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Amy Walter and Domenico Montenaro on 2020 Democrats’ ‘volatility,’ impeachment politics

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Domenico Montenaro of NPR join Yamiche Alcindor to discuss the latest political news, including shifting dynamics in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, how congressional Democrats and Republicans view the facts of the impeachment investigation differently, political pressure on moderates and how impeachment could affect the 2020 race.

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  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And now it's time for Politics Monday.

    Here to analyze all the week's political news, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter," and Domenico Montanaro. He's a senior political editor at NPR.

    Thanks so much for being here.

    Amy, this is the Democratic field still in flux. We're two months away from the Iowa caucuses. The people are having bus tours. There are TV ads. How wide open is this field right now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, you laid it out pretty well in your opening with the fact that you have two candidates really focusing on their weaknesses this week.

    So, Joe Biden is ahead in all the national polling and has had a pretty consistent lead for the entirety of this campaign. It's narrowed a little bit since he first jumped in.

    But his big problem spot is Iowa, that very first state that kicks us off, where he's somewhere maybe second, maybe he's third place. But he's certainly behind Pete Buttigieg.

    Pete Buttigieg's problem, as you pointed out, is not with Iowa, where he could win, and even do well in New Hampshire, where he's been moving up in the polls. His problem is the states that come afterwards, states that are — have many — a more diverse electorate, many more African-American voters, many more voters of color, where he still has not been able to pick up much support.

    And he's not just in North Carolina. He's spending this week in Alabama, which is also — I think it's a Super Tuesday state — and in South Carolina as well.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    You have got half to two-thirds of Democratic primary voters saying that they're not decided on the race. They don't have their minds made up.

    And what does that lead to? Volatility. So that's why you have seen these sort of spurts from some candidates and then decreasing back down.

    The most recent, maybe the biggest development of the campaign has been Elizabeth Warren's surge and then collapse. When it comes to her talking about Medicare for all as a replacement to private insurance, that has been a very difficult position for her to try to defend.

    And I think a lot of Democrats actually very curious why she went that far, when, honestly, with the way the Senate is currently, there's no way that that would pass anyway. So why go that far and take that position, when she could have put it as a goalpost and say, this is a goal, but not what we're going to do maybe right away when I get into be president?

    So, you know, there's a lot that still could come. And we're in this final stretch now until Iowa, where you're going to see voters start to really make up their minds.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, you're talking about Elizabeth Warren having a peak and then crashing.

    Amy, you're talking about this idea that that the former vice president, who had all this name recognition, is now struggling in Iowa.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, Domenico, you think that there are clear top-tier candidates, even though polls show that Democrats haven't really made up their minds all the way?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Look, I think this is the time of year we need to start talking about paths to the nomination and not the time of year we talk about national polling.

    You know, national polling is always sort of like a barometer of, you know, how well somebody might do or how people feel about them. But it's not a national race. You know, if that were the case, then Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would have been the 2008 nominees and ran away with it.

    You have to have a path. And as Amy was laying out, Joe Biden does have a path still, even though he has this fractured, you know, quarter of the Democratic Party, it looks like. You know, if he were to win, place or show in Iowa, top three, kind of still be in the game in New Hampshire, he can retain what's held him up, which is that 60 percent of African-American support.

    And if he can do that, then he has a shot of winning in the South, where black voters make up the majority of Democratic voters. But that doesn't mean that some other candidate can't come along and take some of those voters away. If he finishes fourth or fifth in Iowa, that's going to completely — could completely collapse his momentum, if there was any.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, we could absolutely be looking at the possibility that there is a different winner in each of the first four states.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Which would be incredible.

  • Amy Walter:

    Which would be incredible, and then lead us into Super Tuesday, where, by the end of March 3, 40 percent of all the delegates will have been selected.

    So we can then be getting into this discussion of, is anyone able to really coordinate?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    And then we're talking about Mike Bloomberg, who's been spending all this money. I mean, he spent $50 million in his first two weeks of advertising to get his name I.D. up there.

    He's not even competing in the first four states. Nobody's ever done that before. I mean, he's got the money. He can do it, but, still, putting that in context, I mean, that's 20 times what Everytown spent in Virginia, a group that he backs, for gun control.

