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Reporters Roundtable on the Iowa Caucuses

posted on December 30, 2011

Decision time.  Iowa republicans caucusing next Tuesday deciding which candidate and which issues will win back the White House.  State and national political writers covering the campaign are comparing notes on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: These are hectic days for presidential candidates barnstorming the state persuading Iowans to caucus for them next Tuesday night.  Which candidate, or candidates, will be getting the Iowa boost yet uncertain.  Iowa republicans wanting to pick a White House winner are weighing both social and economic issues and polls are showing considerable volatility.  We'll be talking about that.  We're convening, in order to talk about that, experienced political writers who have been traveling the state with the candidates seeking their insights.  Jeff Zeleny writes for the New York Times ... John McCormick for Bloomberg News.  Both Jeff and John are former Des Moines Register staffers.  And also joining us Jonathan Martin, senior political reporter for Politico.  And also across the table Iowa based political reporters ... the AP's Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.

Borg: Jeff, this is a campaign, for those of us who have been here the past several months, extreme volatility and it seems that it just doesn't cool.  It is still very fluid right up to the last minute.  So, give us a snapshot of where we are now in momentum.

Zeleny: I think that's right.  I mean, one of the reasons is republicans are so eager to win back the White House but they have not been able to quite settle on what sort of flavor they want.  We've seen candidates of the summertime, Michele Bachmann, we've seen some already drop out, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, long forgotten about that.  But as we head into the final days of the caucuses here surprisingly Mitt Romney seems to have the most boost behind him.  He has been doing an underground strategy here, sort of a stealth campaign but it is important to remember that he probably started out with the biggest organization of all.  We always say he lost four years ago.  Well, he actually got second place and he won 25,000, 25,000 people supported him.  So, going into the final weekend I think Mitt Romney certainly is acting like a front runner, they're trying to get those undecided people to come onto his side because of electability reasons.  I can be Barack Obama, he says, but watch Ron Paul and the surprise sort of in the final days here, Rick Santorum.  He is getting his turn at the spotlight.  He is probably the biggest open question here over the weekend.  Is he going to be real or not or is this sort of a flash in the pan?

Borg: Mike, you have been covering for a long time.  As I have looked at it I thought no one was ever more surprised than Mitt Romney as to where he's standing right now because he seemed to be underplaying the state and underplaying expectations.  But then was he really or, as Jeff says, did he have that organizational all along and he was counting on it?

Glover: I think what we've seen in Mitt Romney is we've seen a candidate who learned the lessons of his last election.  You're right, he didn't do that badly in the last election but his strategy was not all that great because he put all of his eggs into Iowa, spent millions of dollars here, stayed here.  He's had a much smarter strategy this time with underplaying Iowa all the time assuming that he is going to do fairly well here despite whatever the field had.  So, and he has the resources that he can survive even if he doesn't win Iowa.  Let's say he's second here.  He has the resources to go on, go onto New Hampshire where it looks like he's ahead so he has had a much smarter strategy having learned the lessons of the last campaign.  And Jeff is right, if you talk to a lot of Iowans, I talked to a guy in Davenport just last night who they are looking at the field not excited about any of them, no one has captured their heart, they're looking to see who can beat Barack Obama because one of them told me last night that is job one, winning the White House back, I don't have to agree with the candidate on everything but we need something better than Barack Obama.

Borg: What are the rest of you feeling here?  Jonathan, are you seeing that Iowans are beginning to coalesce around someone?

Martin: Well, I think it's still an open question but I think Jeff is certainly right, that Mitt Romney does seem to have a strong chance to come out here on top on Tuesday.  To me the big question is, in these last few days can Santorum coalesce, get the Huckabee coalition behind his candidacy?  We have seen Michele Bachmann fading.  Will enough of her voters move to Santorum along with some of Perry's supporters and a lot of those undecided evangelicals in the final days to give Santorum a really strong finish?  And if Santorum can sort of edge up to where he is near Romney and Paul at the top that's going to really blow up in this race in New Hampshire and South Carolina because then you're going to have a brand new conservative alternative to Romney here on the scene so I think Santorum could really be the most important X factor not just in the final days before Iowa but even after Iowa.

