Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable on the Campaigns of 2012

posted on September 16, 2011

Considering the possibilities.  Candidates campaigning for the presidency encountering voters concerned about jobs and their futures.  We're convening Iowa political reporters assessing the political implications on this edition of Iowa Press.

Reporters Roundtable on the Campaigns of 2012

Borg: We were scheduled to have Congressman Thad McCotter of Michigan, a republican presidential candidate on this week's program but a late vote yesterday in Washington, D.C. is preventing him from getting to Iowa this weekend.  So, we're broadening this program's agenda beyond one presidential candidate, assessing how Iowans seem to be reacting to those seeking the votes overall.  And we're seeking insight today from Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Iowa Public Radio's Statehouse Correspondent Jeneane Beck and Jim Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids.

Borg: Jim, I'll start right off with you.  Because Iowa's unemployment rate is lower than most other states and the Iowa economy doesn't seem to be as hard hit, maybe because of the agricultural underpinning, is the mood of the Iowa electorate different than other states?

Lynch: I think you're right, Dean, it is.  The unemployment is not as bad as it is nationally.  There's some good economic news.  Alcoa's announcement they're investing $300 million in their plant in the Quad Cities.  The ag economy is strong.  I think Iowans are probably less in favor of a big government intervention right now.  For the most part they are either more optimistic about the economy or at least less pessimistic than the nation as a whole.

Borg: How do the rest of you feel about that?

Glover: The mood of this electorate is puzzling to me.  Jim, you're exactly right.  The mood of this electorate ought to be pretty good because the economy here, obviously, demonstratively is better than the rest of the country.  But I get a sense that people are not optimistic.  People are sour.  I don't know what it is, whether people think that things are just going in the wrong direction.  Yeah, point to all the objective measures and Iowa is doing better than other states but I don't see a happy electorate out there.  I see an electorate that is pretty restive, pretty nervous, not very happy with the direction that things are going and also because of all those things that has pushed social issues back up to the fore and I think a lot of that is driving what is going on in this election right now.

Borg: I want to ask you about those social issues just a little bit later.  But Kay, what are the implications then, if that is true, Iowans are not feeling as bad off but still they are restive, what are the political implications for those who are campaigning in Iowa either coming into Iowa after having been in other states like the presidential candidates or Iowa Congress?

Henderson: Well, I think one of the factors here is that the sector of the economy that is doing the best is the farm economy.  And farmers, by and large, are not a very optimistic group.  They are always pessimistic because their fortunes depend on Mother Nature.  And so while they have been predicted to have the third largest corn crop on record here in Iowa they know that that could be taken away by an early freeze or by some catastrophe and we have all seen catastrophe in parts of the state.  We have had the western part of the state experience flooding for three months.  We have the city in which James lives, Cedar Rapids, which is still recovering from a flood that occurred several years ago.  And I think Iowans are weathering the storm of the economy and the storms of natural disaster which are hitting them but the constant barrage I think is wearing on people and I think that is what presidential candidates are sort of feeding into here in Iowa.

Glover: And I think there are other numbers you can look at.  James correctly mentions that Iowa's unemployment rate is lower than the national average, the economy seems to be doing better than the national average.  But look at things like average Iowa income.  Iowa is near the bottom of all the states in median income for people that work here.  A lot of people have jobs, they don't make a lot of money.  So, people are, it's not a case where people are getting ahead very well.

Borg: Jeneane, what are you feeling and what are you seeing as you're covering presidential candidates and going out and talking to people where you are encountering town meetings and things like that?  Are you seeing that Iowans are about the same, homogeneous with the rest of the nation or not and what are they saying?

Beck: Well, I think the discontent right now looks bad for incumbents as it did two years ago.  I mean, I just think that that kind of mood has continued in which they are dissatisfied with Washington, they are dissatisfied with the Iowa legislature and I think that the fact that the Iowa legislature ran on so long this year made it easier for them to compare it to Congress, it made them seem more similar as opposed to in the past Iowa lawmakers always said, well look, we get along, we don't do what they do in Washington, we don't have stalemate and gridlock.  Well, they did and so now I just think the real tough sell for people is going to be those incumbents looking to retain their positions and most of the people running for president are people in office of some sort.  And so that makes it difficult for them if you're running from Washington as, say, Michele Bachmann or you're a governor or what not.  Their discontent is with elected officials.

