Political Science Professors Donna Hoffman and Dave Peterson

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 20, 2019 | 27 min

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David Yepsen:       Iowans will be flipping the calendar to 2020 in the days ahead, but we're already one year into a presidential campaign. What political trends can we expect in the new year? We sit down with a pair of Iowa political scientists on this edition of Iowa press

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Announce:           For decades, Iowa press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa public television. This is the Friday, December 20th edition of Iowa press. Here is David Yepsen.

David Yepsen:       By the time caucus goers cast their choices in February, 2020 islands will have been subject to nearly 400 days of presidential campaigning as a never ending election cycle is poised to turn churn turnout throughout 2020 we've gathered a pair of political science professors for insight. Dave Peterson is professor of political science at Iowa state university and Donna Hoffman is professor of political science at the university of Northern Iowa. Welcome to you both. Good to have you with us. I think this is your first time being on the program. So welcome. Thank you journalists joining us across the table today Clay Masters of Iowa public radio and Kay Henderson, news director at Radio Iowa,

Kay Henderson:      Professor Hoffman, uh, New York. Uh, mayor is spending a lot of money running in other States. There's a discussion about the diversity among the Iowa electorate. Do you think this is the final time the Iowa caucuses will be first in the nation?

Donna Hoffman:      I think that's always a question that we entertain in this state. Every time that we're first, uh, the other 48 States, New Hampshire usually gives us a pass. The other 48 States, uh, envy position. Um, we're always under attack. And you know, one of the things both parties in the state of Iowa will in fact cooperate on, is keeping the Iowa caucuses first. And they are always, uh, very attuned, especially in the last couple of cycles to make sure that the caucuses try to, to not have any hitches in them. The Democrats of course, are dealing with some rural changes the cycle. Um, the Republicans are, uh, unlike some of their colleagues and other States not canceling the caucus precisely for this reason. So it is always a threat, um, that Iowa confronts whenever we enter into this process that by bringing the attention onto ourselves, it invites some of the criticism as to why should Iowa be first.

Kay Henderson:      Professor Peterson? What impact do you think Michael Bloomberg's, um, more than $100 million in advertising and States that aren't at the head of the pack? Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, will have on this debate moving forward?

Dave Peterson:      Uh, do you mean on the Iowa caucuses themselves? The Iowa caucuses. Uh, probably not a whole lot. Um, he's not doing very well in the polling that's come out since he's been, uh, since he's announced. Um, Iowans seem to actually kind of resent the fact that he's gotten in this late, is not campaigning in Iowa, um, and has, uh, been sort of attracting attention away from the state and away from the other candidates.

David Yepsen:       What's your answer to Kay's question earlier about is this a it for Iowa? What do you think? I will remain first in the nation. I think it depends on who wins in November of 2020. Right. So if, if there's a democratic president, then there won't be much of a democratic Iowa caucus in 2024, assuming it's somebody running for reelection, in which case it's the Republican party essentially that makes the decision about the ordering for, for 2024.

Dave Peterson:      And in that situation, it seems to me like the Republicans would be much less willing to shift the, uh, away from Iowa. I think they're probably a little less concerned about the racial and ethnic diversity. Um, and so it, it, in that situation, it probably would wait until 2028 at the same time too.

Clay Masters:       We have, I think for the first time a presidential candidate actively campaigning in Iowa with Julian Castro, the former housing secretary running ads saying basically like iOS shouldn't go first. I mean this, this is new territory. And does that have any kind of effect? Do you think?

Donna Hoffman:      Candidates have criticized the Iowa caucuses before? That usually does indicate that they aren't doing so well in the state. And I thought Julian Castro approach was pretty interesting because he has been doing events across the state, uh, and at the same time criticizing the caucuses, you know, he is, I guess from his perspective, speaking truth to power in that sense in some ways, uh, to draw attention to the fact that, um, you know, that Iowa, uh, has some, some drawbacks to it. You know, at the end of the day though, somebody has to go first. And what keeps, uh, the protection of our position in that, uh, place is the fact that nobody else can agree on a better system. And, um, although others have tried. And even when you've had cycles, like in 2008, when Florida, Michigan tried to leapfrog us, we leapfrog them. It did cause for a lot of chaos. Um, in terms of what would happen to those delegates, for example, in that race that went to pretty late in the season for Obama and Clinton. And so, um, you know, it is an interesting strategy that he has to do that, but he is trying to bring attention to the way the party nominates its candidate.

