Trends and data drive much of today's political analysis and the Cook Political Report has a long history of accurate insight. We sit down with founder Charlie Cook on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.  


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 30 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: In the lead up to and the aftermath of elections, many poll watchers turn their collective eyes to data trends and analysis from publications like the Cook Political Report. What did the results of the 2018 midterms tell us, especially about the 2020 elections? For insights, we're joined by the founder of the Cook Political Report, Charlie Cook.

Cook: Thank you, Dave.

Yepsen: Welcome to Iowa Press.

Cook It's so exciting to be on this show because I've seen it so many times from hotel rooms across this state and to finally get a chance to be on the premier political and public affairs show in a state that takes its politics very seriously this is cool.

Yepsen: Thank you, you score lots of points with us. You're in Iowa to give a lecture at the Harkin Institute at Drake. We appreciate you taking time out from that to be with us today.

Cook: Well, it was a lot of fun. And also I want to thank you and Kay for participating in a redistricting forum that the Harkin Institute at Drake did in Washington back in September. Redistricting I think is something that we desperately need to do the rest of the country like Iowa does it here.

Yepsen: Well across the table, James Lynch writes for the Gazette and Kay Henderson, who you mentioned, is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: We know what the 2018 results are. Do they have any impact on what is going to happen in 2020?

Cook: On a macro basis, no. It's not hard to find examples. The democrats were devastated in 1994 but Bill Clinton got re-elected easily two years later. And Obama with 2010 and 2012. But I do think that there's some things that we could look at where if you say what were the three states that made the difference in 2016? Well, it was 78,000 votes across Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Well, what happened this time? Well, democrats easily held onto a Senate seat and captured the Governor's race in Michigan, they easily held onto a Senate and captured the Governor's race in Wisconsin and easily won both the Senate and Governor's race in Pennsylvania. So it makes you wonder whatever the problems that were around for democrats in '16 maybe they may not be quite as bad in 2020 but we'll have to wait and see.

Henderson: Well, get your rating out. Leans republican, likely republican, leans democrat, likely democrat? How would you rate Iowa at this point?

Cook: Well, we're seeing states with disproportionally small town rural populations are just moving, granted more people are moving to Des Moines, but still these states, they're trending generally more democratic, I mean more republican, but we've just seen Iowa, look at congressional races, go from three republicans and one democrat to three democrats and one republican. So I think we're going to be doing it soon but the question is would it be lean republican or would it be toss up? And I think we're going to be deciding that in the next couple of days.

Henderson: You don't want to tell us right now?

Cook: I'm not sure what we've decided. I was part of the email conversation yesterday and I don't know that we nailed it down. But I would be, I'd be inclined probably to say lean republican, but also it's, I joked last night like the old question about the woman that was asked by a friend how is her husband and she said compared to what? Which democrat, that could make a huge difference in Iowa and a lot of other places.

Lynch: One of the trends we saw in 2018 in this midterm election here in Iowa and we saw it in the Mississippi special election earlier last week, the rural/urban split. And in Iowa rural counties went republican, the urban areas such as they are in Iowa went democratic. Those suburban areas used to be pretty at least competitive or republican territory. Is this a shift that is going to be permanent? Or will we see it snap back in the next election?

Cook: I don't know anything is permanent but I think we are seeing a realignment taking place in American politics where we're seeing upscale, some highly educated, high income whites more but not exclusively women that are moving away from the Republican Party towards the Democratic Party but at the same time we're seeing a lot of working class whites that are moving away from the Democratic Party and towards the Republican Party and it seems to be on cultural things, geographic and cultural issues more than economic. For some people it's abortion or guns or environment or maybe attitudes towards President Trump. And it doesn't necessarily deal with parochial issues. I was talking to a cattle rancher once a few months ago and I was asking him, are you concerned about tariffs? And he says, yes I'm really concerned about tariffs. And then he said, but the very next thing out of his mouth is, but I think everything President Trump does is what he sees in the national interest and I support him 100%. So it's like okay, we're not talking about economics here, we're talking about culture and values and the people that hate him are the people that don't like me or vice versa.

