Iowa caucuses and 2020 elections

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 18, 2019 | 27 min

The Iowa Caucus season is entering its final months just as many state races for 2020 are heating up. We check on the political pulse in Iowa with Pat Rynard of and Craig Robinson of 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 political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 18 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: As Iowa's presidential caucus campaign season enters late fall, many in Washington are occupied by impeachment talk. But what are the issues and candidates moving voters back in Iowa? And what of state politics? Joining us at the Iowa Press table to talk about it all are Pat Rynard, Founder of and Craig Robinson, Founder of Gentlemen, welcome back. Good to have you.

Robinson: Good to be here.

Rynard: Good to be here.

Yepsen: Journalists joining us across the table are James Lynch, Political Writer for the Gazette and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: First question, does Trump trump everything up and down the ballot, Pat Rynard?

Rynard: He kind of has this whole presidency, hasn't he, going back almost four years now through the campaign. A lot of the democratic primary, the debate throughout it has been a lot of reactions to whatever new crisis is happening with Trump that week. And it has been a little bit difficult for some of these individual candidates to kind of break out with their own messages.

Henderson: Let's go back though in time and remember the cycle in which John Kerry was nominated. Was it that much different when George W. Bush, or has social media sort of changed the dynamic?

Rynard: I think it certainly has to where, especially a lot of where the democratic debate is playing out right now is on Twitter of all these journalists tweeting out the most recent ridiculous thing coming out of D.C. and then the candidates end up having to very quickly within just an hour come up with their own response, sometimes kind of witty ones, to get that to bounce around Twitter. So yeah, it's a lot different from back then.

Yepsen: Craig, same question to you. In the Republican Party, is Trump pulling all the oxygen out of the room such that republican candidates who are in tight races can't get a message through?

Robinson: Yeah, I think he's dominating everything. We saw this in 2016 and it's not weekly, it's daily. There's something new every day and there's sometimes I compare this a little bit to republicans in 2012 where they were constantly, they were outraged about something Obama did on a daily basis and it really I think it does have a negative impact if you're the party trying to win the presidency because you're constantly chasing something new every day, you're outraged, you're making a statement and what you're not doing is maybe putting forth an agenda and an idea of what it's going to be like if you're elected President of the United States.

Lynch: Craig, we heard some outrage from Iowa this week regarding the latest round in the RFS battle with the EPA. No more Iowa Nice I guess. We'll leave it there. The quote continued. But how does this affect republicans up and down the ticket? Is this going to hurt the President in Iowa? Is it going to hurt Senator Ernst and congressional candidates?

Robinson: It certainly can. I think you have a renewable fuels industry that feels betrayed. And where Trump in 2016 and afterwards has always kind of said and done the right things but the actions of his administration haven't followed line. And so I think they're looking to get this situation rectified in a way that is suitable to their liking and I don't know if that happens. You have an EPA that seems pretty hostile to the ethanol industry. And so I think this does impact it, especially when you have if the Iowa Corn Growers are all of a sudden going to take their kind of political weight and be a little bit more non-partisan, it could impact Joni Ernst, it could impact these other congressional races if there is dissatisfaction with ow republicans have approached this, namely Donald Trump.

Rynard: I think it creates a real big credibility problem to a lot of top republicans in the state, most importantly Joni Ernst up for re-election in 2020, because we've all seen over the years where the Iowa Republican Party, Kim Reynolds, Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley, they've been all in for Donald Trump, this has been a very pro-Trump Republican Party here in this state. And what have they gotten out of it? When it comes to very Iowa specific issues like the renewable fuels industry Iowa has gotten betrayed time and time again and folks like Joni Ernst keep saying, oh I'm having these conversations with the President, but then nothing comes out of it.

Yepsen: But there is a saying in politics, Pat, that you dance with the one that brung you. Well, Joni Ernst got to the U.S. Senate in no small part because of the Tea Party people who championed her. So Craig, isn't she in a position where she's got to stay with Trump no matter what?

