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Mark Halperin Discusses the 2008 Iowa Caucuses

posted on November 8, 2007 at 7:08 PM

One of the political prophets who foretold much of the behavior of this year's election cycle's campaigns is Mark Halperin, author of the book "The Way to Win." Mr. Halperin is a former political director of ABC News and now serves as political analyst to both ABC and "Time Magazine." in addition to "The Way to Win," he has authored a new book: "The Undecided Voter's Guide To The Next President."

Halperin: David, great to talk to you.

Yepsen: Good to have you back in Iowa.

Halperin: It's great to be here.

Yepsen: Okay, let's talk about your books, "How To Win" -- how do you do that? "The Way To Win."

Halperin: "The Way To Win" was based on long interviews with a lot of the strategists for Bill Clinton and for George W. Bush, including with Bill Clinton himself and Karl Rove, of course, who was the architect of President Bush's two wins.

The premise was how did four straight elections get won? In the times in which we live when the rules are set by the environment, how did Bill Clinton win two presidential elections, how did George Bush win two presidential elections?

And the tactics and strategies which seem to work, as you said, you look at this year's cycle of candidates and they seem to be picking and choosing from what seemed to work. The ones who have done the best, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, I think have shown they know the way to win best to date.

Yepsen: You also -- your new book, "The Undecided Voter's Guide To The Next President," Interesting read. Why did you write that book?

Halperin: Well, the last book, "The Way To Win," is about political strategy. It's about what makes the best presidential candidate. I want to try to help people, even in Iowa where there is so much information, maybe especially in Iowa, figure out who the best president would be.

That's the right question. This isn't a game. This isn't a sporting event or some sort of competition for the sake of competition. Iowans and the rest of the country are trying to pick the best president. I wanted to put under one cover a chance for Iowans to read a book, compare the candidates side by side, read their life stories, and try to make the right choice for Iowa, for their families, and for the country.

Yepsen: It strikes me, Mark, as sort of a memo that you might have written in your earlier incarnation as political director to the staff at ABC News: Here's the biography of a candidate; here's their strengths, their weaknesses, their points of vulnerability. Is that where you got the idea?

Halperin: It's partly that but it's really more -- it's driven by two things. One is these are fascinating people. The front-runners, many of them did more outside of politics than they've done inside of politics. They're successful in business and law, successful in the Olympics as a First Lady. So I wanted to tell those stories.

But also again, I think, you know, if you go on the Internet, you read newspapers, you watch shows like this, you can get a lot of information about these candidates. What's difficult to find is a side-by-side comparison.

So every chapter is about a candidate. They're not identical, but they're similar and they tell the story in a similar way. So you can say, I'm trying to choose between McCain and Romney or Obama and Clinton, whoever it is. You can think about them side by side and try to make that right choice.

Yepsen: You're in Iowa. A lot of people watching this program are caucus goers. Let's talk about the two races. How do you see the Democratic race unfolding right now?

Halperin: These races are not symmetrical. As you know, as we talked about before the show, on the Democratic side the race is becoming everything. All the campaigns are pushing all their chips into Iowa because if Senator Clinton is not stopped here, she's going to be the Democratic nominee, so this is the fight for Democrats.

To stop Senator Clinton or not, that binary choice will tell the tale of whether she has a very easy path to nomination or a real struggle.

I think the big three nationally -- Obama, Clinton, and Edwards -- are big here. And of course, Senator Edwards is stronger in Iowa than he is anywhere else, including nationally.

And the Republican race, totally different. A big jumble. And I think while the result will be important, it won't be nearly as important as it is on the Democratic side.

Yepsen: Let's focus on the Democrats for a moment. Is Iowa really a do or die proposition for John Edwards? If he doesn't win here, how does he continue on in the campaign?

Halperin: It is. And if you talk to his advisors, as I'm sure you have, they make it clear it is do or die. He must win here not only because it's his strongest state but because if Senator Clinton is able to win here in what is in many ways her weakest state, she'll have the momentum that Iowa has provided in the past into New Hampshire and beyond.

So I think it's do or die for Edwards, and it may well be do or die for Senator Obama as well. Senator Clinton has shown a lot more strength in New Hampshire than she has here. If she's able to win here, if he doesn't beat her here, I think he'd be in a lot of trouble as well.

