Jeff Link & Eric Woolson

Oct 30, 2015 | 00:28:38 | Podcast


Borg: Two major events, one in each party during the past week, democrats' Jefferson Jackson Day rally in Des Moines, and in Boulder, Colorado republicans lining up for a third debate. Some campaigns now making adjustments. We've invited two Iowa insiders to the table, Democratic Party strategist Jeff Link and Republican counterpart Eric Woolson. Jeff advised the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, a staffer for Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Bruce Braley. Eric did the same for presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and most recently this cycle Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Borg: And joining the conversation, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.

Borg: Jeff, I'm going to start off with you, a democratic strategist. Looking over the most recent debate, and that's why it's on the edge of the news right now because there were several aspects that we'll be talking about on that, but it strikes me that there's more emphasis in this campaign cycle, presidential campaign cycle on the national exposure. And there's a reason for that of course and you'll get into that. But how is that affecting the Iowa caucus enthusiasm?

Link: Well I think all the debates this year, whether the democratic debates or the republican debates, have enjoyed large audiences, bigger than we've ever seen before. I think the democratic debate set a record in terms of viewership. And presidential races, unlike any other race, whether it's governor, senator or Congress, are really driven by the day-to-day news. And I think the fact that these debates are getting big audiences and they're driving the news for the days before and the days after I think they're having a huge impact on what is happening in Iowa.

Borg: Good for Iowa? Good for Iowa, it's better than -- we've had traditional retail politics, all of you join in because this is a roundtable, kitchen table discussion here this time -- Kathie?

Obradovich: So what I'm wondering about is the way the national debates were set up you had to make a certain percentage in the national polls. And there was some concern when this was first announced with the very first debate that this would actually take time away from Iowa, that candidates had an incentive to go and punch up their poll numbers somewhere, you're not going to necessarily do that in Iowa, right? Do you think that created an incentive for candidates to take more time away from Iowa to make sure that they made the debate stage?

Woolson: I think it did and I think it created some problems for candidates who all campaigns have limited resources and now all of a sudden when you're trying to do well in Iowa, you're trying to do well in New Hampshire or South Carolina and now you're spending money to raise your numbers nationally, it creates an artificial climate for those campaigns that, again as I say, have limited resources and now they're trying to figure out what can they do to get on that center stage. And it also created and continues to create I think a tremendous amount of pressure on the campaigns leading up to each debate.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: But I also think that you have two tracks here. You have that going on for republicans. For democrats you have an entirely different campaign. You have a candidate in Hillary Clinton who committed early on that she was going to wage a huge effort in Iowa and then you have Bernie Sanders who sort of caught fire and has decided that he'll start lining up volunteers as well and trying to organize at the precinct level. Do you see two tracks going on, a democratic track and a republican track?

Woolson: I think there is and I think that has been one of the complaints that the republicans have had is that they feel that the democrats are maybe getting better treatment than the republicans are. But I think part of it is a big function and maybe Jeff would agree, maybe not, but a function of just the size of the field. When you have so many candidates on the republican side vying for attention, it changes the dynamics of any debate structure.

Link: Usually the republicans have the small field and the democrats can't sort of figure it out and we have a lot of people running in these races. But this time we have three candidates and the republicans still have fifteen.

Obradovich: Usually we say that Iowa, the Iowa caucuses, historically have been more important for democrats than republicans. You have to spend more time organizing here because of the way the rules work. And republicans came kind of late to the party. Do you think that's still true this year though because of the big field on the republican side and now already down to three candidates on the democrats?

Link: Yeah I don't know about -- Eric can speak to the republican side -- but I would say of the three democratic campaigns operating in Iowa they seem fully committed. Each campaign has staffed up. Clinton certainly more than the others. Each campaign had a big presence at the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner this weekend. I think they're running fully engaged campaigns. There's no one who is saying I'm just going to bypass Iowa and hope for the best in New Hampshire and beyond.

