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Reporter's Roundtable: Final Remarks

posted on October 31, 2008

Borg: Final remarks. The 2008 general election results are so close now we're measuring the time in hours. Just enough to hear from Iowa political journalists who have been covering this election for the last four years. It's a reporters' roundtable 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 31st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowans can be forgiven when there is an occasional remark, something like, 'I'll be glad when this is over.' After all, Iowa's first in the nation presidential preference caucuses bring early non-stop campaigning to the state and some speculate that comes at the expense of candidates seeking other federal, state and county offices who struggle to break through with their messages to voters. Aside from the presidency there is a lot at stake as senators seek another term, all seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the state legislature's balance of power and many local issues too. We're seeking election final perspective from Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen, Radio Iowa news director Kay Henderson, Iowa Public Radio's capitol correspondent Jeneane Beck and Lee Newspaper's capitol bureau chief Charlotte Eby. Kay, I said you've been covering the election and the caucuses and the presidential candidates for sure for the last four years. Just this last week, last weekend we had the republicans in, we had John McCain and Sarah Palin both in Iowa. Barack Obama Friday in Des Moines. We have Sarah Palin in Dubuque next Monday. Is that indicating that Iowa is still in play? I mean, there are big states out east, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are really in the mix but all that time in Iowa.

Henderson: I think this is indicative of the McCain electoral map and how they try to get to 270. Iowa is one of the states that was in the George Bush column in 2004 and if they hope to put an array of states together, if they lose a key state like Pennsylvania which seems to be trending that way, then they need to put a constellation of other states that were in the republican column last time and Iowa is in that column. Iowa is a state that has older voters which are traditionally McCain voters, it has some things going on within the state of Iowa which seem to indicate McCain could perhaps turn it around. But, of course, we've had media polls from Charlotte's newspapers and others which show Obama holding a double digit lead in Iowa.

Borg: Charlotte, any indication that where they visit is important? In the last few days we had Sioux City, Cedar Falls, Dubuque as I mentioned and Des Moines.

Eby: Well, definitely western Iowa is key for republicans if they want to win this state. They can run up the score in western Iowa in some of the conservative areas so that's why we saw Sarah Palin out there and saw McCain then in eastern Iowa the population heavy eastern part of the state trying to get votes there as well.

Borg: McCain on the college campus in Cedar Falls.

Eby: I wouldn't have guessed it.

Yepsen: Well, Dean, in addition to what I was going to say I think part of what is at work here is the fact that this is the first election where you have same day voter registration and so both sides can at the last minute find somebody who isn't registered and get them to the polls. And so in addition to this being a Bush state that McCain has got to have and Obama would like to deny it to him and the fact that it closes up late in Iowa. Both in 2000 and 2004 republicans moved up handsomely. A republican strategist is going to look at this and say, you know, we've got no place else to go, let's give it a shot. One other thing, 2012. I think what Sarah Palin is doing here is laying the groundwork for her own run for president in 2012. Most republicans that you talk to privately will say this is not going to happen and they're not going to win and so now you're starting to hear some of this subtext about 2012 and if she runs for president in 2012 caucuses start in Iowa.

Borg: Sarah Palin walks to the drum of John McCain right now. How can she be going out and ... ?

Yepsen: As a matter of fact, Dean, the complaint about Sarah Palin inside the campaign is that she's a diva, that she doesn't listen to advice, she goes off script and off message. The day after the election she's on her own and she's going to have to start rehabilitating her image and this is a good place to do it.

Henderson: And she already tried to start rehabilitating her image right in Sioux City, Iowa at a rally where she told folks she'd worn her own jacket.

Yepsen: Which was not on ...

Henderson: Which was not on the script and the McCain people were not happy about that.

Borg: Jeneane, any indication that you read into the size of crowds that are being drawn, relative size of crowds?

Beck: Well, I think Sarah Palin still draws larger crowds than John McCain which is never a good thing, I don't think, for the vice presidential candidate to draw a larger crowd than the presidential candidate. Barack Obama on Friday drew, according to police, 25,000 people. It was huge, massive. So, there's definitely some energy for him. And so I think that that has to be a little disheartening for the McCain camp despite what David said, the fact that they are hoping it will work, it could break late, we could energize the base. But there's also, you have to understand there's some desire -- they have got to go somewhere to campaign and if you campaign in a state like Iowa you might be looking at congressional districts, maybe you're trying to help those running for office down the ticket and might as well be in Iowa.