Yepsen: What's the dynamic of women in the Democratic party? Sixty-two percent of the likely Democratic caucus goers in our poll are women.

Halperin: You can meet women anecdotally in Iowa and around the country who say, I don't like Hillary Clinton, I'd never vote for her. That's an easy find. But statistically in the broad pool, women will be a majority of the caucus attendees, and a lot of women will find it appealing to vote for their first woman president or potential president.

You know, Senator Clinton has made a much more explicit appeal to gender than I thought she would, even before the recent debate flap where the question was, was she saying she was being attacked because she was a woman, even before that.

And to this day -- I saw her this week in the Amana Colonies -- she is focused on making that appeal. It's not her sole appeal, but being the only woman in a crowded nomination fight, making that historic appeal to have the first woman president, I think it's a big benefit to her, and her opponents know that.

Yepsen: Well, like we saw in the last debate, I mean there's sort of this piling on notion. How do the boys attack the girl here and get away with it?

Halperin: It's hard to do. You know, you turn things on their head a little bit when you're talking about Hillary Clinton. She's strong on national security. She's seen as the strongest candidate. That has been a big source of her strength.

You might have thought that the first female serious presidential candidate would have been vulnerable of these issues of national security and strength. So I think she can -- they can go after her a little bit.

The challenge, though, is what to go after her on and to get her to make mistakes. The reason that debate caught everyone's attention, at least in the media circles in which we operate and political circles, is she'd made almost no mistakes. In that debate she made some. That gave these campaigns this -- the inspiration and sense that maybe we can -- maybe we can stop Hillary Clinton. And again, if it happens, it will happen here in Iowa.

Yepsen: Barack Obama, if Hillary Clinton can be stopped, doesn't he have to be the one who stops her? Isn't he the one who has to win?

Halperin: He's the most likely. I think, again, if John Edwards beats her here, whether Obama finishes second or third, I think all of them can go on to New Hampshire, and perhaps some of the other candidates as well at that point in the mix.

I think Barack Obama's candidacy has caught the attention of Iowans the way it's caught people nationally. They find him exciting. The challenge for him is to convince Iowans that he's ready to be president. I write in "The Undecided Voter's Guide" about his history, about what has made him who he is and gotten him to this point.

He needs to convince people of two things, and so far I don't think he's closed the sale. One is that he's ready to be president from day one. Older caucus goers may be a little skeptical of that, of such a young man and a young looking man.

The other thing is what I say in the book is what Jesse Jackson calls the paralysis of analysis. This is an intellectual guy, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former professor. I think sometimes he's more interested in talking about ideas than he is in seeming like a man of action, and I think Iowans are looking for someone in this some job who's ready to go in and be decisive. He needs to close the sale on that as well.

Yepsen: One of the wild card questions in this caucus fight here in Iowa is, are the -- the large number of younger voters that are attracted to Barack Obama, big crowd, you've seen them, you see them all over the country. Do you think those people are going to be so inspired that they'll vote for him, that they'll go out and caucus for him? He's a wild card. What's going to happen?

Halperin: The Obama strategists in Iowa and in Chicago where the campaign is based have said from the beginning, if this caucus electorate is the traditional caucus electorate, barack Obama won't win.

He has to bring in new people, particularly younger people. They certainly show up at his events. Will they caucus, particularly on January 3 when a lot of them will be -- if they're college students, will be on holiday? We will see. That will tell the tale of whether he's in this or not.

It is difficult, as you know, to get anyone out to the caucuses, and it's difficult to get young people to vote in a traditional primary, let alone in a caucus. So that is the challenge, but he certainly is inspirational. He certainly has inspired a lot of people, and he certainly has smart strategists who know the way the caucuses work, the mechanics, and they're doing their best to change that caucus electorate.

Yepsen: In our last poll of likely caucus goers, we found only 2 percent of them were under age 25, so he's clearly going to have to get a hoard of new people here. The caucus day itself will play an impact on this. I mean you're right, they are on break but the Obama people tell me, well, that's great because a lot of them will be back home in Iowa and we'll get them to caucus in their home towns as opposed to in their college towns.

Halperin: Dispersed all over and, of course, with that 15-percent threshold rule that the Democrats have, having people in lots of different places is better than having them all in Ames and Iowa City. We'll see, though.