Glover: We sometimes expect our politicians and our political leaders to be rational and I think that is wrong.  I think they are driven by an electorate that essentially isn't rational all the time.  I recall the famous episode during the last dust up over Social Security when a guy stood up at a town meeting and said, cut government but keep your hands off my Social Security.  What?  What is the rational argument for that?  But that's in the electorate.  There's this electorate who says we want to cut government, we want to get rid of government but don't you dare touch my Social Security, my Medicare, my Medicaid, all those sorts of things.

Henderson: The other thing is it seems as if the country is in a situation where people of all stripes are losing faith in institutions, not only government institutions but the institutions in which they work because they don't feel a sense of job security.  And I think that blends over into their dissatisfaction with government because the economy seems to be going through the throws of a major restructuring and people don't know what is on the other side.  We have post office closings proposed in Iowa, people were upset about that.  It's just a symptom of changes in the economy and the changes in things, the way the economy works.

Borg: Jim.

Lynch: People are, I think a lot of people are kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  They have a job, things are going pretty well but they hear the news, they see what is happening, 30,000 jobs being shed here and those sorts of things and there is, people are angry, they are uneasy, they're on edge or all of the above.  And so I think Jeneane is right, that this could be a bad year for incumbents, not necessarily because of anything they did and not necessarily one party or the other but all incumbents, people just looking for a change, a new sense of direction and it's going to be tough for those incumbents to make the case that you should send me back because we've been doing such a good job.

Borg: Jeneane, I like that phrase that he used, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  There seems to be -- we've said for several weeks, months now the republican presidential campaign was kind of slow in getting started.  To me it almost seems a little bit sluggish right now.  Is that because people are waiting and candidates also are waiting for the other shoe to drop, they're not quite sure where this thing is going to go?

Beck: Well, it's odd that at this late date we don't have a solid field of candidates, that we're still wondering if more are joining us here in Iowa and that I think keeps some people on the fence and I do feel like that the only two supporters who are really ardent and in their camp right now are Ron Paul and Sarah Palin and Palin we don't even know if she's running and Ron Paul has this really solid group but doesn't seem to rise above that.  But all the other candidates when you go to their events people come, people are interested in them but it's very fluid, there doesn't seem to be yet this lining up behind someone and almost like they are still waiting for something.

Glover: I think it's even broader than that.  I think it's broader than that because I think the role that Iowa is going to play in this campaign is going to be different than the role that Iowa has traditionally played in presidential campaigns.

Borg: How about that?

Glover: The campaign is up and running but it's not up and running in Iowa, it is up and running all over the country.  Look at the major candidates -- Mitt Romney is taking a pass on Iowa, Mitt Romney is going to do a drive by and focusing on other states.  Rick Perry is going to campaign here but he's going to campaign in other states.  Everybody knows that the top republican candidates can survive a blow in Iowa, they've got the money, they've got the resources to campaign.  So, we're starting to see a national campaign take shape where, yeah, Iowa will get some attention, people will campaign here, we've had a debate here, we've had the straw poll here, people paid attention to it but I think everybody understands that Iowa is not going to settle this nominating battle unless Rick Perry wins a huge win here at which case that might propel him towards the nomination down the road.  So, I think you're seeing Iowa play a bit of a different role this time.

Borg: How does that, Kay, then affect some of those candidates who early on said we're not going to play big in Iowa this time such as Mitt Romney?

Henderson: Well, I think what's interesting is that if you look at the polling data for Iowa Romney seems to have a group of people who are backing him regardless of who some have referred to as the flavor of the month candidate may be.  At the beginning of the summer you saw Michele Bachmann enter the race and sort of surge into a statistical tie here with Mitt Romney.  After Rick Perry entered the race you saw him surge ahead of Romney here in Iowa.  But now you're seeing some indications that because of his performance in some of the debates doubts are being raised about him and there's this fluidity.  There is, as last time around, there is a competition to be the not Romney candidate and so I think that is very unsettled and at the end of the day when the caucus results are announced if somebody wins who has the means to go on down the line like a Rick Perry, a victory in Iowa really means something whereas it might not have meant as much for a Mike Huckabee last time around because he lacked the resources to go all the way against Romney.  But if Rick Perry wins the Iowa caucuses, and for that matter if Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses that coalesces a group of support, money support behind her.

Glover: And I think we sometimes run a presidential campaign on the last road map, we see the last game plan and how it worked.  I think a lot of people looked at John McCain in the last campaign and saw John McCain essentially took a pass on Iowa, didn't say I'm not going to campaign there but didn't really make a big effort here, finished fairly poorly in Iowa but won the republican nomination.  I think a lot of people are saying, it's possible.  If you look at the character of the Iowa republican electorate, and you can't look at the Iowa electorate and make decisions like this if you're a candidate, you've got to look at the Iowa republican electorate, heavily dominated by evangelical Christians, 60% in the last caucus self-identified as evangelicals.  If I don't think I can play very effectively in that mix I might just do a drive by and let Iowa finish third, fourth, fifth knowing I've got the resources if I'm Mitt Romney or Rick Perry to compete down the road.  I think that is what's going to happen this time.

