Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Jan 31, 2020 | 27 min

After more than a year of campaigning it's finally decision time in Iowa. A record setting democratic field has winnowed and the political eyes of the nation are now on the state. We gather a special reporters' roundtable to preview the 2020 Iowa Caucuses on this edition of Iowa Press.



After more than a year of campaigning it's finally decision time in Iowa. A record setting democratic field has winnowed and the political eyes of the nation are now on the state. We gather a special reporters' roundtable to preview the 2020 Iowa Caucuses 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 31 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Here in Iowa presidential campaigning never hits the pause button. On this Caucus Eve weekend though it's finally time for a crescendo of candidates and real results. To dive deeper we've gathered a reporters' roundtable of experts from across the country. Jeff Zeleny is Senior White House Correspondent for CNN. John McCormick covers national politics for The Wall Street Journal. James Pindell is Political Reporter for The Boston Globe. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Thank you all for being here today, for breaking away from the campaign to come and chat with us. John and Jeff used to work in Iowa, so did James, started as an intern, graduated from Drake and now you're covering New Hampshire. You're genetically front-loaded.


Pindell: I've got to say just briefly here, this is so cool to be on this set. I know you don't remember this. I went to Drake because of the Iowa Caucuses. I wanted to meet you and be you. You picked me up on a very insignificant day in your life and the first place we went was right here on this set when you were a panelist.

Yepsen: Well, welcome back.

Pindell: Thank you.

Yepsen: Let's go around the table. I'll start with you, Kay. I'd just like everybody's final impressions of the Iowa race. Anyone doing particularly well? Particularly poorly?

Henderson: I'll just say that my overall impression of this race is it feels a lot like 2004 in the middle of a republican President's term and democrats were just wrestling internally about who to support in the campaign and we saw somebody emerge at the end, we saw another somebody almost come and take first place in John Edwards. John Kerry ultimately won. And at the same time you have a candidate who has been here since 2015 in Bernie Sanders who has kept a very solid core of supporters and is going to be doing well on Caucus Night.

Yepsen: Jeff Zeleny, your impressions.

Zeleny: I think certainly a strong Sanders surge at the end, at least it looks like that is something that we're all going to be watching on Monday night. A few months ago Bernie Sanders, after he had his heart attack, after people were giving him a look they were looking around to others. But we see a couple of different lanes, progressive obviously, and pragmatic. So at the end of the day there are three candidates really eating into one another's support with Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden. So that is, it's always organization here, whose organization is the most important, so we'll see. So the overall question is, if there is a big turnout I think that benefits Bernie Sanders. If it's around 2008 or lower, which was about 240,000, that could benefit the more establishment lanes. But boy, a lot of people are competing for Joe Biden's support, which is perhaps a problem for him on Caucus Night.

Yepsen: John?

McCormick: The big unknowns really are the size of the electorate, like Jeff mentioned, and the composition of the electorate. Is it going to be more moderate? More pragmatic? We don't know. And you talk to people in the state and you say, will turnout be above or below 300,000? And some real veterans here think it will be below 300,000. That would be a new record. Jeff mentioned the record in 2008 that propelled Barack Obama to the White House. But you taught us, David, that there's typically three tickets out of Iowa, win, place and show and they advance to New Hampshire. We'll see this time. It may be more like four or five or six tickets. And I think one real question is whether Amy Klobuchar gets that ticket or not. It feels like she has to at least get up into the top four really to have an argument for her candidacy to go forward to New Hampshire and some other places. So that is obviously the pressure is really on her as a neighboring state Senator.

Yepsen: James, your take on what you see here?

Pindell: Yeah, look, I think one thing that has been fascinating is it is a lot like 2004 except while we have these lanes we don't really have a head versus heart kind of argument because electability itself is being redefined. If Hillary only lost the presidency by 78,000 votes and if she had increased African-American turnout in certain states, particularly in Michigan, then maybe she would be President. So folks who are arguing they can rile up the base like Bernie Sanders, he makes the electability argument at the end. The question is very obvious. It's who can beat Trump? The answer is very much not obvious. And as to that particular point about Klobuchar, what's fascinating to me is typically Iowa and New Hampshire winnow the field, they don't necessarily pick Presidents. But I'm not sure if they can really winnow the field that much. The way the money works in this system it may just be John Delaney and Amy Klobuchar in this final week who drop out and everyone else continues.

