Party Chairs

Iowa Press | Episode
Jan 17, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann and Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price discuss the Iowa caucuses.



Only two weeks until Caucus Night. Is Iowa ready for the home stretch of an international media event and a presidential caucus? We sit down with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price and Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann on this edition of Iowa Press.

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


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 17 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: It's nearly show time. After dozens of candidates and hundreds of campaign events across Iowa over the past 12 months, the Caucuses are only two weeks away. As the eyes of the nation turn towards Iowa on February 3rd, the pressure to pull off a clean and professional Caucus Night is sky high. And two men responsible for the details and the task ahead are Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price and Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. Both join us here at the Iowa Press table. Welcome gentlemen, it's great to have you with us during a busy time.

Kaufmann: Great to be here.

Yepsen: Journalists joining us across the table today are James Lynch of the Gazette and Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Price, will turnout top 300,000 on February 3rd?

Price: As you know, Kay, it's hard to predict caucus turnout.

Henderson: But we want you to.

Price: (laughs) Well, what I can tell you is this, is that we have been preparing for a historic turnout, a turnout that would exceed 240,000. We don't know exactly what the final turnout number is going to be but we have been preparing this entire year to make sure that we can handle the crowds, make the process easier, more accessible, more transparent for our caucus goers. Our goal has always been to make this a, to make sure that everyone has a positive caucus experience this year and I think that with the pieces we have in place that is what is going to happen on February 3rd.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, a handful of other states' republican parties have decided we're not going to have any voting, we're just going to nominate President Trump by acclimation. Why are republicans having caucuses?

Kaufmann: Well, as you know, Kay, I've been saying this consistently throughout the year and actually the year before this and we are going to have a caucus and we are going to do just that. It's about showing the nation once again that our voters and really both republicans and democrats, but in my case republicans, are up to this task, they can be discerning, they're interested and we can put on a professional product in real time that is transparent because 2024 is just around the corner.

Lynch: Troy, whether it's 240,000 or 340,000, what people want to know is how are you going to report results on Caucus Night? And when are you going to report results? There's a first round body count, there's state delegate equivalents and a second round body count. How are you going to do this?

Price: Well, as you know, since we started this process, started using this to elect our presidential delegates back in 1972, state delegate equivalents will remain the basic measure of Caucus Night, that is the number that is going to be closest to how our national delegates break down. This year we are adding two new numbers in an effort for transparency. We're going to have the raw body counts on where everyone stood and in whose corner on first count and after realignment. But the number that is going to matter, as you know, this really comes down to this is a contest for delegates, this is a contest for who is going to win in Milwaukee. That's how we select our nominee. And so ultimately this will still be a contest for delegates but we will be releasing all three numbers this year.

Lynch: On Caucus Night?

Price: On Caucus Night as soon as we get the numbers in. The plan is as soon as we get the numbers in we're going to check the numbers on the back end and then we'll be releasing them, all three numbers, by precinct at the same time as we get them in that night.

Yepsen: So how late at night will that be?

Price: It's always hard to predict that. But our commitment has always been to get those numbers out as soon as practically possible.

Lynch: Jeff, your job may be a little easier when it comes to reporting results. But what are you going to be reporting? Will there be a number for Trump, for other republicans running, no preference?

Kaufmann: We're going to report the results as they come into us. So there will be some people will write the names, I'm sure as in any caucus we're going to have a few for Mickey Mouse. But we'll have the number for Trump and then there will be some other challengers. They haven't been here very much. We don't anticipate a lot of support there. But this is going to be transparent, you're going to see -- that's the thing about these caucuses as opposed to primaries, this is inherently transparent. In fact, this is the most transparent process that you could possibly have. If primaries want to be more transparent they should do a caucus. And so what we see is what you see and you're going to see it in real time. And so there's going to be nothing that I know that you don't know as a journalist.

