Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Aug 25, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa political reporters recap political happenings at the Iowa State Fair, discuss the recent Iowa Poll, and look ahead.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



The Iowa State Fair, a debate, a new Iowa Poll, a Trump mugshot. It's been a busy couple of weeks of presidential politics. Some of our favorite political reporters are here to talk about it all on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends. the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 25th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: There's been lots of news on the Iowa campaign trail this month. We have assembled a group of Iowa reporters who have closely followed more than a dozen republican presidential candidates who have been campaigning in Iowa and elsewhere on the debate stage this past week. Joining us for this edition of Iowa Press, Stephen Gruber-Miller, he is a Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Brianne Pfannenstiel is the Chief Politics Reporter for the Des Moines Register and she wrote the Iowa Poll story that we'll be talking about today. And Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Erin, let's start with you. Let's talk about the State Fair.

Murphy: I love talking about the State Fair.

Henderson: Okay, but let's talk about the candidates.

Murphy: Oh, okay.

Henderson: Kim Reynolds interacting with the candidates is what we should probably start discussing. What did we learn?

Murphy: Well, this was a little more involved than previous governors have been in their role as host of the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Governor Reynolds thus far has remained neutral, as she pledged, as previous governors have. But she hosted all the candidates at the State Fair, did a series of interviews with each of them and that is a little new wrinkle on this and, like I said, it's a little more active, a little more involved than Terry Branstad, Chet Culver, Tom Vilsack have been in the previous cycles. So, why is that? The Governor hasn't said specifically other than she enjoys the Fair, she wanted to get the candidates there and get them out in front of people and prospective voters. It's also fair to wonder is that because she feels the need to protect the caucuses given what has happened on the democratic side? Does this help protect things on the republican side? It's also fair to ask I think is this a way to help raise her national profile in case one of these candidates becomes the next President of the United States?

Henderson: Brianne, this maybe not have been a surprise because she has been out at events with the candidates since late winter.

Pfannenstiel: She has really been front and center with all of these candidates, welcoming them into the state, introducing them to caucus goers and really kind of being that ambassador for them across Iowa, showing them the ropes. But this is really kind of an escalation of that. And you mentioned the Iowa Poll. Kim Reynolds continues to have the highest favorability numbers of any republican we tested in that poll. So, she is incredibly popular with Iowa republicans. And this puts her in front of them, it puts her in front of those national cameras, as Erin mentioned. And what has been really intriguing to me over the last week is she has kind of been signaling in some interviews, especially with national outlets, that she is open to endorsing somebody prior to the caucuses. When I interviewed her way at the very beginning of this cycle she was very clear in saying, my job is to welcome people to the state, I'm going to show them around, I'm not going to be endorsing, I don't see that as my role. But she has really left that door open lately and it will be interesting to see whether she follows through and actually does make an endorsement.

Henderson: I did a story about the prospect of her endorsing and I had some key people, like Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann, say perhaps not a kingmaker or a queenmaker, if you will, in terms of who might win the caucuses, but it certainly would move the meter. Stephen, how much could an endorsement from Kim Reynolds change the character of this race?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, it's interesting because there's Trump, there's Ron DeSantis and then there's really a pack of candidates who are struggling to kind of break out and make themselves a serious alternative. And so, if they were to get that exposure, that attention, it could be helpful. But, I think there's pros and cons to Reynolds deciding to endorse. One of her stated reasons for not doing so is to preserve a level playing field for all of the candidates in order to keep Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus status. So, if she were to endorse somebody, especially somebody other than Donald Trump, and then Trump were to go on and win, well that might not bode very well for the future of the Iowa Caucuses. So, I think there are risks and I think that is why she has heretofore said, I'm going to stay out of it.

Murphy: And I think your question is an interesting one that there's no answer to yet, would it move the needle? I observe this kind of stuff. I would be fascinated to find the answer to that because usually when we talk about these things, an endorsement, nine times out of ten the answer is honestly that stuff doesn't matter a whole lot to voters. It feels like in this specific case, boy that would be interesting to see, as we talked about, given Governor Reynolds' popularity here, would that actually move the needle in a meaningful way in this race?

