Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Feb 7, 2020 | 27 min

After more than one year of campaigning across our state, the Iowa Caucuses imploded this week on the national stage. We gather a reporters' roundtable to examine the wreckage and discuss the aftermath on this edition of Iowa Press.



After more than one year of campaigning across our state, the Iowa Caucuses imploded this week on the national stage. We gather a reporters' roundtable to examine the wreckage and discuss the aftermath 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, February 7 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: When Iowans ventured out to Caucus sites early this past week, many hoped to take part in an historic night, and they did. After countless caucus reporting procedures went awry, the caucus counting fiasco led to condemnation, conspiracy theories and anger in and at the first in the nation kickoff state. Here to discuss the still evolving aftermath is James Lynch, Political Reporter for the Gazette. Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Well, we all had an interesting week, probably covering one of the biggest stories in Iowa political history. So I want to get all your impressions. Kay, I'll start with you. Does this finish the Iowa Democratic Caucuses as a significant political event in America?

Henderson: Sitting here today when people are throwing around words, in addition to the words you just used, like debacle, that seems likely, especially in a party which has been moving away from caucuses toward primaries because they say it allows more people to participate.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: I think maybe Joe Biden said it best, took a gut punch, the process took a gut punch and Iowa certainly took a gut punch with the way this came off. Is it the end of the caucuses? It might be premature. But man, I think it's on life support, the future of the caucuses as first in the nation, definitely on life support.

Yepsen: We go back to what we were doing in the 1960s. Yeah, there's always a caucus, but they won't be as significant.

Lynch: There might be a caucus but nobody will pay any attention.

Yepsen: Erin, what is your take on this?

Murphy: I just hope at the very least it's the finish of this year's democratic caucuses now that we finally have results. I'm sort of with Jim, it's difficult to say for certain right now in this moment. The embers are still hot on this fire. One thing for sure we can say is it doesn't help. This is a battle Iowa always has to fight to stay first in the nation when things go well. Given what happened with the reporting of the results that challenge is going to be even greater than they have ever faced over these coming years.

Lynch: And I think building on what Erin said, this fight every four years, I'm not sure who Iowa's champion is fighting this now. There's no one say like Tom Harkin in the Senate. He's here but he's retired. Who is the Godfather, the champion who is going to fight for the Iowa Caucuses and have some sway within the Democratic Party? I'm not sure that person exists right now.

Yepsen: Kay, what do you expect to see happen in the days ahead? And specifically is there going to be a shakeup at the Iowa Democratic Party? Is Chairman Price on his way out?

Henderson: Well, the sequel to this year's caucuses, 2012 when Matt Strawn, who was the Chairman of the Iowa GOP, announced on Caucus Night that Mitt Romney had won by 8 votes and then 10 days later had to admit that the canvass of results showed that Rick Santorum won by 12 votes and within a month he was no longer chair of the party. So I'm sure we'll all be covering that over the next month. The one thing that I'm seeing as I monitor discussion online is there is also pushback against the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez. And it's coming from state party chairs around the country who think he had immediately thrown Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party Chair, under the bus, number one. And number two, he has been a dismal fundraiser for the D=democratic cause when compared to what Ronna Romney McDaniel has been doing for the Republican National Committee. And you've had prominent democrats in Congress, Marcia Fudge, who stepped in and was the temporary Chair of the Democratic National Committee for the convention in 2016, say he needs to go.

Yepsen: So does Troy pay the price?

Murphy: I'll agree with Kay to a certain extent with what I'm hearing too from Iowa democrats anyways is the pushback is against the leadership at the national level, they think they ask of the state party too much of them and to a certain degree the Bernie Sanders campaign as well. The reason we have all these new requirements is because the Sanders campaign was upset about the way things went four years ago. So what I'm hearing from a lot of Iowa democrats is too much was asked of the state party this year and when things went awry that was out of their hands. And I don't hear that Troy Price should be held accountable.  I hear the frustration, like Kay, higher up the ladder.

Yepsen: In the months and years ahead how would any effort to replace Iowa work, Erin?

Murphy: Well, and that would be the interesting thing and it gets back to the original question too of whether Iowa as done as first in the nation. The national party has a process for this and they have all kinds of committees and structures that they would have to go through. And part of the reason that Iowa has remained first in the nation for all these years is just simple inertia. It's hard to change that calendar. It's hard to change that process. Now, this is a heightened example, a heightened situation. Maybe this is enough that there's enough people at the national level to want to make that change. But in the past that hasn't happened partly for that reason.

Yepsen: James, what are the alternatives here?

