Just when a massive field of 2020 presidential candidates begins to slowly narrow new faces are jumping into the race. What does it mean for the Iowa Caucuses? We gather a roundtable of Iowa political reporters 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. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, November 15 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: The 2020 presidential cycle has seen more than 20 candidates crisscross Iowa since January. And just as the field has slowly narrowed more aspirants have jumped into the race. To talk about it all we’re joined today by an Iowa reporters’ roundtable. Joining us are Dave Price, Political Director for WHO-TV in Des Moines. Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Annah Aschbrenner, 2020 Campaign Editor for USA TODAY. And James Lynch, Political Reporter with the Gazette. 

Yepsen: Welcome everybody, good to have you here. Let’s go around the horn like I always like to do, start with you, James. What is your view of the state of the race?

Lynch: Well, in a word, David, it’s fluid. And we’ve seen this in the most recent polls where Elizabeth Warren is leading in most of those polls and Pete Buttigieg now topped the Monmouth Poll this week and they have passed by the old guard of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and there’s 80 days to go so anything could happen. And, as you mentioned, we have more people getting into the race. Deval Patrick apparently is running. Michael Bloomberg may be running. And Hillary Clinton is being encouraged by many, many people to run. So it’s fluid.

Yepsen: Annah Aschbrenner, welcome to the table. It’s good to have you here.

Aschbrenner: Thanks for having me.

Yepsen:  In your earlier incarnation you were Political Editor at the Des Moines Register.

Aschbrenner. Right.

Yepsen: That’s a good job.

Aschbrenner: It’s the best job.

Lynch: You speak from experience.

Yepsen: What is your take on this race? How do you see it?

Aschbrenner: I think James is totally right. That top 4 has really kind of moved away from the rest of the pack but they’re going to be jockeying for position for the next 80 days. I look back at October of 2015, we saw Ben Carson on the republican side jump to the lead, he takes a 9 point lead in the Register’s Iowa Poll, and just two months later Ted Cruz surges, he’s up 21 and goes on to win in February. So I think it’s almost anybody’s game in that top 4. Never say that someone below them couldn’t make a run for it. But still really fluid. I think people should just hold their breath a little bit on declaring anyone the clear frontrunner.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: Yeah, to put an even finer point on what Annah was talking about there, the last couple of polls we’ve seen in Iowa, I think you mentioned the Monmouth and there was another one in the last week or so, that both said roughly two-thirds of Iowa democrats are either undecided or willing to change the support of the candidate that they are picking right now. So yes, I’ll echo what everybody has already said about how fluid this is. I also find it interesting, and you mentioned Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick jumping into this race, it’s just kind of fascinating for me to observe, and it doesn’t sound like they’re going to play here so maybe it doesn’t matter a whole lot to us in Iowa, but that you clearly have some people maybe at the national level and obviously some candidates who feel that the current field isn’t strong enough and that it needs someone else. I don’t know if that’s the case or not and I don’t know if Iowa democrats feel that way. I feel like Iowa democrats like this field and that is part of the reason they are torn is they have multiple candidates that they like. It’s just interesting to me that there’s clearly a segment of democrats, perhaps more nationally than locally, that feels that this field isn’t strong enough and doesn’t have the person in it to take on Donald Trump next year.

Yepsen: Dave Price, welcome back. How do you see this race?

Price: Well, I would agree with everybody, that at this point we’re looking at a 4 person race now. We’re almost three months out still, right, so obviously things can change here. And if you start digging into those numbers it’s Buttigieg who has this recent surge as he has kind of pushed his way up here. So as you talk about this we have 4 people at the top. And to Annah’s point, are we going to see anybody like a Booker, like a Harris, like a Klobuchar, can anybody elevate at some point to that? But I also feel like we’re to the point of the campaign when you go out talking to activists, when you go out talking to groups, while I think sometimes the national media make a big deal about oh my gosh, people haven’t made up their minds. Well, why should they? You still have three months to go here. It’s a lot of comparison shopping. But I do think we’re at the point of the campaign where people are, while they maybe haven’t solidified on that top choice, thy are starting to eliminate people from their list and most people I feel like when you talk to are now down to maybe two or three that they really want to follow for these next couple of months.

