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With 2020 Democrats, Iowa voters weigh ideals vs. electability

There are still nine months before the first votes of the 2020 presidential election, but the contest to win the Iowa caucuses is well underway. Each of the more than 20 Democratic hopefuls has visited Iowa already, with eight campaigning there in the last week. Amna Nawaz spoke with Iowa voters about why choosing a candidate is especially difficult this year and how they’re planning to decide.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are still nine months before the first votes of the 2020 presidential election, but the battle to win the Iowa caucuses is well under way.

    Just in the last week, eight Democratic hopefuls have campaigned across the state.

    Amna Nawaz talked to some voters in the Hawkeye State to find out how they are sorting out whom to support.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's after 7:00 on a Tuesday night, which means book club night for Ruth and Scott Thompson. But, in Des Moines, Iowa, in the run-up to a heated presidential contest, even book clubs can become political.

    Do you ever not talk about politics?

  • Ruth Thompson:

    We talk about what channel we're going to watch politics on. No, we actually…

  • Scott Thompson:

    Baseball once in a while.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This particular group, with more than 700 members, is making its way through every candidate biography published so far, then inviting them to take questions.

    Tonight?

  • Julian Castro:

    I understand the anxiety that people feel.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro's turn.

    Already, Secretary Castro has spent 14 days of his campaign here in Iowa. In fact, every single Democratic presidential candidate has made a trip to the state at least once in the election cycle.

    In a crowded Democratic field of more than 20, candidates are hoping that intimate moments like this, moments that come early in the cycle, could lead to support and the all-important Iowa caucuses in February, the first in the country.

  • Julian Castro:

    A lot of people don't know anything about me. And so it's a great opportunity every time I get in front of an audience here in Iowa or one of the other states to let them know where I'm coming from and what I want to do for them and for their family.

  • Beto O’ Rourke:

    That is why I'm here. That is why I'm running to serve you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The night before, the Thompsons went to see former Congressman Beto O'Rourke on his third trip to Iowa.

  • Beto O’ Rourke:

    Well, ultimately, it's going to be up to the voters in Iowa, those who will go to the caucuses, to determine who the nominee will be, or at least who's going to have a head-start against the rest of the field coming out of Iowa.

    We have held now more than 120 town hall meetings over the last six weeks across 14 states, most of them here in Iowa.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just name a candidate, and they're already here in some form.

  • Man:

    My name is Deepak. I'm an organizer with the Cory Booker campaign. How are you doing today?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Senator Booker's team is settling in to their state headquarters.

  • Woman:

    Can we count on you to attend?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hosting a slate of events to start getting caucus-goers to commit.

  • Man:

    I know there are a lot candidates in this race. John Delaney is a congressman from Maryland.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ten minutes down the road, Congressman Delaney's office, one of eight in the state, is humming with activity, drumming up support.

  • Man:

    Have you given any thought to who you might be supporting in the caucuses next year just yet?

  • Kay Henderson:

    Being a winner is always important, and being the winner of the first contest is always important in the presidential sweepstakes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, has covered presidential elections for 30 years. She's seen dozens of candidates come through her home state courting votes.

  • Kay Henderson:

    The last four nominees for the Democratic Party have won the Iowa caucuses, so it's an important contest from that perspective. It also gives candidates the chance to travel the state and test their message.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One Iowa pit-stop for candidates to test those messages is Smokey Row coffeehouse. Already this year, Castro, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have passed through, among others. No candidates here today, but local businessmen T.J. Johnsrud and Jim Townsend are happy to break down the field over breakfast.

    One's independent, the other Republican, but both say they're open to registering and caucusing as Democrats this year.

  • Jim Townsend:

    We're the first in the country, so this is where they get known.

  • T.J. Johnsrud:

    This a good place for them to start, actually. And they get vetted pretty quickly, you know?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So has anyone stuck out to you so far?

  • T.J. Johnsrud:

    Well, I think O'Rourke is an interesting guy. Beto, I like. He's got an interesting name anyway. And Joe Biden, of course, is a known commodity, and Bernie Sanders.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What is you're looking for in a candidate?

  • T.J. Johnsrud:

    Oh, boy, civility, maybe, acting like a president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A few tables away, Elaine Imlau and Ann Rezarch say they have been tracking the field.

  • Ann Rezarch:

    I have seen Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Both are registered Democrats, it's worth noting, in a state that Donald Trump won by 10 points in 2016. But they say they're waiting to pick until the pack thins out, paying close attention to one thing:

  • Elaine Imlau:

    Who's civil.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's a big thing for you?

  • Elaine Imlau:

    That's a big thing for me, after everything that's been going on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about you? Does that matter to you as well?

  • Ann Rezarch:

    I want somebody who can win. And, normally, that wouldn't be my priority. I usually go with who I feel would be the best. And I'm having a lot of internal conflict about, who do I think would be the best, who do I think could actually win, and that might not be the same person.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kay Henderson says Iowans are approaching this crowded field with open minds.

  • Kay Henderson:

    That was certainly not the case in 2015 at this point, because you had people who were Clinton supporters and you had people that were Sanders supporters, and never the twain did meet.

    But this time around, I go to candidate events in a certain community, and the same people are turning out to see multiple candidates.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    This is so hard. I have never struggled with choosing a candidate the way that I have this year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Thompsons are far from deciding, but a few candidates top their lists right now.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    So, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Beto and Julian and Pete.

  • Scott Thompson:

    So, yes, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    First and foremost, having lived through 2016, my first question is, can they win?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that one of the most important things to both of you now, is, can this person win, can this person beat President Trump?

  • Scott Thompson:

    Yes, we're not so idealistic that we — that it's — our principle is, we need to win.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a world in which you guys could disagree on which candidate you support.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Scott Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you're both very politically active.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Ruth Thompson:

    We have taken the pledge that if we end up in different campaigns, we won't share strategies or give away campaign secrets, because…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You will build a wall between the two of you?

  • Scott Thompson:

    Yes. There will be a firewall.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Scott Thompson:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can you do that?

  • Ruth Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Scott Thompson:

    Oh, yes.

  • Ruth Thompson:

    Oh, we do, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And they will have plenty of chances to meet the candidates again and again, as campaigns continue to build up their staff on the ground, and the candidates descend for this summer's Iowa State Fair.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Des Moines, Iowa.

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