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Living History: Political Scientists Dianne Bystrom and Don Racheter

posted on October 10, 2008

Borg: Living history. Less than a month to go before an election that is making history we're discussing candidates and issues with Women and Politics Center Director Dianne Bystrom and Public Interest Institute President Don Racheter 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, October 10th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: From time to time around this Iowa Press table you've heard us comment that voters complain about negative campaigning. Most of the time, though, it is successful so it's not surprising that we're slogging through plenty of mud in the current campaign trail. Some of it comes in advertising, some may be whispered. Gender, race, religion, character, they're all involved and often crowding out substantive issues. We're going to be assessing those nuances today with the President of Iowa Wesleyan University's Public Interest Institute Don Racheter and Dianne Bystrom, she directs Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Borg: And joining the discussion Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover. I want to ask you, Mr. Racheter, first of all what do you see as the effect of the economy -- it just seems to be dominating everything in public opinion right now -- what effect is that going to have and is having on the current campaign and the election?

Racheter: There are several aspects of the economy that come to the floor when you look at the election both nationally and here in Iowa. I think here in Iowa we're not quite feeling the effects as immediately as some of the other parts of the country are. But it certainly hurts incumbents who are tagged with being responsible for the mess. Now, of course, a lot of incumbents are very adept at avoiding the blame that might or might not ascribe to them. Of course, the government doesn't control all of the economy, at least not yet and so sometimes it's unfair to blame them for the downturn in the economy but there tends to be a feeling of throw the rascals out.

Borg: Let me hop across to David Yepsen. David, what do you see? You've been through several elections, you cover them, you write about them. What has happened in this current campaign in the last couple of weeks?

Yepsen: Our October surprise which is the collapse of the stock market. Don's right, it's hurts incumbents, in this case it hurts republicans because they have the White House. We are seeing now the potential for what could be a landslide election on a par of 74. I heard somebody the other day say it could be 1964, that would be incredible if that happens.

Racheter: But is it really a republican administration? Here in Iowa the governor is a democrat, both houses are controlled by the democrats.

Yepsen: And in Iowa, Don, democrats are going to make gains in the Senate, Tom Latham the republican congressman is considered the most vulnerable, Chet Culver is not on the ballot and democrats are optimistic about making gains in the Iowa House.

Glover: I would hesitate to say that this hasn't hit home in Iowa yet. My 401K is hurting just as bad as if I were living in New York City right now. I think Iowans who are watching their retirements go away, watching their savings go away are angry and they are distressed. But the most important thing I think it's done and the biggest advantage it's got for frankly Barack Obama is it's changed the conversation. The conversation right now in America is about the economy. What are we going to do to fix the economy? Any time a presidential election focuses on the economy it helps the democrats.

Racheter: And you talked about the October surprise and yet if there's some terrorist attack, if there's some foreign policy development that could change the ballgame. We're not at the election yet and a lot of people don't make up their minds until the last minute. You and I are into this, we follow this day in and day out, we started following it two years ago. A lot of people don't make up their minds until the last five, ten days.

Borg: Ms. Bystrom, are pocketbook issues just as important to women?

Bystrom: Yes, in fact, the economy is usually the biggest issues that voters, both men and women, when they got to the polls it typically is the largest issue. But one thing our research says is that men and women are interested in issues for different reasons and certainly with the economy women see it more -- women earn less money than men, they're more on the borders of our economy, they get hurt more when there's something like this happening, they're worried about healthcare, they're worried about their children, they're worried about education, they're basically making ends meet and so the economy and a downturned economy really impacts women voters and since they are the largest number of voters we have elections where something like nine million more women voted in 2004 than men and so they can really have a big impact on the election and I think for the democrats.

Borg: Do you think Sarah Palin should be talking more about the economy as a hockey mom as she describes herself?

Bystrom: I think she can do that. Certainly I think Sarah Palin's venue is coming out to those town hall meetings, coming out to small town rural America where her story really I think resonates with women. There are a number of women interviewed on television last night who really were excited about Sarah Palin and feels like she's one of us. So, certainly I think she can talk about those economic issues.

