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After Months Of Campaigning And Debating, Iowa Caucuses Are Here


We're covering the caucuses. It is, of course, the start of the presidential campaign season officially. And, Rachel, last time I was here four years ago, there was a lot of suspense in both parties.


Right. Not really the case this year for Republicans - President Trump pretty much has the lock on the nomination at this point for the GOP.

GREENE: But Democratic candidates have been, I mean, basically living in Iowa recently. According to The Des Moines Register, campaigns have held roughly 2,500 campaign events since the start of the 2020 cycle.

MARTIN: But who's counting?

GREENE: But who's counting? The Des Moines Register is counting. And we have the Register's political editor here with us, Rachel Stassen-Berger. Hey, Rachel, thanks for coming in.

RACHEL STASSEN-BERGER: Good morning. We're definitely counting.

GREENE: You are counting. You count everything.

MARTIN: So many numbers. And another editor with us as well - NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro is at the table. Hi, Domenico.


MARTIN: So I want to start out asking a question that many have asked. Why does Iowa get this job? No offense to everyone in the live audience, but...

GREENE: People wonder.

MARTIN: There is a critique as to whether or not a state, frankly, that is 85 percent white, it does not represent the Democratic Party in the country, in America, in 2020. Why it's the first contest in the primary season. We talked to a restaurant owner in Davenport, Iowa. His name is Dan Bush. He defended Iowa's position. Let's listen, and then we'll talk on the other side.

DAN BUSH: Not only is Iowa a true purple state, but beyond that, it's like I think that people here are just a lot more open to sitting down and talking things out and working toward solutions. I think it's part of that blue-collar, you know, middle America work ethic. And I think that's why Iowa should continue to be the first state to do it because we do have people that truly do care and care about each other.

MARTIN: Rachel, is he right? Is Iowa a true purple state and does it deserve to be first?

STASSEN-BERGER: Well, let's start with Iowa is first because, frankly, we're pretty good at it. The voters here have spent more than a year studying these candidates. They go to the events. They read their position papers. And so they really dive in deeply. It is part of the Iowa culture to get to know and to vet people who want to be president. And, certainly, there have been questions, and there were at the start of this cycle. Will people still come to Iowa? Will anyone care about Iowa, a small state in the Midwest that's not demographically representative of the rest of the country? Well, it turns out with those 2,500 presidential event...

GREENE: They came.

STASSEN-BERGER: They came, and they refused to leave since 2018. They didn't go to California, even though California's early voting starts today. They spent less time in New Hampshire. The presidential candidates decided that Iowa really matters, and Iowans responded.

MONTANARO: It has been stunning to see just how much money the candidates have spent in Iowa compared to New Hampshire. I mean, they've spent almost - a little more I think now at this point, about $50 million on TV ads, digital radio, cable. And, you know, I mean, just take Joe Biden, for example. He has spent $3 million in Iowa on ads, $5,000 in New Hampshire...


MONTANARO: ...As of two weeks ago.

GREENE: Are the stakes that high for these candidates here?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it really is. I mean, you have - this is a place that has been very predictive over time in the last 40 years of the Democratic nominee. Seven of the last nine, the last four have all won Iowa. And, you know, I think for them they feel like it provides a launch pad for that media narrative. And, you know, New Hampshire is more of a sort of restart versus reinforcement. You know, you can really - John Kerry, for example, in 2004 was able to win both states, wrap up the nomination. 2008 and 2016 - very different things that we saw with Barack Obama, people thinking that he would be launched out of Iowa. His poll numbers went up into New Hampshire, and then Hillary Clinton had that surprise win in New Hampshire - really meant a longer race. And in 2016, a sort of similar thing where you had Bernie Sanders win in New Hampshire after a very narrow win for Hillary Clinton here.

GREENE: You and I got a chance to watch the very end of the Super Bowl together last night, Domenico.


GREENE: But you had just come in from just travelling everywhere to a bunch of campaign events and seeing candidates and everything. I mean, electability has been such a topic hearing from Democratic voters in this campaign - who can beat Donald Trump? Is that what you've been hearing in the recent days?

MONTANARO: Yeah. And it's such an amorphous thing. You know, like, what does that mean? How do you quantify it? And it's sort of a calculation that a lot of the candidates are making and the supporters are making themselves. I mean, clearly, Bernie Sanders supporters were onstage reading poll numbers, like, specific decimal points. You had Michael Moore, the filmmaker, on stage saying Bernie Sanders can't win. Well, here's the poll numbers that say he can. And then I was at an Elizabeth Warren event, let's say, and she's got to sort of thread this needle where she, you know, is seeing a lot of Sanders supporters here coalesce around Sanders when they had seemed to be abandoning him now kind of going back home. And, you know, she's needing to sort of win over some of these more moderate voters.

