Reporters’ Roundtable

Jun 28, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4642 | Podcast


The summer 2019 political season is underway and the first debates of the 2020 presidential cycle have just taken place. We get some political insight from Iowa journalists on this Reporters' Roundtable edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.       


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, June 28 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: The 2020 Iowa Caucuses are 220 days away, but the intensity on the ground here is growing. Candidates have engaged in the first round of televised debates and are returning to Iowa for 4th of July parades and campaigning. But a presidential election is just part of the political backdrop here. To dive into the headlines with some journalistic insight we've gathered a group of Iowa political reporters. Brianne Pfannenstiel is Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. James Lynch is political writer for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Dave Price is Political Director for WHO-TV in Des Moines and he hosts the Insiders program every Sunday morning.

Price: Thanks for that.

Yepsen: And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Kay, let's just go around the horn real quickly. Who did well in that debate?

Henderson: Well, I think the consensus on the Twitterverse and among the pundit class is that Kamala Harris cleaned up on Thursday night and that Elizabeth Warren distinguished herself among the 10 the previous night. I don't want to get too breathless about what's going on here. We're seven months out from the caucuses. And how many Iowa caucus goers spent four hours watching those debates? Conversely, the only thing that people who didn't watch the debates are seeing is the exchange between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And so that is solidifying an idea that Joe Biden may not have the chops to go the distance.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: Well, I think it's interesting, a few weeks ago we had Ann Selzer on this program and she said Joe Biden's support looked shaky, I think was the word she used, and certainly last night he looked a little bit shaky in that debate. He had to know that everybody was gunning for him. He's the presumptive frontrunner and so he should have expected those attacks. And it seemed like he was not prepared to respond with the same intensity as those who were questioning his long, long record in public service.

Yepsen: Brianne, what does this debate mean for the Iowa process? What did you think of the debate? But any thoughts about what it may or may not mean for what is happening here?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think one thing that kind of gets lost among people like us, we've been super tuned in for a long time, but for a lot of Iowans this is the first time that they're seeing all of these candidates lined up, they're seeing some of these candidates speak for the first time. And so it's really an introduction for a lot of people. So they're seeing people like Cory Booker really make his case. They're seeing people like Julián Castro make his case. But to the point about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and our Ann Selzer poll most recently, what really struck me about the way this is going to affect Iowans is a lot of people told us that Kamala Harris is their favorite second choice candidate. So while she is polling a little bit lower in the race, a lot of people said she's on our radar, we want to see more. And I have to think that this debate performance helps her.

Yepsen: Dave, what is your take? Who did well? What does it mean for the race in Iowa?

Price: And so Brianne's point, also in your same poll about Cory Booker was at least in the conversation. And his tactic it seemed like on that first debate night was not to get nasty, and that's kind of his thing, civility, and he could be a little bit aspirational. He didn't really engage a lot necessarily with the other candidates around him, but still sort of stood out. And Elizabeth Warren, like you mentioned, right there on policy, she does it very succinctly, came out no big gaffs or anything like that, so she comes out of there clearly without a moment like Julián Castro and Beto O'Rourke had where Castro went after his fellow Texans so hard on immigration and O'Rourke was kind of back on his heels a little bit and really got chewed up, obviously not as badly as Joe Biden, who it was sort of stunning how ill-prepared he was for that exchange with Kamala Harris about busing. How was he not ready for that? Whether he personally wasn't prepped, his staff didn't prep him, whatever it was, but it was amazing how he just put his head down and let her just take him apart.

Henderson: The other part about the debate that I think is important is that they're playing to a democratic audience, but the Trump folks are going to really flog them on what they did on immigration. I've heard it from republicans already here on the ground, they can't believe some of the things that they said in regards to immigration during both nights of the debate. And Trump will really filet them on that.

Yepsen: Dave, talk a little bit about television. A point was made here a moment ago about most people don't watch the whole thing, but they do see the clips that you folks choose to air on the 10 p.m. news. Is that right? Any numbers?

