Reporters' Roundtable

Jan 29, 2016 | 00:28:54 | Transcript

Home stretch. Candidates summoning extra energy. Persuading Iowa voters. Seeking Iowa's anointing for presidential nominations. Political journalists analyzing telling us what they're seeing and hearing 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, January 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: In Iowa this weekend we're building toward a crescendo. It's like a roller coaster that has been climbing that first hill for the past four years. And with Monday's Iowa presidential preference caucuses it is downhill, increasing speed and surprising turns toward November's election. This isn't the first ride for journalists around this table. New York Times National Political Correspondent Jonathan Martin, Des Moines Register Columnist Kathie Obradovich, Washington Post Chief Correspondent Dan Balz, Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson and CNN's Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, start off with you. This isn't your first ride.

Zeleny: It's great to be back, Dean.

Borg: Thank you. Nice to have you back along with all the rest of you. What is different about this caucus campaign?

Zeleny: Well the candidates, so many candidates this time and I think you would have to put Donald Trump on the list, someone who is doing it different than anyone else ever has. Of course it was a newsmaking event when he spent the first night in an Iowa hotel. I can't imagine any other candidate getting away with that but it was celebrated. But I think otherwise the differences are technology. The thing I'm going to be looking for Monday night at the caucuses are, is this new technology that the Sanders campaign is using, that the Trump campaign is using, really going to drive new people to the caucuses? I think that -- I've been spending a few days with Bernie Sanders recently and boy so much energy out there. And you kind of wonder, is he Howard Dean or Barack Obama? And would Howard Dean have done differently with today's social media? So to me social media is the biggest driver that is different this time.

Henderson: Well and I think we're on the cusp of a different way of campaigning because I've gone to the call centers, the traditional places where people went to volunteer, they get a list to call. I've had women tell me they have called all night and reached like two or three people. Bad phone numbers, people aren't answering their phones, you can't use a cell phone to contact a voter. And so it has gone back to people to people. We had Brad Anderson on the program a couple of weeks ago, he ran Barack Obama's campaign. He said, ten times out of ten if I had a volunteer walk into my campaign office I would tell them to go knock on doors because we can't use the phones anymore.

Obradovich: And going back to your roller coaster metaphor, Dean, I would say more screaming. And the screaming is about Washington and people here in Iowa being really angry with Washington. I think we may very well have a never-elected person win the Iowa caucuses for the first time because people are so angry, and that would be of course Donald Trump, people being so angry about what is going on in Washington and the dynamic has been not what have you done in Washington but what do you want to do to Washington.

Borg: Is that anger, Jonathan, sustainable?

Martin: Oh if it is I think the country is in a pretty dangerous place because folks are very upset right now. I think it's sort of a white hot moment for a lot of different reasons and Trump has capitalized on that. But I have been so struck by the degree to which he really has shunned what I'm kind of used to as the Iowa way. Jeff pointed out that his staying in a hotel finally was treated as news. He barely stayed overnight. You never saw him do much in the way of retail, in terms of talking to voters one at a time. The idea of sitting down with a half dozen folks and talking policy would have been absurd to him. It was more of a sort of celebrity show. And I think part of the reason why we're all struggling with what's going to happen on Monday is that you talk to people and you can't figure out if all those crowds were there for the show or there for the candidate.

Borg: And Dan, that is the question to you. Is Ted Cruz frustrated by the fact that all the attention is sucked toward Donald Trump?

Balz: Well he has more to lose because of that than any of the other candidates. And because he in a sense may have peaked too early, we don't know how this is going to turn out, he could well win on Monday, but he clearly is frustrated by the fact that he has done, as Jonathan was saying, the Iowa way. He has gone to every county, he will have gone to every county by the time the caucuses appear --

Borg: And rather than flying by bus.

Balz: And by bus and he has spent time and he has built an organization and they have done it carefully and methodically and if he is not rewarded for that he is going to be upset and angry about it.

Borg: Dan, is this a must? Is this Iowa caucus, a first place here a must for Ted Cruz?