Clay Masters:       Well, coming out of the 2016 election, the democratic national committee basically said, Hey Iowa, be more inclusive. There were the virtual caucuses, uh, which the Iowa democratic party rolled out that we don't need to talk too much about that cause they were confusing to explain before the DNC had concerns about cybersecurity, they threw it out. Now we have these satellite caucuses, uh, that are going to be in effect. Can somebody explain satellite caucuses?

Donna Hoffman:      Well, I did hear that, uh, they've, um, said that there will be 99 of them. Now, it sounds like they're very diverse in terms of even across the globe, uh, beyond that, I haven't heard much yet about how they're actually going to function, but you know, they are under pressure from the DNC to try to, um, make the contest seem a little more accessible.

Dave Peterson:      Yeah, no, I think that's exactly right. I mean, the other trick to the entire thing is that New Hampshire's first in the nation, primary status is in their state constitution. Right? And so it's not just, I mean, most of the ordering of primaries and caucuses is determined by the parties, right. Through a coordinated strategy, which is part of the reason why, uh, other States have trouble getting ahead of us is cause they all, they're all jockeying for position and it's difficult to coordinate. But New Hampshire is, is by state constitution, not just state law, state constitution. And so even if the DNC and the RNC have some type of coordinated effort where to try to make it so the New Hampshire couldn't be the first primary, they would lose, right. That the state is constitutionally obligated to do. So, which creates all sorts of complications for trying to make this 50 state coordinated strategy difficult.

David Yepsen:       Do you think Professor Peterson and do you think the stat alight caucuses will help, uh, Iowa meet the criticism about diversity and inclusiveness?

Dave Peterson:      Probably not. I mean, a and part, I don't think there's a whole lot of attention to what they're going to be. And from talking to campaign staff, they don't fully understand what it's going to be. They had a good sense of what the virtual caucus was going to be, even though we don't necessarily need to talk about that, but they don't really quite know how to prepare for these satellite caucuses as in the same way that they know how to prepare for precinct caucuses.

David Yepsen:       Do either of you think that Iowa is a good practice ground for democratic presidential caucuses this year? Because as we've all learned, there's a rural skew to the electoral college. If Democrats can't do better in rural America, they're not going to win the electoral college. So professor Peterson, is this a good dip place to, for a practice, for a workout?

Dave Peterson:      Uh, uh, it depends, right? I, I'd push back a little bit on the, the, the electoral college strategy. I think that there are other strategies that a democratic candidate could have to try to do better in, in other States, States like Texas, Georgia, Arizona as a, as a potential path as opposed to sort of the more, uh, upper Midwest rural. Um, that said, I mean, I think what makes Iowa a good test case or the good first state is the degree of attention and care that Iowans put into this. We know to show up at a library in August on a beautiful August day to see some member of Congress we've never really heard of before, give their spiel and, and to listen and to question and to poke.

David Yepsen:       Professor Hoffman. Um, I'd like to switch gears to look at November. Um, is Iowa in play in November?

Donna Hoffman:      I think certainly it is. Um, we have, uh, historically gone back and forth. We generally have been seen as a swing state. Um, I think there are some who would say, well, maybe we, we lean red at this point, but you know, I would point to the 2018 midterm elections where when you look at the statewide races, we had two Republicans. When we had two Democrats win, um, we, our congressional delegation is three to one, Democrat to Republican. Um, I think that it is a very competitive state. And as we saw from, uh, 2008, 12 and then to 16, we had 31 counties, I believe it was that, uh, voted both times for Obama and then voted for Trump in 2016. So voters in Iowa, uh, do tend to, um, take the race and the competition seriously?

David Yepsen:       Same question to you?

Dave Peterson:      No, I think absolutely. Um, I mean one of the things that we know is, uh, that there have been some, in 2018, there were some real losses for Republicans in particularly in the areas that were hit hard by the trade sanctions, by the inability to export, particularly like soybeans. Right? So I've got a couple of colleagues who've done some really cool work looking at how the, the losses in soybean exports were directly connected to the gains that the Democrats made in Iowa in 2018. I mean, if trade picks up, maybe that'll be better for Trump. Um, but if it doesn't, I think that that's an issue that the, that the democratic candidates can hit. And we'll hit on.

Clay Masters:       Speaking of the democratic presidential candidates, there's a lot of them and they've been spending a lot of time in Iowa for the past year. Professor Hoffman, when you look at the different democratic candidates at this point, I mean, is there some kind of clear candidate you think that will go up against president Donald Trump successfully in a general election?

