GWEN IFILL: Will Donald Trump run the table? That’s the question on everyone’s mind as Iowa prepares to vote. We take you there tonight on Washington Week.
The Republicans at war on the debate stage and off.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on, that he’s the most conservative guy and everyone else is a – you know, everyone else is a RINO.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been: Rand, please attack Ted; Marco, please attack Ted; Chris, please attack Ted; Jeb, please attack Ted.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) For me personally, a good thing, a bad thing, will I get more votes, will I get less votes? Nobody knows.
MS. IFILL: The Democrats go head to head as well.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) If you will stand up for me at the caucus next Monday, I promise to stand up for you every single day as president.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Experience is important, but judgement is also important.
MS. IFILL: The choices are more stark than ever. The consequences clear. We’ll take you inside the final days leading up to the first voting with Jeanne Cummings, political editor for The Wall Street Journal; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics; and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. From our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. At long last, the moment has arrived. After months of money raising, finger pointing, and political positioning, voters finally get their say beginning Monday night in Iowa. That doesn’t mean more drama doesn’t await in the next few days, like last night in Des Moines, where Donald Trump removed himself from the main stage, but not from the main story.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) And what happened last night that was amazing, because I wasn’t treated right. I did something that was very risky, and I think it turned out great because I’m on the front page of every paper. I’m getting more publicity than if I – (cheers, applause) – you know? I don’t know.
MS. IFILL: So a secondary fight broke out last night between Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
SEN. RUBIO: (From video.) Now you want to trump Trump on immigration. But you can’t – we’re not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say or do anything to win an election. (Applause.)
SEN. CRUZ: (From video.) You know, I like Marco. He’s very charming. He’s very smooth. But the facts are simple. When he ran for election in the state of Florida he told the people of Florida: If you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty. We both make the identical promises. But when we came to Washington, we made a different choice.
MS. IFILL: John Harwood and Karen Tumulty are in Des Moines for us tonight. And I want to know what you think, John. Did the frontrunner, Donald Trump, set out what he – do what he set out to do last night?
JOHN HARWOOD: I think he absolutely did, Gwen. Donald Trump in that clip you played said: I think I came out ahead. And I think he was absolutely right. He led the newscasts on local television in Des Moines after the debate. He was spared the kind of withering fire he would have got as the leading candidate if he were on the center of the stage, including a video montage of past statements. He saw Cruz, his chief rival who’s trying to slow him down here, get hammered. And he saw Marco Rubio, who hopes to become the establishment alternative to him down the line, get a very tough question that made him look awkward in an exchange about how he’s flip-flopped on immigration. I don’t see how last night could have gone better for Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: Well, so how did it go for everybody else, Karen?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I think Ted Cruz had a pretty tough night. What we did get to see, though, was what these debates might have been like had Donald Trump not been in the picture because, you know, it was a pretty substantive debate. And you know, it was probably the best night that Jeb Bush has had in a very long time.
MS. IFILL: Well, expand on that a little bit because I saw every bit of that debate as well. And Jeb Bush was better than he’s been, but does that mean he was good?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, again, had this been the field that he was running in, and certainly what we all had anticipated at the beginning of this race, I think that that kind of performance – it was a little, to quote Donald Trump, low energy – but I think that kind of performance would have put him in the top tier. And now, you know, the question is whether there’s any way he can possibly rescue this candidacy.
MS. IFILL: You know, John, we started out by talking about whether Donald Trump could run the table. The one thing we know for sure is he is leading in every single poll in all of the top three states – first three states. The question then, just for a moment let’s amuse ourselves by talking about number two and three. We saw them going head-to-head last week, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Who came out ahead?
MR. HARWOOD: I think Ted Cruz came out ahead, as between the two guys, because his position on immigration, which he defended – they were both attacked – but his position is closer to that of the Republican base, closer to that of all the people who are supporting Trump. But the fact that he did better than Marco Rubio didn’t mean, as Karen indicated, that he did well. He didn’t. And I think he had a lost opportunity to try to catch Donald Trump at the end. Marco Rubio is hoping for a strong third, maybe even a second, as a catapult going into New Hampshire.
But I do have to say, one of the things that we have to acknowledge is that we are all going to get a test of how accurate this polling has been, whether Donald Trump has an organization that can deliver all those people who say they like him. Those are big questions in the Iowa Caucuses. And there’s been a lot of punditry about it. I have to say from my own standpoint, you could summarize my assessment of Trump so far, I was wrong. (Laughter.) And I’m holding up this confessional right here. I didn’t expect that he was going to be this kind of a factor this deep into the cycle.