Glover: One of the problems that this whole market collapse has brought to this election -- Don is right, we are more than three weeks out, 24 hours in politics is an eternity, we have three weeks to go -- but with all that noise out there from the markets it makes it very, very difficult to punch a message through. For example, let's say John McCain decides he wants to start airing some tough new commercial accusing Barack Obama of something. It's not going to get a lot of attention right now. It's going to get a one line story in some roundup that focuses on the elections, very, very tough to punch through all the clatter that's out there.

Borg: Well, is it tough then to throw out negative campaign innuendos, as you describe it static out there about the economy?

Bystrom: That's really tough right now because I think a lot of the negative campaigning, we would expect negative campaigning right now, that's what we expect. When we get close to election night, the day before it get out the vote and it's positive again. But who wants to hear about Bill Ayers and people like that when the economy is in the tank and they're worried about their money? They're not really focused on that right now. So, I think even though there is negative campaigning out there right now I don't think that people are really paying as much attention to it because they're really more worried about personal issues.

Glover: One of our interesting tactics of this campaign -- Bill Ayers, Dean, is a 1960s radical from the Weather Underground who Obama has some relationship with and you can argue about how close of a relationship. And McCain and Sarah Palin both are raising that saying he has these ties to a terrorist, Sarah Palin said, paling around with a terrorist. I don't understand the tactic. That really excites the republican base a little bit but frankly three and a half weeks from elections if republicans are worried about the base they're in trouble.

Yepsen: What do you say to that? I've known you as a republican conservative for over 30 years. What do you make of the McCain campaign and its trying to focus on the base, on Bill Ayers while we're talking about the economy?

Racheter: I don't think that they're just trying to focus on the base. I don't think they need to focus on the base, the base is upset with Obama just for being a liberal. What they're trying to do is to reach the middle who are in the middle ideologically who don't really realize how far left the Obama-Biden ticket is. This is probably the most liberal ticket for the presidency and vice presidency we've ever seen. And most people think Palin is on the right but most people would also admit that McCain is somewhere to the left of her, he's more towards the center than she is. So, what they're trying to do is they're trying to somehow get people to realize that Obama is not in the middle where he wants people to think he is.

Yepsen: Are they being successful? The polling shows Obama starting to open up a lead in this thing, particularly in the battleground states.

Racheter: Well, that gets to the issue of how confident the McCain campaign is at doing what they're supposed to be doing.

Glover: You didn't answer the question. How confident are they?

Racheter: Well, they didn't do very well here in Iowa when he was candidate for the nomination.

Yepsen: How does McCain punch through on the economy if he's over there talking about Ayers?

Racheter: Well, he really needs to have a multi-faceted team approach where he and the surrogates are doing multiple things at the same time instead of just one, one, one.

Borg: Do you think that he's doing a disservice to his campaign now by flogging around and switching emphasis?

Bystrom: Well, it does seem to show some disorganization with the campaign and as far as Iowa, I'll admit, McCain basically didn't campaign in Iowa, he had a New Hampshire strategy and it worked for him so he really didn't campaign here initially, he has come back to the state several times so he has a presence here now. But it does look like his campaign lacks some focus. It's like they're shooting all these kind of spray out there, shotgun approach and they have to have I think a more cohesive message.

Borg: Let's stay with this economic issue just for a minute and what effect, Ms. Bystrom, do you think that's going to have on the Iowa electorate, not on the national campaigns now -- I think we've discussed that -- but on Iowa?

Bystrom: I agree with what has been said earlier and I think that we right now are a little bit protected more from the national scene. I don't feel the panic as much in Iowa economically. I think we're a little bit safe. I've heard a number of speakers over the week from Governor Culver to conservative businessmen who are entrepreneurs associated with Iowa State University and they all feel pretty good about the Iowa economy and their message has been that we've been kind of conservative with our money in the Midwest, we don't have the same kind of industries here so I agree it's going to be a good year for democrats.

Borg: This past week we've had 400 or so laid off over at Amana Refrigeration, Maytag, now Whirlpool. It's beginning to hit. We've got people who are still homeless from the floods. We're a little bit economically depressed here and also farm prices aren't what they used to be, they're also dragged down by the overall economic impacts.