Glover: I was talking to some of Santorum's people last night and you're right, they are looking forward to, if they can do well here they're looking forward to go in the south and being the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.  They think that's a good scenario that works nicely for them.

Henderson: The other scenario that I think is worth mentioning here is that Mitt Romney's best friend in the Iowa caucuses, a bunch of them, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, all those people are splitting up the people who would never support Mitt Romney.  And so the Michele Bachmann fade may actually be to his detriment rather than to his advantage because those folks are going to migrate elsewhere.

Martin: Yeah, I was talking to a Romney supporter last night who said, for months and months and months we were taking after Rick Perry, targeting Perry, hitting Perry hard, now it's go Rick go.  We want Perry to hang in there here for these final days and not fade like Bachmann is so as not to strengthen Santorum.

Borg: John, what is changing the momentum?  Is it people are making up their minds or what?

McCormick: Well, I think this remains very fluid.  All the polling shows that 40% to 50% of people still could be convinced to make another decision from the candidate they think they're backing right now.  So, I think as we go through this weekend things are going to be very fluid, people are going to have to make a decision at some point.  I have talked to some voters who have said, I may not decide until I literally get into the caucus that night.

Borg: Well, and that was born out, Mike, you wrote this week, I made a note of it, you said, "...with a large number of undecided voters and even more willing to switch, this election will break late."  You're seeming to say people may on caucus night be deciding right on the spot.

Glover: I think there will be a lot of that on caucus night.  I think one of the things that will be interesting is who puts together the best organization to actually have somebody in a caucus to be an eloquent voice for a candidate to say this is why you should vote for, let's say, Rick Santorum.  Because what will happen is at a republican caucus people will go in, they'll elect a temporary chair, a temporary co-chair and then they'll all get together and they'll say, okay, any representatives from the candidates who want to make their point and they'll stand up and they'll make their points and I think the candidate who has got the best representative in that caucus could very well prevail because there's a lot of people that will make up their minds as they hear the speeches.

Zeleny: I think you're right about that and if Michele Bachmann does not have, she's had some problems in recent days.  Her top most visible advisor in Iowa, state Senator Ken Sorenson, has defected from her campaign.  If she is not able to have people speaking on her behalf in some of these precinct meetings Mike is absolutely right, if someone gives an eloquent argument for Rick Santorum that could sort of bring them over to that thing.  So, caucus night we're going to have a lot of scenarios going into caucus night.

Borg: Even before that, I'll get to you in just a second Kay, in fact I'll ask you, even before that defection though in Michele Bachmann's campaign there were calls for her to fold the campaign and throw her support to somebody.  What is going on at the 11:30 hour?

Henderson: Exactly.  Well, it's a symptom of what has afflicted the social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere, the cycle.  They have a number of candidates from which to choose and they can't choose one of them so at this late hour you see a surge from Rick Santorum because people think that they can pour their hopes and dreams into him, he has seemed to be an eloquent spokesman in comparison to Rick Perry who in August they all thought, gosh this big state governor, we'll be able to support him, he'll be able to carry our standard far.  He didn't prove to be able to do it on the debate stage which made people very finicky about supporting him.  The other factor that I think on caucus night will be at play is that people like to vote for a winner, they like to support the winner and so if Mitt Romney can create this aura of inevitability on this last weekend I think he will benefit on those private ballots that people make out because they want to tell their friends and neighbors I voted for the winner.

Glover: There's another thing -- I've been rattling around the state for a couple of days with Rick Santorum.  The guy who is driving Rick Santorum around is named Chuck Laudner.  He happens to be the guy who ran the campaign that ousted the three Supreme Court justices because of their decision on same-sex marriage.  This is a guy who knows organizational republican politics and they're spending a lot of time in this final weekend recruiting those precinct captains, meeting with the precinct captains, writing a script for the precinct captains and doing the organizational things.  It can pay off.  They're betting that Iowa is still a retail state, that these television ads while they are pretty, we write a lot of stories about them they're not the thing that is going to move Iowa caucus goers on caucus night.

Borg: Yes, but those ads apparently moved a lot of people because the negative ads that have been run against Newt Gingrich had an effect on what is happening right now.

McCormick: Absolutely, Gingrich's numbers have really come down in the last several weeks and month and the advertising that has gone on in this state has been fairly brutal towards him.  Ron Paul has been very aggressive against Newt Gingrich, Romney has been and that has had an effect.  Iowans are very sophisticated consumers of information I think.  They are watching these ads, they're reading all of our news accounts, they're watching the debate, they watched the debates very closely.  I think that did drive a lot of polling numbers in Iowa throughout the course of the fall.  So, the advertising is significant but I totally agree with Mike, this theme in Iowa has always been organize, organize, organize and then get hot at the end and we're going to learn who has organization in this state.  I think most of us at the table still believe that does matter.

Zeleny: One thing -- Iowans right now are experiencing for the first time sort of ground zero of the super pacs, the influence of super pacs on presidential campaigns because of a Supreme Court decision in 2010 and it is why the Des Moines Register called it the other day this $10 million campaign because it's not just the candidate who are advertising, it is these outside groups that aren't quite affiliated but pretty closely connected.  You have all these formal advisors and those are the people who are probably responsible, as John said, for really hammering Newt Gingrich, the friends of Romney, friends of Perry so it is a lot of, it's not clean and nice here, that's for sure.

Martin: The concern in years past in Iowa among the candidates was always that I don't want to attack my rival in a multi-candidate race because that is going to stand to benefit the third guy and we saw that here in years past and these fields with half a dozen candidates.  That doesn't necessarily apply anymore because of what Jeff said, the candidates can outsource their dirty work and have their former allies, or their current allies and former staffers at the super pacs go after their top rivals and then the disclaimer at the end of the ad is, paid for by Americans for America or whoever the groups are.

Borg: Are you seeing more of that?  I seem to be seeing more of that in this campaign.  Are you also seeing what you see, what you've just talked about?

Martin: Oh absolutely.  I think if Romney is the nominee when that story is written a key chapter, perhaps even more than a chapter, is going to be the role of what his super pac did during the course of one month here in Iowa and how they took down Gingrich during December here and I think you can look at his poll numbers from the start of this month at the Register to where he's going to be I think this weekend.  It is a precipitous drop and I think in large part because of those TV ads.

Henderson: In terms of the ad wars I would add also that Ron Paul's ads are far and above the best of the lot here in Iowa and they have been vicious in regards to the former speaker.  Ron Paul himself said I need to expose this man.  So, the ads that he is running they look like the Ford F-150 ad on one hand, they look like a movie trailer on the other.  They are brilliant ads.  I don't think they're bringing people into the Ron Paul fold but they are causing people to have second, third and fourth thoughts about Newt Gingrich.

Borg: Exposing ... excuse me for stepping on what you were saying ... but talk about exposing.  You and I were at a Santorum rally yesterday or Thursday morning it was in Coralville and I hear Santorum take off on Ron Paul.  Very, very strong.

Glover: Well, the question was asked of Ron Paul, Ron Paul wants to eliminate this agency, he wants to eliminate that agency, he wants to eliminate this agency, he wants to do all that kind of stuff and Santorum said, look, this is a guy who has passed on bill in 20 years, why do you think he's going to be able to do any of this.  And he is setting himself up for down the road because there's an old saying that there are three tickets out of Iowa.  If we have one, two and three in Iowa and those one, two and three are let's say Romney, Santorum and Paul in whatever order they are we go on down the road and suddenly you've got a conservative, moderate debate within the republican party that will tell us a lot about where the republican party in this country is these days.

Henderson: It's part of an effort to make any Paul victory here or any Paul second place an illegitimate victory because they are undermining his cred.

Zeleny: Which is another reason the Romney campaign is a little bit more confident and bold going into these final days because even if -- one of the big questions is turnout, how many people are going to come out on Tuesday night.  The weather looks like it's going to be fairly good but the Romney people are saying, look, even if Ron Paul happens to win that is not the worst scenario because it means that no one else did.  But Mike is right about Santorum.  I was in Mason City with him the other day and the audience was just watching him, 150 people or so, saying Ron Paul can't do any of these domestic things but the thing he can do as commander in chief he can start bringing troops home, he can start -- and the crowd was just, I don't know if there were any Ron Paul supporters in there coming in but there certainly weren't leaving because he hits Ron Paul very hard on that.

Borg: And Santorum hits back on that saying, that is very dangerous both for the economy and for the nation's defense.

Zeleny: It's not a bad argument for him and I think that is probably contributing at least somewhat to his rise because it gets him away from social issues, it sort of broadens Santorum's base.

Borg: Jeff, you talked about turnout and John wrote about that in Bloomberg News saying, ",,,unseasonably warm and dry weather", which we have been enjoying here in Iowa, "forecast for Iowa in the state's presidential caucuses could be one of Ron Paul's worst enemies.  Clear skies like those predicted next week could benefit former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney if more than mainstream republicans turn out in an election year when they are eager to unseat President Barack Obama."  Elaborate.

McCormick: Well, I mean, turnout is a huge variable here that none of the polls can really detect, you can't measure what the turnout is going to be in a poll so we don't know.  Four years ago 120,000 Iowans came out for the republican caucus. If that number is less, if there were a blizzard, a great thing for Ron Paul, it doesn't look like it's in the forecast, but if that were to happen it would probably be great for Paul because his supporters are so committed they would walk on coals for him to get to the caucuses.  On the other hand, if republicans are really motivated, they really are excited about challenging Barack Obama and maybe they are coming around to an electability argument that Mitt Romney has been pushing, if the turnout swells a little bit and more sort of mainstream republicans turnout that could be a very good thing for Romney to pick up and Paul also I think does benefit from some democrats an independents.

Glover: There's another side to that coin, John.  I was talking to a guy in Davenport last night at a Rick Santorum rally and I said, why are you here, why are you here late on a Thursday evening in a senior citizen's center?  And he looked at me and he said, my wife and I made a commitment to see all of the republican candidates.  Like it or not, one of them is going to be our nominee.  Those were his exact words.  Now, if that person is there on caucus night, not excited about any of those candidates, if there is a good movie on or if they get a call inviting them out to dinner they may just not go.  I mean, if republicans, those mainstream republicans are not excited about this field they may not go and turnout may be low but who knows.

McCormick: And that's why people with organizations that we talked about earlier are going to be burning up those phone lines this weekend and making sure that those people don't stay home and watch the movie.

Glover: Rick Santorum is spending a lot of down time and I was talking to his campaign about what are you doing when you're not doing all these town halls.  They're having private meetings with precinct captains giving them their scripts, preparing them for caucus night, precluding new precinct captains, doing all that kind of stuff.  I think it's very smart.

Martin: And that's why I think the smart money is now on Santorum because as John said, the Iowa mantra is organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end.  Well, Santorum has been doing the organizational part, he's still doing it and he is now hot so he's got both those things going for him.  Gingrich is just the opposite, right?  He doesn't have the organization and he's cold at the end.  So, what is to say that Santorum is not going to move up to third or even possibly second and we'll see Newt fade.  I'm really curious about Perry because we don't have a great sense for where he is.  It's clear Santorum is moving up and Newt is moving down but where exactly is Perry?

Zeleny: That's a great question and Jonathan, one of my favorite days of the campaign was the third day of Rick Perry's campaign.

Martin: We were here.

Zeleny: We were walking around the Iowa State Fair and we thought, boy, what a rock star candidate.  He was just -- he answered all of our questions, which we like of course, but took questions from voters and just really enjoyed himself at the state fair.

Martin: He had a corn dog, a pork chop.

Zeleny: That night in Cedar Rapids he made his first sort of errant comment about Ben Bernanke saying he wouldn't be welcome in Texas, his campaign has sort of been on the decline.  But you're right, his campaign has all its eggs in the Iowa basket.  They have spent millions and millions here.  He could still, he hasn't moved but some of those people who have been out supporting him, he has a good team, good field organization, maybe some of them will come out and support him.

Henderson: Well, the interesting thing when you talk to people about Perry, the people who are supporting him are often very vociferously supporting him so it leads me to think there might be a solid core of people supporting him.  The other question that I think is interesting in this cycle is how much a different candidate Mitt Romney is this time around.  You would have never seen Mitt Romney at the Iowa State Fair getting into it with a protester on the state fairgrounds.  But he is a much more confident candidate this time around and I think that is because he ran last time and he knows the lay of the land.

Glover: And Rick Perry I think has made a fundamental, tactical error that I think has led to a lot of his collapse, he hasn't been here that much.  He's been on television a lot but he has not been here doing the retail stuff as much as all of the others have been.  He has been gone from this state a lot and that has been a mystery to me from the beginning because he is a pretty good retail politician.  I mean, he's good at that sort of stuff.

Borg: John, as I listen to the candidates and their speeches I hear recurring themes and that is return to Reaganomics by most of the candidates and get rid of what is derisively called Obamacare.  Is that resonating?

McCormick: I mean, the Obamacare thing I think does resonate with most republicans.  That is a guaranteed applause line and anything to sort of get the government off our backs is also a guaranteed applause line that you hear from virtually all the candidates.  You go to a Ron Paul event you'll also hear some other things that you don't hear some of the other candidates say.  But most of them are pretty much on the same script and that is to beat up on the President and then recently, especially in these last few weeks, has been to beat up on each other a little bit more.

Glover: Something that has been missed I think if I could just throw this out there -- in this whole discussion, we've been so heavily focused on the republicans because they are the ones who are having the contest, it's an interesting contest, it has been a high profile contest but Barack Obama has not been on the sidelines in this state.  Barack Obama has been out here with an organized campaign for a long time.  They can give you a lot of numbers about the number of meetings they have held, the number of phone calls they have made and the way they have kept the organization going.  In effect, Barack Obama put together the best political field organization I have ever seen four years ago that never really shut down.  It is not at the intensity level it was four years ago but it's still there.

Borg: Go ahead.

Martin: It's so fascinating to me having been here four years ago to see how less these candidates are doing, not just Obama but than Hillary Clinton did, than John Edwards did.  You just don't see folks out banging on doors for these republican candidates.  You don't see the lawn signs out there.  Yes, there are the phone calls but how many offices, for example, do these candidates have.  Somebody said the other day to me that Chris Dodd had more offices four years ago in Iowa than these candidates combined this time around.

McCormick: It was a very different campaign from that aspect and it also sort of started later and one person we haven't mentioned at the table who I think affected some of that was Sarah Palin.  How many Sarah Palin stories did we do over the spring and summer in terms of whether she was going to run and that sort of delayed this whole process a little bit.

Zeleny: And in terms of offices I was in Maquoketa last week at a Rick Perry event walking down Main Street.  There was a Ron Paul office not set up by the Ron Paul campaign, set up by volunteers, kind of hand written signs and I took a picture of it and sent it to one of Ron Paul's organizers in the state and he said, we had nothing to do with it, it's volunteers.  But I don't know how many of those are like that in Iowa so there's some underground stuff.  You guys are right, this campaign has played out on debates and on Fox News much more than in cafes and diners.

Borg: Jeff, what is next for Iowa?  I know from experience that the Wednesday morning after caucuses the phones go dead, no more robo phone calls and advertising is off the air, the candidates are gone overnight.  But is Iowa then out of play?

Zeleny: The next candidate coming back will be Barack Obama and he is going to be beamed into democratic caucuses across the state on video on Tuesday night.  He'll be the first one back.  There is no path to re-election for him -- there's no easy path to re-election for him without winning Iowa so it is why they have been on the ground organizing.  Iowa will be a critical swing state in the general election.  We'll see how much the republicans can test it.  I think that's why we're also seeing Mitt Romney here a little bit more, as Jonathan said, made a really good point, Mitt Romney is spending the night here on caucus night Tuesday night, he is going to be here Wednesday morning.  Pretty unusual for someone who really wants to win in New Hampshire.

Glover: And one of the things that we've talked about before is with all the powers that our President has, I mean, the republicans get the stage now because they're having the primary fight, with all the powers the President has to command media attention, to decide what gets talked about it is very, very difficult to get a sitting president.  I'm not saying Obama is not vulnerable, I'm just saying it's going to be a tougher task than what you're hearing.  You're hearing these republicans say right now, we're just going to pick which one is going to get Barack Obama.  That is going to be a tougher task than we're hearing right now.

Henderson: It's the same thing democrats said in '04.

Borg: Kay, I didn't hear that.

Henderson: It's the same thing that democrats said in '04, we just have to pick from among these because George W. Bush is an illegitimate president.  We see how that turned out.

Borg: I want to swing across the table here to the people who are based outside the state.  Iowa has a contest every year trying to keep first in the nation caucuses.  Will the outcome at all effect that influence of Iowa in being able to remain first?

Martin: I did a story I think two weeks ago about how a lot of republicans here are worried about a Ron Paul victory and what that can mean to the health of the caucuses in the future because, like Kay mentioned a minute ago, there is going to be an intense effort to delegitimize a Ron Paul victory.  Well, he was on the backs of democrats and independents who caucus night changed their registration for two hours and then will change it back.  So, I think that is potentially a challenge going forward is if someone like Ron Paul, an intense but fairly narrow base of support can really come in here and organize and win this thing then 2016, 2020 why are mainstream governors and senators going to come back here if they just can't do what Paul can do.

Glover: Santorum had a great line the other day about Ron Paul, he acknowledged there's anger in the electorate, unemployment is up, people are unhappy, people are angry.  He said, if you want to stick it to the man, don't vote for Ron Paul.  If you vote for Ron Paul the only person you're sticking it to is the Republican Party. 

Zeleny: And if President Obama wins re-election there's going to be a republican Ronald Reagan dinner in November of 2012, some aspiring republican candidate will come here, there's no place else to go until the rules change so that I think is the best argument for Iowa because inertia happens, suddenly the candidates are here talking to Mike and Kay and we're all here again.  So, I personally hope it stays.  I think it's a great place to begin this process.

Borg: John, you have the final word here.  Predict who might win in Iowa and will they have legs outside Iowa?

McCormick: Boy, I don't want to make predictions but I think if you're Mitt Romney you really have to like how this final week is playing out.  Ron Paul, I think you have to have some confidence in as well because you have this field organization and you have such committed supporters.  And then it's just a question of Santorum or if somebody else comes up for that third place.  But for Santorum a third place finish in Iowa may not be worth that much because he may not have the money and the resources to sort of go forward to really what is going to be a pretty quick calendar here throughout the rest of January.

Borg: I heard him say, if I could just get to South Carolina I'm okay.

McCormick: Yeah, we'll see.

Borg: Thanks for your insights.  We'll see what happens on Tuesday.  We'll be opening the New Year with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend.  Our guests will be Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer from Garner and democratic Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy from Des Moines.  Same times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.  I'm Dean Borg, thanks for joining us today.  Happy New Year from all of us here at Iowa Public Television.


Tags: campaign 2012 government Iowa Iowa Caucuses Jeff Zeleny John McCormick Jonathan Martin news politics presidential candidates Republicans