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The first contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary took place Monday evening with roughly 1,700 caucuses across Iowa. In Iowa, the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter and David Yepsen of Iowa PBS join John Yang, and the NewsHour's Daniel Bush reports. In Washington, New York Times columnist David Brooks and The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff with analysis.
Good evening. I'm Judy Woodruff.
And welcome to this "PBS NewsHour" Vote 2020 election special.
The Iowa caucuses are under way, the first contest to decide who will be the nominees for president.
In the Republican presidential caucus, unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump is projected to win the Hawkeye State. As you can see, with more than 83, almost 84 percent of the precincts reporting, President Trump has better than 97 percent of the vote on the Republican side.
And for the Democrats, however, we still do not have any results.
We have a team in Iowa led by "NewsHour" correspondent John Yang.
With him on the campus of Drake University, in Des Moines, where the caucuses continue, are Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, also the host of "Politics With Amy Walter" on WNYC Radio, and longtime Iowa political reporter David Yepsen. He's the host of a program "Iowa Press" on Iowa TV.
So, John Yang, I'm going to come quickly to you first. What is going on? The caucuses began three hours ago. We expected to get early reports, at least preliminary numbers. And, so far, we don't have anything.
We don't have anything.
The Democratic Party just released a statement saying that they are being very careful. They say quality control is delaying the reporting. They say they have about 25 percent of the results in.
And they also say that turnout, which some had predicted could top the record turnout in 2008, when Barack Obama got a big boost here, they say that turnout is only on pace to match 2016's turnout, so significantly lower than what had been forecast.
The party also says that one reason for the delay is that, for the first time, they're releasing three numbers, rather than just one. Previously, they would just tell us the number of delegates who had been allocated to the various candidates.
Tonight, they're also reporting the raw vote at the beginning of the night, when people arrived at the caucuses, and then after people rearranged themselves, once the candidate — some candidates who didn't have enough for viability.
There is also some suspicions that perhaps they won't — I shouldn't say that. We do know that the party wants to release everything at once, all three of those data points at once, that perhaps it could be that they want to avoid the piecemeal dribs and drabs of numbers that some of the campaigns could use to declare victory.
I think some of the terms we're using, John, may be unfamiliar to folks who don't follow these caucuses.
You mentioned raw vote. The Iowa Democratic Party had referred to alignment and then what they were calling realignment.
I will bring in David Yepsen at this point, because he has been covering Iowa politics for a long time.
David, it's our — what we know is that the Democratic National Committee reached in and had the Iowa Democrats change their process this year. Can you tell us in a nutshell what happened? What did they do?
Well, in the — in prior years, they never released an initial preference. They never released a body count, if you will, because they didn't want to look too much like a primary. That would offend New Hampshire.
In 2016, what happened was, Bernie Sanders' supporters feel like they won the vote of the initial people walking in the room and that Hillary Clinton won the delegates, and so she claimed victory.
So, to be transparent, this year, they're going to release everything, the initial preferences of people when they walked in the door, then where those people went who were not in a group of 15 percent to qualify for delegates, and then the delegate count.
And what is happening tonight is — goes contrary to what the state Democratic chairman, Troy Price, told us in an interview, which was, these numbers would be reported by precinct as they came in.
So it leads to the question, is there some kind of problem? Because to have this happen really detracts from the importance of the caucus. To release them in the middle of the night is giving the winner no bounce. And that's why come here to campaign, to get a win.
In fairness to the state party, though, they have had problems in the past with counts. And more than one state chairman has lost his job because he messed up the count.
So I imagine Mr. Price this year is being extra careful, even though all the media people are mad.
Well, it has — takes on particular importance because of all the focus this year and in the last few years over election security and election accuracy and hacking and whether elections have been interfered with.
And so even a simple mishap is going to be — frankly, has the potential to be misinterpreted until something is released.