And there was a guy I talked to yesterday at a Warren event - and looked like there were a lot of shoppers there, people that I talked to, a lot of Amy Klobuchar fans. This guy said that he was strongly leaning Amy Klobuchar. He had seen Elizabeth Warren multiple times, liked her a lot. But he said he has a lot of Republican neighbors who aren't - who are sort of disaffected with President Trump. They're looking for an alternative. But Elizabeth Warren's, quote-unquote, "fight message" he said is something he feels will turn off a lot of those Republican neighbors. She tells this story about how she worked with Republicans to get hearing aids over the counter. And he said, look, that's a great message. If she went with that, then I could see supporting her. So the problem is she's really got these two sides that are sort of pulling at her.

MARTIN: I want to ask you, Rachel, about this - the big flip that happened in 2016 in Iowa. Very interesting - 31 Democratic counties - they had been Democratic anyway - went for Donald Trump in 2016. Iowa has more counties than any other state that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Why?

STASSEN-BERGER: Well, let's start with Iowa has a lot of counties. There's 99 of them. So it was close to a third of them that went Obama, Obama, Trump. And I think you see in those counties that they tend to be more union focused. They're older. They're whiter than even in this very white state. And I think there was some - you know, they didn't love Hillary Clinton. They really liked the kind of change that Trump was promising. And we've seen Democrats in this cycle spend a lot of time in those counties to try to win them back. In fact, at The Des Moines Register, one of the counties we've been studying for more than six months is Clinton County, which is one of those flip counties, and talking to Democrats there and trying to figure out, you know, if the Democrat wins - whichever Democrat wins tonight, if that one can take that same message to similar countries across - similar counties across the country.

MARTIN: I want to play a bit of tape. This is actually interesting. This is a Republican who flipped to vote for Barack Obama and then essentially he went home back to the GOP for Donald Trump. His name is Danny Chick. He lives in Muscatine.

DANNY CHICK: I think the same reason most people voted for Barack Obama is the same reason they voted for Trump is everybody in this country to me wants to see change. They didn't become different. They wanted to turn the system upside down on its head even if it wasn't pretty, even if it wasn't always right.

MARTIN: So, Domenico, I guess a forward-looking question, is there a Democrat this year in 2020 who can bring these Republicans who voted for Obama back to the blue column?

MONTANARO: Well, I think the real question is change. I mean, I think the voter there really nailed it. You know, when you look back at a lot of elections over the past 40, 50 years, the candidate who most embodies change wins, you know, and if you're a candidate who is seen as status quo, it's never been usually a good thing. Now, does that mean Donald Trump has sort of reset things? I don't know. But if, you know, there's this pendulum swing where, you know, the person who followed George W. Bush, you couldn't get more opposite than Barack Obama. Certainly, for Barack Obama, can you name somebody who was more opposite than Donald Trump, right? So when you talk to Sanders people, they feel like, hey, maybe the - if we're in this polarized society, if it's a base election, then the pendulum swings back in that direction. And we've certainly seen that in Europe where you've seen a sort of right-wing nationalism that's cropped up and then a left-wing socialism that has taken hold.

GREENE: Rachel, can I ask you about - I visited southern Iowa. I was in the town of Creston, and I was speaking to a Democrat. He's a farmer who said he is voting for Trump. He's very concerned about how much money he says Democrats spend on public assistance programs for lower income Americans. And I went from there, and in Lamoni, I was in the basement of a church at a food pantry talking to a woman named Theresa Farrell (ph) and she was saying that the poor are really misunderstood. Here she is.

THERESA FARRELL: I'm not stupid (laughter). I think that that's attached to - a lot of it is if she knew more, she'd do better, and that's not always the case. You know, I'm not lazy, and I'm not dumb, and I'm not trying to take anything from you (laughter). I feel guilty. I have guilt and shame. And that's a sad thing for people to be - to feel guilty for living in poverty and to be ashamed of that.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, obviously struck by her story. She was incredibly inspiring. Also she said she's not caucusing tonight, which just made me wonder. We hear so much talk of policies to help the disadvantaged in our country. She's not going to actually be part of the process - or she wasn't planning on it when I talked to her. Does tonight really reflect all of Iowa, the people who are going to turn out?

STASSEN-BERGER: Well, I certainly - it does not reflect all of Iowa because we are not expecting big crowds at the Republican caucus. And there's a lot of Republicans in Iowa. But, you know, I do think that you will see a cross section of Democrats. You know, caucuses are not the same as primaries, but, frankly, in a lot of states, people don't show up for primaries any way. And so I think that this is the best guess that Iowa has on what the state and the entire nation would want from the candidates.

GREENE: Rachel Stassen-Berger is The Des Moines Register's political editor; also hearing from NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you both for joining us this morning on caucus day. We appreciate it.

MARTIN: Thanks you two.


MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.