Henderson: Well Eric is somebody who has been on the ground in the campaign it strikes me that democrats are at an advantage here in terms of Iowa being a swing state. They already have this apparatus in place. Are republicans sort of behind the eight ball here in terms of not having that kind of apparatus by any of the candidates yet?

Woolson: I think we eventually catch up. I think, as Jeff said, it has been the democrats in the past that have had a lot of candidates and as they coalesce around one candidate they have been able to really become very competitive in Iowa. They won five of the last six or something along that line. So despite their large fields they have been able to do that and I think we're going to be able to do that too. Our party has got that commitment to a stronger ground game and I think we're going to see that happen come the general.

Borg: Kathie, I'm interested in your perspective on has the national exposure via the debates hurt republicans among independent voters?

Obradovich: I don't think so. Maybe it has hurt some republicans. I think it makes a difference whether somebody has a good debate or not. And I think we saw that, for example, with Marco Rubio in the last debate. I think that people looked at him as somebody who possibly he was already on the move in Iowa and looking at him as somebody who perhaps by virtue of a debate performance might get another look in Iowa. Candidates who are not having good debates, Jeb Bush, I think he was already having trouble in Iowa and this reinforces that narrative. And I think that's true generally that debates tend to reinforce a narrative that is already out there as opposed to necessarily creating a new story in voters' minds.

Borg: And rather than individual candidates, Kay, I'm looking at the overall impression of the Republican Party. Republicans themselves are less than happy with the way the debates have portrayed them.

Henderson: Some of them. I think republicans by and large are energized by what has been going on by these debates, huge amount of viewers, some of them may not particularly think that Donald Trump should be or will be their nominee, but Eric, I think these people watch the debate, they're energized, they see all these candidates traipsing around the country. I just don't sense that they're thinking these debates are horrible for the party, I think they're actually good for the party.

Woolson: I think the frustration they see, again, is in the questioning. And I think I had really high hopes for the CNBC debate with the focus on economics. And then the question out of the chute is, what is your biggest weakness? And then Marco Rubio, you're a young man and are you a young man in a hurry? Well he's a 44 year old Senator who is constitutionally prepared to be and qualified to be President of the United States. Why would that question come up? Governor Huckabee, is Donald Trump morally qualified to be president? Those are the sorts of things I think that have frustrated the republicans when they see those debates and want to see maybe more of the traditional debates that we've seen in cycles past.

Henderson: So what about your candidate, Mr. Walker? He did not participate in this last debate because he dropped out on the 21st of September. What was the impact of the debates on his candidacy? Could he have survived if he had been a better fundraiser?

Woolson: I think the challenge, and I'm always a believer it's not a revenue problem, it's a spending problem, I think we spent too much frankly. You raise $7.4 million in a quarter, you have the resources to run a solid campaign. So I think the campaign finances were mishandled on our end. But it gets back to such a large field, you have such a small opportunity, you only have one chance to make a good first impression and a lot of folks were seeing Scott Walker for the first time. That first debate they were expecting a guy who had fought the unions and he was a tough guy and all this and they didn't see that in the first debate.

Borg: But the real question there I think in what Kay is asking is, could he, without the national exposure, if he had been exposed as a neighboring Governor coming into Iowa, might he have, that campaign lasted longer?

Woolson: Yeah I think there are a lot of ways the campaign could have lasted longer and I think one of the issues we had when you ramp up so early, you have 90 people on staff, you're paying a lot of money to a lot of folks. Your burn rate is incredibly high. And having worked with Mike Huckabee, gosh, we didn't hire our second employee until May of '07. And so being with those lean, mean campaigns that ramp up, if you're husbanding your resources, yeah you can go a long, long way. Look at Rick Santorum, look at those folks.

Borg: Kathie, I want to ask a question here about the republican, going back to the debates, somebody has brought up the beef against the media, do republicans have a beef against the way the questions were asked and the type of questions because they're set now, the republican candidates are mutinying against those debate rules set by the national party?