Balz: Well, in many ways you would say yes, although we have seen so many things that have surprised us in this campaign that I think that we have to be a little bit careful about saying somebody has to win somewhere because as we saw four years ago people can lose badly and look like they're out of the race and come back to life miraculously a month later for various reasons. But look, this is a very important state for him. It is the key for him to keep himself moving towards March 1st in the southern states.

Henderson: The other dynamic on caucus night that I think we don't pay enough attention to is the organization that lines up people to speak for the candidate in each one of the 1,681 precincts on caucus night. If it's a flaky person, if it's somebody who has a long running feud in the community, you're going to lose votes. And so the Cruz campaign has been very careful and methodical about picking those people. I think that could pay dividends to them on caucus night if the dynamic in that room sort of shifts in a strange and unusual way.

Zeleny: I think you're right about that and I've run into so many people who have said, I may well walk into my caucus undecided and sort of see the dynamic in the room. And you're absolutely right about that. I think that there is no substitute for organization come Monday afternoon into the evening.

Obradovich: And it speaks really loudly if a candidate does not have somebody speaking for them at a precinct because these folks, maybe they came in with a candidate, but they are ripe for the plucking for somebody else to say, put on a good presentation and sway them.

Martin: I was at a Trump event last week and grabbed the literature by the door and he's got this piece that to me was so revealing about the Trump approach, the assumption of the Trump campaign of their voters. There were two bullet points that stood out. The first one was, in bold, secret ballot. The second one, should be done under an hour. So what they're trying to tell their voters is, the other folks in your community aren't going to know if you're a quiet Trump supporter because I assume in some places here that's not sort of a thing to brag about. And the secondly, they want folks to believe that this is not some hassle, this is not an all-night affair, you can go in and vote and kind of leave. You guys know that's not really the case.

Henderson: I've heard Marco Rubio's people tell people fifteen minutes and you're done. They're really trying to push the message that this is an easy process.

Obradovich: Well and some of these precincts are small enough that people could just do the math and figure out how you voted.

Borg: Kathie, you wrote rather critically about Terry Branstad's role, critical of Ted Cruz concerning ethanol.

Obradovich: Yeah, so Terry Branstad, Governor of Iowa has said for years that it is very important for him to be neutral in the caucuses, to give a welcome mat for all candidates, make sure they have a level playing field in Iowa. This year he did not endorse anyone, he has been true to his word there, but he gave the anti-endorsement, the raspberry to Ted Cruz because of his sort of traditional or lengthy sort of antipathy toward ethanol subsidies and mandates. So I think that is not, I thought wasn't neutral. That was not neutral and that it plays into the criticism of Iowa, that king corn is, you have to come and kiss the ring of king corn in order to be a candidate here.

Borg: I'm interested on the national scene, Jonathan, how you saw that, and Dan and Jeff?

Martin: Well, clearly putting a thumb or perhaps an entire hand on the scale trying to sort of stop Cruz here in the final weeks of the campaign but in doing so he effectively was helping Trump. I saw Governor Branstad this week at a breakfast and it was remarkable the degree to which he would not offer up any critique of Donald Trump. I started thinking, I said, maybe this is more than just about this year, maybe he wants to run again one more time and Terry Branstad, the old six-term Governor is thinking, I don't want to get cross wise with the potential winner of the Iowa caucuses because every time you tried he just wouldn't touch Trump. And here is the person who more than anybody else sings the praises of the 99 county tour, you have to do it the Iowa way, and Trump has obviously not done that way and Branstad was just finding every excuse to rationalize why it was okay. It's fascinating.

Balz: I was surprised by what he did and Phil Rucker, my colleague and I, went to the Capitol late last week to see him and he spent much of that interview talking about ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard over and over and over again. It is so important to him. It is part of his identity. But I was surprised the degree to which he allowed that to become a driving force in how he affected the potential outcome.

Borg: Jeff, let me ask you then -- thanks, Dan -- does anyone, and this is overstating the question, but does anyone care about ethanol?