But we’re going to find out whether his support can stick, whether they’ll show up for caucuses. And if so, that issue of running the table that you mentioned, that is very much in prospect.
MS. IFILL: Karen – OK, let’s talk about admitting things we’ve been wrong about. We have all been to several of these Iowa Caucuses in particular, and they’re different from everything else. They’re different from a regular primary. So what are you – have you learned from covering these things in the past that apply or do not apply to what we’re seeing now?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, as a sort of exercise in self-flagellation, I went back a couple of days ago and reread the story I had written the night before the Iowa Caucuses of 2008, when I was aboard Hillary Clinton’s bus. And I can tell you that of everything I wrote in that story, the only thing that wasn’t wrong was the date of the Iowa Caucuses of 2008. (Laughs.) So you know, who knows? And these two candidates, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, are making very, very different bets on – they have different theories of the case about this.
Ted Cruz is running an ultra, sort of – the traditional campaign. You go, you find the voters, you drag them out. It’s your ground game. On top of this, some high, fancy analytics today. Believe it or not, I was at a breakfast where Ted Cruz’s campaign manager said their analytics are so precise that at this moment they are fighting over 9,131 voters who are trying to decide between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. That’s how precise they think they’ve got this.
Donald Trump thinks that he can bring them in by power of his celebrity, that these big rallies are going to translate into big turnout. And I think most people in Iowa are going to be watching that turnout very closely. If it is somewhere near normal levels, say 120,000, that’s a good night probably for Ted Cruz. If it’s much higher than that, it’s probably a very good night for Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: OK, Jeanne and Alexis. Let’s take this back here. We’re watching at a little bit more arm’s length here in Washington, but with the same history of being wrong about Iowa and New Hampshire in the past, at least I can admit to it. What are you watching for, Jeanne?
JEANNE CUMMINGS: I definitely am into the machine and the level of turnout, because I don’t really believe the polls. There are so many disturbing elements about them. The New York Times upshot column did some analysis this week. We are doing some at The Wall Street Journal. But as Karen points out, if you look at one of these polls where turnout is 160,000, then Trump is way ahead. But if you drop it down to normal levels, 120,000, Cruz wins. If you look at some of the sampling that they’ve got in terms of self-described moderates and self-described very conservative Republicans, some of these polls have got moderates at, you know, like 35 percent. Well, if you look at exit polls, they were nowhere near that level, a much smaller pool. So there are many levels that the polls bother me.
So you know, I agree completely with Karen and John, that Trump is testing every theory of the case in Iowa. He does big rallies, not little things. He’s not advertising. He’s just feeding off of the free media, you know, running away from the last debate. Everything he’s done defies convention. And –
MS. IFILL: The playbook has been completely tossed out.
MS. CUMMINGS: And that – and the only thing that he did that is, you know, what a long tradition, is he embraced the ethanol industry and the farmers of Iowa. And he did that largely to create a big separation between himself and Ted Cruz.
MS. IFILL: So what are you watching, Alexis?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that I’m interested in is what do the Evangelicals do? And I was interested in the debate, because Rubio – Senator Rubio was playing very much to that array of the demographic in Iowa, in addition to Ted Cruz’s very assertive effort all the way through, calculating that Evangelicals in Iowa would pay dividends for him. If Marco Rubio has a strategy, perhaps comes in third in Iowa or is up there in the one, two, three, that would be good for him. And it’s a strategy that I’m watching, because Iowa and New Hampshire are races that are happening at the same time with different dynamics.
And the candidates, as Jeanne is pointing out, are – you know, where is Donald Trump today? He’s not in Iowa. He’s in New Hampshire, it happens to be. The rest of them are in Iowa. And the races are – you know, have very different dynamics. But the money and the staying power and the strategy, especially coming out of Iowa, because of all the things that Karen described that can happen on a caucus night, and you have to have that strategy if you’re a candidate and are thinking even sometimes of messing up another candidate’s effort in a precinct.
MS. IFILL: John, I’m curious about this idea about the establishment. We have now generally agreed that the establishment is a bad thing this year, and that if you have that tag around your neck you’re going to suffer. Is that really what it feels like on the ground? When you talk to voters, when you talk to people who are actually involved in getting turnout and all of these metrics working, does it feel that way to you, that there is this anger, that there’s this pushback, or is that a meme that we have now invented?
