Diagnostic exam. Iowa Republican Party evaluating presidential preference caucus procedures -- worrying about Iowa caucus national impact. We're questioning three Iowa republican activists on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa republican leaders are doing a lot of soul-searching. Earlier this week they opened what will be a series of meetings to diagnose embarrassing problems with the party's nationally prominent presidential preference caucuses held back in early January. That diagnosis deals with the mechanics and the infrastructure of the caucuses but other, not-so-tangible challenges, confront Iowa republicans. Philosophical differences dividing the party's more dominant conservative activists and those who more moderately are leaning republican. We've convened three leaders for some insight today. Iowa Republican Party Co-Chairman and Christian broadcaster Bill Schickel is a former state representative and mayor from Mason City. Des Moines Attorney Doug Gross is a former Branstad administration chief-of-staff, also ran for governor against Tom Vilsack. And Craig Robinson edits the iowarepublican.com website. He was the party's political director during the 2008 presidential preference caucuses and he organized the 2007 republican straw poll in Ames. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.
Thanks for having us.
Good to be with you.
Borg: We're going to do what Ross Perot used to call looking under the hood today.
Gross: I don't hear any sucking sound.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, former Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover here for the closing days of the Iowa legislature and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Mr. Schickel, let's start with you. How much damage did the Republican Party do to itself with this nightmare you had with the caucuses this year?
Schickel: Well, I think that, Mike, some mistakes were made during the caucuses. We have acknowledged that and we plan to fix them. Right now we're in the middle of a complete audit.
Glover: But what was the damage?
Schickel: Well, you've read the news stories. The caucuses were heavily criticized. But I think we have to recognize that we did much right too. I think we did about 95% of everything right. In the final reporting of the results and in some other things we have acknowledged that mistakes were made and we'll fix those.
Glover: Mr. Gross, same question to you. How much damage did the Republican Party do to itself with this nightmare they had with the caucuses this year?
Gross: First of all, I think Matt Strawn and the group ran a better caucus campaign than we've probably ever seen. Unfortunately you're judged based on special moments in history. And the special moment in history was when Matt got up and decided he was going to announce the result on caucus night even though the results, very frankly, were too close to call. That was a mistake that was made. As a result of that it caused some people to question the efficacy of those caucuses. I don't think it was irreparable damage. I think these, frankly, relatively minor changes can be made and the caucus will be just fine.
Glover: But it was damaged, right?
Gross: It was damaged.
Glover: Mr. Robinson, same question to you. How much damage did the party do to itself with what a lot of people see as a nightmare?
Robinson: I think it's always difficult for Iowa to maintain its first-in-the-nation status. So any sort of hiccup that we experience --
Glover: And this was a hiccup.
Robinson: -- and this was a hiccup -- is going to cause damage. And I think, as Doug mentioned, I think Chairman Strawn's getting up there and declaring a winner when it was too close to call was a problem. But I think the big problem that we experienced was, is after the party certification process, that Matt didn't stand up and stand behind that certification process that was done by his staff. I think that is ultimately the biggest problem we experienced.
Glover: So was it a personal failure on his part? Was it a structural failure? How do you fix this?
Robinson: That's a great question. I think that's something that really -- that's the work of the party itself. I'm an outsider to the party infrastructure and I think that's something that they need to look at. The first proposal to come from the caucus review committee deals with the issues that we had with the chairman. So that tells me that they are looking in that direction. And I think that is the place to start.
Borg: You're fairly tough on the party chair there. Do you hold the blame also with the party chair Matt Strawn?
Schickel: Well, I think that there's no question that mistakes were made. We have acknowledged those and we're going to fix those, we're going to fix those mistakes. I think that we have to recognize our subcommittee, public information subcommittee, is looking at this very thing. And the initial discussions and ideas that have been talked about center around putting a structure in place that will give guidelines either in our bylaws or in our constitution that outline a process for releasing this public information. For example, that all of this information is released to the media and the public at the same time. One idea that has been discussed. Another thing would be that the initial uncertified results are released as uncertified without analysis. Some of the initial discussions, members of the committee feel that as a party it's not our job when we're releasing these results to spin the results, it is our responsibility to provide that information and then let the campaigns and others provide additional information. So that's some of the kinds of things that we're looking at to make sure that we have a clean release of the information because that is where the damage was done.
Glover: Let's say you're king of the Republican Party.