Henderson: Well, we've seen U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley endorse Bob Dole twice, campaign on his behalf, and Terry Branstad endorsed Bob Dole before the 1996 caucuses and that was key because Bob Dole was stuck in Washington negotiating over a government shutdown with President Bill Clinton, and so Terry Branstad was a surrogate for him on the campaign trail. What would be the value of being on stage with Kim Reynolds?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think we've been to a lot of these events and you talk to people who are attending and you say, what does it mean to you to have Kim Reynolds up there? And they say, well I think it reflects really well on these candidates that Kim Reynolds is willing to speak on their behalf. And so, she has given, she has said really nice things about all of these candidates. But when she really likes someone you can tell that she has very personal stories to share when she has been on the campaign trail with them, she knows them, she can really sell them to the audience. And they believe her. She is a very good messenger. People trust her.

Murphy: And one real quick anecdote to add to that, to illustrate that. One of my colleagues caught a person at the Fair after seeing Nikki Haley with Kim Reynolds. And as we do, my colleague asked, what do you think about Nikki Haley? And the person said, I don't know much about Nikki Haley, but I love Governor Reynolds and if Governor Reynolds speaks highly of her then I know to give her a look. So, that speaks to the impact and the influence she could have within this Iowa republican electorate.

Henderson: Let's talk, Stephen, about the looks some of these candidates presented at the Iowa State Fair and a moment, perhaps, for Vivek Ramaswamy, as he rapped on stage.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, with Kim Reynolds, well she didn't rap. But yeah, they're all looking to have kind of a breakout moment, to make themselves known. It's a big field of candidates and being at the State Fair puts you in front of an audience of Iowans who may not be normally paying attention to politics and an audience of national reporters who are at these events. So, Vivek Ramaswamy, Governor Reynolds when she does these chats with the candidates, asks them what is your favorite walk out song to go on stage to? And he said it was, Lose Yourself by Eminem and then he proceeded to rap the song and got the crowd going and that kind of went viral. So, he's trying to attract attention in that way. The candidates are all sort of seeing if they can break through. Some of them spent a lot of time at the Fair. You had candidates like Mike Pence draw news for getting a question at the Des Moines Register soapbox about January 6th. So, there's the potential when there's a big event like the Fair and there's a lot of media attention for a candidate to kind of break through and have some wider exposure.

Henderson: Corporations are people, Mitt Romney at the Iowa State Fair on the Des Moines Register soapbox. Obviously, the marquee event among the candidates at the Fair was the day Ron DeSantis showed up, had his conversation with Kim Reynolds, went over to the Pork Producers Tent, as many do at the State Fair, did some stuff with the pork there, flipped it on the grill and then Donald Trump arrived. Erin, what was that experience like?

Murphy: Well, first of all, before he even got there, the Trump campaign flew a plane over the State Fair crowd as Ron DeSantis was campaigning --

Henderson: It said Trump on the side of it.

Murphy: Yeah, and the flag said, be likeable --

Gruber-Miller: Well, that's a whole separate plane. There was the Trump plane --

Murphy: And then Trump flew over himself and did a little buzz the tower from Top Gun-esque kind of move. Yeah, and then when Trump himself came to the Fairgrounds that was pretty remarkable. I was blessed to or stuck in, depending on your perspective, the traveling press pool and it was remarkable to see the crowds and the people trying to make their way to see the former President. He did a little bit more of the retail side this time. He also went to the Pork Producers Tent. He didn't flip. He did accept a pork chop on a stick and them immediately handed it off to a conservative media outlet that was there reporting. But, he walked through the Animal Learning Center and then gave some remarks at a sort of food pavilion there. So, he did, unlike 8 years ago when he literally helicoptered in and out, he did a little more of that, but it was only about an hour on the Fairgrounds in typical Trump style.