Donna Hoffman:      Well, it depends on, um, you know, if you look at the polling, uh, it's, it's been a little bit, um, skewed in terms of, uh, who can beat Donald Trump at various times, which Democrats can go up against that. We do know though, that electability seems to be a concern of democratic party voters. And part of the process of getting to that is going through the process of the, the caucuses and primary season because it is grueling. It is testing the candidates metal and um, and so those are are some of the factors. Uh, I would, I would point to.

David Yepsen:       But you don't have a name or two that you think would be better?

Donna Hoffman:      I mean I think we have a top tier and we have a, a bottom tier in terms of who can get the nomination there also though seems to be a hunger, uh, among Democrats of I don't really care about the issues as much as I care about beating the incumbent president.

David Yepsen:       Peterson? Same question.

Dave Peterson:      No, I mean I think it's, I think it's tricky right at this point. Um, while Iowans are paying really close attention and this time, Democrats are paying really close attention to all these candidates. Voters in about 46 other States aren't. Um, and so when we poll them and ask, you know, would you vote for Trump or would you vote for this candidate? They may not know much about that candidate yet. And one of things that happens during presidential election campaigns is that we learn, right? Americans actually learn a lot about the candidates over the course of the campaign. And so the polling today, that's a snapshot. A lot of that is driven by name recognition. And so if a candidate like people to judge who a lot of Americans don't know yet is the nominee, the polling today is not going to be very helpful to predict what's going to happen. Okay.

Kay Henderson :     What happens if there is not a clear winner of the primaries and caucuses and it goes to a contested convention? Does that benefit a candidate in the media age in which we live or is that a detriment and that they are not able to have been running a campaign against Trump over those months?

Donna Hoffman:      Well, first I would say the likelihood of a contested convention is actually quite small. It is always something we talk about as a possibility, but it is in the interest of the political party, whether it's the Republicans, whether it's the Democrats to not have a divided contest. Uh, you don't want a convention floor fight. It puts you at a disadvantage. That is when most Americans start paying attention, uh, to the general election is right after the conventions. And so even if you look at 2008 as a guide here where it went extraordinarily light between Clinton and Obama, they had it settled and they had it settled well before the convention. Even though then we were also talking about the possibility of a convention fight. We talked about it in 2016 with the Republicans. It's not in the interest of a party to get to that they'll do the things they need to do to squash that if they need to.

Kay Henderson:      In the last century, we learned that it's the economy stupid during the Clinton campaign. Given the fact that America is having a very healthy economic period here of great duration, professor Peterson, um, isn't it likely that president Trump will win reelection?

Dave Peterson:      Well, there's two pieces to that. Uh, first is that we no longer agree on what the economy is. Uh, if you ask Democrats, uh, how the economy is doing, they'll say it's doing substantially worse than Republicans will say it's doing. And this is really heightened in the last decade or so. Um, that really that, that idea of we all live or we all understand the economy to be good or bad at the same way doesn't exactly exist anymore. Um, and so the, that, that relationship has broken down a little bit mean. The other piece to that though is that, uh, one of the ways that the economy matters is that it feeds into presidential approval, right? A president, uh, presiding over this economy should have a much higher level of presidential approval than president Trump has, uh, based on sort of basic models of how politics works. Um, and so it implies that president Trump faces a penalty that there is, uh, the, the link between the attitudes about the, about him and perceptions of the economy doesn't work the same way it has for the last century. Essentially.

Dave Peterson:      It's often good said James Carville said it's the economy stupid. I wonder if that is to be changed time and to say it's cultural. Um, you look at P hard-pressed regions of the country, you would think people would oppose Trump, but in fact there for him. And if you dig underneath the surface, you find its cultural issues that are driving their vote guns, social issues like gay marriage or abortion. So isn't it more a cultural driven electorate today than before?

Dave Peterson:      To a certain extent, yes. I think that's definitely the case. I'd add race and ethnicity as part of that as well. Um, and that, that, that is some, that has become a lot of the major cleavage in American politics. I mean, our parties line up along social identity lines. Um, and that tends to really shape who we end up voting for.

David Yepsen:       Professor Hoffman. What's the political effect of this trade war? Um, what will it be in November?

Donna Hoffman:      That's hard to say because, um, even right now it's a little uncertain. We keep hearing that there is a, uh, an agreement with China, uh, kind of a, a light agreement, uh, but then it doesn't seemingly always materialize. Um, you know, the trade war, how it affects, uh, voters in Iowa, for example, in the caucuses. Maybe one thing, how it affects, uh, the general election electorate in November may, may be a different thing. And I think it's hard to say in that regard because the trade war is not about one commodity or one product. It's about a lot of different things and they could get differentiated here,

David Yepsen:       But hard times in the farm belt. In the past, uh, in past farm recessions, there was always a lag time between when the farm troubles started and when it started to show up at the electorate. I'm thinking of the farm crisis of the 80s started in the early eighties, and it wasn't until 88 that Mike Dukakis carried the state. So, uh, I'm curious, Professor Peterson, would you think about the political effect of the hard times in rural America?