MR. HARWOOD: I think it’s real. And it’s not only anger, it’s also idealism. You see it on both sides of the race. The people who get most passionate about political campaigns are the people who tend to think that government isn’t working well for them, or working as well as it could. And so that’s where the energy is. And on the Republican side, Donald Trump is saying, look, established politicians for a long period of time have not delivered for you.
And if you look at what’s happened at income trends among working-class Americans over the last 40 years, he’s playing to a receptive audience and he’s capitalizing on that. Bernie Sanders doing the same thing on the Democratic side, talking about income inequality. So I do think it’s real. It’s not always anger itself, but it’s motivation. And it’s motivation to change a government they don’t think’s delivering.
MS. IFILL: What’s the motivation that you’re seeing, Karen, among voters?
MS. TUMULTY: I think, particularly on the Republican side, there is this, look, we’ve given these guys – we’ve given the party establishment the keys to the car in any number of elections over the last decade, and they always end up betraying us. And that I think is really what is fueling this antiestablishment anger out there. And you know, there are some issues that I think Donald Trump has brought to the forefront that I don’t think – I mean, I think he’s correct when he says people wouldn’t be talking as much about immigration if it weren’t for him. So there – it’s a combination of specific issues that have become real markers to people as to why they’re fed up with the people they already have in Washington.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’ve been focusing all on the Republican side for the first part of this. Let’s talk about the Democrats because things heated up on their side as well. The best sign, the Clintons are suddenly all-in in Iowa and New Hampshire as Bernie Sanders closes in.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) I want to thank you for working to be part of this process, where on Monday night you are the first people in the entire world who will get to express an opinion about who you think should be the next president and commander in chief.
SEN. SANDERS: (From video.) American democracy is not a football game. It is not a TV show. It is not a spectator sport. Democracy means that all of our people are supposed to be involved. Decisions are being made today in Washington and in your state capital which impact your lives.
MS. IFILL: Given the turnout, especially in Iowa, I’m not sure it’s not a spectator sport. But Jeanne, I’m curious, in the Democratic side, how is this different from what we’ve seen playing out on the Republican side?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, we – Hillary Clinton learned a lot of lessons from 2008. And she has built a very big, very broad machine. And the Democratic caucuses are slightly – not slightly – they are significantly different from the way the Republican system will work. And the truth is, one vote is not quite equal to another vote in this caucus process for the Democrats. It’s very complicated, but basically what Bernie Sanders can’t do is go into a college city and run up some giant vote, and use that margin to win the state.
MS. IFILL: Even though he has said that’s part of his strategy, isn’t it?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, in each precinct, and in each of these caucuses, there are a certain number of delegates that are up for grabs, right? Say in one of the big college towns it’s 90, all right? So he can win that by one vote or a hundred thousand votes, it doesn’t matter, he gets 90. Hillary Clinton then can go out into farm country, into Clinton County for example, where there are 24 delegates up for grabs. And she can win that one with 250 people and she gets 24. So it’s a – it’s very much the math game that Obama mastered and Hillary Clinton didn’t, and the Bernie Sanders team admits they have not caught up.
MS. IFILL: Well, and Alexis, isn’t it interesting also that there is another Democrat out here, and that’s Martin O’Malley –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Who?
MS. IFILL: -- who even though he’s not doing exactly – he’s not doing great in the polls, but he could get just enough on caucus night to throw his weight around.
MS. SIMENDINGER: He could. And he was asked that question at the last Democratic debate. And his response to his supporters, however many of them he has invested in in Iowa, was stand strong. So he was not tipping his hat. He wants to see if he can get to the threshold, as Jeanne was describing, and in each precinct, which is unlikely for him to be able to do in any significant number. And then his supporters do go up for grabs. They will then move to another side of the room and caucus with another candidate.
And there’s been very animated speculation about where they would go. Would they go more to the maverick, revolutionary Sanders folks, or would they consider themselves more the mainstream and caucus more with the Hillary Clinton people? And that is something that the polling will not tell you. It just will not tell you.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, here’s the challenge that she’s referring to. O’Malley’s, what, at 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent in the polls? In order to hold your supporters and continue to have sway, he needs 15 percent of support. That’s the threshold level in each of the caucuses. That is very hard for him to make. They’ll be free probably almost everywhere after the first ballot.
