Political Scientists

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 29, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Chris Larimer, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, and Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of political science at Drake University, discuss the Iowa caucuses and this week’s Republican presidential debate, as well as other local and national political news.

Clay Masters is the host/moderator.

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


Clay Masters A Republican presidential debate. Iowa Caucus campaigns. State budget surplus. We have a couple of political science experts here to share their insights and analysis...on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Announcer 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, September 29

th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Clay Masters.

Clay Masters It's been another busy week of politics. We've invited a couple of political science experts here to help us highlight some of the important takeaways and figure out what it all may mean. Chris Larimer is professor of political science and coordinator of the Master of Public Policy Program at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Rachel Paine Caufield is professor of political science and department co-chair at Drake University in Des Moines. Thanks both for being at the Iowa Press table today.

Rachel Paine Caufield Thanks for having us.

Chris Larimer Thank you.

Clay Masters And we do want to note that we are recording this show midday on Friday as a potential government shutdown looms. A lot can happen in the hours between this conversation and whenever you might be watching the show. So please just keep that in mind. Journalists joining us today. Stephen Gruber-Miller is statehouse reporter for the Des Moines Register, and Erin Murphy is Des Moines bureau chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Erin Murphy So Clay mentioned the potential government shutdown. We're wondering if you folks can tell us and Rachel, we'll start with you on this one. Is there do we know from history is there any political fallout from these things? Do voters punish the party in control when there's a shutdown of the federal government and especially in a case like this, when we're 13 months away from the general election?

Rachel Paine Caufield Well, this is the political gamesmanship that's going on, is how do you frame the government shutdown so that voters understand what's happening? And you see both sides really arguing about that and trying to frame a message to voters. There certainly have been examples where we know that one side has taken more of a public hit for a government shutdown, most notably the standoff between Newt Gingrich's Republican House and Bill Clinton. You know, Newt Gingrich clearly got the bad end of that deal that he was really planning on pinning the government shutdown on Bill Clinton. That didn't that messaging didn't stick in this case. It's hard you know, it's hard to imagine a situation where the blame is equally shared. It seems pretty clear that this is a shutdown that's being driven by fractious and fractious politics within the Republican Party of the House.

Erin Murphy Yeah. Chris Larimer, same question to you. You analyze voting behavior and data. Have you seen history that shows us that this could be something that does impact voters’ choices a year from November?

Chris Larimer Well, I think it will certainly stay with voters for a while. I think when you have a government shutdown, when you have these conversations about, you know, missing budget deadlines, that's when, you know, spending for the federal government becomes very real for voters. Right. Very tangible. Something that they can see. And if it's a case where Republicans are talking about, you know, wanting to cut spending, voters then can see that in a very real way if you have a government shutdown. So as Rachel said, you know, for 94, 95, that that where there is damage to the Republican Party and Newt Gingrich, I think, you know, a little bit the same in 2018, when we had the government shutdown for 34 days, there was some some backlash toward the Republican Party for that. But unfortunately, I think when you're talking about government shutdown and getting right up to the to the deadline that has become the norm of the federal budget process, when people talk about the federal budget process being broken, this is what they're talking about there. I mean, there have been, I think, over 130 continuing resolutions since, you know, 1997 or 2000, because we keep coming up to this point and Republicans and Democrats in the federal government cannot agree on those spend those 12 spending bills.

Erin Murphy And to that point, this could be something that drags out to whether it's this agreement, this bill right now or whether it's another one in how many other weeks or months when they get to the to the to the next one is the longer this drags out, does that even does that amp up the political consequences for this?

Chris Larimer I think potentially. And again, it it reflects one of the things that voters are very frustrated with in terms of, you know, a broken political system that that the Democrats and Republicans, they are supposed to have these budget bills done to 12 budget bills done by September 30th every year. And they can't do that. And that has been the pattern going back to 1997, where there's one to, you know, multiple continuing resolutions throughout the year, which if you work for a federal agency that adds an incredible amount of uncertainty to your long term planning. So I think there are, you know, consequences that are going to stay. They'll be things they will stay with voters, but also consequences for elected officials. Yeah.

