Reporters Roundtable

Oct 5, 2012  | 00:28:46  | Ep 4005 | Podcast



Borg: These final days before the November 6 general election are intense.  Candidates spending millions of dollars daily are courting voters and that means getting supporters to vote now and persuading the undecided to get off the fence. In the middle of it all political reporters criss-crossing the state along with the candidates, attempting to put it all in perspective.  And that is our goal today -- taking what of them has been hearing and seeing, comparing notes and then surveying what is admittedly a fast-changing political landscape.  We'll be hearing today from James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines Register Political Reporter Jennifer Jacobs and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  Kay, I'm going to start with you first of all. The debate is on everybody's minds right now as the topic of conversation but it isn't the first time we've seen these two candidates debate, not together but separately here in Iowa.

Henderson: Exactly.  There were dozens of debates where we all witnessed Mitt Romney commanding the stage and these were events in 2007 which featured not just an opponent for Mitt Romney, but several people. And think about how talented one has to be to dominate the stage when you have seven competitors.  I also was remembering what happened in 2006 here in Iowa.  Mitt Romney came to speak to republicans attending the state republican convention in the summer and he knocked it out of the ballpark.  He had presence.  And I think Americans saw that perhaps for the first time.  On the other side of the ledger here I can't remember an event featuring Barack Obama that occurred during a debate where I saw him really control the stage here in Iowa in 2007 before the caucuses. Sure, we saw a lot of speeches here but if I'm trolling through my own personal memory bank I can't really remember Barack Obama controlling the stage in the same way that I saw Mitt Romney control the stage here in Iowa before the caucuses.

Lynch: I think this was a case of people were seeing Mitt Romney for the first time, many people were.  He is old hat to us.  But I also think it was a case of Mitt Romney being Mitt Romney.  He is a good debater and he didn't have to defend himself against a hard-core conservative like Rick Santorum.  He could be Mitt Romney, the moderate, center right governor laying out his plan.  It was an entirely different format for him.

Borg: Jennifer, what did you see?

Jacobs: You had a lot of people tune in.  But keep in mind you did have some democrats in Iowa who thought that Obama did quite well.  Not everybody thought universally that Romney was the winner, although that was pretty much the conclusion that most people had.  But some people were still impressed with Obama.

Borg: What did you think of the performance of each person, Kay?

Henderson: Of Romney versus Obama?  I thought Obama's body language was odd.  I was sort of dumbstruck that there wasn't more thought into how the two would look compared and contrasted on stage.  That was an odd thing to me.  As we all know if we've been paying attention to this, Obama took a lot of notes, his head was down, he sometimes looked at his feet whereas Romney was engaged because he knew at every moment he was on that stage he was in front of a camera.

Lynch: It was a better performance in that regard by Romney than by the President who typically has great presence.  I mean, usually when Barack Obama is on the stage in a situation -- you talked about when he's with a whole field of democratic candidates.  But in a small group setting like that you would expect the President to dominate and to have the, you know, command the presence.

Henderson: There was somebody who said that if you watch the debate with the sound off you would have thought that Mitt Romney was the President by the way he commanded the stage whereas if you watch the debate and Obama's performance with the sound off you would have thought he was the beleaguered challenger who was just trying to compete with a guy that was dominating in the polls.  I don’t know what your impression was, Jennifer.

Jacobs: Yeah, usually when you see Obama on the campaign trail in Iowa he is very animated, he's funny, he's witty, he's telling jokes. He really has the crowd in the palm of his hand.  And sometimes Romney's crowds are a little bit more subdued but this time it was just the opposite.  Romney just really had everybody just jaw-dropped.

Lynch: I had one republican partisan tell me that they think this was Obama's strategy, to lose the first debate.  If that was his strategy it worked.  I'm not sure how it's going to work down the road but she thought that he wanted to lose this debate to sort of set the stage for a comeback in the future debates.

Borg: There was a reference to PBS there and that wasn't something new though, was it Jim?

Lynch: No, this is something that I think Kay has reported on in the past, Mitt Romney talking about how he would like to cut PBS, including Big Bird.

Henderson: He loves Big Bird.

Lynch: He loves Big Bird, yes.

Jacobs: But a line we heard on the campaign trail over and over and over and over, it's just interesting that suddenly nationally that is starting to get some pick up now that we've had 67 million people watching a debate in which he said it.