Zeleny: Well that's the question. I guess this is the fifth Iowa caucus that I've done and I think with every passing one it seems that it's less and less and less. You talk to voters, that is not the first thing that they bring up, especially in kind of an anti-Washington, anti-government, anti-establishment year. So I think it actually helps Senator Cruz in some respects because it came at the time when the entire establishment from Bob Dole and others were piling on Ted Cruz. So I think that he was able to sort of hold it up as kind of a badge of honor that the establishment is piling on. But I was surprised that Governor Branstad did it. It was pretty transparent I think. Not very welcoming I guess.

Henderson: The other thing, I covered a Walker event this fall at which a person who is involved in the ethanol industry asked Governor Walker a question about ethanol. And so I talked to this gentleman after and I said, so are you going to base your vote on this issue? No there are other -- it's an evaluation point for people but it is not the issue on which they're deciding who to support.

Obradovich: Some of Ted Cruz's supporters don't agree with him on ethanol. The last Des Moines Register poll showed that people who are supporting Cruz say they don't really like the fact that he is not particularly on board with the ethanol mandate and yet they're supporting him anyway.

Borg: I'm going to switch you to another topic. Where does Rubio have to finish in Iowa in order to maintain momentum?

Obradovich: Yeah, this is really interesting. We normally talk about three tickets out of Iowa, right, to go on and get the nomination. There are a few exceptions. John McCain was an exception. I don't think Marco Rubio has to be in third place to get that third ticket out of Iowa.

Borg: Why do you say that?

Obradovich: Because I think that he is at the front of the center lane, the establishment lane, and I think that he will get a media bump for that, just for beating Jeb Bush in Iowa. The only way he blows that I think is if he comes in fifth.

Borg: Anyone disagree?

Martin: I do think it's important that he beats Ben Carson, get to clean third place in Iowa if that's how it's going to appear. I think the closer he is to whoever is in second the better. Rubio looks stronger if he's at say 18 and the person in second is at 21 than him being at 50 and the person in second being at 27.

Balz: I think we'll know it when we see it. It's hard to set that bar. But one question about Marco Rubio is that throughout the campaign in a sense he has kind of underperformed the potential that is there on paper or what people anticipate about where he will be at any given time. And so if he gets a very strong third here and separates himself from the other mainstream conservatives that will be good for him.

Borg: Why did you say potential? Because that conjures up in my mind that there is ability and possibility.

Balz: Well I think people see him legitimately as a very talented political performer. He's a very skilled deliverer of message. But I think the question is, he has had a series of debates in which he has been judged to have done quite well and yet it has not propelled him forward in the race in the way that you might have expected.

Obradovich: Let me put it this way though, is Ben Carson, if Ben Carson finishes third does he get a bump out of that, finishing third in Iowa?

Zeleny: He does not.

Obradovich: That's why I say Rubio is the one who is going to get that ticket.

Zeleny: But for Ben Carson to beat Rubio I think that's going to reflect more on Rubio than Carson. But I think for some reason Marco Rubio has not been able to shake the fact that he is a first term Senator. Ted Cruz has. Ted Cruz has gone over that. And Marco Rubio is still sort of the Barack Obama of the republican field. But if you talk to people on the democratic side they are more concerned about Marco Rubio and his sort of promise for the party. So I'm detecting some strength for Rubio in the final days here. I think he does better than we might have thought a few weeks or months ago.

Borg: Kathie, one thing that I see differently, maybe I'm not remembering correctly about other campaigns, but I've never heard lanes being identified for certain, political outsider, political insider. Of course, that is the reason that we've called out Donald Trump and some of the others who portray themselves at outsiders. But is there so much passion in these lanes among supporters and among the candidates themselves that they won't merge in the future?

Obradovich: Oh, so that they won't merge. Well I think it depends on who the nominee is. You look at somebody like Donald Trump, the last poll numbers I saw of him in Iowa, he had about a quarter of every single faction of the party. He had mainstream support, he had moderate support, he had some conservative support. He is putting together a pretty strong broad base coalition. Normally we look at that and say okay, that is the kind of coalition that wins the caucuses. You look at Ted Cruz, for example, he is very much strong in the evangelical, the very conservative. We know these people are going to show up to caucus. But then do they come back together? I ask that question.