Lynch: Well, the alternatives, not a primary until Bill Gardner is gone from the Secretary of State's Office in New Hampshire. He's the guy who says anything that looks like a primary is out of the question. There may be ways to have a straw ballot like republicans do and then allot delegates based on those results by congressional districts or some formula like that so it doesn't look too much like a primary. But beyond that I'm not sure there are a lot of alternatives. You could go to some sort of a rank choice voting maybe, which some people thought the realignments this year were like rank choice voting. But I think the big hang-up is Bill Gardner in New Hampshire.

Murphy: And when you talk about the calendar itself the other options are do you go to a national primary? Or I hear people say one of the more interesting proposals I've heard is have all the four early states go on the same day instead of spreading them out, that gives you more diversity, it takes out that criticism of Iowa and alleviates the heavy focus on one state. Some people say pick your swing states and let's go there first because that gives the swing states in the general election some -- so there's different proposals. Whether there's enough support behind any of these remains to be seen.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Well, let me ask you. You have been observing this process for a few decades. What are your thoughts?

Yepsen: The Iowa Caucuses are like creeping Charlie. You can't kill it. Everybody hates it. And you don't know what to replace it with. How do you like that for a pun? They didn't like my first one.


Yepsen: No, I think Erin has a point, that you could go to a national primary, regional primaries, lotteries, all those things have been discussed but it's very difficult to do because you really disrupt local political considerations and it gets expensive in some states. And so your point about inertia is absolutely right.

Lynch: One of the things that often gets overlooked, David, is sort of the work of being first, that the party has to do a lot of work, local parties have to do a lot of work, find the venues and all this work that goes into being first that I don't think anybody realizes. Everybody wants to be first, but when you find out how much work it is, it might not be so popular.

Henderson: And might republicans who have been resistant to the idea finally say okay, let's have county auditors, who conduct elections in Iowa frequently, manage the reporting?

Yepsen: That would cost money.

Henderson: That would cost money. But they already spend money anyway.

Yepsen: The state taxpayers would have to be paying for what is now a private event. I don't know how that's going to go over in this legislature. And we should point out the republican caucuses, they're still intact, nobody is talking about republican caucuses here.

Henderson: In fact, President Trump is tweeting on Friday morning that Iowa and New Hampshire will go first in 2024.

Yepsen: And no matter what the situation is the republicans will have a contest. They're either looking for somebody to challenge a new democratic incumbent or President Trump will be finishing out his second term.

Henderson: And on this program a couple of weeks ago Jeff Kaufmann, the Chairman of the Iowa GOP, made it clear that that was one of the reasons why they had caucuses, to show that their party is capable of carrying this out because they're preparing for 2024. And before we get too far into the weeds and what may happen in the future, it has been remarkable this past week that you had Governor Kim Reynolds, a republican, and Iowa's two republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, supporting democrats in the way they counted the ballots.

Yepsen: It's like Napoleon said, you never interfere with an enemy in the act of destroying himself. So why would the Governor get involved in the middle of that? Kay, tell me what your take is on does this hurt Iowa's image nationally?

Henderson: Well, I am getting phone calls at my office from people in other states, for instance with quotes like, Ioway is not okay, at three o'clock in the morning. So yes, it is having an effect on Iowa's image around the country.

Yepsen: James, what does it do to the ethanol industry? We've always said one of the real winners of the caucus process has been the ethanol industry because every Senator and President has to come out and pay homage to renewable fuels. Does this hurt the ethanol industry?

Lynch: It certainly doesn't help. Whether it hurts I'm not sure because I didn't hear a lot of discussion of ethanol at democratic campaign events. Occasionally there would be a question but I didn't hear a lot of discussion. I think ethanol depends more on the support of Iowa's congressional members, Grassley and Ernst and Loebsack especially and of course he is retiring after this year. But I think they are more important maybe in that fight than the caucuses. Certainly campaigning in Iowa you hear about ethanol and as you said, you have to pay a certain amount of homage to ethanol and the industry.

Yepsen: But, Erin, what does anybody else think? How about Iowa's interest just generally in Washington? There has always been a sense that you would hear this from members of congressional staff that being from Iowa meant you always got your phone calls returned and you had some influence in the cabinet. Have we hurt, is our influence hurt there?

Murphy: Yeah, you touched on something right there. The cabinet members or people who go to work in administrations and various functions from Iowa because of the relationships that are made here when candidates spend the better part of a  year campaigning here. And interest groups are able to get in front of candidates. So absolutely, I think there's no doubt that if this is the end of the first in the nation for Iowa that has an impact on those kinds of things and lessens, to whatever degree, Iowa's influence in the federal government and the national level.

Yepsen: Kay, what does this do to New Hampshire? Does it benefit New Hampshire because they have been complaining about Iowa for 50 years? Or does it hurt them too because they're just another small white state so they could get caught in the back blast of this? What do you think?

