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Why Iowa caucusgoers are feeling extra pressure in 2020

Following months of polling and debates, the first votes of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be counted Monday night in more than 1,700 caucuses across the state of Iowa. John Yang reports and joins David Yepsen of Iowa PBS and Judy Woodruff to discuss what they're hearing from candidates and caucusgoers, plus why this year's contest feels bigger and more significant than ever.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have seen the debates and read the polls.

    Tonight, the first votes in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be counted in more than 1,700 caucuses across the state of Iowa.

    John Yang has been in Iowa over the weekend. He begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Plenty of snow, parkas and coffee, lots of cheering, and a live concert. Where else but Iowa in a presidential election year?

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    And it's the image of that first day that the sun comes up over Dubuque, and, for the first time, Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    We will, we must beat Donald Trump!

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    We are going to defeat this dangerous president.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    The heart of America is so much bigger than the heart of the guy in the White House.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Tom Steyer:

    You're a terrible president for working Americans. You have done a terrible job for them economically. You, sir, are incompetent. That's the reason you have to go.

  • Andrew Yang:

    I am the heaviest betting favorite to defeat Donald Trump in a head-to-head match of anyone in the field.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Joseph Biden:

    I do have a nickname I want to give him: former President Donald Trump.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    But, this time, Iowa voters say, it feels different.

  • Dave Scudiero:

    There's a whole lot more urgency this year than in previous years…

  • Woman:

    Yes.

  • Dave Scudiero:

    … considering what we have seen just this past week, considering what we have seen for the past three years.

  • Casey Guet:

    It feels like, if we don't elect someone other than Donald Trump, that our democracy might not be a democracy.

  • Peggy Magner:

    I have never, ever felt the need to replace a president as much as I need it right now.

  • John Yang:

    Iowa exemplifies the seismic shift the nation felt with President Trump's election; 31 counties, the most of any state, backed President Obama twice and then went for Mr. Trump, among them, Dubuque County, a working-class area in Eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River.

    The last Republican presidential nominee to win here had been Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. In their closing arguments this weekend, candidates said they could bring the area back to the Democratic fold. Former Vice President Joe Biden:

  • Joseph Biden:

    We have to unite not only the Democratic Party. We have to unite the country.

  • John Yang:

    That appeals to Ron Healy, a retired United Auto Workers member and Vietnam veteran.

  • Ron Healy:

    I think that we have a candidate in Joe Biden that can help us put our country back together and put us in a positive direction with a president that, when he speaks, we know it's the truth, that we don't have to wonder if it's possibly a popularity contest or some childish maneuver by an immature president.

  • John Yang:

    College professor Louise Kames likes Biden's many years of public service.

  • Louise Kames:

    Why? Experience and return government to civility and like, you know, follow protocol, and not be a lone ranger, and, again, just be civil. And I think he can unite people. I think he can bring independents in to support the Democratic candidate.

  • John Yang:

    A broad appeal is also part of the message former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is delivering.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Sometimes, you may get the message that we got to choose between either a revolution or a status quo. I think there's another way.

  • John Yang:

    That speech won him the support of Joanne Steger.

  • Joanne Steger:

    I went to a rally yesterday in Dubuque, and I thought he was very, very convincing and very straightforward in what he said he could do or should do, what we need done.

  • John Yang:

    The last Democrat Virgil Murray voted for? John F. Kennedy. Tonight, he's also going to caucus for Buttigieg.

  • Virgil Murray:

    I think he will bring the country together. I think he's young. I think he's the kind of future of America, I think we need to look forward, rather than stay with the status quo.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    This is the campaign where the working class of America is going to stand up and say loud and clear, enough is enough.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders drew Bri Moss and her partner, Louie Meier, into political activism. In 2016, they caucused for the first time.

  • Bri Moss:

    I joined my college Democrats and voted for Obama. But that was about the extent of it, until he said, hey, come check out this guy on "Bill Maher." He's pretty cool. And it just snowballed from there.

  • John Yang:

    This year, they are volunteer organizers for the Sanders campaign. Moss, a waitress, is the newly elected chair of the Dubuque Democratic Socialists.

  • Bri Moss:

    I'm a type 1 diabetic, and I was diagnosed when I was 12 years old, grew up with a single mom. And even though she's always had a good union job, with the good health insurance, we still struggle to afford a lot of our co-pays and things like that.

    So I believe that health care is a human right. And Senator Sanders is the only person I trust to guarantee that.

  • John Yang:

    Meier, who works at John Deere, Dubuque's biggest employer, is less concerned about defeating President Trump and electing a Democrat as he is about fundamentally changing the country.

  • Louie Meier:

    The Joe Bidens — you know, this idea that we have to find a spot in the center, so that we can compromise to get things done, and — I don't buy that at all. We don't have to compromise. We just need to organize.

  • John Yang:

    But for a lot of Iowa Democrats, beating President Trump is so important, they're afraid to make the wrong decision.

    Retired college professor Harlo Hadow wonders whether it will take a moderate or a progressive.