Borg: Is the passion of these lanes though Iowa specific?

Obradovich: I don't think so. I think that this is part of the national discussion that is going on in the Republican Party. It has played out through caucuses in past cycles and I think we're going to continue that. One of the questions about whether these lanes will come together of course is whether somebody drops out and becomes an independent candidate and that sort of affects the whole dynamic.

Balz: The difference this time I think is that the establishment so-called lane is more crowded than it has ever been. And most of those candidates have, for the most part, decided they're not going to spend that much energy or time in Iowa, that New Hampshire is the place that they have to make a mark. Rubio obviously, as Jeff was suggesting, is making a play here. He has done some very Iowa specific advertising here clearly designed to reach the evangelical community to bump those numbers up. But a number of them are looking at New Hampshire as the breakout moment or the make or break moment for them.

Borg: Let's switch to the democratic side, Kay. You've got Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders almost neck and neck in Iowa. Are you sensing in any of those campaigns either confidence or panic?

Henderson: I'm sensing both. They're trying to project confidence and internally both are panicking because they realize they have to turn their people out, that this is going to actually happen. On the Clinton side they're hoping that the ten months of work they have done on the ground to identify supporters, to tell them how to caucus, to explain to them how important this game is for Secretary Clinton, they're hoping that pays off. On the Sanders side he has been trying to tamp down expectations a little bit. He has been sharpening his attacks on Hillary Clinton over the past week during events in Iowa on issues that his supporters find very compelling. He was in Mason City on the same night that Secretary Clinton was in Philadelphia raising money. He used that to his advantage in a crowd that is very motivated by the fact that there's too much money in campaigning.

Zeleny: And they love the sound of that. I think the outcome of the democratic side of this on Monday night is going to rise and fall completely on social media, like I said earlier. Can they get some young supporters out for Bernie Sanders? He has definitely enthusiastic supporters. I was in Clinton, Iowa last weekend in eastern Iowa of course and Secretary Clinton had an event and an hour and a half later Bernie Sanders had an event. Talk about night and day difference. The age was much older and this was on a Saturday so the age range at the Clinton event much older than the Sanders crowd. But the question is will they come out and caucus or not? Bernie Sanders seems to be having the time of his life and is kind of surprised that he's in this position. And they have not spent as much time building. So I think it's a test of do you really have to build something as long or can social media drive people to those caucuses?

Balz: There's an old expression, not original to me, which is mo versus o, momentum versus organization, and clearly the Clinton people are counting on their ability to move that organization that they have been building all year to pull her through. And Sanders is going to rely on the momentum, the enthusiasm that we've all seen, the extraordinary energy that he's got. But can that deliver people on caucus night?

Borg: So weather will play, it looks like it's okay until caucus is over. Go ahead.

Martin: No, to that point about weather, I was talking to a Clinton person last week and I was struck by what he said in terms of the weather. He said, you guys might think that we actually want a smaller turnout, that's not the case, so many of our supporters are older and older women that if we have a snowstorm that's bad news for us because we are counting on 70 plus year old women to come out and support us. And so we're hoping for balmy here.

Obradovich: I totally agree with that. And with the younger people that Bernie Sanders has turned out, yeah, they don't care about driving in the snow. The question I think that has been raised that I think is really interesting is whether he can turn people out outside of the college towns and outside of those precincts where there are a lot of young people gathered together. And of course everybody knows that the way the democratic caucuses work having a million people in Johnson County is not going to help you unless you have enough people to get delegates around the state.

Zeleny: And also I'm skeptical of one of the things that the Sanders campaign has said, that they're going to sort of drive people from Iowa City or Ames or other places where there are universities back to their hometowns. I think that is very difficult practically. How many kids are going to do that? He does have a broad base of support but that is something to watch. If he wins the colleges alone he doesn't win the caucuses.

Borg: What is the O'Malley factor because of the viability criteria in Iowa, Jonathan?