Robinson: Yeah, I don't think there's really, especially in a state like Iowa where you see republican activists, there's no one flaking from Donald Trump. You might not like what he's doing here or there on a particular issue, but by and large the support of the President is strong within the party and I think you cause more problems trying to go it alone.

Yepsen: You said there would be an adverse effect, could be an adverse effect on Trump. How so? Stay at home, republicans stay home?

Robinson: Yeah, look, I think that at some point Trump is going to have to deliver on these trade issues, on ethanol and on these things. And so he still has some time. But I mean, the clock is ticking. And if we go into the general election and we're still having these issues where the trade war is still waging and people are going to start voting that makes me a little nervous.

Henderson: Pat, let's turn to the debate that happened one night this week sometime, three hours. Do these debates have an impact?

Rynard: They can be informative to viewers. I don't think that this debate in particular, there's been moments in other ones, but this debate in particular with 12 democrats up on stage, which was a lot and was very long, I think I remember most of it but I'm not entirely sure. I think what this debate did, instead of having a breakout moment for anyone, it just showed that there was a new phase, that we've entered a new phase where Elizabeth Warren is seen largely as the frontrunner now or just the slight frontrunner in the democratic primary and so she got a lot more attention. And you saw Pete Buttigieg coming out with a much more aggressive stance. So I think it has been helpful in showing us just where the race is at.

Yepsen: Craig, do all these debates and this democratic messaging, what sort of effect is that having on republicans and republican hopes? They're taking a pounding every day.

Robinson: Well, on one side of it, it's helpful for republicans because every other week CNN has three or four hours of these candidates delving in on issues and they tend to go further left and left whether it's social policy or it's economic policy. So republicans aren't sending out opposition researchers to get them on film, it's on CNN these days. And so that helps. But they do, they do have an advantage in the sense that they're kind of, their time of possession in this match here early on is high where they're the ones getting the attention.

Yepsen: Pat, these debates and the Democratic National Committee rules that said who got in and got out, is the national party and are DNC rules about debates really taking over the role that Iowa has historically and traditionally played? And that is that Iowa winnows the field? Hasn't that been taken over by the national committee?

Rynard: To a certain extent, yes. That being said, there are still 12 people up on stage, which is more than you usually see on caucus night. So it has helped to winnow the field to a certain amount but I think a lot of the candidates who have dropped out or who are really struggling probably would have been really struggling anyway. I do think one of the unfortunate aspects of this caucus cycle is that we have not seen as many candidates just completely barnstorm the state, spend weeks and weeks out here not just hitting Waterloo, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids on their trips, but doing real long bus tours.

Lynch: Plus they're working for John Delaney.

Rynard: Well, true, but I think that's not necessarily the best way to look at it because you could take any aspect, well John Delaney was running some TV ads, so are all TV ads irrelevant? No. I've just been surprised we have not had as many people barnstorming the state to slowly build up that support.

Lynch: Let me ask you about a few of these candidates. Craig, feel free to jump in here with your perspective as well. Is Joe Biden fading? He's not commanding every poll as he was earlier in the race, he has made some gaffs, there's questions about his son Hunter and some of his speeches have been not the best. Is he fading?

Rynard: I think overall given the amount of attacks that he has sustained he has been a little bit more resilient than at least I thought he was going to be. He still has a lot of loyalty and support out there but you're right, the bigger concern for me is that he had somewhere between $9 and $10 million cash on hand compared to above $20 million for Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren. That I think is the most concerning problem, that if he continues to slide in the polls is he going to have enough money to rebound? Because he's Joe Biden, he's not going to get knocked out by one or two bad early states.

Henderson: I interviewed him on Sunday and asked him if he can lose Iowa and still win the nomination and he argues he can because of Super Tuesday. Can you get to Super Tuesday if you lose Iowa?

Rynard: I think you can. It depends on where you're at, second or third.