Stephen Gruber-Miller Rachel, you mentioned the conflict within the House Republican caucus over this. Seems like Speaker Kevin McCarthy maybe is walking a little bit of a tightrope here, trying to satisfy his own caucus.

Rachel Paine Caufield With really just trying to satisfy his own caucus.

Stephen Gruber-Miller Well, so what is the calculus like for him? And, you know, if you feel like making a prediction and getting a little bold there, do you think he comes out of this as speaker because he's received some of these threats to if he works with the Democrats on this, you know, to remove him from the speakership?

Rachel Paine Caufield Kevin McCarthy is having a bad week. You know, in terms of if you just think about what's on your plate this week, Kevin McCarthy's got a really tough job ahead of him. If you go all the way back to when he was elected as speaker, you'll recall, that took 15 ballots. He made a lot of concessions in order to become speaker. He really enjoys being speaker. He's always wanted to be speaker, but his conference knows that they have a lot of leverage over him. And so right now in this particular showdown, you know, the Senate has a continuing resolution that's ready to go that could be adopted by the House with Democratic support and moderate Republicans, and we could avert a government shutdown. What the government shutdown is really about is the House Republican Conference right now. The hard liners on the right say, nope, we're not willing to accept the deal that was struck back in May with the president. We want additional budget cuts and we're going to force that through. Kevin McCarthy earlier today spoke and he said, I have my own continuing resolution. We're going to put that out on the floor and it's going to include in a big push on border security and immigration restrictions. And he tried to firmly then put it on the Democrats to say, I don't know why you're not supporting this thing. So he has to kind of walk both lines here, knowing that if any of those hard right Republicans within his own conference, if any of them perceive that he's given up too much in order to get this done, they have the power to move forward with a motion to vacate the chair and potentially remove him from the speakership.

Clay Masters Let's switch over to the U.S. Senate for a moment. Friday morning when we're recording this sad news came out that Senator Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90 years old. In the Democratic caucus, it's a very razor thin majority that the Senate has for the Democrats. You also have Senator Bob

Menendez from New Jersey who is facing some pretty serious charges right now and is being encouraged to step down from his position. These are two Democratic governors in both New Jersey and California that will appoint their replacement. But, Chris, in the meantime, what does this do if we have two seats? One for sure, because of the senator's death, but also with Senator Menendez, What does that do in the interim before anybody is named?

Chris Larimer Well, I think it just makes the converse, the political conversations, particularly now that we're dealing with, with budget conversations more difficult. I mean, and it just adds another level of uncertainty to what, you know, first and foremost with the government shutdown, what the what the final package is going to look like, what you know, what sort of agreements are going to be between the House and the Senate. So I think it just adds a lot of uncertainty. I think going forward to it's these are going to be difficult political conversations for the Democratic Party in terms of keeping their, as you said, a very razor thin majority going into the 2024 election because there's so much uncertainty around that election already. They have an incumbent president in the White House, but he is, you know, relatively unpopular across the country, at least in terms of approval ratings and the to, you know, low forties and relatively unpopular within his own party in terms of levels of voter enthusiasm. So I think it's it just creates a very uncertain situation within the US Senate right now.

Clay Masters And we're talking about the political calculus here and somebody has died. Senator Dianne Feinstein was was a trailblazer. Rachel, anything on just the impact that she had on the US Senate or politics as a whole?

Rachel Paine Caufield Well, there's really no other word for her. I mean, in so many ways, Dianne Feinstein was the first woman to do X, right? She was mayor of San Francisco and became mayor under tragic circumstances. Of course, she and Barbara Boxer were elected to the US Senate during my first election cycle. I remember it well. That was considered to be the year of the woman because four women were elected, which today seems quaint. But she, you know, she's a giant in terms of her political legacy. She's inspired generations now of young women who are interested in public service. So it's a huge loss for the Democratic coalition in particular, but for the country.

Stephen Gruber-Miller I want to ask both of you and start with Rachel. You know, a big part of the conversation around Senator Feinstein in the last few years has been around her age and fitness for office. We're seeing other conversations like this taking place with other senators. This was part of Senator Chuck Grassley, his reelection campaign. This has been talked about a lot in the race for president. I'm curious what you think of that debate about, you know, the age of somebody serving and their ability to serve and if her death kind of changes that conversation in any way.