Gross: Oh God forbid.
Glover: How would you step in and fix this? What would you do to make sure that this never happens again?
Gross: I think there are a number of ways, things we can do to make certain that this doesn't happen again. First of all, somewhere they're looking in, I salute Bill for doing the work and leading this committee to make sure this happens. First of all, when it is too close to call, don’t' call it. Don't spin it, as Bill says, as well. We also need to do a better job of reporting the results from the caucuses themselves. We have a modern age. We shouldn't be using paper, paper ballots that take a couple of weeks to come in before we know what the results are in individual precincts. We've got electronics today, Bill. We could use those electronics. We should be able to instantaneously get those results and they ought to be verifiable. We can do that. The other thing I think we need to do, I think we have to do generally with caucuses, because I think caucuses generally in the country are threatened right now because the other ones outside of Iowa were run much worse than Iowa. Nevada, for example, was a disaster.
Henderson: Missouri wasn't much better.
Gross: No they were terrible. We also need to tie the results of the caucuses to the results of delegate selection and we haven't done that and we need to do it.
Henderson: Well, let's talk about that. There is great resistance to that. It is essentially taking a straw poll on caucus night. Is it time for Iowa republicans to do as Iowa democrats do, start making calculations and start selecting delegates on caucus night, Mr. Gross?
Henderson: Why is there such resistance to it?
Gross: I think largely because in the past we weren't able to keep our first-in-the-nation caucuses because they thought if we selected delegates on caucus night it was the equivalent of a primary. And we have a deal with New Hampshire where they get to be the first primary. We can't be the first primary. But that doesn't mean we can't tie in some way delegate selection to our caucus results. And we need to. Right now it's a media event. We need to make it a delegate selection event.
Henderson: Mr. Schickel, is that one of the things you're considering?
Schickel: First of all, on the reporting electronically, that is something the committee is looking at. And to collapse that timeframe it may eventually be that the initial results become the final results become the final certified results and that is something that we need to examine. I certainly think that's possible. On tying the straw poll to the delegate selection, that is something that we're examining. There are pros and cons to it. Doug mentioned some of them. We have maintained our coveted position, our first-in-the-nation position because it has essentially been a straw poll.
Henderson: But the democrats are doing the opposite. They are electing delegates and that hasn't damaged Iowa's position as the first democratic test on a presidential sweepstakes.
Schickel: Point well taken, Kay. But we operate under the rules established by the Republican National Committee. The democrats operate under the rules established by the Democratic National Committee. And this is something we're examining with that committee. We have to weigh the pros and cons of it before we make a final decision on it.
Robinson: Binding Iowa's delegates in some fashion to the results on caucus night is something that I proposed in an article I wrote a week ago and I think that --
Gross: Good job.
Robinson: Thank you. I think that there's a way to do it that it's not, we're not selecting the actual delegates. What I proposed was, is the winner of the caucuses needs to be the winner of the majority of the delegates, so what I proposed was you looked at how many delegates Iowa was going to be awarded -- this year it is 28 -- you would say that the winner on caucus night is awarded in this term 15 delegates and those delegates can be selected by that campaign or that campaign's supporters at a later date, at the same time all the at-large and the other delegates are selected.
Henderson: Regardless of what Mr. Schickel's committee does, Mr. Gross, I mean, you have the prospect in Iowa of having all of the delegates or many of them be Ron Paul supporters. He finished third. Is that going to damage Iowa's chances in 2016?
Gross: Right. Yes. Yes it is. I mean, he is not going to be the nominee of the party. The nominee of the party has more impact on whether or not Iowa is going to be first next time than anyone else. We came within a hair's breath of losing it last time because John McCain didn't really compete here and didn't really care about the Iowa caucuses. The only reason why we kept them was because Iowa was a swing state and he couldn't afford just to make Iowa mad by not keeping our first-in-the-nation status. So we're at risk again today.
Glover: And aren't you at risk even more because Mitt Romney is the republican nominee and Mitt Romney didn't really play here?
Gross: He didn't really play here, Mike, and although he finished equivalently, well based on what Matt said he was in a tie, actually he finished second but he didn’t play here effectively like he did in other states and you have to wonder to what extent Mitt Romney would want Iowa to go to first next time. So we need to be very careful about how we handle this. I do think our caucuses are at risk.