Bystrom: I guess I would say this -- I agree with what David said earlier that even when they go out and vote maybe for the economy I don't think they're necessarily going to blame Governor Culver and the democrats. I still think it's going to be a good year for democrats here locally. I think nationally the economy they're blaming the republicans.

Glover: And it's beginning to creep home a little bit. Just this past week the state's revenue estimating conference met, that's a panel of budget experts that projects state tax collections which reflect the economy. They took $40 million out of what they expect the state to collect this year and they said the state tax collections next year are essentially going to be flat meaning the legislature is not going to have a lot of money to work with and they made it clear the impact of this is beginning to hit home now.

Yepsen: Republicans attack democrats for their spending and then Culver's stewardship -- if this is a good year in 2008 for democrats it will mean 2010 is a bad year for democrats and so stay tuned. Other states are doing a lot more cutting than Iowa has so far. But Dianne, I wanted to ask you a question. Do you agree with Don's point a minute ago that there's still time for lots of things to happen? We're all focused on the economy. Is that just those of us in the media getting carried away? Could there be something that changes the focus from the economy to something else?

Bystrom: Oh, absolutely. I think there was some news on this morning about things going on in Afghanistan where it's as bad as it was when this all started. I think if there was something internationally that happens, a terrorist attack, some kind of international crisis, that could affect it. I still think economy, again, I think we are a nation that tends to favor the economy a lot of times over international issues even in years where we're at a war because it's a more personal issue to Americans, it's something that hits every American. But I do think that anything can happen between now and the election and we've had previous elections that show that.

Borg: That was the issue, though, as we began the caucus campaigns and so on, it was the war and the plans for withdrawal and so on.

Bystrom: Well, that was the interesting thing about the caucuses. The war in Iraq was the top issue for democrats in Iowa but it was not the top issue for democrats in other states. Other democrats were honing in on the economy and healthcare. Another interesting thing to me and we talked a little bit about it is that the top issue for republicans going into the Iowa caucuses was immigration and we haven't heard a word about immigration since the Iowa caucuses, even in the debates.

Yepsen: Why is that Don?

Racheter: It's because McCain is out of step with the base of the party on that issue and so he is very wisely downplaying it rather than putting it into people's faces.

Glover: Put yourself in the shoes of a republican strategist. You have John McCain's ear, you have him in the green room back here, you're getting ready for the show. What are you telling him?

Racheter: I would tell him that if he could put the American public on an ideological left right spectrum he would find that the majority of the people are in the middle, he and his partner are closer to the middle than his opponents are and he needs to punch home how liberal the Obama-Biden ticket is and he needs to punch that home again and again and again because then people will come home and vote for ideology. But most people are not paying attention to that, it's been covered up by the team on the other side very effectively.

Yepsen: But aren't people into liberal solutions right now? The economy is in the tank and the stock market is going down. Everything you and I ever learned from Professor Johnson at the University of Iowa says that's when people turn to the left, that's when they want a government solution.

Racheter: You would be very right. For example, I've recently seen a couple of presentations by Auditor Vaudt on how much we've gone in hock in the last two years here in the state of Iowa by raiding the various funds rather than the general fund and that's going to come home to roost in the next couple of years. And as you said just a moment ago 2010 may be a very bad year here in the state for the democrats because of that.

Yepsen: What about the conservative movement generally? The last eight years George Bush has been president, there's been a war, a lot of international adventurism, the national debt. What has happened to conservatives?

Racheter: Well, people have to understand that just being republican doesn't mean you're a conservative. There's what we call RINOs, republican in name only, where people who get elected by claiming to be republicans, adhering to the republican platform which is very conservative and then they don't govern that way when they get to Des Moines or they get to Washington. And earlier this year the Iowans For Tax Relief group took on a couple of those people and took them out in the primary to try to send a message to the other republicans in the upcoming session that they better not drift too far away from the base, they better not drift too far away from support for the party's platform and there's some internal fighting in the staff and structure of a party committee. Just last night they were complaining that one of the people in the party structure was not supporting candidate Reed for U.S. Senate and so I think there's probably going to be some changes made.

Borg: Ms. Bystrom, same question to you. If current polls are accurate and this is looking like it could slip even toward a democratic landslide nationally and perhaps in Iowa where does that leave the conservative movement within the Republican Party, status quo or not?