Borg: And Charlotte, Jeneane just mentioned energy. Are you seeing it in the early voting turnout?

Eby: You see the democratic edge is higher than it was in 2004, almost half of the people that are early voting are democrats so you can see that they have really pushed to get their people to the polls early this time around. And that could indicate how many people will be there on Election Day as well.

Yepsen: And, Dean, there's also a qualitative difference in the two cycles. In 2004 democrats were spending their time going out and getting good democrats to go vote. Well, they figured out that was a waste of effort. If a good democrat who votes in every election is going to be there why should we waste our time getting them an absentee ballot. What they've done now is going after what are called weak voters. If you voted in one or two of the last three elections in Iowa and were a democrat they'll really go after you. So, they'll try to get you to vote an absentee ballot. The good democrat will vote on his or her own. They get these weak voting democrats. That becomes really money in the bank to them. That is a net gain to them in the electorate. It will have ramifications down ballot on some of these other races we're going to talk about.

Beck: And early voting began to pick up. It started off much slower than it did in 2004 and we were sort of wondering well maybe democrats aren't putting as much focus on early voting. I think republicans were hopeful by that sign. But in the final days it has really caught up to where it was in 2004 and the strategy has been less on absentee ballots which take a lot of leg work and more on satellite voting.

Yepsen: I think it's also important to remember the republican tends to vote on Election Day. Republicans effort is in the last 72 hours which we're now starting to head into and they can show statistically the average republican in Iowa likes to go to the polls and vote. And so they don’t get as excited or worried about this early turnout business just because of these numbers.

Beck: That takes money and worries some that there is a problem with money at the end.

Yepsen: I'm just saying we have to be careful about reading too much into this early turnout.

Borg: Just serendipity, I was in the Johnson County auditor's office on Friday and there's early voting there, of course, absentee and there were lines at the office there in the Johnson County auditor's office. Kay, I wanted to ask you, on energy the Iowa Democratic Party or the democratic machine, if you will, in Iowa, the organization has a last few days blitz of Iowa. I think it's a bus tour of various state officials and other democratic leaders blitzing key cities in the state. Now, I was just analyzing that. I'm going to give you multiple choice on this. We're not taking anything for granted? We're attempting to sweep the board because we smell blood, we're going to sweep the board? Or is it desperation?

Henderson: How about D, all of the above. One of the things that is at work here, Dean, is if you've got the top elected republican officials in a minivan it would be David Vaudt and state ag secretary Bill Northey. The rest of the constellation of statewide elected officials in Iowa are democrats until you get to the United States Senate where you have Senator Grassley who has been campaigning with some of these congressional candidates and some legislative candidates. But the governor is democrat, lots of others are democrats and you have Senator Tom Harkin who has his name on the ballot. So, it's in his interest to be traipsing around the state and meeting with Iowans and reminding them that hey, you might want to vote for me right after you vote for Obama.

Borg: Look at the contrast, maybe republicans are planning something else that I haven't heard about but I don't see anything to counter that, Jeneane.

Beck: Well, no, you don't see a lot of that. But marginally they're not going to go out in mass if there isn't a mass of them at the top. I think that they'll focus more on individual races and attempt to do their best in those and we're seeing some ads for some republican candidates. So, there is some energy in that party as well.

Yepsen: Some republicans do do bus tours and that sort of thing. I think Tom Latham is doing a tour of the district. I think in one sense the republicans are smarter about this. If your goal is to get voters turned out you're better off keeping your people on the phone, knocking doors and showing up at the courthouse or some coffee shop for a rally. If you spend two or three hours listening to the governor talk that's two or three hours that you aren't spending finding new voters.

Borg: Good point. What you're saying is you may see a lot above the surface with the democratic party and the blitz that I was just talking about but there may be a lot going on under the surface with the republican organization.

Yepsen: Exactly and the fact is, Dean, candidates have a lot of nervous energy. What else are they going to do right now?

Borg: Charlotte, look at that first district race where the freshman incumbent is Bruce Braley.

Eby: We're seeing a much more quiet race than we did two years ago when you had two candidates battling out for Jim Nussle's open seat. Bruce Braley won that seat and now he is facing a challenge from David Hartsuch who is a doctor from Bettendorf. Bruce Braley raised close to $1 million. David Hartsuch less than $50,000 so it hasn't been a really competitive race in that sense.