Henderson: Let's talk about the means by which you'll be collecting this data. Troy, is there an app? The DNC decided that the Iowa Democratic Party couldn't have virtual caucuses using an app on a smartphone. How are you going to tabulate these results? And can you assure people that the Russians aren't going to hack them?

Price: Well, first of all, the virtual caucus was never by an app, it was by phone. And the virtual, all states were not approved to use virtual caucus technology this year. But they did make a commitment to us to work with us to get that in place by 2024. This year we are using an app that is one of the tools available for precinct leaders to report their numbers, just like they were in 2016. I can tell you, we've taken this very seriously from the very moment we started planning for 2020 to make sure that any technology we use is tested, that it's secure, and I can tell you the app will be. But there are other means to that. There are folks want to use, precinct leaders want to use a hotline they can report results that way for all of our systems. They are redundant. We have backups and backups to those backups and backups to those backups to those backups. But in addition, the thing I will say is new this year we have a paper trail. This year we're introducing presidential preference cards. So we're going to be able to track people's movements within the room. And we'll have a written record of that this year. And so this is going to be able to not only increase transparency but if there's any question about the results we will now have the means to go back in and look and see how people moved around in the room.

Yepsen: Excuse me, how will that work, a presidential preference card? Will you still be breaking up into groups? But in addition to that you fill out a card?

Price: Yep, that's right. So the presidential preference cards --

Yepsen: And your name is on it as a caucus goer?

Price: Yep, you have to write your name, sign your name and write the name of the candidate that you're supporting. And then there's a side B for a second alignment for those who are in non-viable groups. They fill that out and then we add that to the first round totals.

Henderson: Will Bill Weld be able to hack the Iowa results to tilt them in his favor?

Kaufmann: I don't, I'm guessing that Governor Weld doesn't have that in his list of things to do. But Kay, there is nothing that is unhackable. The Defense Department gets hacked. Here's what is important about the Iowa Caucuses and this is the reason why I really think some of the questions, not your questions today, but some that we're hearing from some of the national reporters, are more about attacking the Iowa Caucuses just for the sake of the Iowa Caucuses as opposed to the cyber security. We vote in front of people, we count in front of people. Honestly last year there were people with their cell phones looking at the results as we posted them while they were still in the precinct and double checking that. Plus besides all that Troy wasn't kidding, we have backups to backups to backups. So there is going to be nothing more safe with more integrity and more sunlight than the Iowa Caucuses and I feel very strongly about saying that about the democratic caucus. So one thing that I don't know if you were aware of this but the two parties met with the Belfer Center with Harvard. And do you know the one thing they said that I wear with a badge of honor, and that is they have never been in a situation before where they had seen the republicans and democrats working together so carefully and with trust in order to make sure these caucuses are a good thing. I really see a lot of the cyber security concerns as much ado about nothing and an excuse to attack the Iowa Caucuses.

Yepsen: Troy Price, talk about the size of this caucus and the way these votes are counted. I used to say there's three tickets out of Iowa, first class, coach and standby. Is it possible that there will be a fourth ticket, first class, coach, standby and baggage?


Price: It's possible. We have so many great candidates this year and if the polling holds up over this we've got several candidates kind of bunched up there at the top. I think we'll see exactly what happens on Caucus Night. But yeah, I think there could be that. But see, the thing about Iowa is we're not supposed to pick the nominee. We don't pick the nominee. We do a year plus long job interview with all of these folks. And if there's four folks who, five folks, who are bunched up at the top, good because the thing here about Iowa is these folks have to come in here, they have to meet with folks where they are, they have to hear directly from folks, they can't just put it in TV and they are stronger and sharper and ready to fight when they come out of here.

Yepsen: But this system you're using of a body count, of estimates of delegates, can confuse a lot of people. Is there a danger here that you're going to have one candidate winning that raw body count, the initial preferences, and another candidate winning the delegates? What are you going to say to the country then?

