Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Nov 8, 2019 | 27 min

Iowa democrats have one of their largest events of the 2020 election cycle and another presidential candidate may enter. What does it mean for the massive field of democratic candidates still campaigning in Iowa? We gather a roundtable of Iowa political reporters for this edition of Iowa Press.


Iowa democrats have one of their largest events of the 2020 election cycle and another presidential candidate may enter. What does it mean for the massive field of democratic candidates still campaigning in Iowa? We gather a roundtable of Iowa political reporters for 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. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 8 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Campaigning for the 2020 Iowa Caucuses began in earnest this past January more than 300 days ago. But now less than 90 days remain until Caucus Night. Iowa political journalists spent much of this past weekend following candidates before, during and after a major event for Iowa democrats, their Liberty and Justice fundraising dinner. But did any candidates have a breakthrough? And what is the state of the race here in Iowa? Here to talk about it all are journalists Caroline Cummings of Sinclair Broadcast Group. Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Brianne Pfannenstiel, Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. And Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Yepsen: Brianne, I'll start with you. I'd like to get everybody's opinion on this one. The Liberty and Justice dinner, I still want to say JJ but that is passé now. Who are the winners and losers at the LJ dinner?

Pfannenstiel: Well, we've condensed it down to the LJ now so it's a little easier to say. But one of the really fun things about this event is the spectacle and the show. It's kind of political theatre. All of these campaigns bring out their supporters and they try and put on a really big show to show how enthused their supporters are. And so part of this is gimmick but part of it too is a reflection of their organizational strength and how they can put together that kind of a thing. So during the event I think some of the clear winners who really put on that show, who got a lot of people into the building, were Kamala Harris, were Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. I think out of the entire group they had the biggest show of support there and they had a lot of really kind of involved shows of strength. Warren had a big banner that came down from the top field. Pete Buttigieg had flashing lights that timed with his walk-out music. Kamala Harris had signs that spelled out her name across her hundreds of supporters. So that really stood out, I think those three campaigns.

Yepsen: Erin, what is your take on the dinner?

Murphy: Well, I hate to be a negative Nelly and just kind of dismiss the premise of the question entirely. I don't know how many winners and losers there were as far as moving the needle in this race. It's just such a huge field and still so many candidates that people are considering. We think about this event and we look forward to it as everybody always talks about Obama in 2007 and was this going to be some kind of catapult for someone to similarly move on and do well in Iowa. I don't know that we saw that and I don't know really that it was possible, again, with the size of this field and with so many candidates doing well. That said, I think there were some speakers who did a really good job. I thought Elizabeth Warren at a time when her campaign was starting to come under fire a little bit because she is now leading in the polls, she had what I considered a good counterpunch speech, very strong in that sense. Pete Buttigieg talked about, as he has begun to do now, envisioning a country the day after Donald Trump is President and not just about beating President Trump but who is next and what should that leader look like and he really expanded on that. And then I like that some candidates at least tried to vary up their stump speech and add something new. Steve Bullock talked about giving President Trump the boot, that was a new -- his supporters, to Brianne's point about the theatrics, had boots that they were holding up, obviously a choreographed moment. Whether that moved anyone's needle that night I don't know.

Yepsen: Caroline, your take?

Cummings: I would echo Erin that I don't know how much this actually changed in terms of someone catapulting after their LJ performance. I know everyone was striving for that 2007 Obama moment and I think Pete Buttigieg leaned into that a little bit in trying to have, hey I'm the voice of the generational change. Like Brianne said, the light up wristbands to the music, that was something literally done at a Taylor Swift concert I went to two years ago. So talk about this spectacle when you're in an arena that is drawing Elton John next year, it's a lot. In terms of losers I don't think anyone had a gaff or something that would plummet them. Certainly anyone who went in the second half of this just got a little bit of, it was done fairly how they chose it, but they could argue that that would have positioned them in a worse spot than those at the top. So like everyone else said I think it's a show of organizational flexing and that is what is really the heart of this is to show your force of your campaign on the ground here.

Yepsen: Kay, any winners and losers?