Glover: Mr. Schickel, same question to you. Don't you have a Mitt Romney problem just like you had a John McCain problem?
Schickel: Well, Mike, I think we have to put all of this in context. The good news is that in the last three years we have had 100,000 voters shift toward the Republican Party. We had 20,000 new republicans register during our Iowa caucuses. Now we have an eight, almost a nine thousand registration edge over the democrats. Why? Because we had a competitive caucuses and prior to that we had a competitive primary. Let’s understand that the republican party of Iowa was born 150 years ago right here in Iowa just south of Iowa City in Crawfordsville, Iowa out of differences with the Whig Party. And so we're going to survive these differences. The Republican Party has been responsible for building a strong economy, one of the strongest economies we've ever known and we'll continue to be able to do that.
Borg: I'm going to go to the straw poll. We have conceded here that we really have had two straw polls, Mr. Robinson, one up in Ames in August and then the presidential preference caucuses are really a straw poll too from what we've discussed here today. Back in 2007 you were the political director of the Iowa Republican Party. You organized and conducted the straw poll up in Ames. Now, if I'm reading it right, you are advocating doing away with that Ames straw poll.
Robinson: Look, absolutely. And I think the reason why is times change and you have to look at the environment in which everything takes place. In terms of saving Iowa's first-in-the-nation status just filling out the forms correctly and getting the results in isn't enough. We're always under attack. It doesn't matter if we were flawless on caucus night. And so what we have to do and why I propose that we eliminate the Ames straw poll and replace it with something else is the fact that we have to make Iowa more hospitable to candidates. I mean, we already have a situation this year where candidates came in, are investing millions of dollars into this state, they win or some in second on caucus night and now the third place finisher is going to get all the delegates. That's horrible. And I think the straw poll, and the reason why I think we have to get rid of it, is because it puts party staff in a bad position because as a party staffer I spent more time organizing a fundraising event than I did planning for the caucuses in 2008. Secondly, it puts me in a real difficult situation where I have to work with campaigns and I should be viewed as more of an elected official, or a secretary of state type role, in that situation I'm impartial where now it is in my financial interest to create really good relationships with campaigns and I think it puts staff in a bad situation. And secondly, or finally, as we have seen with the nature of these campaigns recently we get people that enter the race late and the straw poll is a huge obstacle and we want people to participate. All candidates, we should want them to participate here and the straw poll is one of the things that makes candidates make decisions to say I'm not going to participate.
Glover: Mr. Gross, should you keep the straw poll?
Gross: I don't think it makes any difference what we decide. The marketplace will decide whether or not there's a straw poll and the straw poll will not be anywhere near like it was in the past because we've shown on two different cycles the candidate who came out of here was not a candidate who participated in the straw poll. So the market is deciding that on its own.
Glover: Mr. Schickel, same question to you. Hasn't the straw poll actually been rather successful? I mean, it has raised a lot of money for the Republican Party, it has brought a lot of candidates into the state, caused a lot of campaign activity, got a lot of attention paid to it. Hasn't it done pretty much what you want it to?
Schickel: No question about it, the Iowa straw poll is one of the most successful fundraisers that the party has every four years. It is envied by a lot of other states. Many other states have looked at trying to copy it. Are there disadvantages to it? Yes there are. Is our committee in a position to make a recommendation on that yet? No. We're looking at both sides of these issues but I'm not going to tip my hand on my position on that right now. The -- it is a tremendous fundraiser and I think sometimes we underestimate the difficulty in raising money by a political party during the caucus season if we would get rid of it.
Henderson: One last question about Iowa retaining its first-in-the-nation status. Mr. Gross, isn't your best friend here the democrat because Barack Obama won in Iowa --
Gross: Be careful, Kay. That's never been said before.
Henderson: Exactly. But he won the caucuses, he wanted Iowa to be first next time around and Joe Biden is sort of positioning himself to run in 2016 and the parties don't have different calendars when it comes to presidential selection. So can you get by in 2016 by just relying on the democrats?
Gross: No. But I do think the democrats will want to keep Iowa first. But I also think Iowa will be first from the republican standpoint even though we're at some risk. And the reason is for the same reason we have democracy. Winston Churchill said, it's a terrible form of government except for all others. And Iowa going first is the best method of selecting a presidential candidate except for, a worse method except for all others because it gives everybody a chance to compete in an early phase and I think it will continue because of that.