Yepsen: Kay, you covered President Trump's rally. There's a republican contest going on. I guess it's a race. Why did he do that? Any upshot from that?

Henderson: Well, he had something to hype. He had actually two things to hype. He this week signed the USMCA so he could talk about that and talk about his relationship with Iowa's farming community, number one. And number two, republicans are holding caucuses on February 3rd. And if their turnout is just an infinitesimal fraction of what democratic turnout is I'm sure that there will be discussion about how depressed turnout was among republicans on Caucus Night. Also he has a history of having sort of Election Eve rallies all around the country in front of primaries and such and so that is what was at work there.

Yepsen: He took a page out of President Reagan's book. Ronald Reagan in 1984 having to fire up the republicans in Iowa came to Iowa on Caucus Day, did an event in Eastern Iowa, did one here in Des Moines and 30 minutes before the start of the Caucuses Air Force One left Iowa. This is a real page out of that book, fire up the base. Jeff, go back to the democratic caucuses for us and let's get into the weeds here some. With the party reporting an initial preference or what we call the raw body count and then they're going to release an estimate of the delegates, one, and the realignment that has to occur to win delegates, and then they're going to get a final preference. Confusion?

Zeleny: Not necessarily. It sounds confusing but let's remember the 2020 campaign is picking up where 2016 left off and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, technically Hillary Clinton won but that was very close and a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters really believe that they were robbed on that night in terms of the raw number of votes. So that's why these rules changed, because of the Sanders campaign pushing the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, to change these rules. So there is going to be a raw count. I'm thinking of that as the popular vote. Yes, the popular vote is important, but the Electoral College is what wins the White House. So think of the Electoral College as the state delegate equivalent. So yes there are going to be a couple of different numbers on Caucus Night, but it's those delegates that are important. And this is why those numbers could be different. The raw number I expect that the Sanders campaign will do very well in that, running up the numbers in Johnson County, Iowa City, big numbers in Des Moines. But to win the Iowa Caucuses you have to have broad-based support in rural areas. So there's going to be something for everyone to grab onto here but we are focused on the state delegate equivalents because that is what wins the nomination. So it might seem confusing but think of it as popular vote versus Electoral College.

Yepsen: How important are second choices?

Zeleny: Really important because you have to be viable to get 15% of course in every precinct. So the second choice candidates could really lift Joe Biden or others on the moderate side, but also give someone perhaps like an Amy Klobuchar who really has gotten hot at the end but probably is not in a position to win. But she'll be able to say look, my raw total is this. So there will be a couple of different numbers to hold onto. But at the end of the day it's delegates that you need to win the nomination. This is going to be a delegate fight from here until Milwaukee.

Yepsen: John McCormick, what about the potential for hacking of these results? Are there any security concerns?

McCormick: Yeah, there always are in sort of this modern era. And the state party has been a little secretive about their vendors and sort of what is all happening behind the scenes with the data. They have tried to do a lot of education in terms of how the vote totals will be reported and these three different numbers that will be released simultaneously from almost 1,700 precincts, plus the satellite caucuses, which add sort of an additional wrinkle of sort of international voting in California and Florida for the Iowa Caucuses, which we've never had before. But I think there is potential for confusion because the campaigns are going to latch onto whatever of those sets of three different numbers they think is the best storyline for them. And so I think reputable news organizations will look at this in a measured way but there will be a lot of activity on Twitter and other places that may be a bit confusing.

Yepsen: James, John mentioned the three tickets out of Iowa to Manchester. What is the picture in New Hampshire, first of all? There's a campaign going on there. What does it look like?

Pindell: Largely what is happening in Iowa, though the Bernie Sanders surge is definitely happening there in a more robust way. He is probably up between 7 and 8 points. But my rule with New Hampshire polling is it's very interesting in the last two weeks before Iowa but I don't really care because Iowa really does reset the table. The candidates may drop out. Polling, research has shown that the person who wins in Iowa typically gets between an 8 or 12 point bump. I don't think we're going to have that this time. The field is too wide. And as you mentioned I do think these three different caucus results is going to muddle things a little bit. Jeff is right, the Associated Press, others, will be using the delegate count. But if someone wants to use the popular vote, if you want to use that term, they have an argument that they are the legitimate winner.