I just want to come back and ask you again, David Yepsen — and, Amy and John Yang, please feel free to jump in — just to understand what is different about Iowa, as you said, is, it's not just the number of people who show up at these caucuses.
It is that the candidates, in order to get — to be counted at all, to have any chance of getting delegates to the national convention, they have to have more than 15 percent in each one of these, what, over 1,600-some-odd caucuses.
And if you don't have the 15 percent, that is where the so called realignment or rearranging happens.
That's correct, Judy.
The process is about electing delegates. The nominee is picked by delegates. And so this is not a primary. This is picked by people at caucuses who elect delegates. And you — if they don't have 15 percent of the whole, as a candidate, your people have to realign with a group that does.
Amy Walter, you are there in the middle between David and John.
And, like David, you have covered a lot of these elections, and like John.
How are you reading what is going on? We don't have results yet. There are rules changes that were imposed by the Democratic National Committee. What do we make of it at this hour?
You know, Judy, it is a really important point, this changes in rules. And, remember, it's not just the Iowa caucus rules that have been changed.
Another big rule change was the fact that superdelegates are no longer able to cast their ballot until, at the convention, if there is a second ballot. If the person who has the most pledged delicate delegates has the ability to win, they don't need superdelegates.
The point is, all these changes were made in response to Bernie Sanders' campaign in 2016 and the frustration that many of his supporters felt that the DNC was putting their thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton.
But it goes to a bigger question. And I think we have been seeing it for the last 10 or so years, which is, what is the point of the parties?
The point of the parties not so long ago was, they make the rules, and if you want to be a part of that party, you follow the rules. Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, both candidates who came from outside the system, outside of the party, have really transformed the way the parties are actually conducting themselves.
So it is pretty radical, actually, what is happening tonight. The party is worrying so much about things here in Iowa, about transparency, when, not that long ago, the party could say, well, if you don't want to be part of our process, then just don't come.
You can't say that anymore.
But, look, I do think that, every four years, Judy, we come to Iowa, these caucuses happen, and there is something — at least since 2012, something has gone somewhat awry.
And so I do think it is going to raise once more the question of, can Iowa still keep itself the first in the nation with the current system that they have, given how much importance these caucuses have in picking the ultimate nominee?
Sure. And it is important, just quickly, that you mentioned the superdelegates.
These, of course, are elected officials, people who have a prominent role to play. They may be governors. They may be members of Congress. But they are — but they not a part of the process at this point. Their role was supposed to be diminished under these new rules.
Now I want to go to "NewsHour" political reporter Dan Bush, who is on the Drake University campus in Des Moines.
Dan, I understand you have got a little bit of information about what is going on.
That's right, Judy.
So, I have been texting with an official who was involved in and helped lead the count at the largest precinct site in the state. And this official tells me that there is an app that can be downloaded to a phone, tablet or computer that the precincts are — were supposed to use to submit the results digitally.
That app appears not to be working for some precincts around the state. That is slowing the process down. This source said that it might take a while to sort it out, but that, generally speaking, otherwise, the caucus went fairly smoothly.
I spoke with one campaign that said they expect it to be a long night. We might not hear results for at least another hour, maybe even longer.
But I guess — I guess, Dan, I don't understand, because we had heard earlier in the day that this app on — supposedly available on a smartphone or a tablet wasn't working, and that they were going to be calling in the results.
So, we don't know what happened.
And some precincts have been able to call in the results. Apparently, others have not. And that has what caused some of the confusion. And, apparently, there still are precincts that are having trouble sticking with those guidelines and getting those results in with that app.
Dan, let me ask you.
You have been there in the caucus at — I guess there are several caucuses taking place at Drake University. What are the voters themselves saying about this? Are they asking questions?
So, the voters here are waiting for the results to come in.
You can see behind me supporters are filling up the room here at Vice President Biden's rally, waiting for him to come on stage. Some Biden supporters said, listen, this is a marathon, this is not a sprint. These are voters who came from the caucus today where Biden finished in fourth place.