Dave Peterson:      I mean, I think, I think it can be a serious problem for the Republicans. I mean, we know that farmers, uh, and, and other workers in the agricultural economy understand pretty well how commodity prices directly impacted their bottom line. And understand pretty well how trade policy shapes commodity prices and then shapes their bottom line. And it's not too hard to draw a straight line from some of Trump's trade policies directly to some of the, the problems that they're facing.

Clay Masters:       We just had the U S house vote to impeach president Donald Trump. Iowa's two freshmen democratic Congresswomen, Abby Finkenauer from Dubuque and Cindy Axne from West Des Moines, uh, voted to impeach the president. They're both in pretty swing districts. Um, how does this affect their races moving forward? You've seen the Republican party of Iowa really hitting them for their votes. What's the down ticket effect with whoever the presidential candidates going to be on the democratic side and Trump.

Donna Hoffman:      you know, one of the things that, uh, both Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer our need to do is explain their vote. They have to explain their vote. They have to explain it in a way in which they're, you know, essentially saying, I stood on principle, I stood on principle. I didn't pander, for example, my seat might be in danger, but this was an issue for me that was worth it to do that. And uh, there will be an, especially this was true, uh, in decades past, it remains to be seen if this is still the case with voters, but voters generally with members of Congress may disagree with a vote, but respect the fact if you can explain it well, this is a different type of vote in some ways and it's also a different type of environment. So they certainly have thought about this before they even cast that vote. They've already got an answer to that question in terms of how they're going to explain it to voters. The question is where are they going to be successful in doing that?

David Yepsen :      What about the effect, uh, professor Peterson down-ballot on say the legislature, uh, this impeachment, we've talked about the, the economy, the jitters. Is it possible that Republicans don't become Democrats but that they just stay home?

Dave Peterson:      Yeah, I mean, I think that's definitely the case, right? I mean, I think it's, it's one of the big questions we face in the next year is what is this election going to be about? What is the narrative that shapes what voters are thinking about when they go to the polls in November of 2020? And if it is impeachment, if it is, uh, concerns about corruption, uh, with the president that can cast, that can cascade down, right? I mean, there's a reason why, uh, after the Nixon, or excuse me, after the Nixon resignation, the Republicans took incredible losses all the way down the ticket, right? The Republican party of Minnesota officially changed its name to the independent Republican party. If that effect is, is similar, right, where it sort of cascades all the way through the party, then it can, uh, make a big difference at, at these even more local levels.

David Yepsen:       But what about the flip side of that? Does that base Republican base get so angry and so energized and you saw it in some of the floor discussions that they come roaring into the electorate?

Dave Peterson:      Yes, absolutely. Right? I mean, that's, that's just it, right? I mean that's a year out. We don't know what's exactly going to happen, but that could very well be the case. It seems like the, I mean, the Republican party really has been, uh, shaped and molded by president Trump in ways that I haven't seen a previous president do.

Kay Henderson\:     Professor Hoffman. Um, I've heard some pollsters certainly refer to something they call the exhausted majority. Where do those people go?

Donna Hoffman:      That's a good question. Um, you know, so do they again, do they stay home? Um, you know, there will be people who, um, might've been Trump voters that aren't excited by Trump any longer. There are just so many unknowns there in terms of, uh, what will happen. Do people just drop out of the race? One of the things I would look to would be, uh, 2018, again, in the midterms we saw record, very high turnout, uh, almost new record turnout there. The Republicans were energized, the Democrats were energized, the Democrats happened to be a little bit more energized than the Republicans. So I think the question is, uh, in terms of of 2020, and the turnout is how far that, that, uh, burning indignation that some feel will last in that sense. And also, you know, it is still a long time before that election takes place and a lot of things can happen.

Kay Henderson:      What is your analysis of Joni Ernst prospects for reelection in 2020?

Donna Hoffman:      So we used to, Tip O'Neill used to say all politics is local, right? Uh, that really has kind of changed and uh, these elections have become nationalized. And my prediction for Joni Ernst would be is if, if the, if Trump wins the state, she probably gets reelected. If the Democrat wins, she probably goes down.