Bystrom: Well, elections are cyclical and so if it is a democratic landslide then I think what will happen in a couple of years is that the democrats will be held accountable. I think the conservative movement needs to take a look at itself and to see where the leadership is. They weren’t really very enthusiastic about John McCain at the beginning. One of the reasons I think John McCain is the nominee is that the social conservatives were disorganized during the caucus process and the primary process and they really didn't like any of the candidates and really tried a bunch of them and then at the end McCain kind of emerged. So, I do think that they need to look at the conservative movement itself from what I understand is also changing with some of the impact of younger evangelicals in the movement who are not only concerned about these hot button social issues like abortion, like gay marriage but they are concerned about poverty, they're concerned about the environment and so I think that's changing the conservative movement so I think we might see a new conservative movement maybe arise out of this election.

Yepsen: Don, do you see that in the younger conservatives in Iowa changing away from social issues maybe more on the environment and other things?

Racheter: I think it's a very nuance process. I think that on the core issues like gay marriage or prayer in schools, these right to life issues, abortion and so on the young ones, the old ones, the in between ones are all pretty well together. Now, maybe some of the younger people are more green than some of the older ones. I don't think that's because the older ones are anti-green, I think they just haven’t' thought it through because they haven't had the exposure in schools that the younger people have. I think everybody wants the environment to be clean.

Yepsen: Don't hard economic times diminish the importance of social issues? When you're worried about losing your job do you care as much about gay rights, abortion and all those other issues? What good does the 2nd amendment do you, Don, if you can't afford to buy ammunition?

Racheter: The big problem, David, is that -- and I think you understand this from Don Johnson's classes and other places -- 80% of the population doesn't get into politics the way that the people around this table do. You've got 10% on the left, 10% on the right who are fighting it out, very interested in this and the other people sort of are awake a few weeks before the election and kind of get into it and so these nuances sometimes it doesn't play out as well as we think it should.

Glover: I know you're not going to make the assumption that the polls are correct in that it's looking like a democratic year. But let's assume the polls are correct, let's assume it's shaping up to be a democratic year. Tell me about the debate in the conservative movement after that.

Racheter: Well, I think that the hard core right of the party will say the reason we didn't do better is because we had these RINOs who didn't stay with the party platform. I can tell you that in 2006 I and a number of other people in the party tried to get the governor candidate, the leadership of the House and the Senate to all come down and have a party on the 4th of July on the steps of the state capitol and sign a contract with Iowa. We had polled on seven issues that were not controversial within the party and where there's a distinct difference between the republican platform and the democratic platform and where the polls showed the Iowa voters were with the republicans and we were going to run in as a team and say if you elect us as governor and as the majority of the House and the majority of the Senate we will do these things within the first days of the legislative session. The leadership wouldn't do it and what did they do, they went down to defeat.

Glover: What were they?

Racheter: I haven't looked at it in a couple of years.

Borg: You cover the statehouse day in and day out. If there is a democratic sweep nationally what effect does that have on the Iowa Republican Party? Is it negligible and the control of the legislature here assuming the democrats go on and control it this year? In the coming election Chet Culver is up for election.

Glover: I think a national election doesn't have a great impact on what happens in the legislature and you look at your history it will tell you that. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Iowa democrats lost the house in 1992. Bill Clinton got re-elected in 1996, democrats lost the senate in 1996. Iowans are notorious ticket splitters so I don't think that has a lot of influence. I think what has more influence is democrats have put together a better field operation than republicans this year and they've done something pretty unprecedented on a state level, they have raised more money for the legislative elections and done a better job of recruiting candidates than have democrats. And it comes down to those kind of political basics when you get to the legislative level. Now, at the presidential level those grander ties and broader themes it doesn't have an effect but when you're down to the legislative level it's who can recruit a candidate who is going to go out and knock on doors, put yard signs in, raise the money you need, run the right ads and be a person who is respected in the community and known in the community and we talked about this at our last roundtable there is the suburban Des Moines district that I live in that's a very republican district but it looks like there's going to be a democrat who's going to win because he's punched all those buttons not because Barack Obama is sweeping the state, he's a big candidate.