Glover: Mr. Schickel, question for you. The premise of this show, bringing three republicans out who come from a little bit of different points of view from each one of you, is that there are differences, philosophical between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party. Are we overstating those differences?
Schickel: I think it's a healthy thing. I think there are differences within the Republican Party. But like I had mentioned earlier, our party was born of divisions over the issue of slavery and trying to build a party that --
Borg: Let me interrupt just for a second. You said, healthy. And we talk about splits and you call that healthy?
Schickel: No question about it, Dean. And the reason it is, let's take the Ron Paul supporters for a minute. They have attracted many new, young, energetic people into our party. The registration growth that we have seen both among Ron Paul supporters, Santorum supporters and supporters of Mitt Romney is huge and this competitive situation has increased that voter registration. And let me just say something else about the Ron Paul supporters -- anybody that knows and is intimately familiar with that knows that that is by and large a campaign of ideas and we're a party of ideas and that is a healthy thing for us.
Henderson: Mr. Robinson, in November the battle will be though for independence. Are republicans positioned well at this point to get independent voters in November?
Robinson: I'm a little pessimistic about November to be really honest with you because -- and I think you're going to be able to see both halves of the coin. If you cut the state in half I think in western Iowa we're in good shape. We have people fired up about two congressional seats with Congressman Latham versus Congressman Boswell and Christie Vilsack battling Steve King. And so I think on the western part of the state where republicans kind of dominate the vote we're in good shape. I worry about eastern Iowa because the top of the ticket this year is the presidential race and there's nothing except congressional races after that and I'm very nervous about that.
Glover: Mr. Robinson, you're talking about republicans doing pretty well in western Iowa. Does that come as a surprise to you?
Robinson: No, I'm not saying it's a surprise. What I'm worried about is, Mike, when I went to my district convention a couple of weeks ago there was not, I was never, no one was offered a Mitt Romney lapel sticker, there was no signage for him, you wouldn't even know he was running for president. And my concern is at the top of the ticket thus far in Iowa doesn't have much of a presence here. And that concerns me in eastern Iowa where two years ago Senator Grassley and now Governor Branstad were on the top of the ticket and we did well there. The top of the ticket this time around isn't very strong.
Borg: You sure of that, Mr. Gross?
Gross: I actually think Mitt Romney will carry the state of Iowa. I think he's going to be elected President of the United States. I don't share the same pessimism that Craig has in part because in eastern Iowa Mitt Romney, frankly, has always run very, very strong. And the fact that the western part of the state is fired up is good so he doesn't have to fire them up and they'll get large turnouts because of those congressional races. So I think at the end of the day Mitt Romney is going to carry the state.
Glover: Mr. Schickel, same question to you. Who is going to carry Iowa? And how?
Schickel: I think Romney will and I think the republicans will. The republican party of Iowa is in a stronger position than it has been in, in my recent memory and I believe we have an outstanding, presumptive nominee and I think that he will -- I think that he will carry Iowa and I'm extremely optimistic about the prospect for republicans.
Glover: You just heard some pessimism from the man right next to you. You don't share that? And why?
Schickel: No, not at all. I think that -- well let's look at the facts --
Glover: He's not a naive freshman --
Schickel: Let's look at the facts of the matter here --
Gross: Bill, let's beat him up.
Schickel: In the last three years we have taken a majority in the Iowa House, we almost have a majority in the Iowa Senate. We have won the Governor's office and the Secretary of State's office. That is a pretty good track record. If history -- if our past is any indication of the future we're going to do very well.
Robinson: My concern is that we're not seeing much out of the Romney campaign since he has taken this position of being the presumptive nominee. I don't see much going on the ground. And it's not just me being concerned. The republican leader in the Senate also voiced similar concerns about he worries about his own re-election race, Senator Behn, if the Romney campaign isn't running a full-throated campaign in this state. And if he does I think he can be competitive and I think he can win Iowa. But thus far I'm not seeing any signs of that.
Henderson: Let's go back to 2004. You had John Kerry and you had George Bush and it came down to who was the most likeable. If this election comes down to who is the most likeable, which I think is what Craig's concern here with independent voters, how does Mitt Romney win that argument?
Gross: I didn’t hear him say that.
Robinson: I didn't say that. Thanks, Kay.