Yepsen: And to Dave’s point, is there room for Bloomberg, Deval Patrick, maybe a Hillary Clinton to get into this race here in Iowa? I know they’ve said they’re not going to play here. But what do you think? I thought people were crossing names off the list, now we’ve seen more people adding.

Aschbrenner: Yeah, I think overwhelmingly. I hear from people that they want more people to drop out, not more people to join the race. And there has been polling that while people are so undecided they’re pretty happy with the field. I think Gallup polled on that a couple of months ago. 75% of people who are expected to vote democratic in 2020 are happy with the choices they have. So I think they’re swimming upstream a little bit to try and break through and get voters who have been looking at these candidates for months at this point to take a left turn and start looking elsewhere.

Yepsen: James, do you think that Bloomberg could play here just by spending a lot of money on TV? He’s a very wealthy man. It would probably be cheaper for him just to buy some TV stations rather than to pay for the ads.

Lynch: I’d like to see him sort of change things up and buy print ads, newspaper ads, as opposed to TV. But no, I don’t think it would be successful. I haven’t heard people at rallies saying I wish Michael Bloomberg were to get into this race, I wish Deval Patrick would get into this race because that’s who we need. I think it would be, he can run a TV campaign, but no I don’t think it would be successful. I think Iowa caucus goers want to see you in person, they want to shake your hand, take a selfie, ask you a question. You can’t just do it on TV.

Yepsen: Dave, Julian Castro lit into the Iowa Caucuses earlier this week saying that it’s time to change the order, Iowa should no longer be first. What’s going on here?

Price: That’s an interesting strategy for a man who struggles to get 1% in most of the polls here and whose campaign has even talked about the importance of doing well here and Nevada. So those are the two big early states for him after he just trashed basically Iowa’s importance. The one thing that I thought was interesting about this, A, I’d be curious what Barack Obama thought when he saw that clip as the man who had a historic win here in 2008 when the state was even whiter than it is now frankly. But Castro to me, the one thing that, he hasn’t capitalized on a lot of things, but if you look at the demographics of this state, sure in a lot of ways it’s a white, older state and has been trending that way, but the demographic that is really growing in our state would be the Latin community, a lot more and there are efforts that they have identified. I think the number is about 60,000 that they think would be eligible caucus goers for 2020. That is a sizeable chunk of the pie when you have so many candidates out there. So Castro has really failed to even galvanize what could be an important core group to him. And at this point you kind of wonder what’s happening, if he’s not really going to be a player in the debates or in almost any part of this debate, is this kind of guns blazing on the way out?

Yepsen: Erin, haven’t we seen this movie before? Candidate losing, trashes Iowa. What’s new here?

Murphy: That’s exactly what I was going to say. I haven’t, even for someone like me who hasn’t been in this game as long as others at this table have, I know that this is a discussion that inevitably comes about every four years Should Iowa be first? And there’s some fair points raised by the people who say that Iowa shouldn’t be first. They talk about the demographics, that it’s not representative of the country. But there are cases to be made for why it’s good, as Jim talked about why Michael Bloomberg wouldn’t do well here just by going up on TV, that’s a case for Iowa. You can’t just come in, spend a ton of money with TV ads and be successful, you have to meet the people, the voters. I think that is a good case. The other thing about this is when you talk to experts on this it’s a lot of discussion and the odds of something actually happening, that inertia, Iowa has been first forever, changing that would be a massive lift. And the problem is there’s 49 other, 48 other states that would love to be first. They’re all in unison when they say Iowa shouldn’t be first. They won’t be in unison when the question gets to be okay, who is?

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: Well, I was going to say, keep in mind too that Iowans, back to the first African-American who was a major party nominee, the first woman who was a major party nominee, now they’re backing a woman and a gay man. Poling in California is pretty much the same as the polling in Iowa in terms of who is leading the field. And I think you have to stop and think, would Barack Obama have been the nominee if this process started in Texas, if this process started in Ohio? I’m not sure the results would be any different. Yeah, we’re an old white rural state. But I’m not sure that in the end that matters.