Rachel Paine Caufield I don't know if it changes the conversation. There's clearly there's clearly a generation, particularly on the Democratic side. But I think across American politics more generally, there's a generation that is anxious to make its mark and looks at our current elected officeholders and sees a lot of people who are older who aren't getting out of the way. Right.

Who are where they're, you know, when put when push comes to shove, every US member of Congress is responsible to their constituents. And so if their constituents elect them and believe that they're fit to do the job, then that's the job that they're elected to do. So I don't know that it changes the conversation in a fundamental way. I think the conversation certainly will continue.

Stephen Gruber-Miller Yeah. Chris, your thoughts on this?

Chris Larimer Yeah, I agree. I think that it just the conversation will continue. I think I saw something earlier where, you know, the the average age of a member of the Senate is close to what the retirement age is for most people. And so I think, you know, it's just going to keep that that issue, you know, on the agenda for a lot of voters. But it's also something unique within American politics. I mean, in Iowa, we have a retirement age for four justices. Right. So but then we don't have that at the federal level. And so, as Rachel said, it ultimately comes down to the voters, to the constituents. But I think the issue of age is something certainly we're going to continue to hear about and we hear about it among our students, or at least among among my students, you know, talking about what the age difference there and if that age difference, does that mean there are different policy interests being represented compared to what younger voters want to see on the agenda?

Erin Murphy Well, and speaking of elder candidates, we're looking right now at a presidential race next year that if the early polling holds, we would have two of the older presidential candidates than we've ever had. Obviously, incumbent Joe Biden on the Democratic side. And right now, former President Trump is the commanding leader in polling on the Republican primary. The former president has stepped up his campaigning in Iowa. That's a relative term compared to some of his colleagues, but it is more than he's been in Iowa. I would like to get a sense from both of you. And Rachel, we'll start with you here. The lead in the polling has been very large through and consistently very large turnout. This primary where four months roughly from the Iowa caucuses. Now, is there time still for someone else to make this a more competitive race? Are we going to be in January where we're looking at right now?

Rachel Paine Caufield Yeah, I'm not sure how. I think there are candidates who have the potential to make inroads. And Iowa has always been a place where the goal of each and every candidate is to outperform expectations. That's always been the story of the Iowa caucuses. It's a come from behind victor or the come from behind person who just does better than expected and gets a big bounce out of it. I think in this case, whoever comes in second, if it's a commanding second behind Donald Trump, then that's a message and I think can give them significant momentum going forward. The the kind of old school logic of, you know, it's three tickets out of Iowa. I'm not sure that holds this time. But I think, you know, Donald Trump will get one of those tickets. The question is, who else appears to be a viable contender in the sense that they can consolidate the Republican voter base behind them to make a a credible run against Donald Trump for this nomination?

Erin Murphy Yeah. Chris Larimer, what's your sense? Is there still an opportunity for that to happen with someone else from that field of challengers?

Chris Larimer Yeah, potentially. You know, and thinking back on past caucus cycles, you know, in 2008 and both the Democrat and Republican side, there was there was some fluctuation in the polls from the previous summer leading up to the caucuses. But at this point, we're talking about, you know, 25, 35 percentage points between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, roughly, and maybe a little bit narrower here in Iowa. So, you know, in terms of that kind of gap, I think you probably have to go back to the 1980 Republican caucuses with George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, where Ronald Reagan was the front runner. George H.W. Bush made up, you know, a considerable margin in the polls, but he did that in a way that we're used to a sort of the traditional caucus method that Rachel was talking about, where, you know, you're going to county to county knocking on doors, you know, meeting individually with voters or caucus goers. You you know, that's that's what's going to have to happen. And obviously, we're seeing that with with Ron DeSantis and several other candidates spending a lot of time in Iowa. So I think there's time. But it's it's I think it's running out to.

