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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Iowa caucus dynamics, impeachment politics

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including what Democratic voters in Iowa are thinking about the 2020 primary race, the elusive definition of “electability” and how President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial could affect the candidates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    That brings us to Politics Monday.

    That's Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Public Radio's "Politics With Amy Walter." Two weeks from the Iowa caucuses, she's joining us from Des Moines. And Tamara Keith of NPR is here with me. She co-hosts the "NPR Politics Podcast."

    Hello to both of you. And it's two weeks from today, those Iowa caucuses.

    Let's start by talking about the race.

    Amy, you're there in Des Moines. I see you're indoors, because it's a pretty cold time in Iowa. Where does the race stand right now?

  • Amy Walter:

    Judy, it is just as confusing being here as it is reading about it or watching the polls from Washington, D.C.

    Voters here really are torn about what to do. We, in Washington, think, two weeks? That's right around the corner. Why haven't you made up your mind? Here, they feel like they still have a good amount of time to vet all of the candidates, to see more candidates, and to make that last decision.

    I have talked to a number of Democrats who do believe there are voters who are going to go into caucus night still not completely sold on one candidate or the other, and they're going to watch.

    Remember, you sit — when you're at a caucus, you're sitting with neighbors, friends, others who live in your area. And they can be persuaded by those people, ultimately, to vote for one of those two candidates that they are deciding between.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They take the process very seriously.

    Tam, you have been there a lot. You're not there right now, but you have been there a lot this cycle. Why is it taking them so long?

  • Tamara Keith:

    I think part of it is that a lot of voters are focused on this idea of electability, of beating President Trump.

    But that is sort of an amorphous thing. And at any given moment, any one of these candidates may seem like the most electable, until they rise to the top and then get beaten up a little bit in the process.

    And voters just that I have spoken to, they have changed their minds so many different times. And, as Amy says, they're very much open to persuasion.

    There's no, like, far and away front-runner at this point. There's sort of an upper tier, but it isn't set in stone in any way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Amy, as Amna was reporting, we have seen this over the last week or so, this rift between — play out between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

    Now there seems to be a new something going on between — there is something going on between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. How much does all that play into voter decisions, do you think?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, with four candidates really bunched at the top, Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, we can't quite figure out — no one has figured out what is going to help one of those candidates ultimately break through.

    Normally, by this time, you can sort of feel maybe a trend starting or maybe someone having some momentum as we get into these last days. You just don't feel it, at least now. Again, I have only been here a couple of days, so don't want to make too much of a blanket statement.

    But I think that everybody is trying to find a way to break out. And one of the ways to do that is to show differences between you and your opponent. For Bernie Sanders, the debate over Social Security and Medicare goes not just to that issue, but really to the heart of the argument that Bernie Sanders has been making now for years, which is, he is the most authentic candidate, the candidate who will not compromise on core issues.

    Everybody else in the race either has been willing to compromise in their career, they have taken positions that now they say they wouldn't, or they won't pledge to do the sorts of things that Bernie Sanders is pledging to do — so to make that really clear-cut here in these last couple of weeks.

    Joe Biden really leaning into electability, really focusing on the fact — he mentioned in South Carolina this week that it's not just putting him on the top of the ballot to get a Democrat in the White House, but, with Biden on the top of the ballot, it's also going to help candidates underneath.

    If you want a Democratic Senate, he says, you want me on the top of the ballot, because I will help to bring those other Democrats along, especially in those states that aren't quite blue, but are leaning red.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And some of these candidates looking at Bernie Sanders and saying, the inflexibility, they think, is going to hurt him.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right.

    And this is not the first time that Sanders or his surrogates in campaign have gone after Biden recently. This is part of a series of attempts to sort of draw contrasts

    It's kind of surprising because Biden and Sanders couldn't be more different, if you look at policy, or if you look at the Iraq War, or look at any — Medicare, for instance, Medicare for all.

    But even though they are so vastly different, a large share of voters say they're their top two choice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, so go figure.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, turning quickly, you turn to impeachment, Tam.

    You are here. You have been following the decision. We heard earlier from Lisa about what tomorrow's going to look like, how Leader McConnell wants this to play out in the early days.

    Is one side or another looking like it has a greater burden at this point?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, and I was in a briefing today with people who were working with the president's legal team.

    They are perfectly happy with the McConnell rules that have the arguments going possibly until 1:00 in the morning. They are totally fine with that.

    I think that the reality is that, unless something very dramatic happens, he will be acquitted. So, in some ways, the Democrats have a very high burden. But the removal is — there's basically no Democrat who would argue that they have the ability to get enough Republicans to cross over to remove him from office.

    So part of their goal is to just get as much into the record as possible and to put Republican senators, many of whom are up for reelection, not just President Trump, but those senators, but to put them in a rough spot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amy, how does it look from where you sit?

  • Amy Walter:

    It's not a topic you hear all that much about.

    And I think, for so many voters, it's like watching a baseball game where you know what the final score is going to be, so you wonder, should you really tune in to watch the entire process?

    I do think there is a worry here from folks who are fans of some of the senators who have to go back to Washington that they are going to be blanked out for these really critical weeks.

    I do wonder, does it really matter whether or not they show up here? After all, if you turn on television in Des Moines, you see lots and lots of ads. So they have a presence here.

    But then — but we have to remember that the people who show up and vote at these caucuses, it's a very, very small percent of the overall Democratic electorate. These are the most active voters, so they are the people showing up and going to events and seeing these candidates one-on-one.

    They are using these events to make their decision. So not being here carries more weight than, say, if it were a traditional primary.

    And the other really important piece is not just that the senators are trapped in Washington and they can't come to Iowa, but they have to be silent during this entire trial.

    This is not like what we saw, say, at the Kavanaugh hearings, where senators were getting a really big soapbox to be able to make their case, and then those clips got aired on the news over and over again. They are basically not — they're basically off the air and out of people's minds, or at least out of their TV sets. They might not be out of their minds, but they're not getting that level of coverage that they would be getting if they were an Iowa or if they were doing something back in Washington where they had an ability to make their case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just about 20 seconds.

    I mean, this is very different from the usual run-up to the Iowa caucuses, where they can't — some of the candidates can't talk.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Right. And guess what? We have never had impeachment and an election in the same year.

    I mean, if this really goes until 1:00 in the morning or late at night, I mean, these candidates won't even be able to go on late-night TV.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Think about that. Think about what that means.

  • Amy Walter:

    Think about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's all going to unfold in the days and hours to come.

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter in Iowa, thank you both.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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