Price: I totally agree with what she's saying both on the news, but everybody, almost everybody is doing video these days and those little exchanges, because you do wonder how many people watched literally every second of four hours of coverage. It was hard enough for us to find the time to do that. But, so those little moments and those little exchanges, so if you're not really paying attention you have no clue who Julián Castro is, you noticed his Google searches went up, even Tulsi Gabbard had some after her exchange where she really put Tim Ryan in his place on who was responsible for the 9-11 attacks. But it was a great moment for people to have that opportunity to get in a bunch of people's faces and even if it's just a 15, 30 second exchange through social media or on TV or from a paper website, whatever it was, radio, that is your moment to introduce yourself.

Lynch: Well, and for Joe Biden what is his video clip going to be? From that debate what is he going to want to share?

Price: His best clip was when he had that little meme about Bernie Sanders' hand flipping in front of his face.

Lynch: The other question I have goes to that second choice thing for Kamala Harris. Is she going to pick up support? And is it going to come from Joe Biden's expense, at his expense? Or is she picking it up from other folks kind of on the progressive wing of that stage? So I think that's going to be interesting to watch, where her numbers come from.

Yepsen: Brianne, dive back into the polls a little bit. Give us a handicap of this race in Iowa now.

Pfannenstiel: So we polled Iowa at the start of June and so we saw that Joe Biden, just like he is in almost every other poll, is at the top. He is polling at about 24% in Iowa of people saying that he's their first choice for President. Bernie Sanders is in second place at 16%. Elizabeth Warren at 15%. And Pete Buttigieg at 14%. Kamala Harris is the closest to cracking that double digit number at 7%. But then we've got 14 people who are at 1% or below. So we've got a lot of people who are really at the bottom kind of struggling to crack through this massive field.

Yepsen: It's interesting that four years ago at this time in the republican race Donald Trump was at 1%. So we have to be a little careful about being too dismissive of anybody at this point.

Pfannenstiel: Exactly. You have to pay attention to everyone. And you look, you see the reverse. Beto O'Rourke, the first time we polled on him was at 11%. There were a lot of people who were really excited and now he's down at 2%. And the same is true in the reverse, Pete Buttigieg has had a meteoric rise here in Iowa.

Yepsen: Kay, what is your handicap of this race?

Henderson: Well, there appear to be tears developing and we really saw that at the Hall of Fame dinner earlier in June in Cedar Rapids. It seemed as if some people were getting a little nervous and outright, I guess, annoyed that some of these people are still in the race. They didn't get a great reception --

Price: You're not talking about the reporters, right?

Henderson: Exactly. We're talking about activists. It's a room full of activists, many of whom have paid to be in the room, some of whom are the guests of a particular campaign, and there was a real lack of enthusiasm for some of the lower tier candidates. And sort of those thought bubbles over the tables, why are you talking?

Yepsen: James, how do you see the race?

Lynch: It's interesting, after the Hall of Fame event I heard people say, I had eliminated this person and this person, but after seeing them I put them back on my list. I think the debate had the opposite effect. I think other than maybe Julián Castro, who had a really strong performance the first night, I think it's more clear to people watching the debate there are some people who should be on the stage and some people who shouldn't be on the stage, who don't really belong there. And I think, maybe some of the candidates got that message too if they go back and actually look at their performance and their answers. They'll winnow the field, they'll self-winnow.

Yepsen: Dave, how do you segment the race? Is it developing into tiers of candidates or lanes of candidates?

Price: It does, I suppose we could say more broadly we have three tiers here. And I think if we want to oversimplify what we saw in those four hours of coverage you can see those different tiers forming. Anybody who had almost no support in your poll and some of these national polls and they were looking so hard to try to have that moment where they wanted to interject, and I'm thinking of John Delaney, who may have made some points when he was talking about the differences on healthcare, but then the rest of the debate kept trying to get in there and at some point was just sort of shushed away by the moderators at some point. Eric Swalwell decided he was going to go hard after Biden on passing the torch. He tried, it didn't really connect. He tried to go after Buttigieg too with the incident with the fatal shooting in South Bend. It's hard to find your time. Gillibrand was trying. The timing, where to insert yourself and with whom you engage to have your moment.