Lynch: As you mentioned, people are moving to the cities, which seem to be a good location or geographical area for democrats but the Electoral College seems to favor republicans. So are we likely to continue to see democrats winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College vote?

Cook: Well, and you could also add the U.S. Senate, both the Electoral College and the Senate are skewed more, now that we have this new urban/rural, I mean urban/suburban/rural/small town split,  republicans are inevitably going to do better in the Senate and in the Electoral College. But what was so weird about this last election is we obviously knew you could have a split, but we were using 2000 as a frame of reference, a half a percentage point between Al Gore and George W. Bush, a half million votes, not two percentage points, 2.1, not 2.9 million votes. And it had been 140 years was the last time there had been that big of a divergence. We all remember fondly Rutherford B. Hayes winning the popular vote, or Samuel Tilden winning the popular vote and Rutherford Hayes the Electoral College. So 140 years since we had seen that. What a weird dynamic. But I think the potential for that happening is real.

Lynch: So it's likely that the Senate will stay republican and the House continue to be competitive?

Cook: Well, it's interesting like this year you had 26 democrats up and 9 republicans so democrats were playing defense. In the next two cycles there are over 20, 21, 22 each time republican seats up versus -- so it's flipped but the republican seats that are up in the next two cycles, or at least in this upcoming cycle, none of them are basket cases so we could see this split hang around for a while.

Yepsen: But realistically, Charlie, you don't expect to see any change in the Electoral College? That's a fixture of American politics.

Cook: No, no, no.

Yepsen: But what I hear you saying is we could see more of these split decisions going forward? How much can -- is that healthy? How can the country stand this business of electing someone to the presidency who didn't get the popular vote?

Cook: Well, I don't like the Electoral College but what's the alternative? And if we just went to straight popular vote, which is what most -- do you think Iowa would ever see a presidential candidate after the caucus? Do you think most states wouldn't? They'd just be flying back and forth between the five or six largest metropolitan areas so basically urban people would have the entire voice in a presidential race.

Yepsen: Do you expect President Trump to be renominated or do you expect him to have a serious challenge for the nomination?

Cook: Well, I think this is really, we talked about this last night, that the only two presidents, the only two elected presidents since the end of World War II that lost re-election were Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in '92 and both of them faced primary challenges, Edward Kennedy coming from Carter's left and Pat Buchanan coming from Bush's right. So having a nomination challenge is a big deal. But when I look at President Trump's job approval ratings among republicans it's typically nationally between 85% and 91%. And when you look at when high visibility republicans have been critical of him, Jeff Flake in Arizona, he couldn't have won his own primary after he wrote a book critical of President Trump, Bob Corker, a Senator from Tennessee, so that we get to the point where I wonder whether dental records will be of much use of identifying the corpse of whoever takes him on. John Kasich could run as a republican or independent, somebody may do it but if you want to tell me that President Trump gets re-elected I can believe that, if you want to tell me that he loses to a democrat in the general election I can believe that. If you want to tell me he doesn't run I can believe that. But losing the nomination, wow, I have a really hard time seeing that happen.

Henderson: Do you ever see a possibility in the near future of an independent candidate if John Kasich were to run to have any level of success?

Cook: No, well it depends on success. Is success being a spoiler? Yeah, yeah, you could ask Jill Stein about that and she didn't get that many votes but it was more than the margins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But the thing is as long as you've got states that are going to go democratic no matter what and other states that are going to go republican no matter what it's a virtual impossibility in this hyper partisan environment we have now for anybody to get, for an independent to get 270 electoral votes, so it gets to the House and an independent is not going to win there. And I think that is exactly why Michael Bloomberg is looking at running as a democrat rather than as an independent because he has come to the conclusion that there's just basically no way an independent can win, but you can be a spoiler.

Henderson: The Iowa Caucuses are allegedly going to be held in February of next year, of 2020.

Cook: On the 3rd, right?

Henderson: Exactly, we don't know yet, obviously things move a little bit around here. That is the same day on which early voting will start in California. What impact may that have in your view on the Iowa Caucus campaign?