Robinson: The calendar is not his friend, especially if Elizabeth Warren is the frontrunner in this race. If Elizabeth Warren wins Iowa, wins New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, that could be the end of his campaign.

Rynard: Yeah, but I think it depends on just how many strong contenders remain after the early states and if it's 3 or 4 then I think that's probably to his advantage.

Lynch: Bernie Sanders was on the debate stage after being hospitalized for a heart attack. Does that hurt him in terms of raising the age issue? And by extension does that hurt Biden by raising the age issue?

Rynard: I think I have already spoken with some folks around the state who are now a little concerned about their support of Sanders because of that, those health issues. It has not gotten as much press attention but people know about it. Overall though the age issue has not had a huge impact on the primary so far.

Henderson: One thing voters are not asking these candidates at town hall meetings is they're not asking about impeachment. Does it have any role in the race at all?

Rynard: Not too much because how different are all their responses going to be, with the exception of Tom Steyer who can say hey I've been pushing for this for 2 years so it helps show my judgment. The way that it is going to have an impact on the race is if we do have these impeachment hearings in December and it takes a lot of Senators off the trail.

Henderson: Craig, in your party what impact has impeachment and what is going on in Syria had among rank and file republicans?

Robinson: I think that, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter. What I'm wondering is does it impact Trump's standing in the state moving forward? I still get out to rural parts of this state and I think this is still pretty strong Trump country and even with all the noise of impeachment and Syria and whatever the issue of the day is, I still think there's some resilient Trump support out there. Is that true in the urban centers? Definitely not. I think it has more of an impact in those areas than it does across the state.

Yepsen: Is Elizabeth Warren the frontrunner?

Rynard: Yeah, I think so. It has been just a very slow, steady and rather uneventful rise.

Yepsen: Has she peaked too early?

Rynard: That is possible and I think it will be very interesting to see what happens over this next month, because as you saw in the debate she took a lot of incoming fire. I thought she handled most of it well but we did hear from some folks at debate watch parties that we were at that they were concerned that she wouldn't answer the tax question over her Medicare for all plan. Yeah, and the last thing you want to do is start having a downward slide in October or November and if everybody is focusing on you and throwing punches at you that can happen, it doesn't necessarily do, but it can.

Henderson: One of the things that your party has been talking a lot about is Medicare for all. The Iowa Poll that was taken ages ago in mid-September showed that 52% of democrats who intend to go to the caucuses either support it but think it may imperil the party's nominee if they support it or they outright oppose it and it seems that we've seen some national polling that seems to think that worry is growing. What are you hearing from rank and file democrats?

Rynard: Yeah, there's a little bit of that out there and I think one of the things with the Medicare for all issue is just how much is that a deal breaker for a lot of democratic caucus goers. They may say that I would prefer a Medicare for all option but if I really like this candidate who is still going to get to a lot of universal coverage but maybe not that then they're okay with that. I think this primary has been more based around personalities than it has the very specific policies.

Henderson: Craig, to you, 2018 in many respects was sort of based on the fact that republicans were just criticized for not preserving pre-existing conditions as a protection under Obamacare. There's a court case out there, that could go away. How much do you think that health care will be a deciding factor in the 2020 race?

Robinson: I think health care will always be an important issue in our elections but it is how it's framed. And I think what we're seeing with these polls, even in Iowa of Iowa democrats, the cost of these programs matter to people. You can't just say I'm for this and we're going to spend all this money. People want to know how does this work? How does it impact my taxes? Who pays for this? It's not just someone going to give you something for free. And so the economics of these proposals have to work.

Lynch: So Craig, given what you just said, is Elizabeth Warren who is promising Medicare for all, free college, is she the dream GOP candidate?

Robinson: Well, there's a number of them. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. I'm more fearful of a more establishment democrat getting the nomination but I'm not sure that that's Joe Biden anymore. And so I think what we're looking for in Iowa here in the final months of this race, is there someone from the more establishment wing of the Democratic Party that will emerge?