Price: I'm going to say this is a race for delegates. This is a race for who is going to get our delegates out of Iowa and who is going to go on to be the democratic nominee. That's what this is about. And the thing is, is that our process has never been a first past the post process. Our process on the democratic side is basically a ranked choice with two choices and if your candidate is viable you're good to go. If your candidate is not viable you get to go to your second choice.

Yepsen: Do you resent the National Committee sort of treading on your role here? Iowa historically has said we winnow the field. But what has winnowed the field this year has been a set of debate rules by your party that knocks candidates out for not getting enough in the polls and not getting enough -- you've got candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris who have been eliminated from this process not by anything Iowa does, buy by those rules of the DNC. Are you resentful of that?

Price: I'll let the DNC do what they do on that. What we do here in Iowa, we continue to give everyone a fair hearing. And that is what we have done, that's what we'll continue to do for these next 18 days.

Yepsen: Mr. Kaufmann, one of the reasons the democrats have to jump through these hoops with delegates is because New Hampshire democrats say we get the first primary, Iowa can have a caucus, if you tread on us we're going to go ballistic. But for some reason New Hampshire republicans don't get mad at you for doing what amounts to a fire house primary in your party. Why is that?

Kaufmann: Well, in fact it's kind of ironic you bring that up, I just had a long conversation with the National Committeeman from New Hampshire and we had a long conversation about this. And as long as they do not feel that we are jumping ahead and on a route that is going to end up in us being a primary they are okay with that. I would argue, David, that we don't have a fire house primary. I think the process we use and the sunlight and the transparency that we use, the conversations that we have and the fact that it's also a party building exercise, I think it makes maybe not a different species, but certainly a different animal. And so I am in constant contact with New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and right now everything seems good but we have our moments and we have to very carefully explain what we're doing.

Lynch: Troy, as if you haven't made enough changes already this year, now you're having satellite caucuses. And these are going to be across the country and in some international settings. I don't know, is the Paris caucus going to be sort of Iowa's Dixville Notch, the early returns from Paris will set the tone for the day? How is this satellite caucus process going to work? And does it really increase access? Or is this just something you're doing to please the DNC?

Price: No, listen, we've made a commitment as a party, we've always made a commitment as a party to try and expand accessibility to this process. What we're doing this year is some of the most progressive changes we've ever made to this process. But we've always made steps towards this. In fact, in 2016 we did satellite caucuses, we had four across the state, about 150 people participated. This year we have 97 sites that have been, that are currently slated to go on Caucus Day. The results won't be released until we get all the results in, that's the way it is added into our system as reported. So we won't be able to release those results so there won't be a Dixville Notch, for example, at least official results coming from us. But we have already seen large numbers coming in from sites across the country. We know that in Arizona, for example, we've got I think over 100 people who have already signed up at one location because of all the people who winter there. We've seen other sites here in the state that are, that people are planning to, where they have to do some pre-registration work, seeing good numbers coming out of there as well. So we are getting more people in this process and we are meeting our commitment to increase accessibility to our process.

Henderson: Earlier this week you announced there will actually be some caucus sites in the state that start early in the afternoon on February 3rd. How is that going to work?

Price: Well, they are just like a normal caucus. That's how these caucuses are set up. They're going to have a similar feel and they're going to do similar activities as a precinct caucus. They're going to break into preference group and all that stuff. The results will get reported back to us. I'm sure people will say what happens in those rooms. But as far as what gets reported out we won't be reporting that out until we get through all the satellite sites.

Henderson: This airs on Friday, January 17th, you have this early registration effort. What happens if I didn't register early and I have to wait in line on Caucus Night?

Price: Well, we have already put in steps -- first of all, the early registration piece is something new we're doing this year. It's basically a fast pass that allows people to move through the line quicker, jump the line. But we're also putting in place things to make sure that the lines move quickly on Caucus Night. We've got more materials available, we've got the list printed, unfortunately we have to have a cutoff date for that just because of our printing, we're printing our lists this weekend and so we're getting those out into precinct sites. So that's why the date is the same.