Yepsen: As John pointed out we talk about three tickets, first class, coach and standby. What about fourth place? Is there a baggage ticket in New Hampshire? Is fourth place in Iowa going to be worth anything in New Hampshire?

Pindell: With the top -- it depends on who is in fourth. If Elizabeth Warren, which is where we're headed right now, though she does have a lot of support as a second choice, is that fourth person she will be in New Hampshire. But boy, if Bernie wins in Iowa it's really hard to see how she fares well in New Hampshire. And if she doesn't win in New Hampshire historically, of course Massachusetts or neighboring candidates win, it's going to be pretty much game over for her.

Yepsen: John, what about South Carolina? Do you have any sense for what this is going to mean there? The anecdotal story is that Barack Obama wins Iowa and this helped him in New Hampshire. But now there's some pushback against that theory, that he was already doing well in South Carolina. Will these results mean anything in South Carolina and Nevada?

McCormick: Yeah, obviously after these first two states the composition of the electoral changes in a dramatic way, South Carolina very heavily African-American vote, Nevada a large Hispanic population, so the race becomes a little bit more representative of the rest of the nation. But I think Biden is really looking at South Carolina as his firewall. If things don't go well in Iowa and New Hampshire for him he knows he has that strong support down there. Now, could that fold away if suddenly a Pete Buttigieg does surprisingly well in those two states and suddenly starts to look at potentially the moderate lane looks good for him? Of course he has an issue in South Carolina, there's some concern how accepting of a gay candidate might be in South Carolina. So he would have that challenge. So like James said, everything is going to sort of reset after these first two states.

Yepsen: Jeff, what is your take on the effect of Iowa on South Carolina?

Zeleny: I think it's a pretty big effect. As we've been talking about this is the most nationalized primary race we've seen. The makeup of the electorate is different but really the shape of the race is not that different. So I think a strong Joe Biden win here, say he wins in Iowa, I think it's hard-pressed for anyone to catch up with him. Same as Bernie Sanders, if Bernie Sanders has a strong win here and say Joe Biden comes in third or fourth, I think it's tough for him to revive himself. But if it sort of lands a standard Sanders, Biden, whatever, I think that New Hampshire I believe, sorry James, might be slightly more overlooked because Bernie Sanders won it by 21 points four years ago. So that is his to lose. So I think regardless of New Hampshire the other candidates will be looking on. But if Pete Buttigieg does not win the Iowa Caucuses or get very strong I think his candidacy is essentially over.

Yepsen: Let's talk about this what-if scenario here. The polling is showing Bernie Sanders, Kay, is doing quite well. And I want to hear from everybody on this. What if Bernie Sanders wins Iowa, wins the raw body count in Iowa? What is that going to do to the race in South Carolina, New Hampshire and nationally? What is your thought about that?

Henderson: It depends on what the other candidates do. If the moderate candidates, the Amy Klobuchar's and the Pete Buttigieg's immediately drop out then that swings people Biden's way. If they stay in then I think that really complicates things for Biden down the road if indeed Sanders pulls out a significant victory here.

Yepsen: Jeff, what if Bernie Sanders wins Iowa? You alluded to it a moment ago.

Zeleny: I think then almost certainly will win New Hampshire, even though sometimes the results in New Hampshire are different. I cannot imagine a scenario where the result is different. I think then it's Mike Bloomberg's dream because that means that Mayor Bloomberg, who is sitting on the sideline here in Iowa, but anyone who has been anywhere near a television set realizes that he is spending hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars, he has said he'll spend more than a billion. So I think that means that it's going to be a long fight, Sanders will stay in until the very end. He'll be unstoppable in some respects. But again, as Kay said, it depends where Joe Biden comes in, in that race. If it's a Sanders, Biden pretty close one and two this race goes on and it may go on for a long time like '08, the fight with Clinton and Obama went until June.

