Presidential Voting Season Kicks Off With Iowa Caucuses
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I'm David Greene in Des Moines, Iowa, at Smokey Row, a coffeehouse in Des Moines.
Renee, you should really see this. It is - I mean it is hundreds of people, I think, just packed in here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
I wish I was there. Good morning, Iowa.
GREENE: Iowa says good morning back.
MONTAGNE: All right. Well...
GREENE: Some of them got here at 4 in the morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And I guess you all will be having a very, very long day because the caucusing is this evening, right?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.
GREENE: Everyone caucusing? Raise your hands if you're caucusing. A lot of hands. Yeah. Well, you know, they're caucusing at a time when these races appear to be very tight on both sides - the Republican side and the Democratic side. And one way we know that is because The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll came out yesterday and it's really considered the gold standard of political polling - show things very close - and we're pleased to be joined by the woman responsible for that poll, pollster J. Ann Selzer, the president of Selzer & Company.
Ann, good morning. Thanks for coming in.
J. ANN SELZER: Good morning. What a pleasure to be here.
GREENE: Well, it's a pleasure to have you. Also with us, sitting at the same table here with me and with Ann is caucus veteran David Yepsen, former chief political correspondent for The Des Moines Register and now at Southern Illinois University.
DAVID YEPSEN: Good to be with you.
GREENE: Let me start with you, Ann, if I can. Your poll has Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump in front - very small leads. How firm are these numbers as you dig through and look at things like undecided and how committed people are?
SELZER: Right. Well, that's one of the first things we take a look at. Obviously Donald Trump has a five-point lead. That's a little bit bigger than Hillary Clinton's three-point lead. But we go looking underneath to say, well, how strong does that look? And the two ways we - one way we divide up, like, the caucus-goers are, are you a definite attender? That means you're a hard-core caucus-goer. Do you tell us you'll probably caucus? If you say you might caucus, you're not in our poll so we don't care about you.
GREENE: (Laughter). Good people - you can care about them still.
SELZER: I care deeply for them, they're just meaningless to me right at the moment.
SELZER: But the definite attenders - Hillary Clinton wins, Donald Trump wins with the definite. So if turnout is small is, that's our little indicator. They both also win with the probable attenders so that is sort of telling us that there's a sturdiness to the lead that they have. Now, the caucuses are - the architecture of them is designed for things to happen on caucus night. So anything could happen. They're close enough for things to change on caucus night.
GREENE: So Bernie Sanders, you would expect, might be hoping that people who are not so definite might decide to go in the end. And, David Yepsen, social media for the Sanders campaign and in this caucus in general has seemed to have been playing a pretty big role, right?
YEPSEN: Well, I was surprised by how much of this campaign is starting to center around smartphones, and, you know, it's a battle of the thumbs.
YEPSEN: The Bernie Sanders campaign - and I think some of the campaigns on the Republican side - have got a lot of support from millennial voters, younger voters. And these voters are just notoriously hard for Ann and others to poll and - for a variety of reasons. But nevertheless because of the nature of the caucuses, it's still - it's a wild card as to how many of them will show up. They don't have a great history of participating. And - but because the caucus has open voter registration, you can go to your caucus, show up, register as a Republican or a Democrat in Iowa and participate. And so I'm looking for - to see how the spontaneity is along about 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon when 20-somethings say, hey, let's - tweet, tweet, tweet - let's go to caucus. Let's go show up and...
GREENE: Let's not go to dinner yet, let's go caucus and do this.
GREENE: You know, let's listen to a little bit of the sound of the Sanders campaign trying to get people out to caucus. This is my colleague, NPR's Sam Sanders, who was covering Sanders's campaign yesterday.
S. SANDERS: Bernie Sanders held his last rally before the Iowa caucuses in Des Moines at Grand View University. As usual, there was a big push for people to get out and vote.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little bit louder. We.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Will.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Will.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Caucus.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Caucus.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One more time. We...
SANDERS: Once Sanders took the stage, he went through his list of liberal policy proposals, which always excite his base.
B. SANDERS: Medicare for all, single-payer program. Federal minimum wage, we've got to raise it to a living wage, 15 bucks-an-hour over the next - we must fight to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
SANDERS: Sanders has always portrayed his bid for the presidency as, in his words, a revolution. But in some ways, last night's speech was bigger. Sanders drew comparisons between his run and the gay rights movement and women's fight for equality.
SANDERS: Women and their male allies said no, we're we not going to have women as second-class citizens in this country. We're going to stand up and we are going to fight back.
SANDERS: He invoked Barack Obama's election as the first black president, and there might've been a push for black support, which he'll need in contest after Iowa. Sanders closed with a story of his recent visit to Birmingham, the heart of the civil rights movement.