Yepsen: Annah, isn’t it a good thing that Iowa is first and is a rural state because the challenge for democrats in winning the White House is to get more votes in rural America? Whether you like it or not here is a rural skew to the Electoral College. We’re not changing that any time before 2020. So if you’re going to win the White House, you’ve got to do well in rural areas. Why isn’t this a good test?

Aschbrenner: Well, I don’t want to be pilloried in the state that I live in. But I think the argument is which state is better. If we’re going to make the argument that Iowa isn’t good enough, which state is better, and I think if you listed 10 other options that are more racially diverse, maybe more economically diverse, I’m sure all of us would have an issue to raise with all of them. California is really expensive, an underdog or maybe someone who doesn’t have a lot of money isn’t going to be able to go to California and really make a splash. We can’t all vote on the same day in a primary because then candidates will just spend all of their time in areas where there’s a ton of electoral votes. So I think there’s obviously democrats need to win back some of those rural voters in 2020. But when I think about this conversation about the caucuses there are some very good points that Secretary Castro made. But I always want to hear the next step, which is okay, then what’s the alternative? Who’s the next one? And for better or worse, Iowa democrats and republicans have come together on this and have basically said come and take it and no one has done it.

Price: And shouldn’t whoever this is, to James’ point, because of the historical happenings that have happened the last several elections, the President of the United States, the future President of the United States, should be able to win period, right, no matter really who starts this process. Democrats have a pretty good track record starting in Iowa and going, republicans perhaps especially lately have not had the success in picking the nominee. But at the end of the day this is one of the most important jobs in this country. So do the demographics matter that much?

Yepsen: Well, one of the things, and Erin I think alluded to this, somebody is going to win the White House and that person, that President is likely to have come through Iowa, that has been the pattern. The last things he or maybe she are going to do is to change the rules of a game they have just won. The pattern with Jimmy Carter, even Bill Clinton, certainly with Barack Obama, is you reinforce your base in Iowa to fend off challengers.

Price: Or you grow. Obama was so great at growing, Trump on the republican side grew.

Yepsen: Right. But my point is we can all agree that this is a goofy way to nominate candidates. But we can’t agree on a different way to do it. Dave, let’s go onto the checklist of candidates. I want to get some idea from you in terms of this debate that is coming up. What does Joe Biden do? What do any of these candidates have to do in that debate to make a difference in Iowa?

Price: I just wonder if as much as it is interesting to watch these debates, most people still don’t watch them, right? Probably a lot of people watching you right now do because people who watch this show are a lot more tuned in than their neighbors perhaps. But in this 24/7 cycle I do wonder if we overanalyze these debates. I totally get the idea that if you are one of these candidates and you can get that zinger, that great line, whatever it is, that moment, and Klobuchar has talked to us about this, right now they really need that viral moment because it is a fundraising goldmine. You have that, whether it is a zinger or you stood up to somebody or you take on the President or whatever it is, you get that clip, the campaign pushes it out, we all push it out, everybody else pushes it out and bam, the money starts coming in. So maybe that matters. For Biden specifically at some point can he calm the concerns that he stumbles through a bunch of stuff? And is he the kind of leader the democrats want right now? Or is he basically saying look, I’m going to be the adult in the room, I’m going to settle things down, you can trust me, I’ve got the job. But he’s not inspiring the base like some of the other ones are.

Yepsen: Annah, what does Elizabeth Warren have to do in the debates?

Aschbrenner: I think I’ll be looking to see sort of how her interactions with Biden go. The last debate they had some moments. Their conversation on the CFPB was particularly pointed and that has sort of carried over in the weeks since that debate. I think the exchanges between them or related to each other between them have become more pointed. And so I’ll be curious to see how she interacts with Joe Biden, with Bernie Sanders, and at the same time with Buttigieg now having this moment, he’s going to be on the defensive. And so how will, she hasn’t really attacked other people in the debates, so how will she interplay with this new addition to that top tier?