Yepsen: Is that Pete Buttigieg?

Rynard: It very well could be because he has a lot of the energy and momentum. You just go out to his events and I think we all have and you see something different there than you see at most other places. Warren and Buttigieg are gaining the largest crowds out there by far. That doesn't always determine things. But he has got the money, he's got the energy and I don't necessarily think that if Biden kind of fades that doesn't mean just because Buttigieg is kind of more moderate on some issues that it immediately goes to there because the appeal for Biden isn't necessarily moderate, it's just like they know him.

Robinson: But does Buttigieg have the substance that I think it demands if you're a frontrunner? He's style over substance and I think, I get why he's an attractive candidate, he's a great communicator. But does he have the substance at the end of the day to be the standard bearer for your party?

Yepsen: Pat, what about his sexual orientation? Is that a drawback to his candidacy? Are democrats, it doesn’t get said very much because it's political incorrect, but is America ready for an openly gay President?

Rynard: I would certainly hope so. I think they are.

Yepsen: Right, but what I'm asking is the politics of it. Are there some democrats who have a reluctance or a hesitancy to support him because they don't think he can win?

Rynard: You're right if it is so then it's not being spoken publicly and it's not something that is probably going to get much news on it. So yeah, if you start to see polls where older people aren't as welcoming, aren't supporting him as much, that could be it.

Yepsen: Craig, you've got a problem with African-Americans, is that part of it?

Robinson: Sure, I'm not sure if that is part of that deal. I think it has been a benefit to his candidacy thus far. Out of the gate he merged because of this issue. And so again I think the calculation that has to be made, and I don't think where democrats are strong in the country, if you look at the electoral map, I don't think it's an issue for him.

Lynch: Pat, sort of a process question regarding the caucuses. A lot of people going to the caucuses with their short list and when they get there they want to vote for a winner. How much is that going to affect the outcome of the caucuses? And with a raw body count this year does second place or second choice matter?

Rynard: I think so. I still don't know how things are going to turn out on caucus night with the raw vote reporting and the delegate thing. But I think something --

Yepsen: Does the party even know? No one knows.

Rynard: I think they do. But I think something that hasn't been talked enough about that should be is how much second choices are going to impact this race when it comes to viability because right now a lot of the candidates, and you saw it with Buttigieg in the debate being more aggressive, at the national level candidates have no problem throwing punches at each other and kind of starting to get under each other's skin, but here in the caucus if you make a lot of attacks then those supporters of that candidate if they're not viable may not want to walk over to your corner on caucus night.

Lynch: So you have to play nice.

Rynard: Yeah.

Lynch: Yeah.

Henderson: Final question, do you think anybody will drop out before the caucuses?

Rynard: Yeah.

Henderson: Who?

Rynard: I was hoping you wouldn't ask.

Henderson: It didn't happen with your party in 2016, you just had a couple that did it, you didn't have five of them.

Robinson: Yeah, I think they waited for Iowa and then it was kind of this big determinator that they didn't do well and then you moved on. I don't know if that's going to be the case here.

Henderson: Is it because of debates or because of the fundraising?

Rynard: Fundraising. I think Castro, Julian Castro only had about $600,000, a little bit more than that cash on hand and that's probably not enough to make it through the caucus. So unless someone like him has some kind of big breakout moment where he raises a lot more that's going to be tough.

Yepsen: Craig, what about the caucuses in your party? President Trump has got some challengers, Mark Sanford, Bill Weld, there may be others. Do you see any of those people gaining any traction?

Robinson: I don't. I think it's very difficult to do it especially in a state like Iowa, especially being first. I don't think there is much of an appetite for it even though I think someone like Mark Sanford and the issues that he's bringing up are serious and should be thought about in the Republican Party, I just don't think there is an appetite for it.

Yepsen: How concerned are republicans and looking at all of this energy that the democrats are showing? Go back to what Pat was saying, these huge crowds, and they are by any objective metric and comparison to past campaigns some of these democratic candidates are attracting very large crowds. Are republicans worried about what that is going to mean come November?