    And, remember, they were able to take back the Virginia state House and Senate just based in many ways because of that $2.5 million that Everytown was able to pour in and outspend the NRA, which only spent about $300,000.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, I saw a lot of Michael Bloomberg ads this weekend.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Something else that I saw this weekend, Senator John Kennedy on "Meet the Press" defending President Trump.

    Here's what he had to say.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    And I believe that a Ukrainian district court in December of 2018 slapped down several Ukrainian officials for meddling in our election as a violation of Ukrainian law.

    Now, I didn't report those facts. Reputable journalists reported those facts. Does that mean that Ukrainian — the Ukrainian leaders were more aggressive than Russia? No, Russia was very aggressive, and they're much more sophisticated.

    But the fact that Russia was so aggressive does not exclude the fact that President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Amy, we know that Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election is a theory, a debunked claim that's been pushed by Russia. It benefits Russia.

    Our intelligence community, they have not said that this is true. They have not backed this theory. They say Russia was the one who meddled in the 2016 election.

    So what's going on here? It seems like Democrats and Republicans can't even agree on the facts.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    What's going on here is that Republicans — and we're seeing this, I think, also in this report that they just released today from the House Intelligence Republican report — that the president's interest in Ukraine wasn't just about Joe Biden, and it wasn't just about digging up dirt on his rival, that there are real reasons the president had to be wary of Ukraine.

    There's a lot of corruption in Ukraine. There's a lot of political sort of malfeasance, and it's very murky. And introducing that element into it is also making the case for the president to say, look, all I was doing when I was making these calls to Ukraine was to say, you guys got a lot of problems. You got a lot of corruption. I was absolutely right to question that.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Look, the truth is the truth, though.

    And the fact is, the U.S. intelligence community has said that Ukraine was not who was pushing a government-led effort to, you know, hack and to interfere and to put out memes and, you know, try to get people voting for Donald Trump. That was Russia. Russia did that.

    And we have a president of the United States who doesn't believe his own intelligence community, because it doesn't suit his needs. Yes, there were Ukrainian officials who were upset about President Trump potentially being president, but a couple op-eds and tweets are not the same as a government-backed effort to get somebody installed as president.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Senator Kennedy's comments are coming as this impeachment inquiry continues to move through the House.

    Amy, tell me a little bit about what you make of Republicans spending a lot of money on ads arguing that President Trump shouldn't be impeached and shouldn't be removed.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    How vulnerable are Democrats who are moderate and how vulnerable are Republicans who are moderate?

  • Amy Walter:

    So, like you — if you were watching TV wherever you were for Thanksgiving, I was watching some live events and seeing a lot of ads that were — I was in South Carolina, where there's a freshman member of Congress named Joe Cunningham, Democrat, a lot of advertising from Republican groups encouraging this freshman Democrat to vote against impeachment.

    So I took a look at the districts where you do have freshman Democrats, swing districts, districts that Trump carried. And you have Republican groups spending anywhere between $300,000 or $500,000 urging these Democrats to vote no on impeachment.

    At the end of the day, I don't think that they are going to sway these Democrats. But here's what's more important. Even when I talked to a Republican today, his take on this is, look, are we still going to be talking about impeachment by the time we hit the November 2020 election? I don't think so.

    I'm under the same impression. I just believe that we are going to — this is quite remarkable, that there is going to be an impeachment of the president of the United States for the third time in history. It is both remarkable and predictable in this very partisan era that we're in.

    And by the time we hit next summer, we will probably have moved on to something else.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Domenico, we only have about 30 seconds left.

    But talk a little bit about the Democrats' timeline here. Amy is saying that this might not be something that we're talking about when the 2020 election rolls around.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes.

    I mean, look, the fact is, Democrats want to get this out of the way too. I mean, they don't want this to be the dominant issue. You have half-a-dozen Democrats who are in the Senate who would have to sit for a Senate trial. They don't want to have to be doing that in the middle of campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire or elsewhere.

    Democrats want to get this out of the way. They do feel, though, that at least it hasn't hurt them, that pushing for impeachment, they haven't lost independents. They gained some. And it's firing up the base. So it's a win-win. And, basically, views of President Trump are as locked in as they ever were.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much, Domenico Montanaro of NPR and, of course, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

    I appreciate you both being here.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Thank you.

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