Obradovich: Yeah, so I do think that with the CNBC debate I think there was room to criticize those questions. I agree with Eric that that first question about your weakness, for example, it set a tone, first of all, as somebody who has tried to organize debates before, you don't start with a question that candidates can ignore and a lot of them just ignored the question. Or it might be bad for them to answer. So I think that organizationally that was a bad question. Also I as somebody who feels like we have too little civility in politics asking even Donald Trump a question about are you running a comic book version of a presidential campaign. That's not a question, that's a shot. You're taking a shot at them. So no, there was definitely -- but there's also I think an advantage for presidential candidates, the republican side in particular, to push back at the media and they took advantage of that as well. And there's a difference between complaining about questions like taking a shot at you or uncivil questions and complaining about legitimate questions that are just hard. And I think that we saw both of that. And Jeff, so the democrats, they came out of their first debate having complimented each other, the candidates talking about how civil it was and how issue focused, but some of those candidates now are going to have to sharpen their contrast and talk in more negative terms about each other. And haven't they now raised an expectation that they're going to be more civil than perhaps they can afford to be going forward?

Link: Well there's a couple of things to unpack there. I think, first of all, this big challenge with debate goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, which is when you have a giant field it just becomes difficult logistically to pull off a debate within a certain timeframe. They were even arguing about whether it was going to be three hours or two hours to give people time. So I think most of this debate business is literally about the size of the field. Good three candidates, it's relatively easy to do a three candidate debate. On your point about will they have to sort of sharpen differences? I don't think anyone has to. I think it's clear that the Sanders campaign has chosen to take a different route.

Obradovich: Martin O'Malley told the Register's Editorial Board this week that this is the time for compare and contrast, we're going to go forward now and we need to compare and contrast.

Link: Yeah, so I think they're both going to choose to do that. I think it's an interesting choice for Sanders because Sanders rose to the position that he is in basically talking about his beliefs and where he stands, not about contrasting at all. And it seems interesting that they announce in the last week or so that they have hired a pollster for the first time. There's been reports of a poll in the field testing negatives on Senator Clinton and now all of a sudden it's time for contrast.

Obradovich: Well and at JJ, his speech at Jefferson Jackson Dinner, his speech was largely about contrast.

Henderson: Without mentioning her by name we must add.

Obradovich: Exactly.

Link: No that's true but, again, I think this has a real possibility of sort of changing people's perception of Bernie Sanders.

Obradovich: So he's going to pay a price in other words?

Link: He could pay a price for this. I think if this is genuinely Bernie Sanders' view that it's time to make these contrasts I think people will see that because we see these candidates every single night on the news or we read about them, but if this is sort of consultant driven, the consultants are saying it's now time to contrast and maybe go negative, and if he doesn't really feel comfortable with that I think we're going to see a real dissonance that will be apparent.

Borg: Kay, go ahead.

Henderson: One of the subtle things that happened at the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner was that Hillary Clinton said, I've always been a proud democrat, I am a proud democrat whereas you have Bernie Sanders who is an independent member of the Senate and is a democratic socialist. And you go to these events and you ask democratic activists who are supporting Bernie Sanders, do you think democratic socialism will be a liability in the General Election and they say no. You go to republican events --

Obradovich: -- Des Moines Register poll too.

Henderson: Right. And you go to republican events and you say, are you licking your chops at the idea of running against a democratic socialist and they can hardly contain themselves because they think labeling someone a socialist is a good campaign strategy. Is it a good campaign strategy, Eric?

Woolson: I think it's another way to draw a distinction between the two parties. I don't know that we expect that Bernie Sanders is going to be the nominee but I think that prompted me to think of a question for Jeff, we talk about the different lanes in the Republican Party, but I'm wondering, do you think most of those folks that Sanders is going after, would they be Hillary Clinton supporters anyway or are they going after different target audiences and is O'Malley's issue that he's sort of going after Mrs. Clinton's audience? Or are there different lanes I guess in the Democratic Party is what I've been wondering?