Henderson: Well, I think the Iowa Democratic Party wanted this to be a show of force about the Democratic Party, not necessarily about the candidates. They wanted to show that they could take the biggest venue in Des Moines and fill it to the brim with people who were excited about these candidates in contrast to republicans who have a President that goes to sports arenas around the country and fills them to the brim with enthusiasts for the Trump presidency, number one. Number two, I think David and I are the only two people at this table who covered the 2007 JJ dinner and as I recall the bump that Obama got wasn't on Sunday morning, it was down the road. The value in this is as a test run to see if you can put people in seats, if you can get people who say they support you to come and show that they support you. And so I think the jury is still out in terms of how each of these respective sort of front leading campaigns performed that night and how they're going to adjust their plan for Caucus Night as a result.

Yepsen: One person who wasn't there is Michael Bloomberg. He was the former Mayor of New York and this last week he announced he is thinking about running for the democratic nomination. Kay, what does that mean?

Henderson: Well, we don't know yet because he hasn't definitively said hey, I'm a candidate for the presidency of the United States, number one. Number two, he was here very early in the year and did things that presidential candidates do. He visited a wind turbine. He went to a community college. He visited with Iowans. And then he announced that he wasn't going to run. In visiting with Iowans who were at an event in Central Iowa as that news was breaking, number one, many of them who were there to see another can date, Amy Klobuchar, said we have too many candidates in the race. And number two, many of them were quite blunt about the idea that the reason this is happening is because Biden is seen as a weak frontrunner and people are getting nervous about that, people moderates and conservatives in the party, and Bloomberg embodies the sort of resume or political ethos that those folks might be energized by.

Yepsen: Brianne, speaking of wealthy candidates, Tom Steyer's campaign hit a bit of a road bump this past week. Tell us about it.

Pfannenstiel: Right, so the Associated Press reported that one of his top aides was approaching legislators around the state offering money for endorsements more or less. And so there's not any evidence that people took him up on this, but we're starting to see the fallout already from that. The campaign itself is kind of divorcing himself, divorcing itself from this aide saying he was kind of a rogue agent, he was acting on his own, we didn't know. But already this week you're seeing other candidates kind of jump in and say, this is what money in politics does, this is a corrupting influence of our political system and it just adds fuel to the fire that Mr. Steyer, who has been spending millions of dollars on television ads, getting into this race, is trying to buy the election.

Cummings: I would just piggyback off of that. Steyer is already seen as he is buying his way onto the stage with advertising because he can pull unlimited amount of his own personal money. And some candidates are quick to respond to that. I know Governor Bullock sent out a fundraising email to his own supporters snapping back at the notion that he is buying the election.

Yepsen: Erin, money can't buy you love. Can it buy you a caucus?


Murphy: Well, that was the idea here. On top of the bad optics, and it's not clear whether anything illegal has taken place yet, and that will get investigated and flushed out I assume, but even if not it's a bad look for the reasons that Brianne and Caroline talked about. But also you talk about one of those ads that he has running and he's talking about getting rid of the corruption in politics. So that's not a good look for his campaign.

Yepsen: Well, but Tom Steyer is spending a ton of dough on television commercials.

Murphy: And digital.

Yepsen: The real winners of the Iowa Caucuses are Iowa's commercial broadcasters. But to Michael Bloomberg's candidacy, if he gets in he's going to be buying a lot of ads. Either one of these guys going to move the needle with all of this?

Henderson: We don't know yet if Bloomberg is going to run in Iowa. There is a statement out on Friday morning from the leaders of the Iowa Democratic Party and the New Hampshire Democratic Party sort of saying hey, we're here, we're willing to listen to whatever Mayor Bloomberg may have to say. But he very well could decide to skip Iowa and New Hampshire and jump in later in the race.

Yepsen: Well, and Erin, this isn't just an aide, this is a former Speaker of the Iowa House who is involved with this. Doesn't that make it a little more serious?

Murphy: It certainly at the very least makes it more interesting. This aide was Pat Murphy, former state lawmaker of Dubuque, and like you noted he was Speaker of the Iowa House when democrats controlled the House in the late 2000's. So that, again, that just adds another layer of really bad optics for this to the Steyer campaign.

Henderson: Especially when you have on the republican side last time around somebody went to jail for this kind of behavior.