Yepsen: How is that jumping the line going to go over? Jumping the line is not an Iowa value.


Yepsen: That's going to go over real big isn't it?

Price: But being prepared is an Iowa value and we will have, so folks who have used this will have their form. There will be an early check-in spot at these sites and they'll be able to go and say hey, I've got early check in, they hand over the piece of paper and they're good to go.

Lynch: Every four years we hear all the arguments about why Iowa shouldn't go first. And I guess the question that a lot of Iowans have and especially those who are involved in the caucuses, is will Iowans be caucusing first in the nation in 2024? Troy, Julian Castro, who dropped out of the race for the democratic nomination, was very critical of Iowa going first. Does his criticism have validity? How do you respond to that?

Price: Well, I believe we will be caucusing first in 2024 and there's a simple reason for that. It's because people see the value of this process. This conversation comes up every four years. I have been actively involved in politics since my first caucus was in 2004. Now that was probably a little bit after your first caucus.

Kaufmann: Just a little.


Price: But this conversation comes up every four years. But what happens is on Caucus Night people see what happens, people see these conversations in the room. And the reason why this caucus process stays first is because we provide a fair and level playing field for people to come and make their case to Iowans. They can't just come here, do a bunch of big rallies in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and then hop on a plane and fly someplace else. They have to go into communities, they have to go into rural communities, they have to go into the African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian-American community, the refugee community, they have to go into all these different communities and talk to them and hear from them. And it's that closeness, it's that ability for candidates to have that connection is why this process works. And the candidates who come out of here are stronger, they're better, they're sharper and they're ready to fight for the general election.

Yepsen: Does it help your party learn how to campaign in rural America? There's a rural skew to the Electoral College, there's a rural skew to the U.S. Senate, whether you like it or not it's there. Do you think democrats learn how to go into small towns and campaign with people?

Price: They do because they have to. That's the very nature of the caucus process. You have to build organization in 1,678 precincts all across this state. And so yes, they have to go in there and they have to hear the concerns of folks. And so starting in a state like Iowa they're able to better talk to folks in the Upper Midwest. What we saw in 2016 is the Upper Midwest is very much a swing area of this country. And so Iowa prepares them for that.

Lynch: Jeff, I want to ask you, is Iowa stepping up to the plate this year with two strikes? In 2012 the republicans released the wrong winner. In 2016 democrats didn't have the results until the wee hours of the morning. If anything goes wrong this year are you guys out of it?

Kaufmann: No, I don't think so, James. And look, in 2012 that was a bad decision by one person. In 2016 the time factor, don't you want them to take a little bit more time in order to make sure you have the right numbers?

Lynch: We have deadlines.

Kaufmann: I know. We're going to take our time. I understand what you're saying about the two strikes. This criticism that we're hearing are either from failed candidates that don't want to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they didn't connect with Iowa voters or they didn't spend enough time here. In the big picture, all the conversation we have today is important for us to understand that of the transparency, it's this simple. If you really believe that anybody in this country can someday be president you have to start in a place like Iowa. I know sometimes things aren't that simple but they are. You start them in California and Texas or New York where some of the criticism is coming from then you have just blown out of the water something far, far more important than maybe some delay on reporting.

Yepsen: But, Jeff Kaufmann, have these things gotten simply too big? I can remember a handful of people in Fred Watson's living room in Bagley, Iowa and now it's several hundred thousand people. They're bigger, they're not just a little intimate meeting of party leaders, it is thousands of people. You've got media, hordes of media that you never had before. You've got Internet campaigning that didn't exist before. You have money in politics like you had never had before. Is this really, I guess what I'm getting at, aren't these things getting too big to be practical?