Cook: Well, it's two different things and there was a really good article about a week ago in the New Yorker Magazine about this, or New York Magazine, not New Yorker, about this that I hadn't really thought about. I had been paying attention that California had moved from June to March 3rd and so there are going to be 12 states, California, Texas and 10 other states, and then a bunch of other states right behind it. But the thing is now with early voting as liberalized as it is in so many places and so many votes you think well gosh, will it dilute Iowa and New Hampshire? But then you think, wait a minute, if you're going to have people, millions of people from coast to coast voting during the month of February having a win, coming in first or second on February 3rd, hey that would be a pretty good thing to happen or coming in fourth or fifth. That will step all over anything that you might do later. So I don't know that it erodes Iowa's importance at all. But I think we're going to have, it's just going to be a weird dynamic of almost like these waves of national balloting and caucuses, primaries early, Election Day. This is going to be a really weird one.

Yepsen: The Iowa Caucus date is set in effect by the New Hampshire Secretary of State when that person sets the New Hampshire primary.

Cook: Yeah, I think his job is in danger after like 40 years.

Yepsen: So that's a wild card. But what you're saying is that an effort to diminish the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire, these early states, could in fact backfire, that the only way you're going to get any media attention is in these states and if you do poorly it could be --

Cook: The law of unintended consequences acts again.

Lynch: In 2016 republicans had this big field of well-qualified, talented candidates and Donald Trump crushed them all. Now we're seeing 40 or 50 democrats sort of checking out 2020 possibilities. Is the party well-served by having that many people playing that game at this point?

Cook: You have all these assumptions or we all have these assumptions and one thing that people have always believed is if you have a nomination that goes, you want your nomination to be consummated earlier, you want it to be done early so you can start getting ready and get the party back together for general election. But Obama/Clinton went all the way to the last day of the season in June and Obama won. 17 people and Trump won. So there are things, what I have found is there are things in politics that would be logical that don't necessarily work out. But I think the diversity of candidates that you saw in this November's elections, I think you're going to see that large in the democratic presidential field. We've had women run for a democratic nomination before, we're going back to Shirley Chisholm in 1972. But the thing is, we're going to have two, three, four high profile quality women candidates, we're going to have two, three, four high quality, high profile African-American candidates, one or two Latinos. This is going to be, we're going to be organizing NCAA brackets, I'm teasing, to try to organize our thinking about how does this really work. But if it gins up interest maybe, I don't know.

Henderson: Obama was successful not only because of who he was but because of an ability to raise money. How important is it in this environment for a candidate like a Michael Bloomberg to have both of those attributes? Can someone who doesn't have any money at the beginning be successful in modern politics?

Cook: Well, it helps to be Michael Bloomberg where your fundraising time is writing a check and then you're done and it frees up a lot of hours. But when you look, one of the unique things, well think back about 2016, Bernie Sanders raised and spent what, $220 million. There's a lot of political experience around this table. Who would have bet at the beginning that he would have raised $60 million? But $220? And Beto O'Rourke running for the Senate in Texas. I didn't think he'd -- $70 million was the last count running against Ted Cruz. And you had these long shot congressional candidates that would have viral videos and raise millions of dollars. So I think large donors will have less of an influence this time than ever before but because we're seeing people are figuring out how to capture the Internet for fundraising purposes and taking it to levels far beyond even what Obama was able to do.

Yepsen: Charlie, talk about the cultural divides. Democrats, as we have discussed, have a rural problem which is a rural problem given that skew in the Electoral College you talk about. Republicans also have a problem in suburban areas that we saw in this election. How do these parties deal with this?

Cook: Well, I think whichever party does the worst job of dealing with their problem is going to do a lot better and democrats, it's small town/rural but it's also working class whites. Working class non-whites they have other attachments, non-economic attachments or other attachments to the Democratic Party. But I think the Democratic Party headlong ran into or embraced this the country is changing, new, young, diverse, urban, we're for free trade and technology and green and all of this, which is great, but a lot of people got left behind whether they were on the short end of the stick of trade deals or whether environmental laws killed their jobs or they feel like the Democratic Party left them behind or abandoned them and at the same time, as I said, these upscale, particularly women voters, they're leaving the Republican Party in droves. So, which party recognizes their problem and addresses it more effectively, I think that party is going to do very well. But I'm not sure I'd bet on which one yet.