Henderson: But the caveat here is unless your money dries up these candidates are not going to drop out. Even if they're not on the debate stage in September they're still probably going to limp along until Iowa unless they run into a Scott Walker problem and they've burned through the cash and they have nothing left in the tank.

Yepsen: James, do you expect to see some of these candidates have their money dry up as a result of a poor performance in the debate?

Lynch: It certainly will have an effect for some of them. And I think the bigger effect will be the debate rules, the eligibility rules for the September debates where they have to have 130,000 donors from I think 20 states and it was only 65,000 for this round of debates. So, the people who barely met those eligibility rules really have a tough challenge in front of them and I think there will be some people who won't meet that challenge.

Yepsen: Brianne, I thought this format was awful. But I can't think of a better way to do it. Is there some way that these events could be done that is a little more dignified and presidential instead of a food fight, as Senator Harris said? What do you think?

Pfannenstiel: Well, you've got Governor Jay Inslee pushing for an issue-focused debate. He is specifically advocating for a debate on climate change where the whole hour, two hours can be devoted to one issue and really digging into something like that. I think we saw that a little bit in this debate where they got into some of the issues around healthcare, for instance, and Medicare for all, and we saw the exchanges between some of the candidates, but didn't get as much substance as maybe we would have liked, didn't hear from as many candidates as we would have liked. So I think you're going to see Jay Inslee continue pushing for something like that. But it's hard when there are 20 candidates on the stage and that's not even every candidate in the race.

Henderson: But, conversely, the reason that Donald Trump won the nomination because he was willing to throw food, rhetorically, at his competitors and republicans liked that. Democrats this time around that you talk to, the voters who are going to be participating in the caucuses, they're looking for someone who can go toe-to-toe with Trump. And so that is part of why that dynamic was seen in that debate.

Lynch: One of the reactions I heard after the debate last night was, I was talking to somebody about Joe Biden having a poor night, and the response was I really don't care, he's still the most electable, he's the only one who can beat Donald Trump. And I think that is maybe the strongest thing he has going for him and the toughest, sort of toughest thing that other candidates have to break through. And electability is an issue that we could spend hours talking about what it actually means. But for a lot of voters that is going to be the main issue is who can beat Donald Trump.

Henderson: In the eye of the beholder.

Lynch: Well, yeah.

Yepsen: It is true that an American President leads through the medium of television, that has been Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy proved that. So maybe having a televised food fight is the way to go. But it seems like you could take the 20 candidates and four hours and give them each 12 minutes to just talk to the American people and you might better serve the voters.

Pfannenstiel: Well, we are seeing the DNC limiting and increasing its threshold to get onto the debate stage in September we could be seeing seven or eight candidates on a stage. And so that presents kind of a different problem because here in Iowa we really pride ourselves on giving everyone a platform and allowing people to break through the noise. But these rule changes are really changing the dynamic of who can compete.

Price: It will measure progress, it will force them to progress or they're out.

Yepsen: And the purpose of a political party is to elect a candidate, not stage debates.

Price: Exactly.

Yepsen: Kay, what does the lineup look like in Iowa? There has been some talk that Iowa's place in this campaign is being diminished. This debate occurred in Miami.

Henderson: Well, that was a choice that the DNC made. There will be a debate in Iowa right before the caucuses. Secondly, what you're going to see here in the next few days is just a flood of candidates coming through over the Independence holiday trying to connect with Iowans. And hindsight is a great thing. And I was thinking back to a few Fourth of July holidays that I've covered over the years and the one that really stands out to me is 2007. It was the first instance in which Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were going to be campaigning together and the Obama campaign did not seed that ground, they came out and campaigned in Iowa. They did an event in Pella, which on its face seems weird because Pella is not a democratic stronghold, but it was iconic, it got huge play on the cables --

Price: And huge turnout.

