ROBERT COSTA: Good evening. Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Finally, a vote; on Monday Iowa’s caucuses will kick off the 2020 election and begin voting season and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Polls show a competitive and wide-open race in the state, and in the final sprint candidates are fighting to get a bounce in Iowa so they can go into New Hampshire and other contests with a bounce.
While debates over policy have shaped the race for months, the impeachment trial of President Trump has taken center stage in recent days.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) You know, the whole impeachment trial for Trump is just a political hit job to try to spear me because he is scared to death to run against me, and he has good reason to be concerned. You can ruin Donald Trump’s night by caucusing for me and you can ruin Joni Ernst’s night as well.
MR. COSTA: Senators running for president have been stuck in Washington, upending the dynamics on the ground.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) We have had to radically change our schedule in the last week, kind of toss it into the garbage can.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) No one thought a year ago that we were going to be in the middle of an impeachment process.
MR. COSTA: They are relying on surrogates, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is getting out the vote for Senator Sanders.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) Feel, it, Iowa! We’re here to take Iowa and to make sure and re-center politics for the working class in the United States of America.
MR. COSTA: Senator Amy Klobuchar flew back to Iowa Tuesday night for a quick visit.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) And I’m sitting there on the Senate floor as I’m watching and they go, well, we’re done. I’m like, I’m going to Council Bluffs. (Cheers.)
MR. COSTA: A win or strong finish in Iowa could be pivotal for many contenders.
ANDREW YANG: (From video.) I love campaigning here in Iowa every single day because you all are among the most powerful, influential people in our country today.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio; and O. Kay Henderson, news director of Radio Iowa. She joins us from Des Moines. She brings to this table decades of experience covering politics in the Hawkeye State.
Kay, so glad to have you on the Washington Week Extra. Really appreciate the time. I’ve been reading you and following you for years, so thank you for joining us.
O. KAY HENDERSON: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: What’s the state of play? We’re just a few days away from the caucuses.
MS. HENDERSON: Right. Well, buckle up, and we have three U.S. senators who are literally doing that as we sit here; they are flying back to Iowa and intend to be at events here on Saturday and Sunday trying to make the case. As you mentioned, this is a really tight race. Senator Klobuchar seemed to be making some inroads, trying to sort of nudge up into that top tier of candidates. Today, coincidentally, you had Pete Buttigieg out on the hustings telling people that he was in Iowa making the case for himself eye to eye, sort of suggesting that maybe there were some people who weren’t in Iowa at the time making their case eye to eye. And really what I think people are sort of sitting on the edge of their seats right now about, the Iowa poll that the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom will release on Saturday night. It will show us the state of the race. This is a poll that has really been predictive of results in the past because pollster Ann Selzer has been able to ascertain the number of people that would attend caucuses in the past. As we all remember, she really predicted the Obama surprise in 2008. And what happens when that poll comes out? Just a little bit of a bandwagon effect: people see somebody maybe surging and they decide, OK, I’m going to vote for the winner.
MR. COSTA: There’s chatter, Kay, among Iowa operatives and national political strategists that Senator Klobuchar might be the one who surges at the end. What do you make of that discussion?
MS. HENDERSON: Well, as you know, Iowans like a neighbor. In 1988 Dick Gephardt did very well here. People seem to forget that Barack Obama was actually a neighbor, an Illinois senator, easy to make the trip to Iowa. She’s been making inroads here in Iowa at events and on behalf of Democratic candidates for the past five years. She’s laid some groundwork here. She is the only one among these 2020 crop of candidates who’ve made that infamous full Grassley; she’s made a trip to every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, did with kind of a flair at the end of December. And so this impeachment trial and her role as a Senate juror has really sort of put a crimp in her plan to try to replicate that 99-county tour here in January.
MR. COSTA: The full Grassley. (Laughter.) Sounds like a rock band.
SUSAN PAGE: Yeah, exactly.
AYESHA RASCOE: A very hot band. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Stay with us, Kay.
Ayesha, when you look at the White House’s approach, they sent President Trump to Iowa this week for a rally, many surrogates from the GOP are there. What do they make of Senator Sanders and his ascendancy?
MS. RASCOE: Well, it’s been interesting because you’ve had this – them kind of playing this role of saying, you know, we think Senator Sanders is being treated unfairly once again, you know, President Trump talking about his impeachment was – this is really – you know, the fact that Sanders cannot be out there campaigning, they’re really doing it again; they’re helping Joe Biden. I don’t know that they really are very concerned about Senator Sanders, and they may feel that Sanders is someone who, if they run against him, they can easily, obviously, say he is a socialist, we’re anti-socialist. That’s part of what Trump will be talking about in his State of the Union, not being socialist. But also they think that they can have his followers, if they get upset, that if they can get them to sit on the sidelines, that helps them in the end either way.