Yepsen: Does she have to do something on the health care issue? Her numbers have dropped slightly. Now, I’m the first one to always say margin of error, all this movement around, but nevertheless she has slipped a few points. Is that because of the hits she has taken with Medicare for all?

Aschbrenner: I mean, it certainly could be. I think if her past is any sort of preview I think she is a person who sort of unapologetically believes in what she says and so I can’t imagine that she’s going to get up there in Atlanta next week and say, I’m going to soften this proposal. I just don’t see it.

Yepsen: Erin, what does Bernie Sanders have to do to kind of juice up his thing in Iowa, anything particular?

Murphy: I don’t expect a lot different from Bernie Sanders because I haven’t seen a lot different from Bernie Sanders. At the LJ recently he gave a pretty standard stump speech. I think a lot like Elizabeth Warren he’ll dig in on his policies and he similarly hasn’t been too aggressive in going after other candidates. He did point out on the health care thing that he feels he has a better way to pay for his Medicare for all proposal than Elizabeth Warren does so we may see that. And those two are kind of running in similar lanes for similar types of voters in this primary so maybe we’ll see something like that. But Bernie has been a pretty consistent on his message and I don’t know that I expect anything unusual from him.

Price: The only thing that I notice differently with him I think this cycle and particularly lately, I don’t mean this in a patronizing way, but is the softer side. He was in Des Moines this past week and they did this event at this new place called Curate kind of around the East Village in Des Moines. But anyway, they also had about seven cameras if I counted them correctly where they’re clearly going to make a campaign commercial out of this. And it was tell us your stories. They had some set up and then they had some spontaneously come up in the room. There are a few hugs. He’s not a big hugger obviously. That’s not his style. He’s not a selfie person like Elizabeth Warren is afterwards or Booker is or whatever. But it does seem like they are trying to, they have seen him make his case for two cycles now, now they want Iowans to help make his case about why health care is not working for them. And it is a different strategy that does kind of soften him up, he’s not Mr. Warm and Fuzzy out there.

Yepsen: Right, we go from crabby old uncle at Thanksgiving to warm and fuzzy grandpa.

Lynch: It’s the salad side of Bernie Sanders. Dave talked about the viral moment and usually we think of that as sort of like Pete Buttigieg needs that moment, that surge, that breakout, I think in this debate it’s Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden who need the breakout moment. They need to capture something that people are talking about the next day and the next day and plays into the campaign going forward. Right now they’re just kind of, they’re there, they’re steady, they’re the normal you might say but they need to break out.

Yepsen: But isn’t Buttigieg in a real bind in this debate in that he started to move up in the polls?

Lynch: Oh, he’s going to be the piñata at the birthday party. They’re going to be taking shots at him. The challenge is can he stand up to it? Can he look presidential when he’s under attack? I guess we’ll find out.

Price: And he has, if you really dig into those polls, early state that’s where he’s really moving. Nationally he’s not quite to that level yet. So I’m curious, are they early state focused to try to bring him down because they see it building? Are they looking big picture at the country and saying, not yet sonny?

Yepsen: Erin, what is impeachment doing to the campaign here in Iowa?

Murphy: I don’t know that it’s doing a whole lot right now. I know that soon it will have a huge impact on this race because once this thing moves to the Senate those Senators have to be in the room when those hearings are held and that means they’re not here in Iowa. So Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, they all will be off the campaign trail. That is a big deal, especially for obviously Senator Warren where she is in this race. At a time when we are in the home stretch, it’s still 80 whatever days it is left it seems like a long way, but this is the home stretch of this race, this is where people are, as Dave talked about the top, they’re down to just two or three now and they’re trying to make that final decision. Being in front of the voters as much as you can is a big deal and for them to not be here throughout that for however long it takes is a big deal.

Yepsen: Annah, what is your take on the impeachment proceedings and what effect it will have or is having? Does it take all the oxygen out of the room, all the energy out of the campaign?