Link: Yeah, there certainly are different lanes.

Borg: What are they, Jeff?

Link: Well if you look back at some of the previous elections, Kucinich had a strong, excited, energized group that he gathered for a caucus campaign. The 2000 race I think is an interesting corollary to what we have going on because Bradley essentially has put together the same coalition that Sanders has, the Gore campaign sort of put the same coalition together that the Clinton campaign is working on now. It was very effective for Gore in 2000 here. In fact, there's a lot of the staff people from Bradley that are now part of the Sanders staff. So there is, I think there's a progressive anti-establishment group within the Democratic Party and I think there is the more traditional democrat.

Borg: So you'd put Hillary into traditional. You'd put Bernie Sanders into the outlier, more progressive?

Link: Yeah, and it is anti-establishment, just as there is an anti-establishment --

Borg: That's what I was searching for.

Henderson: But to Eric's point, what happens in the general? Are they sort of downtrodden because their man didn't win?

Link: Well everyone is disappointed when their first choice doesn't make it. But I think you'll have maybe ten or fifteen percent of the people who were energized solely by Sanders will throw their hands up and say I'm not marching forward. But I think 85% or 90% will.

Obradovich: Even in the polls at this stage 64% of Sanders people have Hillary Clinton as their second choice. So there is overlap. And when I talk to people at these events most of them say, I like everybody but I'm picking one. And the issue of gun violence is I think rubbing against democrats in Iowa related to Bernie Sanders more than I would have expected considering that this is not exactly a big urban state where gun violence is a big issue.

Borg: You talked about lanes in the Democratic Party. What are the lanes in the Republican Party? The traditional --


Henderson: The outsiders.

Borg: Yeah, the outsiders and that is Donald Trump, Ben Carson.

Henderson: The insiders/establishment candidates.

Borg: That's John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie.

Henderson: And those who are trying to win the support among evangelical Iowans hoping that they coalesce.

Obradovich: Those lanes interlap and intersect thought. It sort of looks like a big city --

Henderson: But the interesting thing is when Scott Walker dropped out he said, I would encourage others who are in the same boat as I am to drop out so that our party can coalesce around a "conservative candidate", which hasn't happened, and I don't think is going to happen before the caucuses. I think everybody who is in it right now is going to stay in through the caucuses and then if they don't do well this may be the moment when they drop out February 2nd.

Woolson: And the outside lane is the fast lane right now, just like in real life, but I think we're going to see those lanes kind of catch up with each other as we get closer to the caucuses too.

Borg: You were in the Walker campaign, and I don't want to let it go too far here, but since that remark -- who do you think that Scott Walker was talking about when he said others should be dropping out as well?

Woolson: I don't know if he had anybody in mind in particular, perhaps the back markers in the field and that would cross a number of those lanes whether it be the evangelicals or the more traditional candidates, some of the Governors in the race. I think the interesting thing a lot of republicans thought going into this cycle that experience was going to count for an awful lot. Whatever you think of President Obama, I think that sentiment was that gosh, we're going to taught experience whether it's a governor or somebody with that leadership experience. And it just hasn't, it hasn't worked out that way.

Borg: Speaking about possibly dropping out, or at least scaling back, Jeb Bush, Kathie Obradovich, has scaled back somewhat and now we have a position paper, at least a strategy paper.

Obradovich: Yeah, it doesn't look that great for his campaign in Iowa when he is talking about spending roughly a tenth of the advertising money in Iowa that he's going to spend in New Hampshire. These are talking points, they're a discussion, plans can change but frankly Jeb Bush is in the lower half, middle to lower half of the pack, this has got to be a big disappointment to his folks. Talking disparagingly at all about Iowa or marginalizing the campaign here is a self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of ways so it's not going to help him. And you've got a few other what I would consider to be mainstream republican candidates who might be in a position to take advantage of that including possibly Chris Christie.