SANDERS: Like the people of Birmingham, Ala., we have courage. We will stand up to the powers that be, and we will create a nation that fulfills the dream and the vision that we know our country can be. Thank you all very much.
SANDERS: There were no attacks on his competition. Instead, Sanders spent last night making the case that his candidacy is something much, much bigger than just a candidacy. The question now is whether voters see Bernie Sanders's campaign in the same way. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Des Moines.
GREENE: I'm still here with veteran pollster Ann Selzer and veteran Iowa caucus watcher David Yepsen. And, you know, Bernie Sanders - someone who many would not have expected to be so close to the lead right now. You could say the same thing on the Republican side for a man named Donald Trump. And let me just ask both of you - a year ago, if someone had said that Donald Trump was on the verge, perhaps, of winning the Iowa caucuses, what would you have both said?
SELZER: Oh, no. We were polling him a year ago, and he was in very low-digit numbers and he had very high unfavorables. So people were writing him off, saying, well, he can't possibly win, he would have to so flip his favorable-unfavorable. And that's exactly what he did so he's earned his ranking.
GREENE: David Yepsen?
YEPSEN: I think Donald Trump has surprised almost every political observer in the country with what's happened. And, in a sense, so has Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. A lot of anger in the American electorate, a lot of protest there, a lot people fed up for a variety of reasons. And so it's been a fascinating story to watch, and we start to unpack it tonight.
SELZER: In fact, this is what they have in common. We asked a question in our poll about whether you think the system is mostly rigged against the - in favor of the rich and powerful or not. And if you said the system's rigged, you're a Trump supporter and you're a Bernie Sanders supporter. So there's some commonality across the parties.
GREENE: Well, let's hear a little bit from Donald Trump. My colleague, Don Gonyea, was at a Trump rally last night.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Donald Trump held the last event of a busy final pre-caucus weekend in Sioux City.
GONYEA: In true Trump fashion, there were unexpected moments, like the presentation of one of those giant cardboard checks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is for the Siouxland Soldiers, and it's $100,000.
GONYEA: The contribution comes from money Trump raised at that event last week when he skipped the GOP debate. Trump chided Iowa for backing candidates in the past who did not win the GOP nomination.
DONALD TRUMP: You haven't had a winner in Iowa in 16 years. We're going to have a winner - you better believe it.
GONYEA: That candidate sat on stage where he was interviewed by Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty University and the son of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. His presence was designed to counter Ted Cruz's appeal among Iowa evangelicals. Falwell noted that Jesus said to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
JERRY FALWELL JR: And rendering unto Caesar means choosing the leader who would make the best president of the United States, not the best Sunday School teacher, not the best pastor.
GONYEA: At one point, Falwell asked Trump about the federal debt.
TRUMP: Well, number one, we have to stop the fraud, waste and abuse. It's massive throughout our country.
GONYEA: Then Trump told the story of an offer he made to the Obama administration early on.
TRUMP: I offered, by the way, Jerry, years ago to build a ballroom at the White House, free of charge - a hundred-million dollar ballroom. I said, we'll get the top five architects in America, make it the finest ballroom in the world.
GONYEA: The response from the White House?
TRUMP: I never heard back.
GONYEA: He was clearly miffed. Finally, Trump made an urgent pitch to his supporters.
TRUMP: If your doctor says you cannot leave your bed, you won't make it, it doesn't matter. Get up and caucus. Get up and caucus.
GONYEA: Donald Trump, as he tries to close the biggest deal of his career. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Sioux City.
GREENE: Ann Selzer, let me ask you this. If you're a Republican voter who considers yourself more establishment, let's say, as you dig through the polls, are establishment voters coalescing around any other candidate right now?
SELZER: That is one of Donald Trump's strongest points. He leads with moderates, he leads with people who consider themselves mainstream supporters. He's just this riddle inside a puzzle, you know? It doesn't make any sense that that's the way things are. But the mood in this country is so ready for somebody who will do government a different way because they just - everything that has gone before has not worked. They're ready for a radical change.
GREENE: David Yepsen, final words. I mean, is Iowa about to potentially send a big message at this moment in American politics?
YEPSEN: Well, I think so. Trump may very well win this thing, and certainly Bernie Sanders, if he doesn't win it is going to finish well. Both the Sanders and the Trump phenomenon occurred in part because early on in this race, they really didn't get any pushback. The Republican candidates didn't want to take on Trump. A - he bites back, but also they wanted to get his supporters. Same with Sanders. Hillary Clinton's people didn't take on Bernie Sanders early on 'cause they were thinking, well, we'll need these people for the November election. Bad mistake.
GREENE: All right, two veterans of the Iowa caucuses - pollster Ann Selzer, and David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. They both joined me here as we are broadcasting live from Smokey Row, a coffeehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.