Yepsen: John McCormick, what if Bernie wins Iowa?

McCormick: I think then --

Yepsen: What does it mean?

McCormick: I think the traditional mainstream more moderate democrats are going to be very concerned because there's a lot of question about whether he could win in states like Iowa in a general election or not. Could he win in a Michigan? His supporters make the case that if he had been the nominee in 2016 he would have won Michigan, he would have won Wisconsin and there are arguments that can be made there. But as Jeff mentioned, maybe that would really drive some additional interest towards Bloomberg, who is not part of the conversation here in Iowa at all, but like Jeff said, he's on television screens all across America, his polling numbers are ticking up. He's basically in double digits at this point and he hasn't hardly set foot in any of these first four states.

Yepsen: James. If Bernie wins in Iowa what does it do?

Pindell: Yeah, I want to repeat a lot because I agree with so much that is happening here. I would point out that of really the nine contested democratic primaries in this current system, four times has the person, has a democrat won both Iowa and New Hampshire, they have never been denied the nomination after they did so. However, this Bloomberg thing is actually quite interesting. I was with him in Utah just as kind of a parallel universe campaign. What he is building in random Utah as a Super Tuesday state, that's why he's there, is just so impressive and light years ahead of everyone else.

Yepsen: John McCormick, let's talk more about Bloomberg in this race.

McCormick: Super Tuesday will be here before we know it and a lot of these campaigns have been so focused on Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada they have barely thought about this massive trove of delegates that is at stake on Super Tuesday in early March and then contests happen very quickly after that. So yes you can use the Internet to raise a lot of money but you're going to have to show some success if you want those dollars to keep coming in and these contests get more and more expensive. Iowa isn't as cheap as it used to be but you're looking at putting television on Super Tuesday in a dozen or more states, that becomes something that you need serious resources for. Mike Bloomberg can just simply write the check.

Pindell: And there's one other, sorry to interrupt David, there's one other piece of this which we don't talk about enough which is if Biden is really just sort of hanging on and waiting for South Carolina, South Carolina is only three days before Super Tuesday. So there will be candidates who will just easily pivot or the attention may immediately pivot away from South Carolina and people are like, well you won in South Carolina that's great, but let's get onto the real show.

Yepsen: Jeff, money can't buy you love, but can it buy you the democratic nomination?

Zeleny: We'll find out. It certainly helps, you need it to win. But we should also point out, the composite of the democratic electorate, you must win African-American support, Hispanic support, you need a coalition, we'll call it the Obama coalition for lack of better phrasing here. And it's very much an open question if Bernie Sanders can get that, although he is improving among African-Americans nationally and in South Carolina. But Bloomberg, that's a big question here. But it certainly buys you a shot at that love because he is advertising in an unprecedented way here. But I think once Iowa is resolved, say Joe Biden wins Iowa, Bloomberg is going to step aside. He is fine with a Biden candidacy, he thinks he is more likely to win the White House. But Bloomberg is going to be involved until the very end trying to defeat the President here. But as Kay said earlier, I think that is such a good point, President Trump is playing such a key role in this democratic primary. Every voter you talk to, who do you think can beat President Trump? So electability, it's in the eye of the beholder. But President Trump is like the 11th man in this. He affects everyone's decision.

Yepsen: Kay, is Iowa -- Iowa has been a toss-up state in the past. Is it going to be in play in 2020?

Henderson: It depends who the democratic nominee is. I think that's just the bottom line. To Jeff's point it has been interesting to be talking to Iowa voters over the past month and you run into people who are weighing their choice, I'm either going to support Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. That has nothing to do with ideology or what "lanes" we tend to talk about how voters make their decision. That is totally about finding someone who they think can win in November.

Yepsen: Is it fair -- does everyone agree with the notion that electability as an issue is more important than we've ever seen it in a campaign before?


Yepsen: I've covered a lot of them, you guys have too. It just seems that's on voters' minds. John, are democrats adding any new people to this mix? One of the things that has always been a signal to me about whether somebody is going to win Iowa is who is bringing new people. Evangelicals in Pat Robertson, for example.