Henderson: But how do you avoid the prospect of --
Gross: Because -- the reason why Craig's not right on this is because this is not a race about Mitt Romney. This is a race about Barack Obama. He has been the President for the last four years, this is a structural race, a classic, structural race where the people are going to go to the polls and say, am I better off or am I worse off than when this guy started? And I'll tell you, a lot of people are hurting and still hurting and they're not going to give him another four years because of it. So I think Mitt Romney will compete in Iowa, is competing but I don't think that makes any difference. Lapel pins won't make the difference.
Glover: Let's bring things back a little closer to home. We've talked a little bit about the health of the Republican Party in Iowa. If you look at the incumbents in the Iowa House, republican incumbents running for another term, only a fourth of them have a primary challenge. What does that say about the health of the party?
Schickel: I think for people in political office or in political life to be in a political party to be complaining about elections and competitive primaries is kind of like a farmer complaining about the sun and the rain. That is what we do. I think that's a wonderful thing and I think it will make our candidates better.
Glover: Mr. Gross, you like republican primaries?
Gross: No. Well, actually I participated in one -- it's the only race I won, by the way. But look at it this way, if you're going to have Sunday dinner and you’re going to invite a Christian coalition member, a libertarian, an abortion opponent and then a conservative businessman and you're all going to bring them to your dinner, are you all going to get along during the dinner? No. You're going to disagree on some things. But at the end of the day the thing you agree upon is the fact that you don't think Barack Obama deserves another four years. And really that's all this election is about.
Glover: Mr. Robinson, you've been an operative for a long time in the Republican Party, you understand Republican Party politics. What does this say, all these republican primaries? Bottom line, if republicans are happy with their candidates they're not going to run a primary against them.
Robinson: Look, I do think it heightens some of the divisions within the party and It think there's an argument to be made that that is healthy and they're not doing anything wrong by challenging someone and I agree with Bill that it can make an incumbent stronger. But I also agree that there's some primary challenges that I think are unwarranted. And in some cases it's not always the conservative challenging a moderate. It goes both ways a little bit.
Glover: Mr. Gross, question to you. You were in a primary, as you mentioned. How much did that primary hurt you in the general election?
Gross: It actually, well, it helped me initially, Mike, because I won something and when you win something you come out of there with a flush. But then longer term I had to spend most of the rest of the race trying to bring back the base instead of reaching out to the independents. So a very divisive primary is harmful long-term in a general election because you have to do and say things that don't appeal to an independent.
Henderson: Mr. Robinson, you've been following the congressional primaries. You've got one in the first district and one in the second district. Are you making predictions on who may win those?
Robinson: I think Ben Lang is in a very good position in the first district --
Henderson: To challenge Braley.
Robinson: -- to challenge Braley. I think you have a huge advantage when you have not only been the nominee before but you came so close to actually unseating an incumbent. In the second district I think it's a toss up. I think that both candidates are very strong. I think republicans will do well with both of them, with either of them. But I don’t know how to call that one yet. I think that one is almost too close to call.
Borg: Mr. Gross, President Obama has been courting the youth vote and did very well in the youth vote in the last election. Are Iowa republicans doing all that they should in order to court that same demographic group?
Gross: I think we have really strong organizational efforts on our college campuses among young republicans, stronger than in my lifetime and particularly -- part of this is what Bill says, when we bring the Ron Paul group in there is a libertarian element to our young people right now that they find very attractive because they are disaffected by government, they have seen it be dysfunctional all of their lives. We're attracting those people in a very big way. At the same time, the highest unemployment rate is among young people and that makes it difficult for President Obama.
Glover: Mr. Robinson, step back and take a look at the big picture. Is the influence that Ron Paul has on the Republican Party -- and it is significant -- is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Robinson: It is kind of a two-part answer here because I think on one part bringing those supporters into the party, bringing those more libertarian minded people I think is essential and I think that's very, very good. I think what some of the organizers are doing that are aligned with the Ron Paul situation, prepared to go to Tampa and maybe vote for Ron Paul instead of the person who is going to be the nominee. That is very destructive on some levels. So I think it is kind of a give and take. So I don't want to give a political answer but there you have it.
Borg: I said we're going to get under the hood, and we have, but there's still more work to do and I wish the conversation could continue but we're out of time. Thanks so much.
Thank you, Dean, very much.
Borg: We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press same times next weekend. It will be 7:30 Friday night, second chance to see the program Sunday at noon. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.