They said they are not that concerned about the results. Pete Buttigieg's campaign is very happy with where things stand right now. They are doing their own internal polling and collection of data from what is happening. And — and they're very happy with Buttigieg's performance in rural areas, Judy, and also in suburbs.
They point to that as proof of him being able to win swing voters in a general election. Obviously, at this precinct, anyway, which Warren won, her supporters are happy.
But, overall, people are expecting and hoping to get results soon, so they can see how things shake out.
So we do know some results. You were there, so you heard the call there at that caucus that you were attending.
So, we're all waiting to hear — to hear all those results.
Dan Bush, thank you.
Amy Walter, David Yepsen, and John Yang, thank you all.
With me here in the studio watching it all, New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.
We're all sitting here scratching our heads, figuratively, David, trying to figure out what has happened.
It was faster when they did it by courier pigeon.
I am for going back to that.
And this is why government should run the entire health care system, because we are so good at planning.
I guess a couple things leap out to me. One, first, some candidate should just get up and give a speech. And every network would cover that person.
And the second point, which David Yepsen alluded to, victory speeches in Iowa have been important historically.
Barack Obama gave a very important one in 2008. And now we're not going to have a victory speech that anybody is going to watch because it is going to be in the middle of the morning or maybe — or late at night.
The second thing — the third thing that interests me is the turnout, that it apparently is at 2016 and not 2008. And that was a huge difference. 2016 was 172,000. 2008 was 240,000, big difference.
And so that tells me that none of the candidates are really exciting a lot of people here. And so, it's — that strikes me as — I don't know what it says about the Democratic Party, but it's — so much attention, so much anti-Trump fervor, and yet a lot of people didn't come out.
And we are waiting to see what that means and which candidate benefited or was hurt by that, Jonathan Capehart.
But in terms of how the rules changed and the fact that we are still waiting more than three hours after these caucuses got under way, does it say something about the Democratic Party this year?
I mean, in a way, it sort of reminds me of healthcare.gov, to your point — your joke about putting the government in charge of the health care system.
But, look, these rules were put into effect, Judy, after the 2016 race because of concerns of what happened the last time…
… and Senator Sanders not feeling that, you know, his delegates got their due and that his voters got their due.
And so these rules were put in place to be — to make the whole thing more transparent, to make it more small-D democratic. And, instead, what we are seeing is the complication, the complexity of these new rules have been — has upended the process.
And, I mean, I keep think — I'm thinking also back to the criticism of the party over the debates, the fact that the results were tightened this year and wondering if there is going to be an examination somewhere along the line in this process of how — of how changes were made as we went along and as we got closer to this…
Well, one thing that this might — there are conversations happening on social media about this, particularly among the political class.
And that is the conversation within the Democratic Party about, why does Iowa go first will now accelerate. Why should this state that doesn't look demographically like the country and like the party, why should that state go first?
And, before, the tradition of Iowa going first would sort of hold them safe. I don't think they are safe anymore.
Simplicity is important.
Like, who thought it was a good idea to say, we're going to report your first decision and then your second?
And then your second.
And maybe your random musings.
Like, who thought having three different results was a good idea?
Simplicity is just very important in any regulatory or any governmental system.
And then — and they did it because of transparency. This happens to be a pet peeve of mine, that a friend repeated this…
You are for more behind the curtain.
… from the Brookings Institute once said, government shouldn't be totally transparent for the same reason that middle-age people should wear clothing.
That you don't need to see everything.
I don't think I want to go there right now, David.
When you try to make things transparent as your ultimate goal, you're just going to get everything too complex, and you will cause distrust in everything.
All right, meanwhile — I'm going to come back to the two of you, but I want to go back to Des Moines and to David Yepsen with Iowa PBS.
David, you have got a little information to shed light on what is happening.
