Iowa Public Television


Reporter's Roundtable: Elections Looming

posted on September 5, 2008

Borg: Elections looming. National political conventions completed. A general election just two months away. We're convening Iowa political journalists for insight and comment on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, September 5th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Presidential and vice presidential candidates anointing is completed. Democrats took care of that in Denver a week ago, Republicans in the Twin Cities this past week. And now as the presidential campaigns target voters in the so-called battleground states Iowa has its own intrigue in congressional and legislative races too. Our team of political reporters has tracked the campaigns from the very start. And as we now go into the stretch run we focus on where we're headed. We'll be getting analysis from Iowa political journalists who have been traveling with the candidates at the National Conventions and on the Iowa campaign trail. The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson, Mike Glover of the Associated Press and Iowa Public Radio's Jeneane Beck. Kay, you are just back in town from the Republican Convention. You were at the Democrat Convention. What happened there that's going to make an effect in Iowa.

Henderson: Well, I think what happened is that we saw what has been happening in Iowa, an extraordinary turnout for the caucuses, is essentially translating nationwide. The viewership for these events was extraordinary and historic and set records. The other thing that happened was at the Democratic event you saw a little bit of healing in the party among Iowans. There were nine Iowa delegates who went there and cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. They felt that she had her chance in the sun. Fences were mended with the Clinton and Obama forces at that event. In St. Paul what happened was John McCain picked Palin and I have to tell you among those conservative Iowa Republicans that I saw in the Twin Cities they were energized. In fact, one of them told me a story about how she had sent John McCain an e-mail last year and told him she would never ever vote for him and the pick of Sarah Palin has changed her mind and she is going to go out and work for John McCain.

Glover: I think both candidates helped themselves around the edges with the political conventions. I think Barack Obama helped himself, in Iowa we're talking here, with his selection of Joe Biden. Joe Biden ran and had a reasonable following in Iowa. Even those people who didn't support him thought fairly highly of him. So, I think he'll be an asset in this state. I think John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin will give him a hand with the evangelical Christian community that he had a problem with, he can energize them a little bit with her. At the end of the day I don't think either one will make a difference in the election. I think it just helps them around the edges.

Borg: Joe Biden is familiar to Iowans, David, you covered him all the time that he was here before he pulled out. Is that going to make a difference that they know Joe Biden? Or doesn't the vice presidential candidate mean that much?

Yepsen: I think it does to some of the activists. I think in John McCain's case it does fire up the base of the party. The problem with that is John McCain has got to get more than just the Republican base. It's nice to have, it's nice to have them working, Bush carried this state in 2004 because the base of social conservatives got out to vote in western Iowa and in suburban Iowa. But that's not going to be enough this time. The number of people who call themselves Republicans is shrinking. McCain is going to have to go out and get something more than the base. He has one hope in Iowa, Dean, really two. One is that while Obama leads in the polls here there may be what we call the badly effect, that people are lying to pollsters about an African-American candidate. And the second is Obama is counting on a huge turnout from young people who worked in the caucuses and other events. But will they show up? And are these polls missing them because they are operating on cell phones? You have to be very careful of the polling in Iowa.

Glover: And I think the McCain people understand this very well. I talked to some of the strategists here in Iowa and they tell me they understand that they can't play what George Bush did in 2004 which is a turnout game to say to the Democrats we can turn out our base better than you can turn out your base and they did and by about 12,000 votes they won the state. They tell me they understand that those numbers have changed in the last four years. If they play the turnout game and play it just as well as they played it four years ago they're going to lose because there are more Democrats than Republicans in this state.

Borg: Jeneane, particularly this past week we've heard culture clash in this campaign. Do you see that? And if it is true does it play in Iowa that there is a demographic clash between the campaigns in Iowa?

Beck: I think that what I was most struck by when I watched Sarah Palin speak -- I have to admit at the beginning when her name was announced as his running mate I was trying to figure out what she brought to that ticket for him. Sure, I thought she would show up some of the evangelicals but I thought where were they going to go anyway? But after watching her speak I knew what she had done for him and that is she is, out of the four candidates, the most able to speak to the middle class, frankly, the most like them, comes from a smaller town which they can relate to and in Iowa I think that is relatable because we have so many small, rural towns which in some ways might resemble towns in Alaska. So, I do think that sort of cultural clash might exist here. And even though Obama grew up in the middle class he just doesn't speak to them the same way she can. I think that's her biggest asset for McCain because McCain doesn't speak to the middle class the way she can.