Dave Peterson:      Yeah, absolutely. Um, no, I think this is going to be a tightly contested race. Um, I think the, the Democrats are gonna, uh, spend a lot of time and attention on this Senate seat, uh, nationally. Um, and I think the, the, whoever ends up being the democratic nominee is going to be, uh, well situated to run a competitive campaign. Um, but ultimately I think I agree, right? I think it's going to be a nationalized race and it's going to be tied closely to the presidential election.

David Yepsen:       Take Kay's question down ballot even farther. Does this start to affect legislative races for local races?

Dave Peterson:      Yeah, probably. I mean, I mean it depends on what the, it depends on what the mechanism is. Is it right? Is it, is it that Republicans are staying home? In which case it absolutely will, right? Cause that'll just be a down-ballot effect. Um, sort of an unintended consequence is it, um, people become polarized, um, and everybody's turning out and everybody's a hyperpolarized in which case it's going to be, everything's going to be competitive.

Kay Henderson:      You know, I'm struck by the fact that about this time last year, the world was going to come to an end because there was a federal government shutdown. Um, how is it that we're thinking we can forecast what's going to happen in November in this sort of environment when the news turns so fast?

Donna Hoffman:      That is really an issue. You know, this morning I heard on the radio, Kamala Harris dropped out of the race about two weeks ago. And I thought, really, that wasn't, uh, six, six weeks ago, eight weeks ago. So it is like a fire hose in terms of the issues that come at, uh, uh, you know, voters again that exhaust that's, you know, part of that exhausted, uh, piece of the electorate. I think, um, it is difficult to tell now. That's why political scientist, we'll talk about the fundamentals of elections and we do, you know, rely on things like the economy, uh, rely on things, uh, such as presidential approval to help us forecasting. But there's always an element of chance of, of, uh, error in those forecasts,

Clay Masters:       Democratic presidential candidates when they're here. I go to these rallies and one of the things that they're often talking about is the electoral college and, and they say that the electoral college should go away and the crowd cheers. Um, they're actively campaigning on this. Could we see, uh, another time where president Trump is elected by winning the electoral vote and not the popular vote? Is this going to happen again? And then is there this appetite manifesting into something?

Dave Peterson:      I mean, it could happen again. I mean, it obviously could happen again, right? I mean, I think it's likely that the democratic candidate will run up a run up their votes in New York and California, um, and that the Republicans won't be able to do, or Trump won't be able to do quite the same in Texas for instance, you know, the big were Halligan state. Um, and as long as the popular vote loser electoral college winner is always a Republican, which is what it's been the last couple of times, then Democrats are gonna love that. The one time it switches the other way, then we might see some bipartisan, uh, attempts or efforts or, or taste to, to get it changed.

Donna Hoffman:      The problem though with the electoral college is, um, that States, at least small States would have to be pretty selfless and getting rid of it. Iowa being one of those, because the ratification process of a constitutional amendment that would get rid of the electoral college would have to go to the States. And there's enough small States that are slightly advantaged by the electoral college that, uh, could probably block it.

David Yepsen:       Not likely. This is ever going to change?

Donna Hoffman:      Unlikely. I tell. I tell students all the time, you know, you can hate the electoral college all you want, but you better get used to it.

Kay Henderson:      We haven't much more than a minute left. You're both political scientists. Tell us one piece of data you want to see from the caucus electorate, professor Hoffman.

Donna Hoffman:      Um, I, well, we're going to get different data, uh, in the democratic caucus this time because the democratic party has historically only reported state delegate equivalents. And that is sometimes confusing to explain to people both in and outside of the state what that actually means. Um, so we will see, uh, hard numbers, raw numbers on the first alignment as well as the second alignment from the Democrats as well as the state delegate equivalent. And what, how those numbers, um, compare and contrast. I think it's going to be something that will be very interesting to watch. So I'm looking forward to that kind of data.

Dave Peterson:      I mean, I would agree that's the same. That was again, I was getting my answer as well, right? That, uh, seeing, um, which of the candidates, right? So basically there's four candidates, about 15%, four candidates look like they're going to get delegates. Is there a fifth one who can get close even that would help figure out what's going to happen next.

David Yepsen:       And I'm out of time. Thank you both for being with us. Thank you. You're welcome. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press with an all Iowa reporters round table at our regular times Friday night at 7:30 and again at noon on Sunday for all of us here at Iowa public television. I'm David Yepsen and thanks for joining us today.

Announce:           funding for Iowa press was provided by friends, the Iowa public television 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 and 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.