Henderson: Brianne, it strikes me that this event may be sort of what we see from Donald Trump here on out because he didn't give a speech, he interacted with people, he said a few things, but he brought all these Florida members of the U.S. House to Iowa who really gave the speech to the crowd and he just introduced them and said, I love Iowa. Isn't this sort of what may happen to Trump given his circumstances with four indictments?

Pfannenstiel: Right, we're looking at a very involved and complicated legal calendar for the former President between now and the caucuses and then extending on afterwards. So, he's going to have to fit in campaigning between all of those things. And so, we really have yet to see kind of the big traditional rally that we came to expect from him prior to this race. And so, he has been coming in, he has been doing some more of these smaller events, smaller to the degree that he can. As Erin mentioned, he was swarmed by a lot of people. But, again, he skipped Kim Reynolds' Fair-side Chats, he skipped the Des Moines Register soapbox, he kind of came in and created his own climate, his own weather and everyone else was left responding to that.

Murphy: Sorry to jump in, the only thing I was going to add in, the other thing is it felt like it was more, the whole day was more a trolling of Ron DeSantis than it actually was a Donald Trump campaign swing. We mentioned the planes beforehand, you mentioned the Florida Congresspeople that he brought with him and it was all I'm sure not accidentally scheduled on the same day that Ron DeSantis had already been announced that he was at the Fairgrounds.

Pfannenstiel: Right, we watched Ron DeSantis leave Kim Reynolds' Fair-side Chat, he was swarmed by people, he had a lot of people who wanted to come up to him, shake his hand, get a selfie and that whole pack kind of moved along down through the Fairgrounds and then suddenly Donald Trump was here and you thought Ron DeSantis' crowd was big and then you looked over at the crowd surrounding Donald Trump. And so, it was kind of a microcosm of the challenge that DeSantis has right now of needing to draw attention away from the spectacle that is Donald Trump. And it's a big open question of whether he can actually do that.

Henderson: Speaking of, let's talk about the Trump/DeSantis dynamic in Iowa as evidenced in the Des Moines Register, NBC News, Mediacom, Iowa Poll that was released this week.

Pfannenstiel: Right, we just released this poll and so, as expected, Donald Trump is in the lead. He is at 42% over Ron DeSantis, who is at 19%. That's a 23-percentage point lead. That's a really big lead in Iowa Caucus polling. But it's still smaller than what we're seeing nationally. So, nationally public polling is putting Donald Trump's lead at 30 or 40 points. So, it is smaller, but it's still a pretty substantial lead. Tim Scott follows at 9% and then there's kind of a cluster of other candidates who are hovering around 4%, 5%, 6% and then folks who are down in the 0% to 1% range.

Henderson: Erin, when I looked at these results I was not surprised by one, two and three given what I'm seeing on the campaign trail. Were you surprised?

Murphy: Neither was I. It lines up with what we're hearing out there, that Donald Trump has the majority of the support and the next tier were sort of the ones that we also hear about, I'm also considering, so that wasn't a surprise either. The other thing that stood out to me, and I wrote this down, was maybe even reinforcing former President Trump's lead even more is of the people who named him as their top choice, two-thirds said their mind is made up about that, while roughly a third said they could be persuaded. For Ron DeSantis, it's almost the exact flip opposite of that. So, Ron DeSantis has his smaller number and then only a third of those are locked in. So, that tells you that even more the significant challenge that Ron DeSantis and the rest of the group faces to climb that ladder and catch up to the former President.

Henderson: Brianne, I think your polling guru calls it the footprint. We're talking about Ann Selzer. Explain what the footprint is for each of these candidates.