Yepsen: Caroline, let's just go around the table and the overall state of the race. We've talked about the dinner and Michael Bloomberg. But give us your handicap on who is ahead and who is behind.

Cummings: Warren as we have seen she has been on a steady rise and I think it's safe to say she is at least if she is head-to-head with Biden in some polling she is seen as the frontrunner compared to all of her opponents. They are all vigorously attacking her and honing in on her in ways they aren't with former Vice President Biden anymore. Pete Buttigieg has really seen a Butti-surge, as some people have said, in Iowa. And so I'll be interested to see how that shakes out and if that momentum stays because of course in recent polling, which is reflective of what I'm hearing on the ground, is that people are still deciding and there is time yet and I think that's important to emphasize that this could change depending on where those undecided people land.

Yepsen: Erin, what is your take on the state of this race?

Murphy: One of the things that is most interesting to me about this whole thing, you jump back to the big picture, is for as big as this field is and for as many candidates are the democrats like and as many as they have on their short list, this has been a fairly static race from all the way back to the beginning of this. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were early leaders in the polling largely because of their name recognition, they have stuck around, they’re still in the top 4. And the only 2 from the rest of the field that have joined that are Elizabeth Warren, who is now leading in a lot of the polls, and more recently Pete Buttigieg. The whole rest of the field, 20 whatever it was at one point, down to 17, 18 now, have not been able to break through that threshold. There has been some little miniature spikes here and there but that core of leaders has stayed pretty much the same throughout this race.

Yepsen: Kay? How do you see the race?

Henderson: It's interesting in that Iowans are still basically undecided. They have either not decided on any candidate of they have this list of 4 that they're still mulling. And there's the specter of how televised events, whether it's an appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show or an appearance on the debate stage really moves the needle for these candidates. I think it has changed the nature of campaigning in Iowa. We saw that in 2015 how much the needle was moved by the performance in these televised events. I think that is one of the things I'm observing about this race.

Yepsen: Brianne, how do you see the race?

Pfannenstiel: Well, we passed an important milestone on the way to caucuses. We're within 100 days of the caucuses now and when we hit that point, in just talking with some of these campaigns, a lot of the people on the ground, you can really feel the intensity ratchet up another notch. And so you can really feel the sense of urgency and just the level of campaigning intensifying as we get closer. We're seeing Kamala Harris here every week and that is reflected in her place in the polls right now. One thing that has changed is her position. She is down at about 3% according to averages of Iowa voters and so she has got to do something about it. And you're seeing the intensity pick up with her, you're seeing the other campaigns here every two weeks, and that is only going to keep intensifying as we get closer to Caucus Day.

Yepsen: One thing to note about these polls, whenever we see these, we grind it too fine sometimes, reporters, politicians. These polls have plus or minus 4 points sometimes.

Henderson: 4.5% in the Quinnipiac Poll this week.

Yepsen: Yeah, so whenever you see one of these polls that number could 4 points higher or 4 points lower, which means it's a real jumble. Erin?

Murphy: Yeah, and I was just going to add to points that both Kay and Brianne made about things getting intense and the undecided voters. It's interesting to talk to those undecided voters and you can feel that intensity in them too. For a long time it was kind of fun to them or interesting and we have so many candidates and so many that I like, some of the people that I talked to at the LJ dinner there was almost angst in their voice. This is really starting to get real now. They still don't know who they want to pick. They're trying to decide on the candidate they believe will beat Donald Trump and it's really weighing on these people's minds.

Yepsen: Iowans have been told so much they're important that they have come to really believe it.

Murphy: That's right.

Yepsen: And if they mess it up Donald Trump could get re-elected, so a little heavy burden.

Murphy: A lot at stake for those folks, yeah.

Yepsen: Brianne, going back to Kay's point with the importance of the debates. Has the Democratic National Committee with its rules for who gets in and who doesn't get in and positioning, have they stolen Iowa's role winnowing the field?