Yepsen: Dianne, I don't want us to run out of time before we talk about women in politics some. 2008 Hillary Clinton's candidacy on the democratic side, Sarah Palin's on the republican side. What is the long-term impact of those?

Bystrom: I think we've discussed this before. I think any time a woman has that kind of exposure and runs as a serious candidate it really helps open the door for other women. I thin Elizabeth Dole helped open the door when she ran in 1999, certainly Hillary Clinton put on a historic campaign. Some may argue that if it were not for the Democratic Party nomination process and the fact that she really finished strong with them ...

Borg: Do you think that Sarah Palin has encouraged or discouraged women from entering politics because of the way that she has been attacked?

Bystrom: Well, I think women are always kind of a little bit afraid of the media. That's one thing that we cover in our campaign schools because sometimes women aren't as comfortable in dealing with the media or they can be just as good as other candidates in dealing with the media. But I think it kind of opens the door again because we've seen how two women with really different experiences -- in the Clinton campaign there was questions about whether serving as eight years as the First Lady was really a political experience and I think at the end of the day people said that was a political experience. I think any time we broaden kind of the scope of where we think our political leaders need to come from we make things better for women because one of the hurdles for women is that our political leaders have typically come from certain professions, they have certainly come from certain economic groups and so I think if you see Sarah Palin who was sort of, you know, she really entered politics the way lots of women enter politics. It's not as a career, it's to solve a problem and I think to see someone that has entered politics and been successful, at least as governor of Alaska, is a good thing.

Glover: Don, I'm not trying to get you to beat up your own ticket, I'm really not. But after she gave what was a pretty well received speech at the Republican Convention the McCain campaign seemed to be putting wax around Sarah Palin, they weren't letting her speak on her own, they weren't letting her interact with the media a whole lot and a couple of interactions were unfortunate for her. Did he make a mistake by not using her better?

Racheter: I think probably they did because I went over to the rally in Cedar Rapids and she was very good there and there were a lot of women with young girls in tow to see her as a role model and I think that she's very feisty and people like that, particularly in the times that we're in she's an outsider, she's a maverick, I think that she would have been fine if they would let her go. I think they felt that since she hadn't been in national politics that they needed to brief her on a lot of the issues. In retrospect they probably should have just been doing that as they went along. And as I understand it one of her key staffers from Alaska was tied up trying to kind of keep the fires going back there and they should have brought that person along to help her feel more comfortable in her presentations.

Yepsen: Dianne, what about women in Iowa politics? We've got a couple running for congress. How do you see them faring in this election? Will we see more in the legislature as a result of this election?

Bystrom: I think we'll pick up some seats in the legislature. I think it will be a good year. As Mike said earlier I think the Democratic Party has done a pretty good job in recruiting some candidates, there's some strong candidates at that level. I think we might pick up a few seats in the legislature, now we have 34 women in the Iowa legislature. Every time we elect more women other states do a little bit better job.

Borg: Are there some issues that favor women speaking out in Iowa politics right now in this cycle?

Bystrom: I think, again, I really think it's how they handle their campaign and if they're really out knocking on doors presenting their issues. I think the economy is, again, going to be the top issue here. I think immigration is more of an issue here than maybe it is nationally right now. I think that's an issue in this campaign. I think certainly healthcare is related to the economy. The war in Iraq is I think for a number of people. But I think we're going to pick up a couple of seats in the house. As far as the congressional races one of the things when I talked to Tom Beaumont the other day from the Des Moines Register who is apparently doing a big piece on women in politics in Iowa and we're one of four states that never have sent a woman to congress but it's really not that we haven't tried, a lot of women have run since 1992 but they have run either as two things, they have run as challengers in a year that doesn't favor challengers or they're running open seat races where a female democrat is running against a republican in the fifth district.

Glover: When do you break the glass ceiling?

Bystrom: When do we do it? Well, I think that we missed a tremendous opportunity in the state of Iowa in 2006 when there was an open seat race in the first district and there wasn't a woman in either party running.

Borg: We're out of time. I wish we could go on. Thanks for all your insights today. That is this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I hope that you'll join us next week at usual 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 Democrats economy elections Iowa John McCain politics Republicans