McCormick: You see a little bit of that in the caucus process but not a ton. You do run into the occasional republican who is at an event for Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, you run into some independent voters who say yeah, I want to get involved with this process. And back to the turnout question I think that is a real interesting thing that we're going to see on Monday night is do some independents come out? This is a crazy theory, but if you're a republican in this state and you want to really weigh in on this process and you think Bernie Sanders is the weakest candidate to challenge Donald Trump in a general election you can sign up that day as a democrat and go caucus. I don't think that's going to happen, I don't think that's going to happen, there's been no tradition of that happening, but this thing is so intense you could see some people thinking about doing that.

Henderson: I just remember in 2007 and 2008 Barack Obama made a big deal about he had a group of people called Republicans for Obama. None of these candidates have really formed that because if you think about it because how people are just in a 50/50 country, if you're a republican living in Adams County and go to your precinct, you're going to out yourself to all of your neighbors that you're a democrat now and you don't support the President. Are you going to contribute that to the gossip mill in town? I think that's really, really unlikely.

Yepsen: Jeff, the part is, there are tensions in the party, animosities developing as they do in any campaign. Are these divisions that you see going to lead to the situation we saw in 2000 or in 2016 where there are third parties or spinoff or losers' supporters sit it out?

Zeleny: I think the answer is probably not. Again, the reason why is Donald John Trump. He is the democratic unifier. So if Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee all these democrats have taken a pledge to support him. There's going to be some grumbling about it but I think without a question most people would get behind it. And we don't know the answer to the question if exciting new people, like the Sanders campaign argues, is excitement better than experience or electability? We're not quite sure. But I think Trump is the magnet I guess that brings democrats together here at the end of the day. But we'll see.

Yepsen: We've only got a few minutes left. James, I'll ask you this question. Are the Iowa Caucuses becoming too big? Are they becoming obsolete? Is it time for Iowa to think about a primary?

Pindell: New Hampshire would have something to say about that. But look, Iowa matters because of its clout and its ability to launch campaigns into the ether and that is the important thing that really matters here. Candidates certainly think this state matters. They spent disproportionately more time here than any other state including New Hampshire by a mile. As long as that continues, yes, the nature of the Caucuses have changed, the nature of the New Hampshire primary changed, Jeff mentioned the most nationalized primary season I think we've ever seen, but as long as everyone has bought in that it matters the mechanics we can deal with I think.

Yepsen: John, you wrote a piece about caucus capitalism, all the money that Iowa is making off of this, maybe squeezing campaigns a little bit. Are the Caucuses obsolete? Are they too big? Should there be some change? What is your take on that?

McCormick: A lot of states are moving away from caucuses. There are fewer in the Super Tuesday March calendar than there were in previous cycles, which could be an issue for Sanders because caucuses are good for him, or at least were in 2016. But yeah, you do feel like this thing is maybe just getting so big and compared to the ones we covered 16, 20 years ago, some longer ago than that, it just feels like everybody is trying to get their hand in the pocket for a little piece of the action here.

Yepsen: Kay, we have only a minute left. Real quick, Iowa is obsolete?

Henderson: It depends on who wins. If the democrat wins in November, they get to decide what the calendar is for their re-election campaign and they influence what the DNC does. If democrats lose there will be sort of an autopsy, if you will, and I would expect changes.

Zeleny: And on the day after Election Day republicans are going to be here as well. Mike Pence was in town last night, the Vice President. So that is one thing that has kept Iowa is inertia and tradition. So the next round of candidates, regardless of who wins, are going to be here in November.

Yepsen: But, is this process getting too big? It's not the charming little thing that it used to be.

Zeleny: Sure it's not. Nothing is what it used to be. It's all kind of loud and boisterous. I still think it serves a good role of organization. But Kay is right, whoever wins, if Hillary Clinton had won in '08 the Iowa Caucuses would already be out of existence.

Yepsen: So it depends on who is President. But you see Mike Pence is doing a bus trip in Western Iowa. What is that all about?

Zeleny: It may be about Mike Pence 2024. We'll see.

Yepsen: Listen, we're out of time. I want to thank you all for breaking away from the trail to be here today. Thanks a lot. Good luck to you all.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press. We'll break down all the Caucus results and the aftermath on 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.