Borg: And wasn't that the difference, that 70 million people were watching and when he was saying it, and you heard it here in Iowa several times you say, that it was small crowds and never got beyond there?

Jacobs: Apparently although, as Kay has pointed out numerous times, the whole national press was watching him and the Big Bird joke was kind of a standard part of his stump speech here in Iowa.

Lynch: I think one thing is that this reinforces the idea that these debates are where a lot of people really get their first look at the candidates, especially the challenger.  We've seen Obama on the news for four years or longer but people haven't paid as much attention to Mitt Romney and now they're really getting a good look at him so a line like that suddenly gets a lot of attention.

Borg: We've got a Register poll that is out.  How is the race shaping up in Iowa?

Jacobs: We do -- we polled about two weeks ago here in Iowa starting two weeks ago and it showed that Obama was up by 4 points in Iowa.  However, you'll hear pollsters say all the time that a poll is just a snapshot in time and so much has happened since we have polled that it wouldn't surprise me if the race had flip-flopped and now Romney were ahead in Iowa.  That could very well be the case especially if we had polled right after the debate, it probably would have shown that Romney was ahead here because even when we polled two weeks ago it showed there was definitely an opening for Romney here.  59% of our Iowa voters considered the economy their top issue and Romney really stressed that during the debate on Wednesday night last week.  So it just wouldn't surprise me if the race had completely flip-flopped although you've got the new jobs report that just came out last week on Friday.  So there's so many variables.  But what we can conclude for sure is that Iowa is still a swing state.

Borg: Swing state, battleground state?  Same terminology there.  Is that the way that you see it, Jim?  And why did Iowa start out being a battleground state?

Lynch: Well, historically there have been some close elections here.  But I think there are a number of factors that go into this -- one, we see these candidates from early on, before they even are candidates.  We can sense that they are candidates when they come here and campaign for congressional candidates or legislative candidates or whatever.  So we have a lot of exposure to these candidates.  And so I’m not going to say that we're smarter than voters in other states but maybe we're better informed or just by our exposure so we're better able to judge these candidates.  And because the caucuses start here and start so early we have the continuous campaign and campaign staffs who basically live in Iowa and know how to get people out to caucuses and to campaign events and to the polls.

Borg: Jennifer, I want to go back to you. Early voting.  What are the statistics now?  Do you have any indications how early voting is going and what percentage of early voting might be already in the bag?

Jacobs: We do.  There's more than 270,000 ballots that have been returned by absentee ballots.  As you know, you can return your ballot in person or you can mail in your absentee ballot.  The democrats are still ahead in that.  More democrats have turned in their ballots.  But the republicans are gaining.  You'll see each day the republicans are picking up speed on that and part of that is a strategy where the republicans waited to really promote early voting until the last minute whereas democrats started about a month out.

Borg: Is that to their detriment, Kay?

Henderson: Well, this is a whole new ballgame for republicans. Republicans have historically not played the game of early voting becuase republicans by and large believe that you should go to the poll on Election Day, it is your patriotic duty to do that. And they have been shellacked in several elections, they have lost legislative races they thought they were going to win because of the overwhelming edge that the democrats racked up in early voting.  So this year for a change the Republican National Committee and the Romney campaign came into Iowa early, began making voter contacts even before Romney had the nomination sewn up.  So they were way ahead of the game compared to where John McCain was in 2008.  And they are targeting different people than democrats are targeting.  Democrats are targeting reliable democratic voters to put those votes in the "bank" whereas republicans are targeting unreliable republican voters, maybe somebody who cast a ballot in 2010 for a republican congressional candidate but hadn't voted since 1998.  They’re trying to get those unreliable voters to cast early ballots because they don't want them to fall through the cracks.

Borg: They don't want them to miss Election Day in case it rains or something like that?

Henderson: Exactly.

Borg: Or not so much change their minds because they're reliable voters.

Henderson: Exactly.

Jacobs: And you'll see the republicans think their strategy is better because they're not wasting any money trying to advertise or to urge their high propensity voters to get to the polls.  They know those people are going to show up no matter what so they spend their time and money trying to focus on those low propensity voters.

Borg: And then also targeting niche voters.  Jim, I know I saw Cedar Rapids and Linn County they have satellite voting at the union hall, a black church I believe in Cedar Rapids and some other niche demographic groups.