MS. IFILL: And, Karen, you wanted to jump in?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, you do get some counterintuitive strategies going on here. For instance, you know, the Clinton precinct captains are experienced enough to know that there may be instances where, say, Martin O’Malley is just a few people short of that 15 percent viability threshold, it might make sense for the Clinton people to, say, have some of their people go stand in his corner and vote with him just to keep his delegates – his supporters from spreading and going to Bernie Sanders. There is an effort underway in the Sanders campaign to get some of these college kids on buses and get them back to their hometowns, where they can caucus in their parents’ precincts and help him out. There’s just all kinds of stuff that goes on on the Democratic side. The Republicans sort of just show up, vote, count the votes, go home. But the Democrats, it’s Byzantine, this process.
MS. IFILL: John, what kind of – what kind of pragmatism kicks in, if it does, at this point in this race?
MR. HARWOOD: Look, I do think it’s significant. And the reason is that Democrats are looking at chaos on the Republican side. They know that they don’t control the House or the Senate. And I think that they’re – though there is tremendous idealism and energy behind Bernie Sanders, I think at the – at the – there’s a threshold level of we need to win this election among Democrats. That’s going to work to Hillary Clinton’s advantage.
And I think that you know, we all look back at 2008 and say, look what happened to Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama. Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama. He does not have the same potential as a general election candidate that Barack Obama did, and I think that will – as well as the lessons that Hillary Clinton and her team have learned that Jeanne just referred to – I think that’s going to work to her benefit. If she can win here – and the latest polls have shown she’s slightly ahead – that would be a major help to her in – as she goes into a daunting landscape in New Hampshire, where she by all accounts at the moment is not slated to win, diminish the impact of a(n) adverse New Hampshire result.
MS. IFILL: Well, Karen, I want to talk to you a little bit about that, because there are a lot of imponderables here. One is money. One is what happens next, whether she can afford to lose or lose ground at all in Iowa. And whether – your editorial page wrote a very strong, pragmatic – they think, they believe – essay telling – about why Bernie Sanders is not the right choice for Democrats. Obviously, they’re a different part of your news organization, but it’s a lot of – argument that a lot of Democrats are making.
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. And you’re hearing that a lot more from the Clinton people. It’s like think beyond, think of who is electable in November. But the fact is, you go to a Bernie Sanders rally, there are people there of all ages, the energy level is just through the roof. You see that, you know, it’s – it feels more like a movement. And you go to the Clinton rallies, it’s generally older voters. You know it feels a little more, to quote Donald Trump, low energy.
So what the Clinton people need to do are two things. One is they realize that Bernie Sanders, because of this enthusiasm, has a regenerating money machine that is going to make it possible for him to continue this race for a very long time. And the second thing is that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is very keenly aware of the fact that they need Bernie Sanders supporters to be there in the end with them to bring that kind of enthusiasm to a general election, and they don’t want to do anything to alienate them in that sense. So, you know, there’s a lot of, you know, caution even as these two, you know, candidates are going after each other a lot more intensely than we’ve seen.
MS. IFILL: So, Alexis, does that mean that we’re frozen in place until after Iowa, that New Hampshire almost doesn’t matter until Iowa finally gets on the books?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, they’re happening so rapidly, one after the other, that what happens in Iowa on Monday night will affect what happens in New Hampshire. So they’re not two discrete events. But I think what John is trying to describe is, you know, the fear inside the Clinton campaign, especially after she has transmitted to everyone how seriously she took Iowa. So if she loses in Iowa and then goes on to lose to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, it does change the dynamic for the Democrats and the Democratic race. And you know, it’s a – it’s a hard message that – in some ways that she’s trying to say, as Karen suggests: I love you, Bernie Sanders supporters; I love your enthusiasm; I love your idealism; but let’s just be pragmatic and stay the course, and let’s further, you know, this cause that Barack Obama started. That is hard. That is a very hard message.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the two – double, back-to-back losses is really not good for Clinton. Bear in mind the Clintons have never won Iowa – not the husband, not the wife – except for in his reelect. So they got kind of a curse thing going on up there. (Laughter.) But it doesn’t mean the race is over. What it means is that the race then surely goes for a long time. And we saw the last time, for Barack Obama, that may not have been so bad. He was able to build a national machine and keep people engaged in the race for many months.
MS. IFILL: Well, thank you both. Thank you, John Harwood and Karen Tumulty, out there in Johnston, Iowa, at Iowa Public Television, for joining us tonight. We know you’re going to be hanging there through Tuesday. Thank you, Alexis. Thank you, Jeanne.
MS. TUMULTY: Bye.
MS. IFILL: Keep up with Monday night’s results on PBS NewsHour’s special coverage of the Iowa Caucus. Join Judy and me at 11 p.m. Eastern for the best analysis. And you can follow our panelists online at PBS.org/Washington Week. And we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.