Borg: I'm trying to reconcile, I'll get to you in just a second Jim, in fact, go ahead and say what you were going to say.

Lynch: I was going to say that when Mitt Romney decided to take a pass on Iowa it was sort of everybody figured out that he's going to concentrate on New Hampshire and win there so I think whoever wins in Iowa, as Kay was saying, it gives them a real advantage because then the next battle is South Carolina and Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann can probably play better in South Carolina than Mitt Romney.  And if the have a good solid win here it really gives them a boost going in there where they can say Romney was the New Hampshire winner, I was the Iowa winner, this is the rubber match so to speak.

Borg: I'm just trying to reconcile what Kay and Mike were saying here.  Mike has said it's more of a national campaign this time with Iowa not playing the pivotal role that it did in the past.  But then I hear Kay saying, but if Perry or Bachmann win big in Iowa it's a major for them.

Glover: If Perry wins in Iowa it's a major win for them because Perry has the poll standings right now, he's got the money right now.  Republicans are an establishment party, always have been.  They, once the republican establishment settles on a candidate, that candidate is going to win a republican primary.  The republican establishment is slowly moving towards a settling on Rick Perry as the republican candidate for president thinking he may be the best person to put up against Barack Obama.  If that establishment settles on Rick Perry and he wins the Iowa caucuses suddenly the pressure is going to be on the others to get out.  We've got our nominee, the establishment settled on him, give it to him.

Borg: But Jeneane, those who passively campaign in Iowa are spreading their money some place else right now.  Is that saying that Rick Perry, if he were to as Mike suggests here, win big in Iowa then others might be dropping away?  What I'm trying to get at here is if they didn't spend money in Iowa initially but saved it and put it elsewhere is that a plus for them down the road or is a Perry win in Iowa, would that wipe out any savings that they might have achieved by not paying big in Iowa?

Beck: Well, I think it depends on who you're talking about.  If you're narrowing it down to Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, if she doesn't do well in Iowa she may struggle more than say Mitt Romney because one, she has played here and has put infrastructure in place in Iowa.  So, she has to do better than say Mitt Romney here.  But it's such an expectations game, Dean, so I think if you're Mitt Romney and you don't play hard here and you have money, which he does, it doesn't hurt you the same way it does somebody else.  But if you're a Rick Santorum, a Herman Cain or somebody farther down the tier and you have invested a lot of time and money here and you don't kind of at least beat expectations, I mean, you saw Rick Santorum play up his fourth place finish in the straw poll like it was a first place finish.  So, if he can do something like that in the caucuses he might be able to stay in a little longer but some of these are definitely going to drop away.

Glover: And Iowa traditionally has played the win, play, show.  Three candidates walk out of Iowa.  If Michele Bachmann, given that she has said that Iowa is going to be it for her, she is going to focus on Iowa as opposed to any of the other early states, Iowa is going to be the test for her, having made that commitment should she not win Iowa or not do very, very well in Iowa there will be intense pressure on her to get out.  There will not be the same kind of pressure on Rick Perry or Mitt Romney because they're playing more of a national game and have more resources than she does.

Borg: Jim, what do you see in the way that they are polling right now or the reception they're getting among Iowans?

Lynch: I think they're getting a fairly good reception.  It's interesting how it has changed.  Last winter I was at an event and Herman Cain just, I mean, people were really going nuts over Herman Cain.  They loved his rhetoric, they loved his message, what he had to say and then I think somewhere along the line kind of reality starts to set in, they say well this guy can't get elected.  So, I think Iowans are starting to narrow their focus.  Ron Paul has a strong core of support.  Bachmann has a strong core of support.  And now Perry is getting a strong core of support.  And Romney has this residual core of support that without a whole lot of work he could make a decent showing in Iowa.  But I agree that people aren't, for the most part, aren't rabid about their choice right now.

Borg: Let me ask it this way -- Mitt Romney is taking more of a pass on Iowa than he did last time.  He played big in Iowa four years ago and spent a lot of money here.

Glover: And he lost.

Borg: Yes.  But if Rick Perry, as you say, does well in Iowa and then begins to coalesce as a really front runner was it a bad decision by Mitt Romney to bypass Iowa?