Lynch: That's right.  And I think the Obama campaign has made better use of those satellite voting sites, putting them where those niche voting groups are likely to be whether it is a black church, a union hall, a Latino grocery store.  They're really trying to take advantage of that system. They are also -- we saw Paul Ryan in Dubuque which everybody thinks Dubuque is a democratic stronghold.  It is also a Catholic stronghold and I guess the Romney campaign thinks that sending Paul Ryan to a Catholic community will pickup some votes there.

Henderson: To a Catholic institution, Loras College.

Lynch: Yes, exactly.  And trying to build the relationship that -- was it his grandmother or somebody --

Henderson: His grandfather graduated from there in 1919.

Borg: Well, you and I were both at that Ryan rally at Loras College in the field house, Kay.  And it seemed to be successful because outside I saw signs, Catholics for Romney and many demonstrators like that.

Henderson: Well, it's trying to peel democrats who are very devout Catholics off to consider Romney as an alterative because of the Obama administration's position on contraceptives and requiring Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives for employees.  And so they are trying to peel off a few voters and peeling off a few voters is key here in Iowa if we have a really, really narrow election.

Borg: And that is why -- also you went down river, let's talk about Paul Ryan, you went down river --

Henderson: Went to Clinton where Paul Ryan's wife has roots.  Here mother grew up there.  Her grandmother lived in a house in Clinton until 2004.  Her grandfather was the town doctor.  So there were some Clinton roots to highlight there as well.  I think what was interesting about that Paul Ryan tour is that many republicans were celebrating it because he was going into democratic strongholds, again, trying to peel off votes.  You're not going to win some of those democratic counties but if you underperform in your potential republican vote in that area it is a loser for you.  You need to turn out as many republican votes in democratic areas as you do in republican areas.

Borg: So what is the strategy of Joe Biden being in Council Bluffs?

Jacobs: That is interesting too.  It's another working class town although it does lean republican, Pottawattamie County is very much a republican stronghold but it’s exactly the opposite of what Kay was saying.  He's trying to get as many voters as he can around the edges in those working class towns and people have traditionally said that Joe Biden appeals to those blue collar workers a little bit more than the top of the ticket.

Lynch: As important as those votes are to the presidential campaigns, it also plays in the down ballot races in some of those congressional -- any votes that Paul Ryan can pick up in Dubuque is going to help Ben Lange.  Any votes that Biden picks up in Council Bluffs should help -- whose district is that -- yes, Leonard Boswell.  I was going to say Christie Vilsack but that's not the 5thdistrict anymore.

Borg: I'm glad that you mentioned congressional districts because I want to switch our conversation to that right now.  And much of that is being waged, that war, in television commercials.  We're going to look at some of those commercials right now starting with the second district where incumbent David Loebsack is being challenged by Davenport and John Deere Corporate Attorney John Archer.

Loebsack for Congress Ad: I'm Dave Loebsack and I approved this message.  “Iowa lost over 11,000 jobs due to unfair trade, outsourced overseas and John Archer is part of the problem.  Archer is an executive for the global division of a corporation that shipped 900 jobs to Mexico and Archer supports more unfair trade with South Korea.  Worse, Archer has personal investments in manufacturing companies in Asia.  John Archer -- international corporate executive at our expense."

Borg: Kay, do you see an Achilles heel there?

Henderson: I do.  I don't think it's good politics for any politician in Iowa to criticize John Deere, which people are figuring out.  John Archer works for John Deere.  That ad criticizes John Deere. It actually criticizes John Deere for shipping jobs to Mexico in 1998 before John Archer actually was employed by John Deere.  So there are several holes in this ad that the Archer campaign has been trying to shoot at. The other thing that occurred to me when I had an opportunity to ask Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who is the chair of the Democratic National Committee, if John Deere was a good corporate citizen.  She said she couldn't comment but Leonard Boswell, congressman representing the southwest part of the state, was right there behind her and he stepped to the microphone and he defended John Deere and said he had big green on his farm. So this has opened up I think a line of attach for Archer against Loebsack that Loebsack really didn't need to open this can of worms.

Lynch: I think the Loebsack campaign was smart enough not to name John Deere.  The ad really is scarier by just saying the global division of this unnamed corporation. But to say John Deere, there's a lot of people in the second district who drive John Deere tractors and earn a paycheck at John Deere so I think it would have backfired even more if they had mentioned John Deere by name.