Martin: If this is a close race and Bernie finds a way to win I think you're going to see that O'Malley offered him a boost because if you are at this point in 2016 harboring concerns about the Clinton's brand of politics so much so that you would be supporting Martin O'Malley then why would your alternative be a Clinton instead of a Bernie Sanders? And so I just think that could really come in handy for Bernie in a close race.

Zeleny: If it gets down to precinct chairs though, who is able to bring those O'Malley people over?

Henderson: Correct. How they manage the room.

Obradovich: I was asking Senator Harkin about this, this week and saying, are the Clinton people going to be willing to throw O'Malley a delegate if it means that his people won't go to Sanders? And Harkin said, he kind of chuckled and he said, oh you've been around this. Because he thinks that the people on the Clinton campaign are experienced enough that they will be savvy enough to do that.

Henderson: And back to 2008, there were Biden people who knew the process and they were able to bargain within the room to prevent Clinton from getting a delegate and giving Edwards a boost. So it happens.

Martin: If we send Ambassador O'Malley to Ireland in 2017 we'll have known that it all started in Creston, Iowa, right?

Balz: Under which presidency would that be?

Zeleny: Yeah, really.

Borg: Dan, Kathie's newspaper, the Des Moines Register, will have the Iowa poll, the final Iowa poll on this caucus published I suppose --

Obradovich: Saturday night.

Borg: -- we'll first see it Saturday night and it will be in the Sunday edition. How does that raise expectations and maybe change even, I'm talking about the bandwagon effect, I want to be with the winner?

Balz: Well, everybody is waiting for that poll, the record of Ann Selzer and the Register poll has been extraordinarily good and so it's the gold standard, everybody will look at it and take some cues from it. I know in past campaigns when that has come out the people on the wrong side of that poll have tried to knock it down, claim it's wrong. We saw that with the Clinton people in '08 very vigorously. The bandwagon effect I don't know. If you look at what has happened here in the republican caucuses in the last two they certainly did not vote for somebody who was the most electable in that field. They chose somebody else. On the democratic side, again, in '08 it wasn't clear that Barack Obama was going to be able to become president but people put their faith in that. But the '04 poll was very accurate in showing the decline of Howard Dean and the rise of John Kerry and of John Edwards and I think it helped move votes to both of them in the last days.

Martin: Watch Rubio in that poll because if he is moving northward and he is at 15 or 16 even and people say, oh wow, he actually is viable, I think you could see that being a factor like you're talking about and sort of bump him up by a couple more points.

Obradovich: What that poll does I think and it can help underscore that momentum as opposed, help people maybe overperform compared to their organization, people who are going to be making up their minds on caucus night might look to that and take cues from that. On the other hand, no poll can measure what people decide sitting in their caucus or changing their minds on caucus night as well.

Borg: Kay, aside from bandwagon, let's go to issues. What are you sensing that people, has it changed during the caucus campaign, are people worried about personal and national security or economic comfort?

Henderson: Yes. But the other thing that I think gets overlooked is people like to like the person that they're voting for which I think is the lane, if you will, for Marco Rubio. He's a likeable person. For all that has been said about Donald Trump, people who are supporting him like him because of what he says. So the likeability factor I think is really underestimated at this point in the race.

Borg: I've only got about a minute left, Jeff. You have lived in Iowa. You have reported for the Des Moines Register when you were here. How will this campaign and the outcome of this campaign and what happens in the next four years keep Iowa first or lump us in with somebody else?

Zeleny: We'll see. I hear so many conversations this year, is it the end of the Iowa caucuses? We always hear that. But this year you really have to wonder if Donald Trump wins it is a different way, what is the incentive for someone to sort of plant their flag here if you can fly in and fly out? It just depends who wins. If the person who becomes the nominee and then president is the winner of the Iowa caucuses it is saved and preserved. If not, it is not. But I kind of think that the shelf life of the Iowa caucuses is dwindling. I hope it's around in four years. I think it's a great process. We'll see.

Borg: Thank you so much. It has been fun for me and I hope it has for you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press we'll bring journalists back to the table, not these, but to talk about -- they'll be onto someplace else -- but we'll be talking about caucus results, what can be learned and what might be the future of the Iowa caucuses. That's next Friday night, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


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 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 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.

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