Glover: It could be because of this -- Rick Perry has the same assets that Mitt Romney has, he has name ID, governor of a big state, Mitt Romney is the former governor of a big state, has a lot of money, Rick Perry is ahead in the polls right now.  As I said, one of the things you do in politics is you build a sense of inevitability and Rick Perry is trying very hard to build a sense of inevitability into this campaign.  I'm ahead in the polls, I have more money than most people, I'm well known.  Once he starts to actually win primary and caucus contests that sense of inevitability could go into that race which would make it very difficult for the other candidates.

Henderson: Rick Perry was in Jefferson, Iowa on Thursday evening ...

Borg: You covered that.

Henderson: I covered it, talked to a few people in the crowd and a conversation with one man really struck me.  He is very interested in a candidate with executive experience, which fits the prototype of both Romney and Perry.  But he's also interested in somebody with experience in the private sector, which is Romney's rap against Perry because he has been a creature of the public sector most of his life after leaving the military.  So, it's interesting that this gentleman was very interested in hearing from Perry but hadn't settled on a candidate yet, had been very interested in Tim Pawlenty.  I think that executive experience criteria is something that Michele Bachmann is going to have to answer because some of her verbal missteps over the past few months really make people wonder if she has that kind of executive experience and ability to manage things that they see in the governors that are in the race.

Glover: And her core backers don't care about that, her core backers are passionate about her, she ignites that passion in that slice of the electorate but that slice of the electorate is not a majority of even the Republican Party.

Beck: You see with Rick Perry something somebody told me they had witnessed with George Bush when he got into the race in 2000 was that people were so looking for someone else to join and wanted them to join so badly that they were almost projecting whatever it was they wanted onto the candidate.  So, if you're a fiscal conservative and you're worried about economics they say, well look what Perry did in Texas, he created jobs, he's my guy.  If you're a religious conservative and yet you weren't attached to some of the other then you can project that on Perry, he's my guy because he is religious conservative.  So, I don't know if he actually fits all the criteria they have but they have decided he does because they were so looking for someone.

Glover: And I think one of the things you do in a primary is you pick a candidate who you think is the best chance to win in the general election.  I think a lot of republicans are going through that exercise right now.  I think they look at a Tim Pawlenty for instance and said, realistically I don't think this is the guy who is going to beat Barack Obama who is going to raise a billion dollars and you start looking at the field and I think a lot of republicans are saying, hmm, Rick Perry is ahead in the polls, he may well have the best chance of beating Barack Obama and therefore I'm going to be for him because of that but I can't say that, I can't say I want to be for this guy because he can win, I want to be for this guy for all these reasons because he can win.

Lynch: Let me play devil's advocate here for a moment -- Mike talks about if Perry wins Iowa then things start to coalesce for him.  It might work against him in that the republicans being an establishment party don't really look at Rick Perry as the establishment.  There are some people who are a little worried that he's not part of the establishment republican party.  If he wins in Iowa it might energize some of those folks to go to work for Mitt Romney and try and elevate his campaign, probably not in South Carolina but in Florida especially and other states and get behind him.  So, we may see coalescing for both candidates really but a win in Iowa might really wake up people who say we need a Romney.

Henderson: And while we've seen Mitt Romney on the campaign trail for years we've seen Rick Perry on the campaign trail for weeks and he still has many unanswered question about his debate performance.  There are some people who have watched him in the debate who have been unimpressed by his ability to articulate a conservative message.  There are some people particularly in regards to this HPV vaccine issue who say that plays right into one of his weaknesses is that he's not a real conservative.  So, he's got to convince conservatives that he's a real conservative and he's got to convince the establishment people that he can be an establishment player.  He hasn't done either of those things yet.

Borg: I want to follow up on that line of thinking.  Is because Iowa republicans seem to be concentrating, at least before the campaign began, maybe it's waning now and that's what I'm going to ask, on social issues.  You mentioned, Mike, that social issues may not be as important in this election as jobs and economic issues.  But does that also affect the way that Iowa, presidential campaigners are going to be campaigning in Iowa now?

Glover: Well, it depends on who you're talking about.  As Jim mentioned, if you're left with the major candidates, Rick Perry fits the evangelical mold on all of the important social issues, abortion, gay rights, so forth and so on.  Michele Bachmann fits all the republican social issue things.  Mitt Romney says he fits all the republican social issue things and probably convincing people he's sincere about it.  So, there's not a lot of focus on social issues because there's not a lot of disagreement.  Among the major republican candidates from whom this nomination is going to be picked there is not disagreement on those major social issues so there's not a reason to talk about them.  Yes, the vaccine in Texas, Michele Bachmann raised that but I think they're struggling to find those differences.  I don't see fundamental differences.  There's not a pro-choice republican among the leading candidates.