Kaufmann: I would say because we have more people, because we have more dollars in here, then even more we need it in a state like Iowa where we can put all of that under sunlight. If you put this, San Francisco or Los Angeles will swallow this process up.

Yepsen: But yet Tom Steyer can buy himself a ticket onto a democratic debate stage.

Kaufmann: And we'll see how Tom Steyer does with that program.

Yepsen: Same question to you, Troy Price. Is this thing simply getting too big to be the small, intimate gatherings that they used to be?

Price: No. We want more voices in our party. That's what this process is about and that is why we fight so hard to keep it, both of us do. This is about party building, this is about party building, this is about making sure that both of our parties are able to have as many voices as possible in it. And yes, so there are rooms where we have a lot of people show up, that's a good thing.

Yepsen: You're going to have fire marshals shutting you down. You're going to have Wi-Fi systems that don't work. Not too big, huh?

Price: We have been preparing for this all along and we have been preparing for a record crowd. And so we'll see what actually happens on Caucus Night, but we have been preparing for this, we have been getting the big rooms, we have been moving sites to the biggest rooms possible in a precinct and in some cases moving them to a different precinct so that we can make sure that we can accommodate them.

Henderson: Speaking of party building, in 2016 Jeff Kaufmann, you had something like 16 candidates out and the trendline moved to Trump in the general election. This time around you have hundreds of paid people out knocking on doors, finding new voters for democratic candidates. Will your party be able to counter that in the general election?

Kaufmann: Oh absolutely. The Trump campaign is here months and months earlier than they were in 2016. The on-the-ground operations that we have are significant. We've got a Trump director Carly Miller here for a half a year. So no, I think there is a difference between the caucus activity, which is party building, most of the people that Troy is going ot attract as their precinct leaders are not going to come my way. And remember, the independents at this point, they're still up for grabs. And I might add, Kay, what's more important, I hear this nonsense about we're not diverse enough. I will remind you in 2016 we had two Latino Americans, an African-American and a woman. Obama won this caucus. Ted Cruz won this caucus. We are capable of producing the best candidate and looking at the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I resent the outside people coming in here and saying that somehow we're not diverse enough. Absolutely we may not necessarily reflect in our demographic but we reflect in our values here and our choices. Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, I rest my case.

Yepsen: And do you get the same criticism in the Republican Party that he gets in the Democratic Party about Iowa's role? Do you hear the same complaints?

Kaufmann: I hear people think that they want what we've got until they find out they have to pay for it, run it and pull off a first class situation on money that they have to raise.

Yepsen: But in your party the criticism is it's the religious conservatives that are too strong and Iowa is just a matter of which religious conservative you're going to attract.

Kaufmann: I reject that. I think what we see whether it's cyber security, lack of diversity, Christian evangelicals, I think what those are is ways to criticize our first-in-the-nation caucus without actually coming out and criticizing it because on its merits it's almost immune to criticism.

Lynch: Troy, we have about a minute left and I just want to ask you about a recent development in the campaign, this spat between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Some would say that's just part of the democratic process. We had Sanders and Clinton four years ago, Dean and Gephardt, Carter and Kennedy differences. Is this going to burn itself out on social media or have consequences in November?

Price: I don't think it will have consequences in November. I think that we're 18 days, 17 days until Caucus Day. And tensions are running a little bit higher and this is that moment where these contrasts happen. So I think we will see what happens but I don't believe it's going to translate into Caucus Day because democrats are laser focused on making sure that we have a new President in the White House and we're going to get behind whoever our nominee is regardless of what happens in the primary. We're going to get behind our nominee and we're going to fight like hell to make sure that we have a democrat back in the White House.

Yepsen: And I need to make sure we adjourn on time here. Thank you both. We'll have you back afterwards for a post-mortem.

Kaufmann: Maybe we could argue a little bit next time.

Price: Yeah, that would be fun. I miss that.

Kaufmann: I kind of miss that.


Yepsen: We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at 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.