Pfannenstiel: Yeah, this is a test that I really like that we've been doing in our latest caucus polling. We look at all of the candidates, we ask our caucus goers, who is your first choice for president? Who is your second choice for president? And who else are you still actively considering? Because I think we all have the experience of going to these events and talking with people there and saying, well who do you like so far? And they name three, four, five, six candidates. They really don't have that narrowed down. So, we're trying to gauge the full universe of their support here in Iowa. And when you look at that measure, when you look at that footprint, it's a much closer race. Donald Trump is at 63% who say they are actively considering him in some way. For Ron DeSantis it's 62%. So, that shows that while Donald Trump does have this big lead, he does have more of that locked down. There are a lot of people who are still thinking about Ron DeSantis and they're looking for these moments whether it's the State Fair or the debate or some other moment to lock in that support or to say, I'm going to maybe move him from actively considering to second choice or first choice.

Henderson: And Stephen, that poll also had sort of a Trump allegiance measurement in it as well.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, and really quickly I was just going to say, it kind of shows, the footprint measure kind of shows who has the potential to really break into the race because some of the other candidates, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, don't break 50% as far as people who are even considering them. Tim Scott is the only other besides Trump and DeSantis who does. But as far as the Trump question, yes, the poll asked several questions about Donald Trump, his legal situation and sort of his place in the Republican Party. So, I'm just going to read off a few statistics because they're fascinating. And again, the poll is of likely GOP caucus goers, so people who are planning to caucus for the republicans. 65% say they do not believe Donald Trump has committed serious crimes, despite his four indictments. 51% believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. 54% say aggressively criticizing Donald Trump for the acts that led to these indictments against him would make them less likely to favor a candidate. And then we asked a question about who should continue to lead the Republican Party? 41% say Donald Trump, 26% said Trump was a good President but it's time to move on and 31% said, time for a new leader with better personal behavior. So, together these questions really show that potential republican caucus goers believe Donald Trump's claims, they believe his innocence and they, many of them, continue to think he should lead the party despite the legal situation around him.

Murphy: And I love that 54% say that aggressively criticizing him would cause them -- for all our independents or democrats watching this show wondering why the heck won't these candidates go after Donald Trump, there's your answer, Ann Selzer found it.

Henderson: Well, Erin, that's a good segway to the debate, which happened this past week, and the candidates on the stage by and large did not directly criticize Donald Trump. The candidates we're seeing, Chris Christie of course, we are seeing Asa Hutchinson, but by and large nobody criticized the person who wasn't there.

Murphy: No, they all went after Vivek Ramaswamy instead. He sort of wound up playing the Trump fill in, both of his own making too, he kind of was, for lack of a better word, was Trumpy on that stage in the way he went after some other candidates and talked about some things. And yeah, clearly the other candidates found him a popular target to criticize. So, that was interesting to see that play out and I suppose without Donald Trump on the stage they needed someone to go after and that wound up being Vivek.

Henderson: Stephen, what did we learn from this debate that we didn't already know? And what were the vibes there among the candidates?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, as far as the candidates' answers, we've heard many of these on the campaign trail before. Many of them tried as much as they could to stick to their sort of talking points. But there were interesting exchanges. The interest among several of the candidates, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, to go after Vivek Ramaswamy, shows maybe how they see him as a rising threat. So, he sort of had a moment where he's not only fending off attacks from these others but lobbing attacks of his own. He was really center stage. And because of that Ron DeSantis kind of faded into the background for stretches of the debate. Whether that's good or bad for Ron DeSantis might depend on how you feel about him because he was able to stick to his message, he was able to deliver his talking points but not really get involved. So, it was sort of an interesting dynamic there where some of these other candidates are trying to gain attention by mixing it up with Ramaswamy, whereas DeSantis chose to sort of stay out of it.

Henderson: Well, when you see some of the analysis of polling data or the little things where they have people watch the thing and then they have a dial and they say, oh I like that, and they turn it up, and somebody says something they don't like and they turn it the other way. DeSantis did well in some of those measurements.