Woolson: I think Kay has been right a lot more over the years than I have but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of somebody dropping out before the caucuses and I would put Governor Bush in that category frankly right now. I think one of the things we've seen going into this cycle we thought the super PACs were going to be so incredibly powerful but it didn't help Rick Perry, it didn't help Scott Walker and I don't know that it's going to help Jeb Bush. You may have $100 million in the bank but I don't know that it's going to help him if the campaign itself can't continue to go forward.

Link: In fact, I saw one of these Jeb Bush ads this week, I assume it's from the super PAC and I actually thought this is the worst possible ad I've ever seen. So in a year when the outside lane is the fast lane and the establishment is frowned upon, particularly in the republican primary, they have validators who are lobbyists in Tallahassee talking about Bush's experience as Governor. I don't think I would put a lobbyist on television for a candidate in a hundred years and that's what they've done. I think that is a disaster. The only thing worse is the sign they put over his head this week that said, we can fix it, because everyone was asking, are you talking about your campaign or are you talking about the country? And I don't think they're going to be able to fix this campaign, particularly if the super PAC is running ads that puts lobbyists on television. I can't -- that's like malpractice.

Borg: Jeff, talking about future of candidates, Martin O'Malley has been saying regularly that he's, let's use a baseball analogy, final innings candidate and he's going to rally. Are we in the final innings? And what do you see?

Link: Well I think the Jefferson Jackson Day event is always sort of a turning point. It's kind of a big moment in all of these caucus campaigns for us, it's just the way the democratic calendar has worked out in the past. And I think with this shift that Sanders has made that we talked about earlier, if that happens to backfire or doesn't work or sort of falls flat I think there is an opportunity for O'Malley to move up in that scenario.

Borg: And will we see it in Iowa or will we see it nationally?

Link: I think we'll see it here first because I think they're spending time here.

Obradovich: But does he have to then not be negative in order to take advantage of it? He has to be the happy, positive second choice as we often see and not make anybody made, right? Doesn't he have to --

Henderson: Yeah, that was the calculation that the man we no longer ever mention, John Edwards used, to his advantage because he was everybody's second choice because if you went into that caucus you were either going to vote for Clinton or you were not. And so Obama and Edwards benefited on caucus night from that.

Link: Yeah, and I think Edwards in particular benefited from not being part of the fray.

Obradovich: But if O'Malley does decide to compare and contrast as he says he's going to do, is that a problem or does it matter how he goes about doing that?

Link: I think it does matter. I think he's got to sort of be real careful about that and part of it is you just have to see how negative will Sanders go? The Sanders aides, if you read quotes from Tad Devine or Jeff Weaver, they're going full throat and we'll see if Sanders gets to that level himself. If that's the case I think it might be smart for O'Malley to sit back and wait for the dust to settle and come up the middle.

Borg: We've spoken about the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner a weekend ago. The republicans, Kathie, have something coming up this weekend. Can it rival in enthusiasm the JJ?

Obradovich: Well I don't know because it's going to be a -- it's hard to sustain enthusiasm over like seven hours so you're not going to have the huge TV pep rally thing. It's going to be more a competition, almost like a Straw Poll where you’re trying to get people to get excited by what is going on at your booth as opposed to necessarily the big rally from the stage with the glow sticks and everything.

Borg: Do you have big hopes for it?

Woolson: Well the party has done a terrific job of marketing the thing but I think Jeff made a terrific point that the JJ Dinner has been a tradition, it has been a turning point in the democratic cycle and so I think this being a brand new event it's going to take some time for it to catch on.

Obradovich: Good or a bad idea to have it on Halloween?

Woolson: I'll leave that to --

Borg: There are lots of lines to go with that one. Thank you all for your insights. And next week on Iowa Press republican presidential candidate John Kasich, Ohio's Governor campaigning to move now into the White House. Republican Governor John Kasich, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 

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