Pfannenstiel: I think you could make the argument both ways. Certainly to some degree and without question this has changed the way that people are campaigning and the focus of what they need. We're seeing candidates say well if I make the next debate, if I can get onto that stage then my candidacy is still alive, but if I'm not on that platform then I don't have the capacity to talk to as many people. So it's really shaping the race in that way. On the other hand their decision to allow people on the debate stage is based on things like fundraising and places in the polls and those are polls of Iowans. So Iowans are still having their say. And to some degree, to Erin's point, people are saying this field is too large and the DNC has said, we're going to try and narrow it down before Caucus Day, and that has worked to some degree, it has narrowed the field.

Cummings: I would just add that Brianne brings up great points about it's a yes and no and it's funny because those people who aren't making the debate stage, namely Michael Bennett, Steve Bullock, are using this as well Iowa always is the one that makes the decision, Iowans are the ones who cast the first votes in this. So despite not making it they are betting on Iowa for kind of flipping that script and they are renewing their focus and doubling down on Iowa. So it kind of goes both ways I think.

Yepsen: And in fairness to the DNC, they're not a debating society. Their purpose in life is not to run debates, their purpose is to elect a President. Erin, we had one candidate drop out of the race, Beto O'Rourke.

Murphy: Yeah, on Friday, a week ago Friday, the day of the LJ event literally hours before the speeches began, in fact his campaign was at the event with all the others doing their pre-event rallies when the news came down and they had to kind of disperse. So we lost one but added one so the net stayed the same. But there will be an impact and we always go to who was, the people who were supporting that candidate, who was their second choice? Now, Beto O'Rourke was not super high in a lot of polls so we're not talking about a huge slice of the caucus pie that had made up their mind to support him, but there are Iowans out there who had been supporting Beto O'Rourke who now have to find another candidate.

Yepsen: Caroline, campaigns are starting to redeploy assets.

Cummings: Yes, namely Senator Harris' campaign. There was a memo that came down from their headquarters in Baltimore saying they are trimming their headquarter staff, they are trimming New Hampshire and redeploying basically every early state except South Carolina will be held harmless and doubling down on Iowa in part of their go all in on Iowa approach. Now it remains to be seen how that will play out. As Brianne mentioned, polling shows her, she has dipped in the polls, again that is of course a snapshot, but they are redeploying all of their efforts here and Julian Castro's team has made similar but not as stark as Harris of we're going to put a lot of money into Iowa television ads, we are going to trim South Carolina and New Hampshire. So again, to the earlier question about, does Iowa still matter despite this nationalized debate? I think that shows right there that it does because with a field this large there are some campaigns making political calculations that they have to get one of the three tickets out of Iowa to sustain them a little bit further on. So they are doubling down and redeploying people here to really try to have that moment.

Yepsen: I think there are four tickets out of Iowa, first class, coach, standby and baggage.


Cummings: Four tickets, there we go.

Yepsen: Brianne, Elizabeth Warren, she has disclosed her plan for paying for Medicare for all, taking a lot of hits. How is this playing?

Pfannenstiel: Well, she is certainly taking a lot of incoming fire and part of that is her increased standing in the poll. We have seen her really steadily rise and now that she is the perceived frontrunner in Iowa she is taking on those attacks of a frontrunner. And so it has been pretty brutal for her because it's coming from all sides. Her and Bernie Sanders are kind of aligned on the left as far as Medicare for all. But even from him he's saying I've got a different plan to pay for it and hers could cost jobs. And so really she doesn't have a lot of allies within the democratic field versus people who are more in favor of a public option, somebody who is like a Pete Buttigieg, a Medicare for all who want it. So she is really taking a lot of that fire and I think as we have mentioned Iowa democratic voters are very interested in finding someone who can beat Donald Trump. I think it gets people on edge as these attacks are landing.

Yepsen: Kay, Bernie Sanders, heart attack. How is that playing with caucus-goers?

Henderson: It seems to have made no impact other than on the candidate himself. He has a core of supporters. At the aforementioned LJ dinner he had an event which had hundreds of people at it enthusiastic for him and he just keeps chugging along. He still has this slice that will turn out for him and they don't seen dissuaded by anything that anybody is throwing his way.

Yepsen: Caroline, how is Mayor Pete doing?