Henderson: The other thing it was like fruit basket upset because you had Republicans embracing a woman many of whom think that women should stay at home and raise their children and they are embracing this woman who is going to go to Washington, they're hoping, and raise five children and work. So, it was the strangest dynamic because you had this party that has been family values, women should stay home and yet they have embraced this woman.

Glover: On the other side of the coin she is a very, very polarizing figure. I've talked to a lot of women, moderate women, you think would be attracted by the notion of a woman as part of a major ticket, they are very turned off by her. They see her as very polarizing, very partisan and some parts of that speech which was a very well delivered, very hot rip on Barack Obama, she is in danger of being viewed as simply a partisan attack.

Beck: And she's going to face the same problems that Hillary Clinton faced. If you are a strong woman you engender views on both sides and that's what is going to happen to her and then she is going to be polarizing. But I was struck by what Kay said, the line for Rudy Giuliani which was how dare they say she should stay home. I thought it's most likely members of your own political party that are making that statement. I doubt there are many Democratic women making that statement as there are Republican conservative women.

Yepsen: You can go out on the blogosphere and you can find religious conservatives, evangelicals who are making that very point. Now, there's not a lot of them. But, Dean, going back to your question about culture. One reason Iowa is a toss up state is that we really do have a mix of the different cultural forces that are at work in this country. There are parts of the state that are rural America where people wear cowboy boots and they shoot weapons and then you have suburban Iowa and you have much more cosmopolitan areas of the state. Rural populations are declining and so people were very surprised, for example, Barack Obama did so well in a state that is so white. But it tells me that Iowans really are rising above some of this cultural objections and they're willing to try some new things. So, I think it's going to be a real battle and I don't think that the evangelicals are going to hurt Sarah Palin, I think they're fired up by Sarah Palin and I think going back to what you said earlier this vice presidential thing is of enormous interest to us all now but at the end of the day, come November people in Iowa and around the country are going to be voting on the presidential race.

Borg: Despite what David said, Jeneane, do you see this as a gamble by John McCain that she can pull the women's vote to McCain or at least some of the women's vote?

Beck: Maybe some but I don't think it's the same vote that went for Hillary Clinton. Anybody that thinks that the independent women that went for Hillary Clinton are going to be the women that go for Sarah Palin are mistaken. I just don't think that they are crossover votes. But she fired up, she got him more attention in one week than he ever would have gotten with a more traditional pick and right there that's worth something, the media attention. Now, let's say skeletons come out of the closet and there are problems down the road then maybe it backfires. But right now it has been a huge, I think, churning of stories which is good.

Glover: Three days in a campaign the running mate matters, the day the running mate is announced, the day the running mate speaks to the convention and the day the running mate debates the other party's running mate. Those are the only three days that the running mate counts. It was okay the day they announced her, it was dynamite when she gave the speech, we'll see about the debate.

Henderson: The other interesting thing is the Republican women who were attending the convention from Iowa were very exciting about this, thought the Hillary voters would be coming Republican's way. I asked several of them, so did you vote for Walter Mondale? And they got this very strange look on their face because they didn't vote for Walter Mondale because Geraldine Ferraro was on that ticket. They just don't see that. They are in the vacuum and they don't see it yet.

Yepsen: Dean, there is no such thing as the women's vote. People vote on the basis of their party preferences, their age, their income, other demographic things like that. The one thing I think Sarah Palin does that may last beyond the three days that Mike mentioned is the McCain campaign has decided that experience isn't a winning bill for them, they've been on that for a long time and he's been dead even in the polls, had to mix up the game so now they're the change candidate. And so that helps him reinforce that message. You notice he talked a lot more about change and so did she and everybody else and then they talked about experience.

Glover: I think what struck me about the two picks, now we have both of them if you step back and look at them, I think Barack Obama looked at the dynamic of this election and said, I'm winning so I'm going to pick a safe, Joe Biden, somebody that won't hurt me and may even give me a little help with foreign policy experience. I think John McCain looked at the dynamic of the election and said, I'm in the process of losing this election, I better throw a hail Mary, someone who will come out of the blue with a fresh face, a woman that people don't know, a woman with a lot of political skills, roll the dice a little bit and see if I can't change the sort of dynamic that has set in for this election.

Borg: Mike, I don't know if you subscribe to Iowa being a battleground state but let's just hypothetically say it is and it's still in play and if Sarah Palin were to come for what section of Iowa, to whom should she speak if you were a campaign strategist?