Erin Murphy Yeah, maybe a similar question, but from a different viewpoint is do you have a sense that anything is currently happening that we're not seeing in the polling numbers that may show up later that, you know, are any of these candidates, you know, doing anything right now or is anything happening around them that you could see like, well, I could see this person or this person having a surge like you're describing? Is there anything we're not seeing in the polling?

Chris Larimer Yeah, that's a good question. I don't I don't know that we are. I mean, we've had two debates, you know, And then on top of that, there have been, you know, four criminal indictments against the former president, a civil case. All these things where you expect maybe a little bit of movement and we're just we're not seeing that. We're seeing some movement, maybe the third, fourth, fifth place position, you know, a couple of percentage points here and there. But otherwise, as far as the overall lead, there's just not the movement that we've that you might expect to see.

Erin Murphy Rachel, the same question to you.

Rachel Paine Caufield I would agree, Iowa. You know, one of the things before living in Iowa, I'm not sure I appreciated the degree to which things can shift at the end of the race. Right. So numerous examples of situations where somebody appeared to have a pretty strong lead and it seemed like a done deal. And then at the last minute, you know, in the last 3 to 4 weeks of the campaign, there was a momentum out there. And you could feel it at events. Right. I'm thinking about Barack Obama. I'm thinking about Rick Santorum. I'm thinking about John Edwards. John Kerry, that kind of final push, something shifts, right, as people start to make a final determination and really think about who they want to support. So I don't I wouldn't want to count anything out. And with the number of legal questions that are currently at play for Donald Trump, you know, we don't know what kind of developments will come there. So I think there's always potential for movement, but it's hard to envision a scenario where one of these candidates overtakes Donald Trump, certainly.

Stephen Gruber-Miller So we were talking about the debate a minute ago here. I'm curious, Rachel, I'll start with you again. I mean, what impact is that are these debates having without Donald Trump on the stage? What's the value of those for Republican voters as they're making a decision?

Rachel Paine Caufield They don't appear to be having a lot of impact at all. And, you know, the candidates during this last debate this week tried to call out Donald Trump more than we've seen in the past. And many of them clearly went into the debate with rehearsed lines about how they were going to take on Donald Trump, which has been a delicate dance that all of the candidates have had to navigate. They want to take on the president. They want to win against the former president. They want to win against the former president. But they know that the former president has this base of support that is unwavering. So they don't want to make the those voters angry. So it's a really, really thin line that they have to walk here. They clearly and some of them clearly came in intending to do that. But his absence, it isn't hurting him. And this last debate, I found one of the most interesting things that I mean, these candidates are just chomping at the bit trying to get their voice out there. And what we saw on Wednesday night was a lot of just like wasted airtime with them all talking over how they're.

Clay Masters Getting their voice out there.

Rachel Paine Caufield They're getting heckling. Yeah. Oh, so I'm not sure it's having a big difference at this point. And if anything, it's rearranging levels of support among that group of people who are open to not supporting Donald Trump.

Stephen Gruber-Miller Yeah. Chris, what are your thoughts on that?

Chris Larimer Yeah, I think maybe the one thing to watch going forward is Rachel said, you know, we had several of the candidates actually being a little bit more explicit in terms of their criticism of the former president. So now, you know, as polls come out after this debate, maybe to see if there is some movement. Now, you know, the first debate, Nikki Haley did criticize the Trump administration in terms of the budget, national debt, but she was kind of alone in doing so other than Chris Christie and Eisa Hutchinson in terms of really taking on the president now, we saw you know, we saw a couple more candidates really going after the former president. So now what I would look for going ahead is, you know, do we see movement in the polls based on that or do we see voters saying, okay, we're going to really go toward these candidates now because they're criticizing the former president in a way that they wanted to see done? Or does this actually hurt the candidates?

Clay Masters One of the things that I remember about the last couple of caucus cycles is that I'd go and talk to prospective caucus goers and they would say, I'm still trying to make up my mind. And they would say that to me until like the very last minute. And I think there is a group of people who are still feeling that way because I talk to them when I go see Nikki Haley speak or I go see Vivek Ramaswamy speak.

But does this just completely change the dynamics going forward of the traditional 99 county tour blitzing, when you've got the former president running and kind of making what's happening in Iowa just feel so much more smaller because when you see somebody surging in the polls, I mean surging in the polls, like are they cracking 10% yet? Chris, how would you come at that question now? What is this done to the traditional kind of Iowa caucus campaigning?