Borg: Any other observations by anyone else on that race? Does it seem to be decided Bruce Braley has an edge there?

Eby: Well, you just haven't seen the republican establishment get behind David Hartsuch at all and I think that's been difficult for him.

Borg: Kay, second district, Dave Loebsack is also a freshman democrat, knocked off Jim Leach last time.

Henderson: Right, and it appears that he will secure a second term. That district has about 59,000 more democratic voters registered than republican. It includes Iowa City which is, you know, a hotbed of Democratic Party activists right now. Marianette Miller-Meeks has been a dogged campaigner but she's never run for political office before and is not well known in the district. She has tried to get out there and introduce herself to people. But in a year in which you have perhaps a huge democratic voter turnout I think that district is going to be trending for Loebsack.

Borg: Third district?

Beck: Republican challenger Kim Schmett facing longtime democratic incumbent Leonard Boswell who has faced some health trouble two years ago and then again this summer had some corrective surgery. He is trying to make an issue of that but it doesn't seem to be flying very well. He had told us at the very beginning of that race he thought he would need to raise between $800,000 and $1 million to be competitive. He's raised less than $200,000. It's very difficult to be competitive then against a congressman who has raised over $1 million. Boswell is feeling apparently confident enough he's doing very little campaigning and, in fact, is spending his time campaigning for legislative candidates.

Borg: Leonard Boswell got a lot of attention in the primary.

Beck: He did, a lot of name recognition, just reminding people he was out there when he beat out Ed Fallon and Ed Fallon is apparently telling supporters I know some of you are going to write my name in but I'm going to vote for Congressman Boswell. So, I don't know if they have mended fences.

Borg: Well, is the real one that is in doubt in the congressional races right now Tom Latham's fourth district?

Henderson: It appears that way. Emily's List which is an organization primarily funding women candidates around the country has plowed some money into that district. Tom Latham is a republican from Alexander, the rural part of the district, he has moved to Ames which is the college town that's in the district. It's a very strange district, it goes from Ames and Marshalltown all the way kind of up to Mason City and over to Decorah. And he's well known in the district, he's represented it for a long time and he hasn't slept through this cycle. He's worked really hard. He has run campaign ads and if you're heading into this you might give him an edge. The one thing that democrats point to is that there is now, where there hadn't before, there is a democratic voter registration edge in that district. And so they are hoping that Beck Greenwald who is the democratic candidate in that district from Perry will turn out to be the Dave Loebsack of this cycle, kind of a surprise victor benefiting from a substantial democratic voter turnout.

Borg: Before we go onto the fifth district, I'm going to make an observation here that you have a possible issue in there that I'm going to spring on you here and see if it is an issue. What about immigration? You're shaking your head yes, you know what I'm talking about.

Henderson: There are two towns in that district, Marshalltown which had an immigration raid and Postville which had one which is more immediately in our minds because it occurred in May. There seems to be sort of a meltdown happening at the plant there in Postville after that immigration raid. A lot of news happening this week, some perhaps changes in the meat packing industry regarding immigrant labor. But that has not been a burning issue in that race. Neither one of them has run advertising in regards to that race. Becky Greenwald has pushed the issue in a couple of radio debates that have occurred but it has not really resonated with voters.

Borg: Well, immigration may not be an issue, but are there other factors there based on what happened this week and the resonance that comes back to recalling what happened with Marshalltown in voter turnout or anything else since this is all happening this week in Postville?

Henderson: Right. I don't know that that is going to affect voter turnout to some extent in the Postville area or even in the Marshalltown area but I do think it is indicative of changes that are going on in that industry which will have an effect on the Iowa economy long term.

Borg: David, profile the fifth district for us.

Yepsen: Steve King versus Rob Huebler. The registration edge has closed in the fifth district just like it has everywhere and republicans still have the edge. I think the conventional view is that Steve King goes back for another term. There just isn't enough of a democratic tide here to put him over. It would take a huge tide to put Becky Greenwald over because of the financial advantage that Tom Latham has, it would take a tsunami to get rid of Steve King and I just don't see that happening. Dean, I don't know that we're going to have many interesting congressional races in this state until 2012. The reason I say that is we lose a member of congress from Iowa as a result of the 2010 census and so people who are thinking about a run for congress, people who might want to take the time and effort to do that and it's expensive to do, they're saying why do it now? Wait until I see what these new district lines are like. You may have a couple of members who retire. Steve King there's always talk he's going to run for some higher office at some point creating an open seat. So, I guess my gut tells me we may not see any really good, hot congressional races in this state until 2012.