Glover: Sioux Center, northwest Iowa. Go up to where evangelicals run the place. I was up there for three days a couple of months ago talking to them and they were distinctly unenthused and they probably have their eyebrows up a little bit right now saying, hmm, what about this. I'd send her out there. She'd draw a crowd from an entire portion of the state, introduce her to them a little bit and maybe give them a fire. The biggest thing that's going on in this state and the biggest thing that Obama has going for him here, even Republicans will tell you, Obama starts this race off with something of an edge in Iowa because he built this enormous political infrastructure during the precinct caucuses that delivered a smashing win for him. John McCain did a drive-by here, didn't build much of an organization, doesn't have much of an organization now. Comparison -- on the night Obama delivered his speech there were 350 house parties in Iowa to watch that speech. When John McCain delivered his speech there were 80. That's about the rough level of those two organizations.

Henderson: Speaking of Sioux Center there was a carload of Republicans from Sioux Center who drove up to the Twin Cities to watch Sarah Palin, they are excited about her.

Yepsen: I'd put her in Dubuque where she can appeal to suburban Republicans and independent voters and where you can also get some media spillover into Wisconsin. But, Dean, I've got to tell you that your question reminds me of something Mary McGrury once said and that is if you scratch a political reporter you'll find a campaign manager.

Borg: This campaign structure -- do I understand that McCain suffers from campaign structure in Iowa, organizational structure?

Yepsen: Yeah, he doesn't have one. Mike's right, he didn't build the infrastructure here, Obama clearly did, you can see it in the number of headquarters they have and the size of their events. That’s going to be a big asset for Obama and I think he's got to do that in order to offset what I was talking about earlier, people are lying to pollsters that they're for Obama when they're not really going to do it and that young people often times say they're going to vote but they don't show up.

Henderson: There's also a technology gap here. The Obama campaign has embraced technology, texting, e-mailing. The McCain campaign hasn't really, is trying but it isn't quite there yet.

Borg: Jeneane, if it turns out that Senator Obama turns out the collegiate young people vote that registered and gave him the caucus win what effect is that likely to have on Iowa elections in general, the other races?

Beck: Well, typically a youth vote tends to be more Democratic, not always, but they did register 40,000 more 18-24 year olds on caucus night. That is a substantial boost. The question is whether they'll turn out because most voter registration drives typically if somebody is standing with a clipboard, ooh, let's register your vote on campus and then that doesn't mean they ever actually turn up at the polls. But because these people registered at the caucuses there's some already level of participation there where you'd think if they were going to do that which is much more time consuming they might vote. But they have to remember college kids forget things like, oh, if I want to vote in my college community whether that be Ames, Iowa City or Cedar Falls or some of the other towns in Iowa they've got to register there unless they're going to drive back home.

Henderson: Same day.

Beck: Same day registration, you're exactly right, but they have to be prepared, they have to think about those things.

Yepsen: To your question, Dean, it's not going to have an impact if students vote in their college towns. You're not going to make Iowa City any more Democratic than it already is. And this is of some concern to other Democratic candidates because Obama's campaign did not get to participate in what the Democrats have historically done in terms of their turnout effort where they try to turn out everybody. So, the Obama campaign they don't care whether they get a vote out of Johnson County or Sioux County but it makes a big difference of you're a Democrat running for the legislature in a battleground district where a few hundred votes can make the difference. And so if the Democrats want to maximize this Obama mania they've got to convince these students to go home and participate in the election. They did some of that during the caucuses but it's just not going to be enough to run up the score in Iowa City.

Glover: And I think the biggest impact it could be could be on those legislative races. I look around at the congressional races I don't see races that are really terribly competitive at this point in time. Obviously Tom Harkin is not getting pushed real hard in his race but in these legislative elections it's pretty hard fought, pretty competitive, especially in the House, it's 53-47. But the legislature is a place where control is decided by a handful of votes in a few key legislative districts. You don't have to drive up participation by 500 votes in some of these legislative districts to swing it one way or the other. So, in those districts if Obama can drive turnout he can make Pat Murphy stay as speaker and Mike Gronstal stay as Senate majority leader.

Borg: Because of Iowa's first in the nation status we've been having presidential campaign emphasis here for the last four years. Mike, what effect has that had and is it likely to have on the election? That is, what effect does it have on legislative races, congressional races and so on? Do they suffer from a lack of attention or do they kind of fly under the radar and benefit from it?