Well, it is more of an insight into the fact that the Democratic Party announced that they were going to have people from the Department of Homeland Security looking at, monitoring the app that reporting was used, so which raises questions about hacking.
You know, in the absence of information, information creates itself. And I think David's — the comments made just now are absolutely right. This hurts Iowa. It is an embarrassment.
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, no sound is made. And if a caucus is given, and no results are reported, then there is no point to having a caucus.
So, this is a — this is an embarrassment by the Democratic Party in the state. And I fully expect that it could well cost them these events in the future.
I want to ask you, John Yang, as somebody who has covered American politics for a long time, it seems to me the — and I have been covering quite a few presidential elections as well — after every primary season, we hear the criticism, well, Iowa is not representative.
Neither is New Hampshire. It is a perennial criticism. But maybe the calls for change are going to be even more serious and urgent this time.
Oh, I think so.
And, also, I think there has always been some talk this year — I have been hearing talk this year about how big this has gotten in terms of sort of political tourism, people coming from outside to see candidates, the large number of us, of reporters, who come in into this state.
And, also, when they were talking about the huge number of the projected turnout, which actually doesn't seem to have panned out, there was some talk of, has this, the Iowa caucus system, become a victim of its own success? Has it gotten too big?
And I think that will also play into the talk about whether or not or not this should continue to be the first stop in this primary process and the stop that sort of launches some candidates and winnows out others.
Amy Walter, on this question of turnout, is what we're hearing at this point in the evening the final answer there? Do we know that the turnout wasn't as high as it was in 2008? Is that for certain?
I can't hear anything.
She can't hear. I'm sorry.
I don't know whether…
Judy, I'm afraid she can't hear you.
Well, I can certainly come back to the table.
She was asking about turnout, whether…
Oh, it is a good question. And when I was out here about a week-and-a-half ago, nobody was talking about turnout breaking records. And most folks were thinking maybe it would hit 2008 levels, but thought it would be somewhere between 2016 and 2008.
And I would have to say one piece of the puzzle here, why is it not at 2008 levels, the first is, there are just so many candidates. In 2008, you had a choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obviously, John Edwards was in the mix there, but, really, it was about two those candidates and the intensity around those two candidates.
Now you have four or five candidates that are up here in the top tier. The secretary thing goes to this question that Democrats in Iowa are struggling with and Democrats across the country are struggling with, that there is a clear choice if you are voting for Bernie Sanders. You know what you are getting with Bernie Sanders and his revolutionary zeal about reimagining the American political, social, economic system.
But the majority of Iowans and the majority of Democratic voters say: We want to find a candidate who can win.
And, right now, that candidate has not emerged. There is not the strongest candidate that voters see to take on Donald Trump.
And so what you are finding with a lot of voters is a sense of, I don't know, a lot of shrugging of the shoulders. And I think there are a lot of voters around the country hoping that Iowa is going to give them the answer to that.
And, as we have just been discussing, that's — that may not happen.
And back here at the table, I mean, David Brooks, we have heard from folks who have been interviewing voters in Iowa.
They have been looking for an answer. I have heard terms along the lines of Iowa voters frozen in indecision because they were so — they felt so much pressure to make the right call with who they support.
And more than a quarter decided in the last couple of days, according to some of the more recent polls, which that suggests nobody really lit a fire that we saw — you see fires get lit. Obama lit a fire. Even Rick Santorum on the Republican side in 2012.
You get these surges. And maybe Sanders — there are some polls suggesting Sanders lit a fire, but there is really no sense of that.
And what Amy said is exactly right, that they're — if you are voting tactically, it's not an exciting feeling. And if it is cold, maybe you don't go out to vote tactically. And so, you know, we will see what happened.
The latest polls, everyone all over the map. You have got — now, on Twitter, you have got a million reports from individual precincts. And you don't want to draw any broad trends from those reports, but you would have to say, I haven't seen any of them where Joe Biden did particularly well.