Beck: It strikes me with Steve King it's been interesting how he's almost acted like he doesn't have a race, in my opinion. We've had a heck of a time, couldn't even get him on the phone just to do a profile of the race. And I was surprised because when Chuck Grassley has a race that isn't very significant he'll sort of say well, there might be a stealth candidate that's waiting in the wings to run against me just to sort of turn up the base and get them excited even though he knows he has a lesser candidate running against him. Steve King really hasn't bothered to do that at all.

Yepsen: King has put some television on the air. I think he is aware of the fact that there is a democratic wave out there and just doesn't want to get caught taking too many things for granted.

Borg: I'm going to make an observation, too, you reminded me of it when you said Steve King really hasn't been campaigning in the traditional sense. Dave Loebsack in the second district has done much the same because of the floods. He's been very visible but he's been out in shots and so on, you've got the governor there and the speaker of the house there.

Yepsen: Let me turn the tables on you since you live up there and report from that district. Loebsack has been visible yet does he suffer from the fact there's so many people who are still upset in that district over the delays in flood aid? Does he hurt by being the incumbent who hasn't delivered?

Borg: I would answer it this way, David. I've thought about that and the way that I reconcile that in my own mind is that as extensively as that area was damaged by floods still the people who were affected are not going to swing the election in that district. And so you've got people like me, I live in the district, I'm unaffected and so I don’t sense that and I don't suffer because of the slow payments and things like that. There are people who are hurting and they're hurting badly.

Yepsen: Probably not enough of them to make a big difference.

Borg: That's right, I think that's the difference.

Henderson: And the leader of the Iowa National Guard announced his retirement this week and came by our offices and had a little conversation. Here's one thing he says about Iowa flood victims. They're not like hurricane victims, they're not holding the government accountable, they're out there picking themselves up by their boot straps and they're thinking ahead and how can I get through the winter and how can I rebuild my farm and rebuild my grain bin. Iowans are approaching this in a different way than voters did in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit and they held somebody accountable and it happened to be the Bush administration.

Eby: That's something that happened during the floods too. They set up all these shelters for flood victims and had very few people show up. They said Iowans go to their family members, they stay with friends but they don't go to shelters.

Eby: That's something that happened during the floods too. They set up all these shelters for flood victims and had very few people show up. They said Iowans go to their family members, they stay with friends but they don't go to shelters.

Borg: Do you agree on the observation, Charlotte, that I just made, because you also cover that area extensively writing for the Quad City Times, do you sense that there is any lashing out at incumbents in that area for the lack of speed in getting some money into the area for flood relief?

Eby: I haven't necessarily seen it. You'll see some people that will call and ask where can I get help. They'll call the newspaper and we try and direct them but they don't call back and say I wasn't able to get any help. I think the state has been fairly good at filling in the holes or the gaps, if you will, from federal assistance.

Borg: Jeneane, let's switch to the Iowa legislature. I, in opening the program, said the balance of power is at stake here in the Iowa legislature. Was that a statement that you would agree with?

Beck: I don't know about for the entire state legislature. I think the senate is pretty securely democratic, they hold a ten seat edge and not enough of the seats are up, so to speak, for re-election for republicans to really make a run at trying to regain control, it would be very, very difficult. The house is much closer, the split is much closer and so there is some talk, 53-47 is the difference in democrats over republicans, of republicans attempting to take back control of the house but they do face an uphill battle because most pundits think if there is a tidal wave at all, it may not be huge, but if there is one that it will be democratic. They have raised more money, there were more retirements on the republican side so suddenly not only do they want to try to take back seats, they're having to defend seats that are much more difficult to defend because they have a newcomer and they don't have an incumbent who is already known in the district. So, it's a definite uphill battle for republicans.

Borg: Dave, you had mentioned 2012 for the congressional races. Is there anything about 2012 as it looks to the governorship and the Iowa legislature control?