Cummings: Well, as we touched on a little bit earlier, the rolling average of his polling here is he is number two behind Senator Warren. Of course that is a snapshot and there is margins of error there. But I think what is important about polls is if they do reflect what is seen on the ground and what I have seen is certainly he has the resources and he can pour that into building out his organization. He has one of the largest, if not the largest, staff here. And people are enthusiastic about him, they see something in him that inspires something of generational change, someone new, someone different. Sometimes people say even outside of the Washington fray is important to them. So that rise is definitely reflective in certainly what I've seen and in his showing at the Steak Fry and at the LJ dinner he has had the largest crowds, among the largest crowds, if not the largest, which says something too.

Yepsen: We've got just a few minutes left. Brianne, Joe Biden, he's fading in some of these national polls. Do we see that here?

Pfannenstiel: We do see that here. Again, we talk a lot about polls and so we like to look at kind of the rolling average or the trendline that we're seeing and when we first polled on Joe Biden at the Register in December he was at 32%, he was at the top of the field and that trendline has slowly ticked down. He has not gone up at all in the polls, it hasn't been up and down, it's a steady downward trend for him.

Murphy: About the same time as Pete Buttigieg has gone up.

Yepsen: And did Bernie Sanders' heart attack also affect Joe Biden? Too old?

Murphy: Maybe, but the rest of the field, Elizabeth Warren is right up there with them too and that doesn't seem to -- I honestly don't know that the age question is --

Henderson: And this has never been a party that has said oh it's his turn, let's give it to him.

Yepsen: Right. Democrats -- republicans fall in line, democrats fall in love. Kay, what about the rest of the field? Anyone else breaking out in Iowa at this point?

Henderson: Well, Harris as previously mentioned is all in. Amy Klobuchar, a neighbor, is striking a pose here that she is poised to make a move. Cory Booker hopes to have some sort of break. He really got a bad break at the LJ dinner because by the time he got on stage to give his speech the place was emptying out.

Yepsen: Caroline, anyone breaking out?

Cummings: I would just add Senator Klobuchar, I just covered her last night, she talked about that she is building momentum. She gained a lot of, over a million dollars within the 24 hours of that debate and she has seen that bump in polling too and she is playing that neighbor card, which tends to work here.

Henderson: And then problem for these people is they're going to be stuck in D.C. for impeachment. We've got candidates that are going to be U.S. Senators sitting there and they won't be in Iowa campaigning.

Yepsen: Erin, what is your answer to the question who is breaking out?

Murphy: I think Klobuchar is the most tangible one. Booker is one that just fascinates me. Kay mentioned his speech. Every time he speaks at one of these events the crowd goes wild and he stays stuck at 1% or 2% in the polling. I need somebody who is much smarter than me, and admittedly that list is long, to explain to me why he hasn't caught more fire in this primary.

Yepsen: Brianne, any breakouts?

Pfannenstiel: I think we're really running out of time to see breakout performances. I think honestly we're at the point where people are going to be falling and breaking out in some respects rather than people surging into the top tier. Are we going to see -- frankly Kamala Harris has had money issues. Joe Biden does not have a lot in the bank, we saw him signal that he needs super PAC support. People are going to be running out of money and potentially falling out of that top tier.

Yepsen: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, are they on life support?

Pfannenstiel: Absolutely. We saw both of them making pleas to their supporters saying the end is near if we don't have more cash on hand.

Yepsen: So the consensus here is the penny stock to buy right now is Amy Klobuchar, right?

Cummings: Yeah, but like Kay said, the impeachment thing if she's not visible here like any of those Senators that could make a difference and for someone like Pete Buttigieg who we've seen that trendline up, he can spend unlimited amount of time here in January and that could be a big make or break situation maybe.

Yepsen: Erin, just a few seconds left, doesn't impeachment hurt campaigns because it takes all the oxygen out of the room? Everybody is writing and talking about impeachment and not this democratic race?

Murphy: Not in Iowa. We can walk and chew gum here. We'll still be talking about all the caucuses. I think the more legitimate threat is like these ladies have talked about, the physically not being here, especially for Amy Klobuchar trying to strike while the iron is hot for her.

Yepsen: And I've got to strike, we're way out of time. So thank you very much all of you for joining us. We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press. But note this change, you can catch our Friday night broadcast on Iowa PBS's .3 World channel at 7:30 and again as usual on Iowa PBS's main channel Sunday at Noon. 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.