Yepsen: For sure democrats have to cut the taqs off the hunting jackets before they go out.

Cook: Yeah, that would help and scuff up the boots a little bit.

Lynch: Speaking of women moving away from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. Do you see that as a permanent shift or is that a Trump effect that when Trump isn't on the ballot some of them may come back to republican roots?

Cook: I just always avoid the word permanent. But for me I'm 65 years old, I'll just work on a 25 year span here. But the thing is we've been talking about a gender gap all the way back to the Reagan administration, that's when I first heard the phrase. And it had been getting wider but I think with President Trump, as polarizing as he has been, it's dwarfing what it used to be. But what's interesting is that women, working class women, women with less than a four year college degree, they don't vote much differently than men without a four year college degree. It's really more women with four year college degrees and more upscale women, they are the ones that are abandoning the Democratic Party, or excuse me the Republican Party, in big, big numbers. So it's not just across the board gender wise.

Henderson: We all covered a campaign in which we heard many candidates decry the polarization of our country and we need to get together and solve problems. Do you see any end to the polarization of the electorate?

Cook: Oh boy, my wife calls me a pathological optimist, but I don't see it happening soon because what we're seeing is congressional districts and state legislative district boundaries, we're seeing a media culture that is very different from the ones that we all grew up with and it's creating these ideological echo chambers on each side that is increasing the intensity of polarization to a point that we never saw back in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

Yepsen: Sure. Another question, how do you see millennials changing the electorate? Anything? Younger voters.

Cook: Yeah, younger voters, in this last election 67% of 18-29 year olds voted democratic. Now you say, wow that's huge, but that was only 7% of the electorate. And before the election I would say snarkily I think we're going to set a midterm election record for young people voting but if 100 of them vote it would be a midterm election record. Young people just have never, not knocking this generation, they have never voted in decent numbers. But it's funny they do have a skepticism about the effectiveness of government, which would tend to help republicans, but they're very libertarian and the social and cultural agenda of the Republican Party really works against them.

Yepsen: We've got just a couple of minutes left. Do we grind the 2018 election a little too fine? Hillary Clinton didn't even campaign in Wisconsin. Was this more of a referendum on her than something else?

Cook: I think you could look at Hillary Clinton and say she had accumulated a lot of baggage over the years. And I like to say that her husband Bill Clinton, it was like he had a Teflon coating and Hillary had Velcro that stuff would just stick to her in a way they wouldn't stick to him. And she did make some mistakes and her campaign made some mistakes and if you want to throw in the emails and Russians and Comey and all this so that this, there were a lot of very weird things happening in this election, not the least of which was republicans doing the opposite of how they normally behave by going with an anti-establishment candidate. So I think a decent case could be made that 2016 was something of a one-off but there were important things to learn from it.

Lynch: You recently wrote that republicans need to do some soul searching in the wake of this election and it reminded me that after 2012 they had the autopsy, they came together and tried to lay out a plan, they said we need to be a big tent party, they did just the opposite, it didn't work out real well this year. What is to be gained by navel-gazing for republicans?

Cook: Well, they wrote back in 2013 this terrific plan, now they just ought to read it. And the thing is I think that is where President Trump embarked, candidate Trump embarked on a direction that was the precise opposite of what the autopsy suggested and he won but it was under so many other odd circumstances that I don't, I wonder whether republicans or whether President Trump is banking on this doubling down strategy of staying within his base. I'm not sure that's going to work well.

Henderson: Half a minute left. Is there a place for a trust buster like a Teddy Roosevelt on America's political radar?

Cook: Well, you read Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book on leadership about great leaders coming and sometimes unexpected people coming along at great times, I'd love to see something like that happen. But I don't know that our system allows the elevation of great leaders so much anymore.

Yepsen: Charlie, I'd love to keep talking politics with you but I'm out of time. Thank you for being with us.

Cook: Thank you all. Thanks for having me on.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week. You can catch Iowa Press at 7:30 Friday night on our main Iowa PBS channel and again Sunday at Noon with another broadcast Saturday morning at 8:30 on our .3 World channel. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 


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