Yepsen: Well, let's get a little closer to right now and look at 2010. I think if this is a big democratic year then that means 2010 becomes an off year. If the democrats win the White House, for example, gain an increased margin in congress and in the legislature then you've got two years of solid democratic control, one party rule and if things don't get better people will be angry. And history dictates that there is a counter push that comes in 2010. I can tell you Governor Culver's people are worried about that because he's going to be on the ballot in 2010, he's got some grumblings in his own party in the labor movement and republicans say, well, maybe he'll be weak enough if we run a good candidate we've got a shot. That's the one most obvious thing I think you can see. The other thing that is important about this battle for the legislature, Dean, is some of these senators who are elected will vote on that reapportionment plan for 2010 so we're now setting in place the political leadership who will decide the redistricting of the state for the next decade. That has long-term ramifications.

Beck: You know how you asked earlier, you asked Kay if they're trying to run the board. Well, that might be a little bit of a strategy that if they're worried in two years that it's going to be an off year for democrats then they better try to secure a large enough majority in both the house and senate to try to hold that two years from now if people are going to the polls trying to make them pay for whatever difficulties economically the state will be going through.

Yepsen: Dean, I think democrats get four to five seats in the senate, 34, 35 democrats in the senate. I think you could see five to eight pick up in the house. It could be big. And in the senate particularly, Dean, if it goes above 34 it means the republicans are not players at all, they're not needed for anything, they don't have two thirds, they can't block confirmations, Mike Gronstal will become even more powerful and you will see the democratic agenda really start to move on labor issues, local control of hog confinements, some of these things that have been sort of hanging back these last couple of years under democratic control are really going to come to the floor in our state.

Borg: But Governor Culver vetoed, and that has resulted in the rift of labor, vetoed some key labor legislation last time around. Even if they are more powerful majorities in the house and the senate is Culver going to support that knowing that he's going to be up for election?

Yepsen: Culver and organized labor have nothing to gain by fighting. They'll cut a deal. They'll come to some agreement. They'll find a fig leaf for the governor to enable him to sign something. The governor will sign something else that labor wants, changes in worker's compensation laws. At the end of the day in two years I think there will be a lot of Kumbaya singing in the democratic caucus.

Borg: Kay, looking ahead just a little bit like we are to '10 or '12 is the energy that has come to play and the voter registration edge for the democrats, is that likely to carry over? What might the effects be? I'm talking particularly about the young vote that has been recruited into the Iowa electorate.

Henderson: I remember talking to John Norris, a well known democratic activist in this state who helped manage John Kerry's 2004 Iowa caucus victory and is married to the person who is running Barack Obama's Iowa campaign effort in 2008. One of the things that he told me the day after the Iowa caucuses was that the huge amount of young voters who were signed up as democratic voters on caucus night could change Iowa politics for a generation because they're getting a new generation of people active in politics, some of them may indeed become active at the state level in running for office themselves. And the turnout, the historic turnout that was seen on January 3rd may have turned the tide in Iowa to be a democratic state for quite some time. That was his argument on the day after the caucuses when he was euphoric and he was pointing to statistics, you know, republicans can point to other statistics. But I think it's an interesting point.

Yepsen: Well, it is true, Dean, the old saying the first vote you cast is the one you cast for the rest of your life. We've had Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal brought along about two generations of Americans who became democrats. You had Eisenhower republicans for a long time. You had Reagan republicans. We may now be coming into the era of the Obama democrat, young people who were brought into the fold, as Kay mentioned, who tend to stay active and who vote democratic the rest of their life. And that has serious ramifications for the Republican Party.

Borg: Are you seeing the republicans at all, Jeneane, quaking about that?

Beck: Well, republicans will tell you, Christopher Rants who is the minority leader in the house will say well, Iowans are notorious ticket spinners, that they ignore the wave so even if this young person might vote for Obama that they might then find that local republican that they like and vote that way. So, I think it will be very interesting to see if they split the ticket or if they are single party voters that's what will help democrats, if all these new Obama voters go in and pull the level for Ds only then everyone down the ballot is helped out.

Yepsen: And we know straight ticket voting is on the rise, too, there's more of that going on.

Eby: You see republicans still trying to find their footing after watching this wave of democrats register here. They aren't sure quite what the landscape is like and I think this election will tell them for sure.

Borg: Thank you for your perspectives and thanks for your work during the past four years. We'll see what happens on Tuesday. That's this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. And as I've just been alluding to there's a big week ahead. And after your votes are counted we'll be evaluating those results and plan accordingly for next week's program. So, you're going to have a say in what we have on next week and I hope you'll watch, usual times 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. Until then, I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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.


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