Pfannenstiel: Right, I think DeSantis really, more than anyone, was able to effectively put his stump speech out there. With all of that, all those attacks focused on Ramaswamy, he really didn't have to fend off a whole lot. So, he was able to deliver his stump speech largely unimpeded. And so, I think we saw, for some of us observers, maybe we expected more from him and we expected him to be more involved. But for a lot of viewers at home, they liked what they heard. And so, it will be interesting to see too how some of these independent voters are thinking about this as well because Nikki Haley was someone who I think also had a very strong night. She was able to deliver some attacks against Vivek Ramaswamy. She really got to focus on foreign policy. And more than I think just about any other of these top tier candidates she was delivering kind of a general election message. She was really, on abortion in particular, she was talking to a much wider group of people. So, I'll be interested to see how she does in some of these follow up polls. Mike Pence is someone who came ready to play. He was feisty. And I think if you haven't been watching him on the campaign trail, perhaps that was a surprise. But for those of us who have been covering him over the last year, I think he's getting much more comfortable kind of leaning into that conflict and really defending his positions on things like January 6th.

Murphy: And real quick to DeSantis' strategy, it may have been solid for one reason in that it's easy for us who have been watching this -- we were watching for something different or exciting because we've been following this guy for months and months and months and it's easy to forget that so many people who tuned into this debate are seeing these folks for the first time. So, those candidates I think, in this first debate especially, are comfortable just sticking to the stump speech and still introducing themselves to a big number of voters.

Henderson: The other part of this debate was they discussed some really weighty policy that may play into the outcome of the 2024 election. Stephen, they had a long discussion about abortion.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, and Brianne kind of referenced this. It was really interesting to see a divide among the candidates on stage. So, you had people like Mike Pence who really want the federal government to take action and get involved in this issue. Mike Pence has said the federal government should ban abortion at 15 weeks and that states should go further than that. But there are other candidates who said, Nikki Haley's message was there aren't the votes in the Senate to pass a federal ban, we shouldn't be essentially misleading the American people that this is possible to do. So, there was a real divide on that. You had someone like Doug Burgum who pulled out his pocket Constitution and said, it's a states issue, the federal government shouldn't be involved, sort of a traditional republican view of federalism, whereas you had candidates like Pence saying, this is a moral issue. And then you had candidates like DeSantis, who has signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, said he was proud to sign it, but tried to speak more generally when it came to what federal policy he would support, perhaps recognizing that this is an issue where the general voting public is not necessarily in step with republican positions on this issue. So, there are some who are trying to stake out a claim in the primary race by being aggressive on the issue and there's others who have an eye towards the general election.

Henderson: We've got a couple of minutes left. It strikes me that during the 2012 race somebody did well in the debate and then they had a bump and then they had another debate and that person who did well in that debate had a bump because we had a bunch of people who led this race. This is demonstrably different, Erin, because Trump, even though he wasn't there, has a commanding lead in Iowa.

Murphy: Yeah, it speaks to how different this race is not just from the debate, just overall. He is basically an incumbent in this race. And yeah, we'll probably see a candidate or two get a bump from this. But, to Brianne's point earlier, it's not going to be a 23-point bump. So, someone is going to have to stack success upon success. It can't be a different candidate each time. Someone is going to have to kind of start having a moment here and we haven't seen it yet.

Henderson: Talking about start having a moment, the Iowa Democratic Party Chair was on this program a couple of weeks ago, Brianne. We've been all covering the Iowa Caucuses. And she said, we may or may not have caucuses on the same date, January 15th, as Iowa republicans. What is the strategy there?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think Iowa democrats are still feeling this out. They're going back and forth with the national party. But it is confusing to hear the party say, we're going to caucus on the same day as republicans, and then when republicans set their date to say maybe not. So, I was talking with a county party chair for the GOP just yesterday and she said, we've already locked down all of our precinct locations. Counties have to get on this now. They need to reserve space for people to caucus. And republicans are moving ahead without democrats at this point is what she said, that they moved forward, they locked down their spaces and it was not in partnership with democrats as it has been in the past. And so, I think that is a sign that republicans are not waiting.

Henderson: Well, I see a sign and unfortunately it says our conversation for today has concluded. Thanks to the three of you for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press. You can watch every edition of Iowa Press online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at