Henderson: Well, the candidates have this past week been in New Hampshire saying we trust New Hampshire to be able to count the votes, number one. So in that respect the candidates are praising New Hampshire in the way it conducts its contest. Number two, you could argue that the candidates who have benefited from the Iowa Caucuses in finishing sort of in a virtual tie, you've seen their numbers sort of perk up in the tracking polls that we're seeing coming out of New Hampshire. So Iowa did what it traditionally does, it provided some momentum to candidates, and you have this sort of internal discussion among the Biden camp about what needs to happen to sort of have a reboot.

Murphy: I will say to your question, New Hampshire might want to be careful what it wishes for. You hear a lot of criticism of why does Iowa go first, but you also will occasionally hear why do Iowa and New Hampshire go first, and a lot of the same demographic criticisms that you can make. Look, this results reporting thing is a unique beast. But from the broader view when you talk about the criticisms of Iowa a lot of those apply to New Hampshire as well. So if there's going to be a big calendar shakeup coming, it may not be just Iowa, it could be both of those early states.

Yepsen: James, go ahead.

Lynch: New Hampshire democrats apparently are having a lot of fun with this. Humble brag here, I was on a radio program with a Politico reporter yesterday and he said, he probably had heard 50 times that day the old saying that Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire pick presidents. So they seem to be reveling in Iowa's misery.

Yepsen: Looking ahead to 2020, James, does this hurt, locally does this hurt Iowa democratic candidates at the ballot box here in this state? Does it, raising money, recruiting candidates?

Lynch: I don't know that it hurts them in that way. I think somewhat it will depend on the presidential nominee and how much excitement the nominee brings to the election. Where it can hurt them I think is the turnout that was lower than what was expected. And it raises a question about are democrats enthused about this election? Or are those Obama/Trump voters realigning with the Republican Party?

Yepsen: Erin, what was that turnout?

Murphy: Yeah, I think that is something that is going to be discussed and parsed out in the coming days and it needs to be because when you talked to people in the weeks leading up to this and when you were at events, candidates were drawing big crowds, thousands of people at these events in the final weeks, and there seemed like genuine interest and enthusiasm for these caucuses. So for them to not approach that 2008 level I think is very interesting. There were some numbers that showed the only counties in the state that increased turnout were in the areas that had the highest share of college educated voters. So that is a very interesting, we need to get beyond the results and I think that maybe is the story of these caucuses.

Henderson: I wrote down the numbers because I'm tired and I have to have them written down because I can't remember them. But in 2016 about 171,000 democrats turned out for that contest on Caucus Night. Caucus Night this past Monday, 176,000. So basically the same, which should trouble people, because we had been hearing all the time that gosh, look at 2018, we flipped a couple of seats here in Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne are now members of Congress as a result of heightened interest among democrats. We didn't see heightened interest among democrats in making a choice among these candidates. Now, it could be whatever, pick one, I don't care. It could be, I stayed home and I cheered for the Kansas City Chiefs a little bit too much on Super Bowl -- there could be all sorts of factors here. But if democrats don't have a moment of self-evaluation and try to figure that out they're headed for disaster in November.

Yepsen: Won't they be, isn't the party base, activists, they have to be dispirited by what they saw --

Henderson: Especially because I think all three of us would tell you that we heard anecdotally that people were pleased with the way the caucuses went, there wasn't this antagonism between the Clinton and the Bernie Sanders folks on Caucus Night, things went smoothly, until they tried to call in the results.

Lynch: And the turnout went up in the urban counties where democrats have traditionally done well and not in rural counties. So that is just sort of, I don't know if it reinforces what we saw in 2018 and 2016, that democrats can't get votes in rural Iowa, but it looks like maybe that is becoming the norm.

Yepsen: Doesn't Donald Trump profit from this problem in the Democratic Party?

Lynch: Oh, I think so, I think so. And he, I can't remember his exact words, but it was the sloppiest train wreck in history and Iowa democrats are stewing in this mess. So yeah, he'll make hay out of this and I don't know how long that carries over in his campaign, he'll move onto something else shortly I'm sure. But yeah, it helps him.

Yepsen: It's important, it comes at a bad time I think for democrats because this is a time when the party is recruiting candidates for local offices and for legislatives seats, which the filing deadline is coming up in March, and if you're on the cusp of a good candidate running or not running I wonder, Kay, does this discourage people from running as democratic candidates?