Chris Larimer Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier. I think it's it's harder to know what the metric is to look at. I guess when you're when I'm thinking about the Iowa caucuses, Right. I mean, because do you look at the 99 county, too, or do you look at the number of candidate days in the state? Do you look at, you know, advertising spent in these markets in the state? What's working, you know, as a sort of a barometer for what's working, what's not working? You know, it was it was after the 2016 caucus cycle where we kind of thought, okay, did Donald Trump really upend what we think about traditional caucus cycles? I mean, he finished second, but he really wasn't a strong presence and presence in the state, didn't have a strong organization in the state. Now, you know, we're coming up on eight years later. And I think those traditional caucus methods seem to be somewhat relevant for the candidates who are looking for second, third or fourth. But if you have a candidate that's not here very often and doesn't really have a lot of organization in the state running away with it does that change our calculation or is that just, you know, an anomaly that we have to put aside?

Clay Masters Rachel, how do you come at that question?

Rachel Paine Caufield I agree completely with everything Chris said. I think that, you know, Donald Trump is an anomaly in every way he has been since his original descent on the escalator, and he's upended a lot of our traditions. The other candidates are doing Iowa the way we would expect candidates to do Iowa. But, you know, in terms of metrics, if Donald Trump were to, you know, were to win the Iowa caucuses but do so with less than 50% support, that's a loss for him. And that could have consequences.

Erin Murphy Rachel Paine Caufield In the few minutes we have left here, we wanted to mention that the Democrats will also have their caucuses this year, but they will not be first in the nation anymore, at least it looks like at this point. And that was never going to be a huge deal for this specific cycle because we're likely to have an incumbent president running in. Joe Biden. But it's obviously a huge deal. And the bigger picture, is there a chance that this is a crystal ball question for you? What is the future, the long term future of the Democratic caucuses look like? And how pinned is that answer to President Joe Biden's reelection prospects?

Rachel Paine Caufield Well, the short answer is, I mean, we have no idea what's even happening this year, really. Right. We've seen the the Iowa Democratic Party put forward a plan. Right now. They're planning to do an in-person caucus meeting to conduct party business on January 15th. And then the plan is to do some sort of mail in balloting for all Democrats across the state of Iowa. It's unclear when that would happen, but by any metric, that is a party run primary and so quite rightly, New Hampshire is saying, wait a minute, wait a minute, we get the first primary. So if that's what you're going to do and you're going to do it on January 15th, then we're going to go in front of you.

And that means not just going in front of the Democrats, but going in front of the Republicans. There's a real risk to both parties here. And there is a way forward for the Democrats to for the Iowa Democrats to change that plan and either conduct a mail in voting process later or hold caucuses one way. Just hold your caucuses and and include a preference vote and violate the DNC rules and do it anyway.

Erin Murphy Is there any hope of them being first again in future years, or is that ship sailed?

Rachel Paine Caufield I you know, I really don't know. I haven't given up hope. And I I'm going to add this, which is that, you know, this process that the DNC now went into, but two years ago now saying we're going to really revisit our nomination process and we're going to do it with the goal of being inclusive. We want to make sure that every single Democratic voter has a chance to really participate in this and choose the nominee for the Democratic Party. And in fact, the way this process has played out, the DNC...

Erin Murphy We have about 30 seconds.

Rachel Paine Caufield I'm sorry. The DNC has done exactly the opposite. The DNC has essentially chosen its candidate and let its candidate choose the process. And in doing that, they've actually eliminated any voter's voices from really impacting the outcome.

Clay Masters All right. And I need to eliminate our voices from continuing to go on the show today. Chris and Rachel, thanks so much for joining us today on Iowa Press.

Rachel Paine Caufield Thank you.

Chris Larimer Good to be with you. Thanks.

Clay Masters If you missed any of this show or want to watch a previous show, you can find all Iowa Press episodes online at Iowa PBS.org. For everyone here at Iowa, PBS. I'm Clay Masters. Thanks for joining us today.

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