And so I don't know what we can learn. That is just random precincts that people report. And you now see dozens and dozens on Twitter.
Well, we're really — from my perspective, I'm in speculation land, Jonathan Capehart, because I really want to understand why there isn't more interest in the caucuses this year, because there's been so much focus on, what was it, 29 Democrats at one point were running.
And we're now down to 12 or 11 or something like that.
But it's not for lack of candidates. You have had a lot going on in Washington with impeachment.
So, we can only speculate at this point about what…
And that would be the great thing about actually having results, having the raw numbers, having the delegates, because then we would really know if there really wasn't any enthusiasm.
I'm looking at it from a different perspective. We're here on Iowa caucus night with probably more candidates than we have seen in a while, and also more candidates who have a lot of people who like them.
I mean, if you talk to Democrats, they like Senator Sanders. They like Senator Warner — Warren. They like Mayor Pete. They like Vice President Biden. They like these people, which is probably one of the reasons why Iowans, back to David Yepsen's point, the — it has become such an event, and, to David's point, where Iowans now feel so much pressure to make the right decision.
And they have got all these candidates they could choose from. And they don't know what to do.
And they're — and we all know that is born out of a desire — at least, we are led to believe that is born out of a desire to defeat the president.
There were a lot of Democrat this year who wanted to jump in the race because they thought they were the one.
And we have got one of them who is not even competing in Iowa who is spending a whole lot of money, in Michael Bloomberg…
… not even competing, who is waiting to see whether anybody emerges from this.
In some of the commentary that I have been watching commentary leading up to our being on tonight, the one thing I found very interesting, there is this fire within the Democratic Party, within Iowa, to defeat the president.
And a lot of the correspondents would ask Warren supporters or Biden supporters, or particularly Sanders supporters, if your candidate isn't the one, what are you going to do in November? And each person said they were going to vote for the nominee. That is something — Democrats…
Except for Sanders and Yang supporters.
Well, no, no, no, no. These were Sanders supporters who were talked to, and they said they are going to vote in November for the nominee.
Whoever it is.
And for a party that, they are never organized or happy, that is, I think, a significant thing.
Well, as we come to the end of our half-hour special with still no results, I'm going to go back to you, John Yang, with maybe a little pull-it-together information.
Well, Judy, in the absence of information some of the candidates aren't waiting.
Amy Klobuchar has come out. She has had, anecdotally, again, as David Brooks was talking about, anecdotal reports from scattered precincts around the state indicating she has had a fairly good night. And she is talking about punching above her weight.
So, in the absence of information, she's coming out and shaping how this is appearing. And with no hard information to contradict her, that may well stand for a while.
So, we are, as you say, in the middle of — in the middle of the night almost here in Iowa. It is dark here, and that is what information we have.
Well, normally, at the end of a program like this, we would giving you — we would be wrapping up the results again.
We don't have any results. But we have been telling you everything we know that is happening on the ground. We know people did vote. They did go to caucuses tonight. We just don't have the results.
So, we will continue to follow this.
I want to thank all of you in Iowa, John Yang, Amy Walter, David Yepsen. Thank you very much.
And here in the studio with me in Washington, keeping me company, David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart.
I guess I have never anchored an election night program like this, with no results. So, it's a first.
That does conclude our "PBS NewsHour" Vote 2020 election special for tonight's Iowa caucuses.
We do have to sign off from our broadcast now, but you can follow — and we hope you will follow — the results of these caucuses online at PBS.org/NewsHour and our social pages for all the latest news.
A huge thank you to all of our colleagues at Iowa PBS, who have provided our team with invaluable support and partnership tonight. We thank you.
We hope we will see you again tomorrow on the "PBS NewsHour," later tomorrow night for our special coverage of the State of the Union address starting at 9:00 Eastern, 8:00 Central.
I'm Judy Woodruff. For all of us here at the "NewsHour," thank you, and good night.
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