Henderson: Well, one of the things that I observed as I was talking to people was they were sort of frozen in place, they couldn't make a decision about which candidate they were going to support, and so this just adds to the sort of inertia and the ability of Donald Trump to sort of control every ounce, molecule of the political conversation. He is inserted in every bit of this. And so I think it does make it more difficult for democrats in this environment over the next few weeks to encourage the local mayor to give up being mayor of his or her town and run for the legislature.

Yepsen: Erin, let's go back to the democratic presidential race itself. What does this do? Kay mentioned it already. But what do you think this does? Does it clarify the race? Does it slow it down? What do you think it does? Do they get a bump?

Murphy: Yeah, that's exactly what I was going to say and I don't know that we know that yet. We have seen some polling where Pete Buttigieg got a little bit of a bump. But that is the most interesting question to me in the coming days and weeks is did Iowa give its usual bump to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg? Or because of the way the results trickled out so slowly was that impact lost? I don't know that we know that for sure yet. But that's going to be interesting to watch.

Henderson: The other thing here is Michael Bloomberg is looming out there and everybody is going to look to California and how well he does because that is a Super Tuesday state, big democratic base out there. But, you think the Iowa results gave Iowa a little black eye, remember what happened in 2018, we didn't know the outcome of some congressional races in California because of the way in which they conduct their elections. You've had people from Texas say buckle up, we may have some delayed reporting as well. So the Iowa Caucus results, what some people have been calling a fiasco, may just be sort of an indicator of what is going to go on as we march through this process because you have states in the west that vote by mail. If you think every ballot is going to be delivered to the post office and wind up being counted at the same time I think you're in for a different kind of evening.

Lynch: I talked to a University of Iowa Political Science Professor who said this is going to be the new normal with states voting by mail. You're not going to have Election Night results. Michigan is using mail ballots in this election and they're already saying they won't know on Election Night who won the presidential race in Michigan. That's a battleground state. That could be key to knowing who the President is going to be. So yeah, this could very well be the new normal, just waiting, sit down, read a book and we'll get the results.

Henderson: And of course in our instant gratification society that's going to be a little difficult.

Yepsen: But our society is also conditioned to having accurate turnouts instantly. Thanks to Florida in 2000, the old days you could be close and that was good enough, and boy now we're arguing over handfuls of votes.

Murphy: And that shows a weakness in the caucus system as it is built when the races are this close and this isn't the first time we've seen this, it's the third time now, Kay mentioned 2012 when republicans gave away the wrong and they have a simple straw ballot process and they still -- and 2016 the results were fine but it took them a long time to report those too and it was because it was so close. IF someone is running away with this thing we probably don't hear about 90% of these things that have been happening this week. But because it was so close we know and it kind of exposes some of the ways that the caucuses struggle to handle things.

Yepsen: James, talk about a primary. Campaigns change. We don't do torchlight parades in American politics anymore, they were once the rage. Kay mentioned Bloomberg. Since we started these early caucuses we have arrival of money thanks to Citizens United big time, you came to Iowa early on to get money and media attention. Well now you have money before you get in, you buy media attention, there's the Internet. Campaigns have changed. So given that, is it time for Iowa to, or do you sense any move in the legislature to say okay, let's go to a primary?

Lynch: I don't hear anybody in the legislature talking about that. I know there are people who wish we had a primary, people who want to change the caucuses to go to absentee balloting or something like that to make it more like a primary. I think, let me put on my old man hat here, I think there's something valuable in not doing everything the same way everywhere, that states may have a unique way of doing this and the caucuses certainly are our unique tradition. There is a tradition here. We can be, do everything the same, we could all have primaries in every state and do it all the same and probably get good results. But I think there is some value in letting people decide how they want to choose candidates.

Yepsen: Kay, does Iowa get, this process did elevate the first openly gay candidate.

Henderson: Which got lost because of the counting drama. Also what got lost was that a woman in Elizabeth Warren finished ahead of the former Vice President. Nobody is talking about these three candidates finished ahead of Joe Biden. So a lot of the storylines from the Iowa Caucus results really weren't examined as the voters are going to head to New Hampshire's primary. That just shows you how crushed the early process is here, that you can't fully examine the results.

Yepsen: Amy Klobuchar get anything out of the caucus results?

Henderson: She did credibly. If she doesn't perform in New Hampshire I think there will be big questions about whether she can continue.

Yepsen: Amy Klobuchar?

Murphy: Yeah, she did, she has continued that upward swing that she was showing. She didn't get far enough, she didn't leap into that top pack, but she continued that upward trajectory, I think Kay is right, she has to continue that in New Hampshire as well.

Henderson: But the Klobuchar angle here, if she had finished ahead of the Vice President, that would have been a huge story.

Yepsen: We're out of time. Thank you all and we'll be talking more about this story I'm sure for the next four years.


Yepsen: And 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. So 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.