Glover: It means that Iowa is a retail state where traditionally voters expect to see candidates, they expect to have campaign operations on the ground and that is exactly what they've gotten. This is a state where political organizations of the two parties are far better than political organizations I've seen in almost any other state in the country. That helps candidates of both parties in this particular election cycle. I think it particularly helps Democrats because as Dave said, Barack Obama has done a better job of building that political machine in Iowa than has John McCain. And we don't like to use that word, to associate machine with Iowa but that's where it is. We cover the line developing the voter turnout machine here and it's very well oiled.

Beck: I will say they do suffer a lack of attention from the likes of us because if Joe Biden is here on Monday I'm less likely to worry about a congressional race and that can hurt I think the challenger because they need some attention to get some name recognition going into the campaign and I do think they suffer from a lack of attention because, frankly, we've got bigger fish to fry right now.

Borg: Talking about attention, has what happened in Iowa during the past few months, the floods, the tornadoes and so on but particularly the floods with a lasting effect in Cedar Rapids and that 2nd congressional district and somewhat in the first, what effect is that likely to have, Dave, if at all?

Yepsen: Two factors to watch. One, we're seeing people leaving Iowa. Who are these people? People are, in Cedar Rapids for example, if blue collar and working class voters can't get a job, they can't find a house and they leave that's going to have an effect on the electorate. We saw that big time in Louisiana. And the second thing is anger. People are ticked off. You're starting to see this well up now. People are still out of their houses. We've got all these politicians running around promising help and doing media events and all that. Well, Dean, you know this, things in Cedar Rapids still aren't back to normal and if you're living in Cedar Rapids you're starting to get kind of angry at what's going on and the proof of that is the Democrats are bringing Speaker Pelosi in here next week and they're not doing that just because she's got nothing else to do with her time, I think they understand that you've got some Democrats in eastern Iowa who aren't delivering the goods. Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack, freshmen, they're great in press releases but where is the check?

Borg: Dave, what they're also saying is how many people have to come and look before we get some assistance?

Yepsen: Right and the voters are saying that. Democrats are trying to counter that by bringing the Speaker in here and she can explain how Congress works and why that wasn't dealt with before Congress adjourned.

Glover: It seems like at the beginning of this, this was a God send for all incumbent politicians of both parties and they kind of did this immoral pact where they all joins arms, put on their bomber jackets and go to the floods and you do get a lot of attention, get your mug on every television station, on the front page of every newspaper, on the top of every radio broadcast in the state but at the end of the day, as Dave says, if it's two months down the road your house still stinks and you're still living in some camper somewhere suddenly that politician who came in front of the television camera has got some explaining to do.

Yepsen: I think there is empirical evidence for that in Chet Culver's job approval ratings. He's been all over TV, you know, drop of rain there's the Governor there saying wash out your car. His job approval rating has gone down in the last month according to last month's reports. And so that to me says people are kind of unhappy. He's got trouble with the labor movement on a whole bunch of other things but I just think that that disgust is starting to show up.

Henderson: And she didn't get it, she went and talked to Iowa Democrats who were meeting in Denver for their convention and forgot to mention the fact that Iowa had been through the floods. She talked for ten minutes and then at the very end as she's moving into the crowd and sees the three Democratic congressmen from Iowa she says, oh did I mention I'm coming to Iowa on September 8th? The next day, Steny Hoyer, who is the number two person, actually got it and came and told the Iowans in Denver that yes, if we can rebuild Baghdad we can rebuild Cedar Rapids. But there were people from Cedar Rapids at that convention in Denver that were unhappy, there were people from Cedar Rapids who were at the Republican Convention unhappy because the world seemed to stop for the hurricane people on Monday night, we didn't even have a convention yet the people in Cedar Rapids are still waiting for answers.

Glover: There is empirical evidence in one other place. The Governor just had a news conference this week to demand, demand will you, that the federal government come through with $85 million in housing assistance that has been earmarked for Iowa but not delivered. His threat, by the way, was if the federal government won't do it I'll come up with it myself that struck me as a really odd threat. But the point being I think that came because he's feeling heat. He's reading the same numbers, Dave, you are. He knows where his approval ratings are, he knows that he has been on every broadcast in this state all summer and his numbers are starting to sink and I think it's because people are starting to say where's the beef.

