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Brooks and Cottle on Iowa caucus expectations

February 1, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Michelle Cottle, contributing editor to The Atlantic, join Gwen Ifill for a preview of the Iowa caucuses, including how Donald Trump has changed American politics, the tight race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and what’s next for the Republican establishment candidates.

GWEN IFILL: And on that note, we now turn to the analysis of Brooks and Cottle. That’s Michelle Cottle of The Atlantic and David Brooks, columnist with The New York Times. Mark Shields has been under the weather, but we look forward to his full recovery and his return to our campaign coverage very soon.

Welcome to both of you.

David Brooks, give me a sense about — Charlie Cook, the great prognosticator who writes for The Cook — of course, runs The Cook Political Report, he wrote a story today about the difference between emotion and organization.

In this election, in this caucus, what are we seeing?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, we’re seeing emotion both on the Sanders side and the Trump side.

You know, I think Trump revolutionized American politics, whatever happened tonight, with that first debate performance way back when, when he started insulting the looks of other candidates, insulating the moderators, live-tweeting throughout the campaign, calling people morons and idiots.

He introduce an entirely new vocabulary into American politics, an entirely different style of doing politics. He was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2013. He basically took the professional wrestling rhetoric and brought it into American politics.

And that revved up a lot of people, a lot of people who feel shut out, who feel looked down upon, who feel resentful or who just feel they are not being heard. Suddenly, it was the style, it was the grammar. They felt that was against political correctness and they felt revved up.

The question is, will they turn out tonight? If they do, it will be some sort of historic night, not only for Trump, but a change in the way we think about political rhetoric and the way campaigns are run.

GWEN IFILL: So, Michelle, assuming that all these rules have gone out the window, as David suggests, is that a good thing?

MICHELLE COTTLE, The Atlantic: Well, I think Americans think it’s time to shake up the political process.

So, I think, whatever happens, you know, in the long run with Trump, I think he’s had an impact and kind of woken up both parties as to the dissatisfaction with how the entire process was being run. So, I think it will go beyond this election, and even the people who roll their eyes at him starting out have had to kind of go, hmm, well, he’s resonating on some level.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you, starting with you, and then I will turn to David on this. Why — as we watch the caucusers head out tonight, why is the Democratic race so close?

MICHELLE COTTLE: Well, you know, the Clintons have their charms, but Hillary Clinton has had a particular problem with inspiration. She is not an inspirational candidate.

And that’s kind of what Sanders is pitching these days. We were talking earlier about, it’s not about the issues. It’s kind of more a tone that’s dominating this race. And Hillary Clinton has the experience and the pragmatism thing down perfectly, but she’s not the hopey, changey candidate this time around.

And so despite having really good organization and a lot of turnout, Bernie is the guy who’s making people’s hearts go pitter pat out there.

GWEN IFILL: So, David, whatever happened to the Obama coalition that surprised everybody in Iowa in 2008?

DAVID BROOKS: The financial crisis happened, and a lot of things happened.

I what has happened is, there has been a tectonic shift in the landscape of the American electorate caused by the financial crisis, caused by wage stagnation, caused by the — just the economic strain a lot of people are under.

And on the Democratic side, that led to Bernie Sanders, somebody who said, we’re going to get government a lot more radical in helping the little guy. And the Republican side, I think it sort of had the same deal. Donald Trump is ideologically completely inconsistent, but he’s sort of on the side of the little guy.

And so a lot of us were reading all these sociology books called “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray, “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam of Harvard, and we were seeing an America that was bifurcating. And I think I sort of missed how that would affect this campaign, but it is affecting the campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David, let me ask you this. Is ideology, as you point out — if Trump has exploded our idea of ideology, does that mean ideology is dead? On the other hand, Bernie Trump — Bernie Trump — Bernie Sanders used to be all about ideology. Does that mean it’s stronger?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it means the parties are polarized, because on one side, you have got Bernie Sanders calling for a massive increase in government. On the other side, you have got Ted Cruz calling for a massive decrease in government.

So we’re splitting apart ideologically as well. I don’t think ideology is dead, but it’s being reacted to in different ways in the two parties. In the Democratic Party, it’s an economic — people want some economic change.

In the Republican side, people want — they fear immigrants are driving down their wages. They want some cultural change. They want a change in authority structures. So we have got the fundamental problem which is being refracted in two different ways.

GWEN IFILL: Michelle, what is the — what is left for the establishment bracket, as we have come to call them, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich?

MICHELLE COTTLE: Well, coming out of tonight, people are going to be looking very closely at how well Rubio does.

Rubio is seen — right now, he’s trending a bit in the days running up to the caucuses. He’s seen as the establishment’s last, best hope at this point. So, if he outperforms expectations, or at least hits expectations, then I think you will see people move to coalesce around him.

GWEN IFILL: I promise I won’t hold you to this, except that I will.


