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Amy Walter and O. Kay Henderson on Iowa’s undecided voters

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson join John Yang in Iowa to discuss the latest political news, including what voters in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation 2020 Democratic caucuses are considering as they make their selections, polling updates on a “fluid” and “volatile” race and the ongoing pace of campaigning in Iowa.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight's first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, they're not only the kickoff to the Democrats' presidential nominating process this year, but they're also the start to a jam-packed week of political events.

    John Yang is back at his outpost in Des Moines, and he picks it up there.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, on this week's agenda, tonight's Iowa caucuses, tomorrow night's State of the Union address, and, Wednesday, the verdict in the Senate impeachment trial.

    And that's also the agenda for Politics Monday this week with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of "Politics With Amy Walter" on WNYC Radio, and O. Kay Henderson, who is news director for Radio Iowa.

    Amy, welcome to Iowa. Glad to have you with us.

    Kay, it's great to have you with us in person.

    Amy, caucuses are so different from primaries, from primary elections.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

  • John Yang:

    What does that mean in terms of expectations, of telling what's going to happen?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, we have a couple of things going on.

    We have a very crowded field, of course. And we have seen in previous polling that there are at least four, if not five candidates who are all jockeying for the top spot. All could conceivably be that top candidate.

    And this weekend, traditionally, what we get is something called The Des Moines Register poll, and it didn't come out this weekend. There was a technical snafu. And so that poll does also help to set expectations, because it's measuring literally in the last moments of the caucus campaigning who has the momentum.

    And it helps to sort of set some of the expectation game for journalists and some — and also for voters.

    The other piece to understand is how we're — it's a very fluid time already. We have many undecided voters, which is not all that surprising. But, in a caucus, it's a very public process. This is not like a traditional primary, where you go in, you close the curtain behind you, you push a button, and you leave.

    Instead, you show up 7:00 p.m. at a gym or some other community center with lots and lots of people around you. Many of them, you probably know. They may be your neighbors and your friends. And you publicly declare who you're supporting.

    I have talked to a lot of voters and heard anecdotally a lot of voters who are undecided saying, they're going to make up their mind literally as they get into the caucus place.

    So the energy of that caucus, the — seeing people that they know standing with the representative from one campaign or another may sway them. Just a feeling that they're going to get when they go into the actual room may be moving them from where they are right now to another candidate.

    So it is incredibly volatile, fluid.

  • John Yang:

    Kay, you know the politics of this state. You know the voters of this state.

    How different does this cycle feel from previous years?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    It feels very similar to the 2004 cycle.

    Democrats were choosing someone to run against a sitting Republican president, and they were very nervous. And, at the very end, two candidates sort of made a big surge, John Kerry and John Edwards. John Kerry came up on top by just a whisker.

    In this instance, I think that Democrats are just almost frozen because they see what the president says on Twitter. They hear what the president says on the media that they consume, their friends on Facebook making posts about it. They're constantly inundated with the idea of Donald Trump being the person that their nominee will go against. And so they're making that evaluation.

    The other thing that's really interesting, as we sit here right now on the Drake University campus, is that we already have some inkling about what the Sanders campaign strategy here is.

    There was a very small caucus, a satellite caucus. They met early on the campus just a block from here. And the Sanders people did very well on a college campus. And I think that's really a key thing to watch tonight, how well he does in college towns with younger voters.

    The other thing we saw with an early caucus was an early afternoon caucus in the community of Ottumwa. And it was mostly people who worked at a plant. And they were organized by the Sanders campaign, and he did very well there.

    So those are two target areas, people who really respond to the Sanders Fight for 15 message, and college students who really respond to sort of the whole breadth of the Sanders message.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, there are two things that Kay brought up that I think are really important.

    The first is the fact that we're getting so much of this information. This is what makes this different from 2004 or, quite frankly, any other campaign, is, we are going to get numbers. We can go through that in a second.

    But that — now that we have Twitter and social media, this stuff is getting out into the bloodstream before the official caucuses begin. So that's an important thing to think about.

    And I think, when we look at why voters are so undecided this late in the game, it goes back to something Kay said about. They're sort of paralyzed with this worry that they are going to pick the wrong candidate. This is what I hear from a lot of Democrats: I don't know who the candidate is who's best setting up against Donald Trump.

    Bernie Sanders supporters love Bernie Sanders. They are unlikely to move to another candidate. The ones who are undecided right now are those who are trying to decide, how can I find the best candidate?

  • John Yang:

    Amy, you mentioned it. We're getting numbers. We're getting three numbers tonight. How is that — what impact is that likely to have or could that have?

  • Amy Walter:

    It has a lot.

    Think about it popular vote, Electoral College vote is basically what's happening in Iowa tonight. So it's very possible that one candidate will get the popular vote, will win the most total votes, but will not get the highest number of delegates, simply because their voters aren't spread out — and they're disproportionately concentrated. They're not spread out efficiently.

    And so we could be in a situation once again where we have multiple winners, right? One candidate says, well, of course I won. I got the most votes.

    And another candidate said, well, that's not how it works. This is about the fight for delegates. I won the delegate race.

    And I think we're going to expect to see the candidates continuing to fight over this.

  • John Yang:

    Kay, how much of what's been going on — there's been so much — nationwide, it's not getting a lot of attention, because the national attention is really on the impeachment trial.

    Voters here are focused on what's going on in Iowa. But how has that affected what's going on?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    What has been most surprising to me about this caucus is that there really hasn't been a moment since the 2018 election that there was any letdown.

    The intensity has still been there among voters. And you would think, OK, I'm going to go cover a candidate, they won't have much of a crowd. They still draw a crowd. People are still interested in hearing from these candidates and still evaluating whether they sort of get that gut feeling, that this is the person I want to go with and to be the nominee of the party, because, remember, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack, Obama, Hillary Clinton, they all won Iowa, and they all became the nominee of the Democratic Party.

  • John Yang:

    And because there's so much other attention, how much is — the momentum and sort of the slingshot effect you usually get out of Iowa, is that going to be effective?

  • Amy Walter:


    So, if there are multiple winners, or if this is really, really close, there is not the big winner, that could dampen it a little bit.

    And, of course, we have had impeachment and the State of the Union, which are also crowding out some of the political oxygen.

  • John Yang:

    Amy Walter, Kay Henderson, thank you so much.

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    Thank you.

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