Aschbrenner: I think to, maybe not in Iowa, but I think nationally it might be. You’re competing with people’s time, right? So what do people have time to spend on in their day? They come home, they get their kids to bed, they’re cooking dinner. If they’re reading one or two politics news stories a day at this point you’ve got to think that that’s impeachment coverage. They’re not super invested in 2020. Now, Iowans are obviously in a different position and people in New Hampshire. But I think it’s still going to take some time even until I think January until the rest of the country is really ready to move into 2020. And I also think for a lot of people they just feel like 2016 never ended, politics has just been front and center, on the news, in the newspapers, on Facebook, since November of 2016.

Yepsen: Dave, do you think caucus fatigue is setting in with caucus goers?

Price: I do think that when you talk to people who don’t live and breathe this it’s exhausting. And to your point, granted, President Trump at his rallies talks about 2016 at almost every rally, and so that perhaps makes this even continue. But you have so many candidates, impeachment has been talked about forever, it was all about the Mueller report, that didn’t lead to these inquiries and so now we’re all talking about Ukraine, which everybody had to Google to see where it was. But I do think people are worn out.

Yepsen: I want to switch gears completely to talk Iowa politics and local issues and campaigns here. Suburbs, we’ve talked around this table in the past about how democrats made inroads in the suburbs in the past election as well as in this latest election for school boards and city hall. Is there a similar move on the republican side, on the conservative side, among blue collar workers? We’ve talked a lot about women in politics and college educated voters in politics, but James, what about the other end of the spectrum? Is there a trove of unregistered blue collar voters in Iowa?

Lynch: Well, I think republicans hope so and they point to the gains they mad in 2016 and 2018 in places like Ottumwa, Clinton, some of those river, Mississippi River communities that had been sort of pockets of democratic support. They’re hoping that if you look at the research from 2016 something like 35%, 40% of union households voted for Donald Trump and they want to repeat that and see if they can grow that. I don’t see the same sort of effort on the republican side as on the democratic side to win school board races, to win city council races. And in the past what we saw when democrats had the trifecta at the Capitol, they went out and they recruited mayors and city council members and school board members who are already known in a positive way in their communities and ran them for the state legislature and they took control.

Yepsen: Dave, we used to say, it’s the economy, stupid. The economy is doing pretty well. Some numbers say Trump, the economy would suggest Trump will get re-elected. Is it better to say, it’s cultural, stupid, that it’s more God, guns, gays, as issues that motivate the republican base?

Price: That’s what you wonder. That is where I think works in the favor of the President right now. Clearly impeachment is a big deal and I’m not trying to downplay that. But the economy is doing well. Democrats want you to dig into those numbers and say, we know a lot of people are working two or three jobs, or they’re working jobs that don’t pay nearly enough, all of those things are happening of course. But unemployment is super low. You talk to employers, they can’t find anybody. So that is such a strong message. But you do have perhaps some of that cultural and bigger picture visionary things going on that maybe in ’18 with Trump not on the ballot hurt republicans, but basically this is Trump’s party. They may not be growing the future here with putting people on mayors races and city council, school boards, but Trump will be the dominant force in 2020 one way or the other, it is his party.

Yepsen: Annah, real quickly, we’ve got less than a minute. Is Iowa a lean republican or toss-up state in 2020?

Aschbrenner: Ooh, at this point I think it’s lean republican. Trump won by a fairly significant margin in 2016 and that is hard to make up.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: I’d say the same thing but ask this question again next summer, things change so significantly and we’ll see what the President’s favorability numbers look like at that point.

Yepsen: We ask it every week. James, real quickly, toss-up or lean republican?

Lynch: Lean republican but trade and the RFS could change that.

Yepsen: Stay tuned everybody. Listen, thank you very much all of you for spending some time here today.

You’re welcome.

Yepsen: And we’ll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular time, Friday night at 7:30 on IPTV’s main channel and again Sunday at Noon but on IPTV’s .3 World channel and anytime at iptv.org. 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.