MR. COSTA: Susan, the White House has also, of course, taken an interest in former Vice President Biden. What has the impeachment process meant for his candidacy just days before Iowa?
MS. PAGE: You know, I think it’s had two conflicting effects. I think on the one hand it reminds Democratic voters that there are these accusations that he didn’t take his son’s job – his consulting job with Ukraine seriously enough. That it appears – not that he did anything wrong, but that it created the appearance of a conflict of interest, and he hasn’t handled that very well. It’s also taken – may had the effect that Biden keeps urging people to think of it. It shows how scared they are of him, that they think he’d be the strongest possible opponent of President Trump in November. So it – you know, maybe it’s done both things.
I do think what impeachment has done generally, it has really focused Democratic voters in Iowa and elsewhere on this whole electability question. And it’s something that you see Elizabeth Warren talking about, about her record of ousting a Republican incumbent when she was elected to the Senate, or Amy Klobuchar talking about her winning in red counties in her home state of Minnesota. Because if there’s one thing Democrats want to do, they want to win in November. And the impeachment debate, and the failure – the likely failure to convict President Trump has reminded them about how important that is.
MR. COSTA: Speaking about electability, Kay, when you look at Mayor Buttigieg of South Bend, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, what explains his slip? You mention Ann Selzer of the Des Moines Register poll.
MS. HENDERSON: Right.
MR. COSTA: He was leading months ago in that poll, but he has slipped since then. What has happened on the ground in Iowa?
MS. HENDERSON: Well, I think we can’t discount the fact that Bernie Sanders has been running for president in Iowa since 2015. He got about half of the delegates here in 2016. And he just kept a ground game here going – people, volunteers, doorknockers. And so he has a really solid core of supporters here. Buttigieg at this point last year was unknown. People probably had a hard time figuring out how to pronounce his name. It wasn’t until he had a town hall turn on CNN in March that he really sort of surged into the national consciousness.
The other thing about, you know, the close down and that electability argument that you were just talking about is that it’s really unusual to talk to undecided voters and learn who their, you know, final two candidates they’re sort of mulling. You run into a lot of people who are mulling Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. That has nothing to do with ideology. That has total and complete – it’s all about electability, and their perception that one of the two of them is their best choice to beat President Trump in November because of what they’re seeing in the national polls.
MR. COSTA: Kay, just a quick follow up on that. What actually happens in the caucuses when someone doesn’t reach a certain threshold? Do you see deals cut? Do you see some supporters transition among different candidates? How does it actually work?
MS. HENDERSON: It’s a neighborhood meeting. So you may have neighbors who get along who are able to invite people to support a candidate who they weren’t – their neighbor wasn’t supporting when they walked in the room. It’s also a neighborhood meeting in which you may have people who have some sort of grudge about, you know, a sidewalk issue that has completely nothing to do with the caucuses. So it’s a really good sociology experiment to see how these things turn out.
We, as reporters, have all been asking these candidates: Are you striking a deal? Are you telling your supporters that if you don’t have enough room – if you don’t have enough support in the room, to go support another candidate? I asked Amy Klobuchar that question on Sunday night in her campaign bus and she said, absolutely not. It could be to her advantage to do that if, for example, on Elizabeth Warren, doesn’t have enough support in some of the rural areas where Klobuchar seems to be picking up steam.
MR. COSTA: Final round before we all get some sleep before Iowa and the Senate trial begins. We’ll begin with you, Susan, and then get back to you, Kay. But Susan, just a few days ahead of Iowa, what are you looking for? What’s one thing in your notebook you’re paying attention to ahead of the caucuses?
MS. PAGE: Can Amy Klobuchar come in third? Third place for Amy Klobuchar would be a huge victory. It would fuel her into the contests that follow.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha?
MS. RASCOE: I’m looking to see what happens with Bernie Sanders and, like, is he able to turn the money advantage, all that organizing he’s been doing – is he able to turn that into a win?
MR. COSTA: Kay Henderson.
MS. HENDERSON: After three times running in the Iowa caucuses – of course, he dropped out in 1987 before the caucuses were held – but will Joe Biden finally be able to have Iowa caucusgoers say he is their pick?
MR. COSTA: That’s so true. He started running back then in the 1980s.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’d like to thank all of our guests, especially Kay Henderson in Iowa, for taking the time to join us. Susan, Ayesha, thank you so much as well.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.