Borg: And really what the summary there is being an incumbent can possibly have some liability here. Jeneane, any comment on what you're seeing on the effect of the floods? I'm thinking of Loebsack, the incumbent congressman there in the 2nd district being challenged by Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the Republican. She want to debate, Loebsack says I'm too busy with floods and working here on the flood that I don't have time to campaign even, I haven't even thought about it yet. Is that going to fly?

Beck: Maybe for a while. I think the campaign part would maybe fly but the lack of debates, I think that they have to be careful because if he uses that excuse then suddenly you've got people in Des Moines saying well maybe Leonard Boswell can use that excuse because he doesn't really want to campaign all that badly either. So, it tends to have a domino effect and I think that especially voters in that district may not be willing to accept that. But you definitely -- I think that they'll eventually give him a pass. I don't think he's facing really, really a tough race but it is a problem.

Glover: The biggest thing that Dave Loebsack has got for him is over a campaign election, look at the voter registration in that district. It's overwhelmingly Democratic. That's how Dave Loebsack got elected in the first place and that's the hills he's got to climb.

Borg: Let's go back to Governor Culver here. A special session has been a certainty and then a little more unsure. Where are we right now?

Yepsen: Dean, no governor wants to call the legislature back into session without an iron clad agreement as to what they're going to do and the reason is because the governor can bring them in but he can't get rid of them. And so the last thing Chet Culver and the Democrats want to do is to bring a bunch of Republicans to Des Moines to start beating up on them on where is the money, why haven't you delivered, etc. etc. So, they're going to have to get some kind of agreement on what needs to be done. The longer this goes on the more likely it is this is all going to be dealt with in the regular session.

Glover: And if Chet Culver says to the legislature I want $50 million for flood relief what are the odds that the Republicans are going to say, let's put an amendment in to make it $100 million and let's make the Democrats vote against it. All that kind of mischief will happen when they come in which is why I think the reality argues probably against a special session.

Beck: I think he made a tactical error in being so conclusive that we would have one early on and by saying I will call them back, we will have a special session and now you hear him say, well, I just left open the possibility. No, that's not really what you said in the beginning, Governor, and he's backing away from that because he's realizing the very things we're talking about and realizing that members of his own party aren't that keen to come back and are saying, look, just do some executive orders to find some money until we come back in January. We don't want to do this. But it was a tactical error.

Borg: Am I right too that Republicans were the ones who first started saying you've got some money in a state prison that you're planning to build and a new state office building -- weren't the Republicans the ones who first said that and now didn't Governor Culver raise that possibility?

Glover: The Governor raised that possibility and his staff quickly ran around and said oh, he misspoke, he didn't mean that because there isn't any money in the budget for that new prison at Fort Madison. The only thing the legislature did was it authorized the issuance of bonds, in essence borrowing money to build the new prison in Fort Madison, and they didn't authorize that until 2015. So, there's no money from the prison there. There's a little bit of money for that new office building that he could grab but not anywhere near where he's trying to get.

Yepsen: The Governor has done one thing I think quite well and that is he has told his department heads to dial it back. Even before this week this economy we've known it's sputtering, the state revenues we're not sure what's going to happen with them and so the word went out to the department heads, cool it a little bit, you just don't spend the money. The legislature can reallocate it, there are procedures for reallocating funds inside of departmental budgets without the legislature being in town. So, I think it's time for everybody to cinch up their belt and the Governor said that.

Glover: And one of the big things that I think is going to dominate the next legislative session whether it's in a special session or in the next regular session is what is this flooding, what is this natural disaster going to do to the economy of this state? You're right, in places like Cedar Rapids you could see a depopulation, you could see an economy start to slow down. Sure, there's a little bit of economic activity from rebuilding but what is the long-term economic consequences of this natural disaster and what effect will that have on the economy and state revenues?

Borg: And you're speaking of tax revenue there and an outflow of aid from the state to help rehabilitate the area.

Glover: At the same time when tax revenue may be drying up a little bit because the economy may be softening the demand for state dollars is going to be going up so this is going to be a very real competition. Culver has had it very nice for a couple of years. He had a couple of sessions with big spending increases and all that kind of stuff, he's going to have to tighten the belt.

Borg: I'm sorry, we're out of time. Thanks for your insights. With this program Iowa is launching Iowa Press into its 38th season. Now, that is remarkable in itself but it wouldn’t' be possible without your continuing support and encouragement to us. So, thanks for being part of our success. And now that we're into the new season we hope you'll watch next weekend at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Tags: Barack Obama campaign 2008 elections Iowa Joe Biden John McCain politics Sarah Palin technology voting