader (New Hampshire)

Story and Placement: Nothing in Wednesday’s edition. Executive Editor Charles Perkins plans on running a wire story as a stand-alone item in Thursday’s paper.

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: Probably.

Editorial Rationale: “The AP put such a low priority on it that we weren’t able to get a story to our statewide readership,” says Perkins.

Publication: Des Moines Register

Story and Placement: 373-word piece by Jane Norman of the paper’s D.C. bureau, Page 6A

Telltale Quote: “Less than 10 percent of registered voters participated.” (Actually, 13 percent participated.)

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: Yes

Editorial Rationale: “We explained that it’s not a true nominating event and that it was staged to draw attention to the issue of voting rights in D.C.,” says Political Editor Kathie Obradovich. “People like to have their little straw polls. It probably doesn’t have any more significance than the coffee-bean poll at the Iowa City diner.”

Publication: Philadelphia Inquirer

Story and Placement: Two paragraphs, totaling 76 words, tacked onto the political roundup

Telltale Quote: “Elsewhere, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York campaigned in Washington in a bid to win the District of Columbia’s nonbinding primary yesterday.”

Mention of D.C. Voting Rights: No.

Editorial Rationale: “We did due diligence, but that was it,” says National/Foreign Editor Ned Warwick. “It was a story that bloomed at the beginning of the week, and I don’t think we were aware of it.” The Inquirer’s Washington bureau, says Warwick, “didn’t alert us to it.”

—Erik Wemple, Dave Jamieson, and Mike DeBonis

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