Henderson: And huge turnout. And he did an event in Beaverdale and he also went to the Iowa Cubs game that evening. And it was clear that Obama knew that you have to campaign all across the state and get support even in places like Pella. And number two, I'm not giving up Iowa ground to the Clinton team.

Yepsen: Dave, is Iowa's role in this presidential nominating process being diminished?

Price: I don't know if it's diminished or perhaps just a little different. When you have, it depends how you do your math here, and you want to say 24 candidates or if you consider Mike Gravel, the former Alaska Senator, a legitimate candidate, which seems to be a stretch, perhaps we have 25 here. That's a big, that's such a huge amount. And the way California has moved up its early voting to push up against us here, are we really diminished? Or do we just have so many candidates and they're going to kind of spread out all over the country picking different states and perhaps giving a little more attention to some of these other states early on? Does that really take away what it is? But maybe at the end of the day do you not need the historical, to be one of the top three in this state? Or are we talking about five or six?

Yepsen: Yeah, first class, coach and standby.

Price: I don't know what comes four, five and six.

Yepsen: Then there's baggage -- stowaway.

Price: Exactly. Cargo, right.

Yepsen: Brianne, what is your thought about this? Is Iowa's role in this process diminished?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I'll throw out a stat that we've been tracking at the Des Moines Register. We've had 600 candidate appearances in Iowa since the start of this year. So that to me does not sound like a diminished role. But to Dave's point, I do agree that maybe it has changed a little bit and I think you're seeing a greater importance perhaps on the winnowing effect on kind of vetting these candidates early because there are so many. But you are seeing people prioritize. We have so many candidates that it does not always make sense to be one of 15 people in the state at a time. Maybe you get better TV play if you're in South Carolina, maybe it fits into your strategy differently. But I don't think we're seeing the diminished effect that people were lamenting early on.

Henderson: The other way to measure this is we have three major campaigns that have a huge paid presence in the state. Booker and Warren prior to Memorial Day had huge staffs between the more than 100 people on the ground and Harris announced right before the Hall of Fame event that she was staffing up, so to speak and seemed to be making the idea that she's going to make a big play here in Iowa.

Price: In contrast to the efforts they've been making in South Carolina, which they are sensitive to because some folks here have been pushing back at are you trying to play here or are you focused elsewhere?

Lynch: The other thing, David, is that 200 and some days until the caucuses. You reference Trump was at 1%. I think Bernie Sanders was at 3% in Iowa early on last cycle. So there's a lot of time for somebody to catch fire, for an issue to come up that we aren't talking about today, that they've got the answer and all of a sudden people are saying oh yeah, she has the right answer, she's really on top of this. So I think those sorts of things are still in play. There are issues, there's a lot of time for things to develop in the news that change how we judge these candidates and what we expect from them. So while we talk about winnowing the field there's still time for the one percenters to suddenly jump to double digits and be taken seriously.

Yepsen: And, James, could that not enhance the importance of Iowa? The only way a candidate is going to campaign in California is through media attention and the place you get that is here. So maybe the Jimmy Carter model still works, somebody comes out of nowhere in Iowa.

Lynch: I think it's still possible. And I think it's important for any candidate to do well here so they can do well in California. That primary on that Super Tuesday where Texas and California and other states are voting is going to be of major importance in winning the nomination.

Price: And both of those states have two home state candidates who should have a huge advantage there, right? But I think those early polls would show that they don't yet at this point.

Pfannenstiel: I think we talk a lot about California and South Carolina and whether that is infringing on Iowa's place, but more than them I think it's this viral Internet, it's cable TV. These candidates are looking for ways to be viral, to stand out online. We saw Pete Buttigieg rise from nothing and that wasn't because he was playing here in Iowa, that was because he had a moment that caught fire and spread through the Internet. So I think more than that we're just seeing the media landscape change and that is affecting the way that people play.

Yepsen: Dave, you folks at WHO had Governor Steve Bullock on at a town meeting just in advance of the first debate. How did that work? He was excluded from the debates, raised a fuss about it. Didn't he get more media attention by being excluded than included?