GWEN IFILL: What margin does someone like Marco Rubio or even someone like Bernie Sanders, what margin is a victory for them tonight?

MICHELLE COTTLE: Well, I think if you’re looking at a third-place victory for Rubio, he needs to do, you know, better than middle teens. He needs middle teens and up. Anything below that is going to be seen as a big disappointment.

Above that, you know, he doesn’t have to win. He doesn’t even have to come in second. Now, if he manages to come in second, there is going to be a complete uproar. But, going forward, if he becomes the guy who outperformed or at least hit expectations in his trending in Iowa, then you will see the establishment kind of coalesce and get excited about that possibility.

GWEN IFILL: It’s almost — only fair that I hold your feet to the fire on the same point, David. What is your — what margins are you watching for tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, I think this is going to be a long campaign, so this will be a chapter, not a death knell for anybody.

But I agree with Michelle. I think if Rubio’s north of 16, he looks pretty good. I think if Cruz is north of 24 or 25, he looks pretty good. If Trump is up at 30, if all his people show up, then he looks amazing. And so — but I could possibly see Cruz winning this thing.

We know his voters will turn out. The Trump voters are a bit of a mystery.


GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: On the Sanders side, I think he has got to get north of 43 or so, and then he will look pretty good.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned in passing — and I’m going to ask Michelle about this — the difference between Iowa and everyplace else.

Going forward, this is a chapter. It’s true. And, tonight, we’re obsessed with it, but, tomorrow, we will be obsessed with New Hampshire and then down the road. How different is Iowa than the rest of the country as we go forward in this process?

MICHELLE COTTLE: Well, Iowa is — as we have noted, it’s very white, it’s rural, it’s older voters. It’s also — its Democratic electorate is very liberal.

Those quants at FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers and found the three best states in the country for Bernie Sanders is Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire. And then after that, you can’t really win the Democratic primary if you can’t talk to nonwhite voters. And so it’s going to be very — it’s going to shift dramatically once we’re past this for the Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: But Hillary Clinton has been to Iowa on her behalf or her husband’s behalf for a long time. Why is this — why is he such a real challenge to her? Is it because she has tied herself so closely to the president or something else?

MICHELLE COTTLE: Well, it’s a couple of things.

One, the numbers have been thrown around. There’s a big chunk of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers that consider themselves socialists. They’re more liberal. The Clintons are not the left wing of the party. They also don’t talk in terms of revolution.

So, temperamentally, the zeitgeist just isn’t there. In 2008, there was much talk about how the organization wasn’t there and Hillary didn’t spend enough time in the state. This time, she has tried to remedy that. But there is also still this sense that she’s not as down and removed. There’s too much security, there’s too much structure.

I have talked to Iowa voters who complain that, when they go to her events, they can’t really get close to her. So, it’s just — it’s a combination of things that make it tough for her. But it’s one state and it’s a state that’s tiny and we will move on.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David, it’s almost become — we’re exploding conventional wisdom left and right tonight, but one of the pieces of conventional wisdom involving Hillary Clinton is that it’s just her moment isn’t quite there, that she hasn’t connected, that things like these e-mails have raised such a dust that it makes people think, I don’t know if I trust her.

Is that something that is just unique to the early voting states?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s a drag on her, but I would just point out that, eight years ago, she got a lot better after a defeat, got a lot better as a candidate. I would also point out that, when her husband ran in 1992 — I forget the exact numbers — he lost a ton of the first 10 contests.


DAVID BROOKS: This thing can go on, and she will get better.

She hasn’t found a focus yet, the way Sanders has a focus. He was born with a focus. She has not found it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in a month or two, she’s honed on something just caused by the pressure of defeat, the near-death experience.

GWEN IFILL: And I wanted to circle back to the establishment question with you, David, because, as we speak tonight, none of — I think Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie and John Kasich are all already in New Hampshire.

They have already — John Kasich said, ah, I’m moving on. Is that — we have seen people survive after losing in Iowa, obviously. Is that possible for Republicans as well in this environment?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, totally.

Rick Santorum won here. Mike Huckabee won here. This can nominate — this can sometimes give — hand victory to people who don’t move on. And so for a Chris Christie, there was never going to be a good kind of place. So, we will be sitting here in April, I think, still talking about this race, especially on the Republican side. So they still have decent shots.

GWEN IFILL: We will be sitting here in April, Michelle?


MICHELLE COTTLE: We will be sitting here in April talking about this.

GWEN IFILL: We will be sitting here.

MICHELLE COTTLE: We will just know a lot more by then.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what the Trump story coming out of Iowa is, because it’s going to be about Trump, no matter whether win, lose or draw.


MICHELLE COTTLE: But, you know, come April, we will have a lot more votes having passed, and the story will be completely different.

GWEN IFILL: Michelle Cottle of “The Atlantic,” thank you for joining us tonight, and David Brooks, we will talk to you all night long.