Borg: Why was Palin doing the Iowa State Fair and running in the race ...

Glover: To keep her name out there, to keep her name out there.  She's making money for the first time in her life by flirting with running for president.

Borg: Why do it in Iowa?

Glover: Because that brings attention to the potential you might run for president.  It keeps that spark alive.  I don't think she'll run because for the first time in her life she is making real money but she needs to keep her name out there, she needs to be part of the mix.

Lynch: If we keep saying that she won't run she will just to spite us, the mainstream media, she'll do it out of spite.

Beck: You know, I was at that event in Indianola, at the balloon field that she came and spoke to the Tea Party rally and I asked people, do they have this Palin fatigue at all where they are irritated that she hasn't decided?  And among the people that support her, no, they're ready to give her as much time as she wants.  Now, I do think in the broader sense other people find it a little bit annoying or obnoxious that they're ready for her to decide yes or no.  But amongst the people that believe in her I think they think it's completely fine that she take as long as she needs.

Henderson: The other thing, if she doesn't run she will insert herself in someone's campaign.  She will endorse someone and she could play a big role in the Iowa caucuses really by coming here and endorsing a candidate.

Borg: Jeneane, let's move to the congressional campaigns.  We've got two that are really interesting, the one here with Boswell, the incumbent, Latham moving into the district and then King and Vilsack.  Give me a rundown on how the messages are going there.  Are they testing early messages there?

Beck: It feels a little sluggish to me in getting started in those races as well.  I don't feel like they have ramped up as quickly as I might have expected considering the names involved and so I don't know what kind of messaging we're going to have.  I think it is going to be most interesting for me to see how Boswell and Latham distinguish themselves from each other because they are actually more alike than people might guess and they are aware of that.  I mean, they have a friendly relationship, they both work on agriculture issues, transportation issues and Boswell is sort of a blue dog democrat, he's a little bit more fiscally conservative.  So, I don't know, I'm very excited to see how that turns out because it will be interesting.

Glover: They're doing the kind of things that you would expect them to be doing a year out, a year and two months out from a congressional election, they're putting in place the campaign structure, the machinery, they're raising money, they're putting all the basics into place because this campaign is going to be decided by the last two months.

Borg: Why do you say that?

Glover: Because that's when voters pay attention, actually probably closer to the last two weeks voters really start to pay attention.  This election, that election, the division in that district between republicans and democrats is very close, about 4,000 more registered democrats than republicans, registered no party far outnumber both and the election will be decided by those registered no party voters, independents who focus on the last couple of weeks and so they're laying the ground work to get there.

Henderson: Whereas we have been talking about the Latham/Boswell race because that is a battle between two incumbents I guarantee that the national media is going to come in here and do story after story of Steve King versus Christie Vilsack because Christie Vilsack and Steve King are capturing already the interest of folks in Washington ...

Borg: Because of the disparity in their ...

Henderson: Well, because Christie Vilsack has an ability to raise money.  Steve King has not raised as much money as you might think for his congressional races, although he has been in a very favorable republican district with tens of thousands more republican voters, he hasn't raised that much money when compared to the Lathams of the world.

Beck: I talked about how alike Latham and Boswell are, it's the polar opposites for Christie Vilsack and Steve King.

Lynch: I think these races are going to be interesting because King and Vilsack are going to be the battle of the interest groups and Boswell and Latham are going to be kind of a proxy war for republicans and democrats nationally.  I think Boswell does well if Obama does well, Latham does well if the republican nominee does well.  So, I think their fortunes are tied to the national race where the fourth district with King and Vilsack are really a local race tied to that district.

Borg: What are you watching for, Mike, in the King/Vilsack race?

Glover: I'm watching for some indication that Christie Vilsack can compete in an overwhelmingly republican district.  She is an effective campaigner, she'll be able to raise money but she also energizes the partisan division.  She draws a divide.  She energizes republicans, she energizes democrats and there are more republicans then democrats there.

Borg: And we have to divide right now and end the show.  Thanks so much for your insights.  On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll be getting other opinions from two political insiders, democrat Jerry Crawford and republican Mike Mahaffey here discussing the issues driving the presidential and congressional campaigns.  Crawford and Mahaffey at the usual Iowa Press airtimes next week, that's 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.  And a reminder too that the Internet is your direct connection to our Iowa Press staff.  You can send e-mail to the address now at the bottom of the screen, it's  We'd like to hear from you.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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