Price: You would think so. He did one with us on the first night of the debate on Wednesday. The debate was at eight o'clock Iowa time, we had him on from 4:00 to about 4:40. Then the next day, in fact that night, he flew to Boston and then drove, he was telling me he was going to get to New Hampshire at like two o'clock in the morning, had an early morning hit on Morning Joe on MSNBC I think, and then he taped another town hall at one of the affiliates in New Hampshire. So he tried to use that play, contrast him with like Seth Moulton, who also didn't make it in there, the Massachusetts Congressman, he tried to do interviews from Miami or whatever and you wonder what kind of splash do you really get from that. So Bullock, we did a little in-house town hall with him, had about a dozen undecideds, obviously people on TV got to see him, but he got to do this, the engagement up close, a lot of these people had no idea, very much about Steve Bullock, but all walked away, all the ones I talked to walked away liking the conversation and at least would consider him.

Yepsen: James, we've got a few minutes left. Let's switch gears to the Republican Party. I'm struck by all these republicans showing up in Iowa. Has the 2024 republican presidential campaign started in Iowa?

Lynch: Well, does the campaign ever stop in Iowa? It's continuous. But yes, it has begun, pretty low level. But I think we've got an event, the Family Leader event coming up this summer where Senator Tim Scott, Jim Langford, Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, are all going to be there. These are folks on the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And with Joni Ernst running for re-election I think we're going to see a lot of republicans coming for their friend Joni to campaign. And we're certainly seeing the fundraising appeals from Marco Rubio and all her republican colleagues. So yeah, I think people are, they just want their name to be known, they want to be recognized when they come to Iowa, and we'll see more of it.

Henderson: And former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was here for the Joni Ernst Roast and Ride and delivered a speech that seems as if it's the framework for her 2024 campaign.

Yepsen: Well, the Family Leader, a group of social conservatives that is headed by Bob Vander Plaats, that is a pretty good audience for a republican to be in front of, right Brianne?

Pfannenstiel: Absolutely. And I think you're going to see more and more people over the years ahead. But in talking with democrats and republicans, they say we remember who has come here. If we've seen you for the last four or eight years when you weren't running that means something to us when you are running.

Yepsen: And Dave, we've overlooked Mike Pence who, as I see it, managed to visit the same flood twice. Is he thinking about 2024?

Price: You don't think he was just thinking about the Iowans impacted?

Yepsen: I'm sure he was.

Price: But it helps to have a couple of moments here, right, when we're in crisis and he got to be there talking to people, the cameras are all surrounding him, and yes as you point out, he did come twice, as he perhaps looks at the landscape ahead.

Yepsen: Talk a little bit about, we've got just a couple of minutes left, and Kay, Joni Ernst announced. What is her message?

Henderson: She is using a message that is very much aligned with the message that President Trump is delivering right now. She is hammering at democrats as being the party of socialists. She has a group of democrats who have emerged, three of them, I'm not going to mention all their names, and then another one maybe waiting in the wings and maybe another one who ran for Congress how may at some point decide whether he's running for the U.S. Senate. But it was striking that she really is tacking toward Trump and very well received by those base voters that turned out for her kickoff event.

Yepsen: Dave, less than a minute. What is the mood of the Iowa electorate right now?

Price: I think it has stayed the same in a lot of ways. You look at Trump's numbers, they are the same as they've always been. There's all kinds of stuff that has been going on since he has been President and we have this trade war, we have the tariffs, we have disaster here, all kinds of things, investigations right and left, but his numbers are what they are and they don't seem to change and it seems like people's mood doesn't change much. He's not gaining, he's not really losing, it just, it is what it is.

Henderson: If you cheer for the Cyclones, you don't change and cheer for the Hawkeyes.

Yepsen: All right, we have to leave it at that. We're out of time. Thanks to all of you. We look forward to having you back. And thank you for joining us. We’ll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night, Noon on Sunday, and anytime at So for all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.      

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa