Chasing numbers. Presidential candidates pursuing poll preference ratings, converting numbers to actual caucus supporters. Political journalists watching and reporting and we're asking what they're seeing on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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, December 18 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The presidential candidates may soon be suspending the rallies and speeches to be spending more time with family around the holidays, but it's a sure thing that every one of them hopes to be celebrating differently at this time next year, more specifically planning a presidential inaugural. There is a lot of ground to cover before that happens and we're getting a road report from the campaign trail. And veterans on the campaign trail, Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and the Register's Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich. Kathie, you're a veteran of campaigns.

Obradovich: How nice of you to put it that way instead of just you're old.

Borg: But look back four, eight years ago. Does this run-up to the caucus feel differently?

Obradovich: Yeah, absolutely. Four years ago and eight years ago the caucuses were on January 3rd or the first week in January. So we were not only going into the holidays but we were going into the final weeks of the campaign. Let's all have a little chorus of We Wish You a Merry Caucus. We were trying to figure out how the candidates were going to go negative on each other like they really wanted to do without offending voters or calling them during their Christmas dinners. And now there's a little bit of breathing room. At the Des Moines Register we were trying to figure out how we were going to poll, how are we going to poll caucus voters over the holidays when they may be traveling, etcetera. We're really glad we don't have to do that this year.

Borg: But it didn't seem to impair last time, but let's look ahead to this time, Kay. What are you seeing this time? Anything differently other than not campaigning over the holidays?

Henderson: One of the curiosities that I found out on the campaign trail is seeing where the so-called liberty voters are landing. I covered a Trump rally in Des Moines recently at which I ran into a precinct leader for Ron Paul, who is a Trump supporter this time around. On the democratic side you have Bernie Sanders who has been energizing a lot of those so-called liberty voters. And then you have Rand Paul who was on this show a few days ago saying that he was going to win because of liberty voters. I don't think there are that many out there. But that has been an interesting phenomenon to follow and of course the Trump phenomenon has been phenomenal to cover this year because of his staying power in the polls and his ability to keep attention on himself, his ability to stiff-arm the competition and his ability to shoot and wound fellow campaign people on the campaign trail has been fascinating.

Borg: Do you see the rhetoric different this time, Jim?

Lynch: Well, of course. I mean, every caucus campaign is different because you have different players for the most part.

Borg: But I mean just the rough and tumble of it.

Lynch: Yeah, it is pretty sharp for this point in the campaign I would say. Kathie talked about how four years ago and eight years ago we were trying to figure out how you could go negative at the holidays but that's not a problem this year, they started maybe around Thanksgiving going negative on each other and we're seeing the sharp elbows and hearing sharp exchanges. In the debate the other night the republicans really went at one another in a way that we hadn't seen in earlier debates.

Borg: Well, I'm seeing more negativity, Kathie, right now against Rubio, you can name others, but against others too. You can go ahead.

Obradovich: Well, the whole campaign has been, a lot of the discussion has been about Donald Trump and the media also asking other candidates to respond to Donald Trump. And we've heard a lot of it. Now we're starting to see some of the other candidates attack somebody besides Donald Trump. So Marco Rubio, for example, has been going after Ted Cruz. Other candidates have been going after Marco Rubio. Why Marco Rubio? Well he is fourth in Iowa right now, in the Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, and he is the person who is leading who I would consider to be more of an establishment or mainstream type of candidate. So Jeb Bush is four points behind him in Iowa. That is not an insurmountable gap. And so looking at -- that's a really interesting thing about who could win that lane in Iowa. Ted Cruz now leading the Iowa polls. What's interesting there is he has kept his mitts off of Donald Trump, has avoided bringing him into the ring and we saw this in the last debate, last republican debate where they tried to get those two mixed up and they wouldn't do it.

Henderson: There are two other factors that make this, back to your original question, feel dramatically different from '07 and '11. Number one, the debates and the focus on national polling data. So the candidates haven't spent as much time on the ground in Iowa b because they have been occupied with getting their poll numbers up nationally. Number two, on the republican side there are so many candidates that you now have candidates strategizing about this race lasting far beyond the first four states and the so-called SEC primary.

Borg: Strategizing in what way? Making the money last?

Henderson: In that delegating time, allotting time to campaigning in places like Virginia and Georgia and Oklahoma --

Borg: Simultaneously with Iowa you say? Because it used to be Iowa, move onto New Hampshire, then South Carolina --

Henderson: There's a strategy here, especially on the part of a candidate like Ted Cruz who has spent the past week campaigning in the SEC primary states because they see the nomination fight lasting far beyond the first four campaigns and caucuses and primaries.

Lynch: One of the other things we're seeing is I think the GOP field, there's two fields now, there's Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson might be on the bubble but it looks like he is falling, and then everybody else. And when you look at Bush and Kasich and these folks, their numbers don't seem to be changing very much, they don't seem to be gaining anything. I guess they can play the long game and hope that in the SEC primary or somewhere down the road they score a victory. I think one thing that it does is it makes New Hampshire, maybe increases the importance of New Hampshire because when they come out of Iowa I think we're going to have these top three and everybody else trying to break through in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, for example.

Borg: Kathie, go back to a couple of shows ago when Doug Gross had a metaphor that had us all laughing that Ted Cruz had been lying in the ditch like a fox waiting for Donald Trump to stumble and then he was going to take -- and you came back with, well who is going to be roadkill? But I am asking this seriously now, who is roadkill so far? Have there been any?

 

Obradovich: If you go back to the beginning of the race, of course, we have already winnowed the field with Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Perry are early casualties and I don't think anybody really expected that to happen when we were starting this race. But I think that the fact that the debates have divided and that people have fallen off even the undercard debate, we heard Rand Paul, for example, saying before the last debate that if he didn't make the main stage that he might have an announcement about the future of his candidacy. So it's not so much the Iowa process, it is the debates that are starting to winnow this field.

Henderson: The other roadkill that we might see, particularly in Iowa, is the establishment because if you look at the candidates who are leading in the polls, you have Trump, anti-establishment, you have Cruz, very anti-establishment and so the establishment hasn't yet coalesced behind a candidate here in Iowa. And its influence is waning as the campaign wears on here in Iowa. It's a different story in a place like New Hampshire where an establishment candidate is going to likely come to the fore. And that is why you see people attacking Rubio because they're afraid in Iowa that Rubio will emerge as the establishment pick.

Lynch: Right, I was going to say that's why we need to keep an eye on Rubio because I think he can fill that lane, that establishment lane. People I think have sort of written off Jeb Bush as the establishment candidate at this point. And so Rubio has a lot of room to grow, there's a lot of capacity there, not only in Iowa buy beyond Iowa.

Borg: Will Iowa determine that, however?

Lynch: Well, his standing and performance in the Iowa republican caucus, will that determine whether or not he fills that establishment lane?

Borg: I don't think it will determine it but I think if he does well in Iowa, if he finishes in the top three, it really propels him, it moves him ahead in that lane. He doesn't have a big, or strong ground game here in Iowa, he hasn't spent as much time here as some of the other candidates. So expectations may not be as high for Rubio as for some other candidates.

Obradovich: He's not considered to have a really great ground organization either and that's a big issue. If he wants to come in, in third place or fourth place, match or do better than his poll numbers, he's going to have to have a beefed up ground organization to do that. There's not much time left to develop that. Jeb Bush, he's only four points behind and if he has a better organization he could actually turn out better than his poll numbers and you get that expectation factor in Iowa. So he could perform better than expectations here.

Borg: Back to you, Kay, and something you said just a bit earlier and I didn't get asked at that time. You said that candidates are strategizing about staying power throughout other states in the campaign right now. But will Iowa be a do or die for some candidates? And will it winnow the republican field?

Obradovich: Well, that has always been the conventional wisdom. I don't know that that's the case this year because you have people like a Lindsey Graham, you would think if he finishes dead last in Iowa that he would drop out. However he has spent almost every waking hour of his campaign life campaigning in New Hampshire. So if he finishes dead last in Iowa I don't see him dropping out because he's going to depend on maybe a better finish in New Hampshire.

Obradovich: I have a hard time seeing how Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who both won the Iowa caucuses in the past, go on after Iowa. It's a very tough sell. If the conservatives, party conservatives are picking a Ted Cruz or one of the other candidates who hasn't run before and both of those guys, it seems like they would have a very tough sell going forward.

Lynch: New Hampshire isn't real favorable for the sort of evangelical candidates. So Santorum and Huckabee would have a tough time making a comeback. Huckabee is looking ahead to the SEC primary I think.

Henderson: And to South Carolina.

Lynch: And to South Carolina. So he may skip New Hampshire for all intents and purposes and concentrate on those states.

Borg: What about the debates? We talked earlier, Kathie, about the debates and the fact that candidates may not be spending as much time in Iowa this cycle because they're trying to increase their national poll numbers. But how are the debates running with the public and increasing the fervor among those who might stay away from the caucuses but this year, because of being drawn into the debates, they may be turning out?

Obradovich: Well, I don't know if the debates will drive turnout in Iowa. I think there are other ways that candidates are going to do that, including with their campaigns here. But the debates are influential I think about how voters in Iowa think about the candidates. And we see national polls being influenced by those debates. I think polls in Iowa get influenced by those debates as well. And you look at Ted Cruz, for example, he has done consistently well in all five debates that they've had so far. And Jeb Bush, he has had mixed reviews, for example, in all of these debates. Donald Trump, mixed reviews, and yet he is one who has been able to survive those debates. Ben Carson has kind of disappeared in the debates and his poll numbers are also disappearing.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: Back to your winnowing question. I think the most interesting candidate to follow is Rand Paul. Kathie mentioned had he not made the debate stage that he might have withdrawn from the race and focused on re-election from Kentucky. On this show, he said we'll know by February. It sounds to me like he is committed to being in Iowa and New Hampshire and if he doesn't finish well in either of those states he is one of them to drop out. But, again, I think he is looking, as most of them are, at seeing New Hampshire voters, as one person I heard explained it, always liked to give a contrary opinion to Iowa. And so I think that's a factor in all of their decisions. They want to wait to see what the judgment of New Hampshire is and if it is indeed contrary to what Iowa republicans do.

Lynch: We -- ironically we haven't really talked that much about Donald Trump here and what he might do to the caucuses.

Borg: Donald Trump talks for himself.

Lynch: Well, that's true. He doesn't need our help. But one of the things that the Trump folks will tell you is that the events he does, he has attracted they say more than 30,000 Iowans to his events, stand-alone events, not multi-candidate events. And they say look if half those people show up on caucus night they're going to be doing fine. They're going to do very well. And we don't know if they'll show up. We don't know if the people that are coming to his rallies actually go to caucus. A lot of them are people who haven't been involved before so it's hard to predict what they'll do. But I think that is going to be a real wild card on caucus night, whether they show up and how many of them show up. If 30,000 people show up Donald Trump is going to do extremely well. If half that number shows up he'll do okay.

Obradovich: Dean, you asked, started off by asking what is different this cycle. One thing that I think is the same is, especially looking at the republican race, we don't really know how it's going to come out. Four years ago we saw Rick Santorum really making his move in the final weeks of the campaign. That is a possibility again this time. And I don't know, these questions about Donald Trump being a wild card and other candidates. I think predicting the outcome right now would be very, very difficult.

Borg: Before we move onto the democrats, how is the tele-caucus that the democrats are trying this time, how is that going to influence the party at the national convention and state convention really because that's where the delegates go? Tell us about that.

Obradovich: So that's another question. I think they get two delegates from a tele-caucus, which will be aimed at people who are, for example, serving overseas in the military, but also like students who are maybe studying abroad, other people who are Iowans and registered Iowa voters but who can qualify to vote absentee in general elections. And we don't know how it's going to work. Honestly we don't know if people will get up at two in the morning and want to caucus. But it is a way to appease the national party and Hillary Clinton that the caucuses are doing its best not to exclude people.

Henderson: Because they're also, on the democratic side, having satellite caucuses whereby people petition the party and say hey, I've got about 15 people that I work with, we want to go into the break room and have a caucus here at the plant, please let us caucus.

Obradovich: That was one of the criticisms Hillary Clinton had about the Iowa process eight years ago, the shift workers, working mothers, other people weren't going to be able to come out and participate in the caucuses.

Borg: That's what I was going to point out. Jim, Hillary Clinton has a pretty good hold on the Iowa caucus goers it seems on the democratic side. Bernie Sanders, what is his role in a showing in Iowa? What does that mean for Bernie Sanders?

Lynch: Well, I think this is where that expectations game gets played in Iowa.

Borg: Because he goes onto New Hampshire and he should do well there.

Lynch: He should do well there. If he makes a strong showing here, and I'm not sure what that will be, but if he finishes close to Hillary Clinton and the margin is in double digits, for example, and then goes onto New Hampshire and he could win there, then I think he's viable to continue through March probably. And it also raises questions about Hillary Clinton's strength if she doesn't win by a big margin here in Iowa and if she loses in New Hampshire people are going to raise all sorts of questions about whether or not she can face, withstand Bernie Sanders and a republican challenger.

Borg: And she is doing all she can, Kathie, to make sure that doesn't happen in Iowa this time as it did eight years ago.

Obradovich: Yeah, she has changed her strategy toward Iowa a little bit in the sense that she is here a lot, she has been mixing sort of small group events, retail events with the bigger rallies.

Borg: And she mentions Iowa people at Iowa events and things that are going on politically, like I'm really plugged in.

Obradovich: Iowa issues, she mentions Terry Branstad at almost every rally talking about -- because democrats love that she is bashing Terry Branstad and his position toward Medicaid, for example, and telling them do you want people like Terry Branstad in charge of your health care? And it's a big applause line and people love that.

Henderson: I think we can't overemphasize the point that Jim made about the expectations game. And I always go back to '96 because the expectation was that Bob Dole sort of had the nomination sewn up, that he was going to be a winner in Iowa because he had won in 1988. And he only won by three points. The outsiders that year had about 52% of the vote, there was a big field. So at some point a win is a win. And so if Clinton is able to win here it may not matter what the margin is, it's all on the expectations that people set and whether people believe in the national media that she met those expectations.

Lynch: I think the margin will matter. I think if it's less than double digits people are going to say she underperformed. If you look at the polls now, they're all over the place but she has a pretty solid lead, if she isn't able to carry that through the caucuses and win by --

Obradovich: But her lead is less than double digits. Bernie Sanders is 9 points behind in the Register poll, which as we know is the gold standard. Come on, Ann Selzer. But yeah, so she has a ways to go if she's going to have a double digit win. And she has pointed out that the only people who win the Iowa caucuses with more than 50% of the vote are usually sitting Vice Presidents or people of that stature. Well she is as close to a sitting Vice President as you can get.

Henderson: The other problem here I think for Clinton is the Trump factor in terms of enthusiasm.

Borg: Really?

Henderson: If the game is being played on the republican side, if all the attention is being paid on this wild and raucous race on the republican side, that may dampen turnout on the democratic side if all the attention is being paid to what's happening among republicans.

Lynch: Well, and there was this new report that came out yesterday for, I forget the name of the group, but they were saying the democrats are going to have a problem holding onto white working class voters, especially if Donald Trump is the nominee, which would be a big problem in Iowa. If those people who, if they caucus, would have gone to a democratic caucus in the past, if they're showing up for Donald Trump the democratic numbers will be lower and enthusiasm may be lower than what we would expect.

Borg: I'm going to double back to a word that was mentioned here a moment ago, Terry Branstad and Medicaid. Kay, is this at all, the Medicaid setback we can say, at least it's a delay in --

Henderson: Well, the Governor referred to it as a green light this week and that the centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services said, ultimately we're going to approve this move. But we need a 60-day delay. The important thing about the 60-day delay is that 60 days occurs during the legislative session and so democratic legislators will be in Des Moines. They'll be vocally critiquing the moves and whether their constituents who are Medicaid recipients, there are about 560,000 Iowans who have health care coverage through the state-run Medicaid program. They'll be telling their stories daily.

Obradovich: Although they're going to be telling it during the last month of the caucus campaign. So most of us won't be there to hear it.

Lynch: It struck me, I thought it was vintage Terry Branstad the way he spun this that it's a green light. But, Dean, you'll appreciate this, this is like sitting at the railroad crossing in downtown Cedar Rapids for 15 minutes and being able to see a green light two blocks away, whether it's green when you get there we don't know. Come March will the CMS say go ahead and make the shift or will there be another delay? I think there's still questions there.

Borg: Kathie, You said that nobody will be paying attention anyway during the opening weeks of the Iowa legislature because we're running up to the caucuses then. But the caucuses will end and everybody else will leave on February 2nd after the February 1st caucuses and the legislature will be in session then. Will what has happened, the Medicaid delay, the veto after the last session concluded, and other things that have happened, the closing of the mental health facilities and things like that, has that damaged the political capital that Governor Branstad has to play during this legislative session?

Obradovich: Well, of course he says no and democrats say absolutely. So I think it is enhancing sort of the partisan questions here going into this next legislative session. Democrats say they don't trust the Governor after, for example, the education vetoes and they say that he has actually damaged relations with the republicans in the Iowa House. I think that remains to be seen how that plays out. But democrats have to be careful because they are going to have to go into re-election and if they are going in as the party of no, stonewalling, gridlocking, especially if Branstad comes in with some ideas that are bipartisan with support from Iowans, they have to be careful that they're not going to hurt their own re-election prospects by trying to oppose the Governor's agenda.

Henderson: I was struck by the rather remarkable statement by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal about his conversation with the Governor about the veto you mentioned, the nearly$56 million in money for Iowa's K-12 education system. He flat out said either the Governor lied after that conversation or he is just that confused. I was struck --

Borg: Who is confused?

Henderson: The Governor is that confused. Those are harsh words. Those are not things that are usually said in public. So I think this is going to be a terribly, terribly difficult session to resolve some of these sticky issues and the stickiest issue will be coming up with a state budget plan. It's going to be very, very difficult to do that.

Borg: Let me interrupt here and change the direction because I want to get in, during this past year one thing that has happened is that Iowa has elected a female to the United States Senate. Kathie, Joni Ernst was vaulted into prominence nationally, whether she wanted to or not. You're a columnist, how has she performed in the spotlight?

Obradovich: Well, I think that she has started to change people's expectations of her. I think that nationally especially she came in as sort of a caricature of the persona that she had during the campaign, the let's make them squeal and the Harley riding and almost people nationally thought she was going to be another Sarah Palin type character. I think that she has shown that she has a lot more depth than that. Now she has done things like vote for defunding Planned Parenthood, a partisan thing that she would be expected to do. But she also I think has established herself as somebody who is going to be knowledgeable and influential on Armed Services, on the Armed Services Committee, she has gotten under John McCain's wing and he is mentoring her in a lot of these military issues. So I think that she is going to have more depth than people think that she --

Borg: I'm going to have to leave it there because we're out of time, Kay. I wish we could get your comment. But thank you all for your insights. And next week we're taking a look at Governor Branstad's record-setting tenure and his political legacy, more than we did in our discussion here. We'll be talking with former staffers and journalists who cover him and a researcher of Iowa's Governor. That's all at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday. I’m Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. 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 Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa Public Television Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa Public Television.

This edition of Iowa Press convenes a panel of political reporters for a roundtable discussion about the 2016 presidential campaigns, the Iowa Caucuses and other local political developments.

Guests include: Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa; Kathie Obradovich, political columnist for The Des Moines Register; and James Lynch, political reporter for The Gazette.