You know, getting people to caucus, as Howard Dean found, as others have found, is not the easiest thing in the world. I would love for people to be inspired by candidates on both sides and have an overwhelming turnout.

I think it would be good for Iowa to send a message to the country that we take this seriously, not only do the activist take it seriously but a broader electorate to go out and caucus, that would be fantastic for Iowa, I think fantastic for the process.

Yepsen: Let's turn our attention to the Republican race for a minute. You mentioned it was a jumble. In addition to first woman and first African American with serious chances of winning, you've got the first Mormon with a serious chance since his father, George Romney, ran. I'm talking about Mitt Romney. What's the effect of his Mormonism going to be on this race?

Halperin: I'd also add in the first Italian American with Rudy Giuliani, another potential first.

You know, one of the things I'm disappointed in -- and I found this when I was writing "The Undecided Voter's Guide" -- is there's still a lot of prejudice against Mormons in this country. Pollsters find consistently that up to a third of Americans say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon or they'd have real reservations about it. That disappoints me.

If you read about Mitt Romney's life, see the incredible things he's accomplished, how well thought of he has been, his success in public life and in private life, I think people should be evaluating him based on that. I think there's clearly some Iowans who will not vote for him for that reason. That's unfortunate but he's doing his best to overcome it.

And as Iowans know better than probably any other state, he's got an incredible family that are working really hard for him. He's trying to show people that he's got a family like any other. They're close-knit, they're God fearing, and they are in this because they care about America.

I hope that by the end what we've seen in the polls and what we've picked up a little anecdotally won't be decisive, that Mitt Romney will be evaluated not on his religion.

Yepsen: Let's look at the November '08 election. Isn't it going to be a Democratic year? I mean it feels like it right now. The Democrats did well in '06. Their crowd sizes are bigger. What's your take on what we're going to see in November, or is it too early?

Halperin: You know, the great political philosopher, Yogi Berra, says prediction is difficult, especially about the future. So I don't usually want to predict about anything, even the upcoming race, let alone a year from now.

But I will say that you ask Republicans what's happened to the party, what's going on with the Republican brand, they'll tell you whoever we nominate, whoever the Democrats nominate, Democrats will be favored.

But remember, this is a pretty divided country. I think most of the red states will stay red, most of the blue states will stay blue, both parties starting with about 220 electoral votes. Iowa will be a swing state, as it's been, and that's where the presidency will be decided.

But I think you're going to see pretty much of a razor's edge, a close election, and I wouldn't count the Republicans out, particularly if they end up making the right choice about a nominee and perhaps the Democrats make a mistake.

Yepsen: We've only got a couple minutes left, Mark. You are in Iowa. The story -- there's a never-ending story about will these caucuses remain first. This process is in turmoil. How do you see the nominating process changing? Is this really the last year we're going to see these caucuses be important?

Halperin: The death and the obituary of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have been written before. I think first in the nation will matter this time, whatever the calendar -- however it settles out. I think Iowa and New Hampshire will be the most two -- two most influential states, and we'll just have to see.

It's very hard to change the system. There's so many different parties involved national and at the state level. I think that the best thing Iowans can do, as I said before, turn out in large number at the caucuses and show people that this isn't an inside process but a broad process and that people going to town meetings and reading "The Register" and taking everything seriously extends to turning out on caucus night.

Yepsen: Is Congress going to get into this? There are bills to create regional primaries. I mean it's pretty clear the states can't sort this out.

Halperin: I think they will. But I don't know how much congress can do because, again, these are party functions in some states as they are in Iowa. There are state responsibilities for elections. We have a federal system with a lot of deference by the federal government to the states. So it's going to take a lot of leadership.

I think President Bush made a mistake by not showing leadership on this, because he wasn't running for election, Dick Cheney wasn't running for president. So you had two guys who didn't have a direct interest in the future.

Iowa and New Hampshire have a lot of support amongst presidential candidates, and that's been your big support this time. We'll have to see four years from now, but I'd bet on Iowa and New Hampshire, particularly if you do a good job in 2008.

Yepsen: Won't the sitting president decide how his or her party is going to do their nominating process?

Halperin: I think they will but they tend -- as we've seen in the past, elected presidents who are facing reelection, they like Iowa and New Hampshire. They don't want to take a risk, so they tend to support the status quo. That's good for Iowans but it still builds up this anger on the part of Michigan and other states.

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