Jacobs: And it picked up on a national theme.  You'll see the Romney campaign being, bristling at this accusation that they have outsourced or that Romney outsourced jobs when he worked for the private equity firm, Bain Capital.  But the democrats have found that that really has hit home with people on a national level so I think they were trying to bring it here at an Iowa level but it probably backfired because you just don't want to mess with John Deere in Iowa.

Borg: Interesting that you took that approach because when I said Achilles heel I wondered if John Archer might have an Achilles heel in this and you took it to no, this may backfire on Dave Loebsack.

Henderson: Well, the Loebsack campaign tries to argue that Archer’s investments in companies in Asia is an Achilles heel but I don't think that commercial makes that argument.  It is mainly targeted at his current employer rather than his investments.

Lynch: We saw that issue come up in the first district where Ben Lange, republican Ben Lange attacked Bruce Braley for having investments in companies that did business in China.  So it's the same -- the trade issue really resonates with voters.

Borg: Let's go over to the third district right now  and take a look at that race with Leonard Boswell, two incumbents, Leonard Boswell, he is the democrat and Tom Latham, the republican.

Boswell for Congress Ad: I'm Leonard Boswell and I approved this message. "An insider deal only Congressman Tom Latham could pull off.  Four years ago Tom Latham opposed the TARP bank rescue plan.  But documents show that the Latham family bank actually received $2.4 million from the bailout. No wonder Latham's net worth increased nearly six times since coming to Congress.  It's true, Latham and his family bank cashed in your tax dollars."

Latham for Congress Ad: "Look at his record, look at my record, you make your choice."  "Longtime Congressman Leonard Boswell voted for the TARP Wall Street bailout.  Boswell voted for job killing Obamacare and against bills to help Iowa's farmers and economy."

Borg: Jennifer, we saw two ads there.  What did you see in those?

Jacobs: Well, the first ad against Latham, the Latham campaign has really cried foul on that one. That have pointed out that Congressman Latham did not profit in any way from the TARP bill, that he resigned from the bank holding company in question 18 years ago long before he ever voted and he just didn't have any say over the years in whether or not the bank took that million dollars in TARP money.  So, the Latham campaign has knocked that down completely.  But the Boswell campaign continues to try to push that, they're trying to show some sort of hypocrisy on Latham's part. But the Latham campaign says absolutely no way.

Borg: Are there areas of sensitivity there, Kay, that they are trying to achieve but may be falling short or may be hitting the mark?

Henderson: Well, I think the interesting thing about these ads is that they are not mentioning what I think is currently the big issue in this race and that is Leonard Boswell is suing his 2008candidate.  So any day I am expecting the Latham campaign to drop an ad about -- or maybe the republican congressional committee on Latham's behalf dropping an ad because that is an explosive issue that could pop here in the closing weeks of this campaign.

Lynch: And could divide the democrats in that district -- people who supported Ed Fallon when he challenged Leonard Boswell -- and may just bristle at the idea of a democrat suing a democrat.

Borg: Let's go up to the fourth district, republican, traditionally republican stronghold where Steve King is being challenged by democrat Christie Vilsack.

Vilsack for Congress Ad: "Who can Iowans trust on Medicare?  Steve King voted for a budget the Wall Street Journal says would essentially end Medicare as we know it.  For future retirees, King's plan would replace guaranteed benefits with vouchers.  AARP opposes the voucher scheme which analysts say could cost seniors over $6,000 a year.  Christie Vilsack will protect guaranteed benefits."

King for Congress Ad: "Strengthen Medicare.  There's one easy way.  Get rid of Obamacare.  Obamacare cuts Medicare $716 billion. It creates a board of fifteen bureaucrats to control seniors' health decisions.  Liberals always try to scare you about Medicare.  Well, this time answer back and say you know the truth, Obamacare has to go. I'm Steve King and I approved this message."

Borg: Kay, I would say that probably Steve King is spending more money on television ads in this campaign than he ever has before.

Henderson: Indeed because he has a well financed challenger who had incredible name ID.  I think what is interesting about these ads is they are prosecuting an issue that is being debated at the presidential level and perhaps this race may be swinging on different issues than the one we're seeing in these ads.  I think the farm bill is something that they have talked about in every one of the 59 debates that these two have had thus far in the campaign and there are a host of other issues that are at play in this district. I'm not sure this particular issue is at play.  But I will say one thing about ads in general.  A lot of the presidential ads have really I think had an influence on the congressional races in Iowa because they have driven republicans and democrats home to the extent that incumbency is not as big of an advantage as you might think in these new congressional districts.

Borg: Jim, over in the first congressional district, northeast Iowa, we're seeing Medicare in that race of democrat Braley, the incumbent and Ben Lange is challenging him for a second time.

Lynch: Right.  And Congressman Braley is saying that Ben Lange would end Medicare as we know it which scares especially older voters who tend to turn out. And Ben Lange comes back and says that's not the case.  He hasn't supported vouchers which is part of the Ryan plan.  And he keeps asking Congressman Braley, well what is your plan to save Medicare?  So they are fighting on that very familiar ground of Medicare and Social Security. 

Jacobs: And you'll see they commonly use that scary buzzword of voucher which is no longer part of the current GOP plan, Mitt Romney's plan would not voucherize Medicare.  They are very specific about it would offer a premium subsidy but it would go directly to the insurance company from the government, it's not like you're going to be handed some sort of a coupon and you have to deal with it on your own.  But, you know, that word scares people and also when Steve King and some of the other republicans used that bureaucrats will decide your healthcare, that alarms people and of course, the democrats say that's not true either.

Henderson: Well, and President Obama talked about it during the debate this past week.  He was trying to explain that this is a board designed to find best practices and totally trying to dispute the idea that this is a death panel.

Lynch: But it's also charges that are really hard to knock down.  When you say that somebody is going to end Medicare as we know it or there's going to be a death panel, those are things that true or not they are very hard to knock down, to refute.

Borg: Jennifer, how is the judicial retention of David Wiggins shaping up?  He's not the only one up for retention but it's one of the reasons the focus is on in the vote.

Jacobs: Our Iowa poll shows that at least at this point Iowans are not feeling an urge to oust him from office. So we know that for sure. Whereas two years ago we were seeing some signs that the justices who had authored that decision legalizing gay marriage were in trouble.  This time we're not seeing that for Justice Wiggins.

Borg: Kay, you’ve been following that.

Henderson: Well, and viewers of this show saw the debate firsthand last week when you had Bob Vander Plaats, the chief spokesman for the folks trying to oust Wiggins on one side and a very much more aggressive defense of Wiggins being waged by his supporters this time around, which could have an impact. But I think that combined with the fact that attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing have really made this a much different race than it was in 2010.

Borg: Jim, maybe significantly about 30 seconds left to cover the legislative races.  But they are also just being overwhelmed by all the television advertising and really haven't risen to much prominence statewide.

Lynch: Yes, in talking to candidates they say they don't know that they're going to be able to find any time to put their ads on the air. Over in eastern Iowa I’ve seen one legislative candidate advertising on TV. So they're going to be forced to do a lot more mail drops, a lot more door knocking and a lot more phone calling I'm afraid.

Borg: And we'll talk about that in the future. Thank you so much for your insights today.  Well, hopefully we've given you some insights and maybe all of us will have enough stamina now to get through November.  As Election Day nears we'll be taking Iowa Press right to your congressional districts in the coming week.  We're highlighting congressional district races in all four districts of Iowa with live debates.  Now, here's a preview.

In four consecutive weeks in October, IPTV will hold Iowa Press Debates across the state in each of Iowa's congressional districts.  On Thursday, October 11th, the 3rd district race between democrat Leonard Boswell and republican Tom Latham will air live at 7pm in Council Bluffs from the Iowa Western Community College Arts Center.  On Tuesday, October 16th, the 2nd district race between democrat Dave Loebsack and republican John Archer will air live at 7pm from the DMACC campus in Newton.  On Thursday, October 25th, the 4th district race between democrat Christie Vilsack and republican Steve King will air live at 7pm from the Santa Maria Winery in Carroll.  On Thursday, November 1st, the 1st district race between democrat Bruce Braley and republican Ben Lange will air live at 7pm from the Grand Opera House in Dubuque.  All Iowans are welcome to attend these debates with seating based on a first-come, first-served basis.  Or you can watch the live debates on statewide Iowa Public Television and online at  Four congressional debates in four weeks, all broadcast live on IPTV.  We hope you'll join us for each expanded edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Yes, we do hope that you'll join us.  The first of those special debates, again, of Iowa Press begin next week. That one live from Council Bluffs with incumbent Congressmen Boswell and Latham Thursday night.  Now, if you miss the show live Thursday night, we’ll be showing it again, the Iowa Press debate that airs live Thursday night at 7:30 Friday night, our regular time and again at noon on Sunday.  Thanks for joining us today.




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