  • Harlo Hadow:

    I do think about that, and I — that's why I'm still undecided is because I'm still wrestling with those issues.

  • John Yang:

    Retired math teacher Peggy Magner:

  • Peggy Magner:

    And a lot of us in Iowa are taking great care about choosing our candidate, but we aren't sure whether what we're looking at is actually going to work.

    Like, we say, we want someone who can beat Donald Trump, but then we think, well, do we know who can beat Donald Trump? Is Donald Trump going to be elected anyway?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And John Yang joins me now from Iowa's capital city, Des Moines, on the Drake University campus, where a couple of caucuses are being held tonight.

    Also joining us is longtime Iowa political reporter David Yepsen. He's the host of the program "Iowa Press" on Iowa PBS.

    Hello to both of you. What an exciting time.

    So, John Yang, given the fact that there is this desire to beat President Trump, tell us more about the candidates' pitches coming into voting time.

  • John Yang:

    Well, Judy, it really was electability, electability, electability.

    The candidates telling crowds across the state this weekend that they were the ones, they were the candidates who could defeat President Trump in November, not only that, but also hearkening back to 2016, and saying that they were the ones who could unify the Democratic Party, that also a little bit of an indirect or gentle shot at Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as polls showed him getting a bounce amid the criticism resurfaced last week by Hillary Clinton that he didn't do enough to unify the party, to bring the party together in November 2016.

    So that was the basic message across the state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, we just heard in John's report that a lot of Iowans, a lot of Iowa Democrats still not decided, not sure what they're going to do.

    You talk to a lot of voters. What are they telling you?

  • David Yepsen:

    Well, it very much is electability.

    More so than ever before, in all the caucuses I have covered, this issue of electability is critical. Iowa Democrats have been told so often they are important, that they really believe it.

    And they know it's a close election. This campaign started the day after Donald Trump was elected. And they want to find a candidate who can get to 270 electoral votes. A lot of criticism of Iowa being a bad place to start this process, atypical state.

    But it is a rural state. And if Democrats are going to beat Donald Trump, these activist Democrats here understand they have to do better in rural areas, rural areas of America, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida.

    And so that's very much on their mind, that this isn't just about a local contest here. It's about a national contest and getting a nominee who can carry votes in rural America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, I know are you also talking to voters who are still not decided.

    What are you hearing from them?

  • John Yang:

    Well, the thing that struck me, Judy — and, certainly, David has spoken to many more voters than I have.

    But the thing that struck me were voters who said it wasn't so much what the candidates were saying; it was what — the feeling they gave. We talked to Dave Scudiero and his wife, Karen, who we met at a Bernie Sanders rally in Cedar Rapids. They're both Republicans, disaffected Republicans.

    They said it wasn't so much what they were going to hear. It is what they were going to feel from the candidate. They wanted to pick a candidate who was going to energize voters, who could make a connection with voters, who could get voters out to the polls in November.

    That was the thing that we heard from a lot of other candidates — Iowa voters. It wasn't so of the policies. It wasn't so much the positions. It was the emotion, the excitement that they could generate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, I have known you a long time. You have covered a lot of these elections, a lot of these caucuses over the years.

    What is different this year?

  • David Yepsen:

    Well, just the size of this thing, Judy.

    It has lasted longer. The crowds are bigger. You know, they estimate it will be close to 300,000 people. It's a long way from those small, intimate days in somebody's kitchen table talking to a presidential candidate. This is a full-blown campaign, a couple thousand media people, caucus tourists coming in from other states to watch the campaign.

    It's just much larger, maybe too big. We will have to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, I want to come back to you on this question of voters feeling pressure to get it right. How are they demonstrating that when you talk to them?

  • John Yang:

    A lot of it, Judy, is that they just haven't decided or hadn't decided when we talked to them this weekend. They were still holding on. They wanted to hear one more rally, one more speech to make sure that the feeling that they had, that their judgment of the candidates was accurate.

    And, as you heard in that piece, there are so many voters who are worrying about making this right decision. As someone — I think actually David said it earlier in a conversation off-camera. It's like when you have high expectations for your kids. They just get so worried about meeting those expectations that they just sort of freeze up.

    And I think a lot of people, as they head into these caucuses tonight, are still struggling, will they pick the right candidate who can beat Donald Trump, especially because they're the first ones? They are sort of setting the tone for this contest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, David, this is not as if Iowa isn't used to having the eyes of the nation on it, though, is it?

  • David Yepsen:

    No.

    And it's a process that is likely to keep going. Already, the 2024 campaign on the Republican side has started. Vice President Pence is on a bus tour in Western Iowa earlier. So, it never ends in this state.

    And the interesting thing to watch, Judy, is — with these candidates, some — many of them won't make it very much farther, but they have elevated themselves in the national stature.

    And I think you will — one of the patterns we see in Iowa, maybe you don't win, but you sure make yourself a better — player on the national stage. Maybe you run again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating. Fascinating.

    David Yepsen, John Yang, thank you both. We can't wait until tonight.

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