Robinson: Yeah, I don't know if they're really worried about it. I think we'll see, I think there is excitement and kind of a willingness to defend Trump on anything. If you look at social media with republicans I think there's plenty of energy on the republican side of this race too.

Lynch: Let me ask you, start with you, Craig, the impact of impeachment on down ballot races, on congressional races. We have Cindy Axne in the 3rd, Abby Finkenauer in the 1st, freshmen congresswomen. Are they going to be hurt whatever they do regarding impeachment? These are districts that Trump carried.

Robinson: Interesting things that are going on right now is you would think with this cloud of impeachment going over everyone that it should help people like Finkenauer and Axne, yet Nancy Pelosi's PAC is spending lots of money running pro-Cindy Axne ads in that district. So I'm kind of confused. And so that's why again I think that, I don't think the impeachment thing has really settled in yet and it might not be a big issue come November.

Lynch: Pat?

Rynard: I think where you stand on Trump now is going to have a big impact on how the 2020 race turns out because this President is just imploding in front of our eyes every day. He's not stable and I just don't see this turning out well for --

Lynch: So impeachment isn't going to affect re-election?

Rynard: No, I think it could, yeah.

Yepsen: Pat, what is your answer to the question about the size of these democratic crowds and whether that can be bottled and canned and saved for the November election? Do you think that will sustain, be sustained, be a factor in some of these congressional races or the Ernst Senate race?

Rynard: Well, they typically do. That's always been one of my favorite things of being out here in Iowa during the caucus is that every caucus cycle you see a lot of new people getting engaged who hadn't been involved in politics before and then when you get to stick around after you see how they become a new generation of volunteers and activists who then go work on congressional campaigns and state rep campaigns. So yeah, the one exception to that was back in 2016 where the acrimony of the Sanders/Clinton split kind of made that a net negative because they were still upset with each other. But I don't think we're seeing that this time.

Yepsen: Senator Harkin has told me that the 1984, he won his Senate seat in part because of all the energy he had as a result of the democratic caucuses --

Rynard: We've had some people who just won state legislative seats in 2018 who got involved because of the caucus campaign.

Henderson: Craig, Senator Ernst told folks at a fundraiser with Vice President Pence that she was the 5th most vulnerable GOP candidate up in Senate races in 2020. What are her vulnerabilities?

Robinson: Well, I think that she's, I think the state she's from. This is not an easy state to win. This is a targeted state and democrats are going to, it's not only a presidential race, there's her race, there's congressional races that are targeted. Democrats aren't going to ever fold up camp and leave. So I think that she is going to have to deal with that, she's going to have a well-funded challenger.

Henderson: Steve King says that he's no longer vulnerable and that it's Joni Ernst that everyone should rally behind if they're a part of the Republican Party. What is your analysis on the Steve King primary race?

Robinson: Well, my analysis is, is that I think Steve King feels confident about his primary challenge, but what Steve King should worry about is his general election challenge. And I think that general election in 2018 is the reason he's vulnerable today. I think people know that he's vulnerable and so do you want to go, this guy, he raised, he doesn't have campaign staff anymore, he doesn't have, he has $40,000 cash on hand --

Yepsen: But he's got a poll that says he's way ahead.

Robinson: Yeah, it also says that 40% of the republicans in his district aren't with him and that would bother me.

Henderson: Can Scholten, who is running again against him, allegedly if Steve King wins, can he pull it out in a presidential year?

Yepsen: In a few seconds.

Rynard: Yes, I think he can. He has already raised $400,000, he's going to raise a lot more money.

Yepsen: Thank you both. We're out of time. We'll have you back.

Rynard: Thanks.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press when we sit down with Iowa House Speaker-select Pat Grassley, fresh off being picked by his republican colleagues to serve as Speaker of the House in the Iowa legislative session. That's Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. 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.