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Politics In The News: Iowa Caucuses


And in Des Moines, Iowa, I am David Green. And, Renee, I'm at a coffeehouse in Des Moines with - this is a first for me - a live audience.


Yeah, I think it might be a first for us here on MORNING EDITION. The people in Iowa, you get up early don't you?


GREENE: They like hearing that. Yeah, really - some people here were here at 4 a.m. central time - so, yeah.

MONTAGNE: And you're going to have - I'm just speaking to you all - you're going to have a long night because you're caucusing this evening - right?


GREENE: All right. Everyone's saying, yes. I think they are caucusing. Actually, when i was talking to a couple people in the front row here, they're students at Drake University, and they're caucusing for the first time. And they said it's really going to be a special moment. So I'm glad - it's good to know you can talk to the crowd, too, not just me. So we're going to have to do that the rest of the show, I think.


GREENE: So the races here ahead of the caucuses tonight are pretty tight on both sides. And we want to talk about that with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays, and she's on the line. Cokie, you there?




GREENE: Iowa says hi back (laughter). And with me sitting here to my right at Smokey Row Cafe and Coffee Shop, another caucus veteran, David Yepsen. He's former chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register - now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. David, good morning to you.

DAVID YEPSEN: It's good to be with you.

GREENE: Well, yeah - let me start with you...

ROBERTS: Hi, David.

GREENE: ...if I can. Oh, Cokie's saying hi.

YEPSEN: Hi, Cokie.

GREENE: David let me start with you. The Des Moines Register came out with it's poll yesterday. And, I mean, this is really considered the gold standard of political polling in this state - shows Hillary Clinton slightly ahead of Bernie Sanders. Does history suggest those numbers are going to hold tonight?

YEPSEN: As a matter of fact, that's margin of error stuff. I mean, it's a statistical tie and - so who knows what'll happen? You look at - the other thing in that polling - 30 percent of the likely caucus goers say they could be persuaded to change their mind. And one of the things that happens at caucuses is, you know, this is a neighborhood meeting. This is not a primary where you go in and vote. So people talk about politics. So you could have somebody go in and say they're for Bernie Sanders, but some Hillary Clinton person could persuade them to change their mind and that does occur. So it's a - it's a great story 'cause we don't know how it's going to turn out.

GREENE: Cokie, significant that we're in what's essentially a statistical dead-heat in this race after everything we've been through so far?

ROBERTS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Hillary Clinton has been organizing in Iowa for years and really did - hoped to do very well there after her defeat in 2008 to Barack Obama. But Bernie Sanders, as I'm sure people in that room can tell you, has lit a fire. And he is really right there even with her. But it will be interesting to see what happens in those caucuses 'cause I can imagine particularly older women who tend to show up saying that they - trying to convince their neighbors that Hillary Clinton is the way to go. What we're seeing in the Des Moines, Iowa poll among women is the - is that at 35 years old is the break-point. Women over 35 are for Hillary, under 35 are for Bernie Sanders. So we'll see what that persuadable factor is.

GREENE: Well, both of you stay with me. I want to listen to a little bit of sound here. We're going to hear from Hillary Clinton elsewhere in the program. Let's turn now to Bernie Sanders as we said very close behind her in this recent poll over the weekend. NPR's Sam Sanders was covering his campaign yesterday.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Bernie Sanders held his last rally before the Iowa caucuses in Des Moines at Grandview University. As usual, there was a big push for people to get out and vote.




UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little bit louder. We.






UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One more time. We.

S. SANDERS: Once Sanders took the stage, he went through his list of liberal policy proposals which always excite his base.


BERNIE SANDERS: Medicare for all single-payer program...


B. SANDERS: ...Federal minimum wage - we've got to raise it to a living wage -15 bucks an hour over the next...


B. SANDERS: We must fight to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.


S. 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.


B. SANDERS: Women and their male allies said, no, we're 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.

S. SANDERS: He invoked Barack Obama's election as the first black president. And there might have been a push for black support, which he'll need in contests after Iowa. Sanders closed with a story of his recent visit to Birmingham, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.


B. 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.

S. 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 campaign in the same way. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Des Moines.

GREENE: We will caucus. That is what the Sanders campaign is hoping a lot of young people will be saying. And, Cokie Roberts, I mean, Sanders campaign needs first-time caucus goers to go out if he's going to actually surprise and win here. What does that mean for his campaign?

ROBERTS: Well, that's always a little bit sketchy because of - you don't know whether people will show up who have never showed up before. The tried-and-true caucus goers you can pretty much count on. But, look, this is how Barack Obama won in 2008, you know, with independents, young people and first-time caucus goers. And 55 percent of the people in this Des Moines Register Poll identified themselves as one of those three things, so that's more than half.

GREENE: All right. Let's turn now to the Republican side. My colleague, Don Gonyea, was at a Donald Trump rally last night in Council Bluffs in western Iowa.

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 #1: 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: The candidate sat on stage where he was interviewed by Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and the son of the late Rev. 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 - $100 million ballroom. I said we'll get the top five architects in America and 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 up. 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: All right. I'm with Cokie Roberts and also with David Yepsen, longtime observer of the caucuses. And, David, you know, a lot of people thought with a lot of social conservatives, religious people in the state of Iowa, a lot of votes would go to someone like Ted Cruz. He had a lead for a while. Donald Trump surging, leading now - has this surprised to you?

YEPSEN: Yeah, it is. And I think Donald Trump - the whole Trump phenomenon has surprised the nation's entire political community including me. The interesting thing about this Republican race is there are so many candidates getting a few percentage points that it, too, can go probably either way, although Trump is ahead in the polls. But it's interesting to me that Trump has pretty consistently been getting about a third of the people who say they're likely caucus goers. And that means 70 percent are someplace else. 60 percent - some 60 percent of Republican likely caucus goers say they could be persuaded to go someplace else.

GREENE: So could coalesce potentially around someone else.

YEPSEN: Exactly. And there's going to be the same conversation at Republican caucuses about what - who's electable and what isn't. I think the Trump-Cruz fight here in the last few weeks - probably the big beneficiary is going to be Marco Rubio.

GREENE: Well, Cokie, let me ask you about Marco Rubio. I mean, a feeling that he could be the choice of establishment Republicans. But how well does he have to do here to really stay in this race?

ROBERTS: I think he has to come in third, and that's what he is aiming to do and that's what he shows in the poll - as being third. But he needs that push to go on into New Hampshire which, of course, is just next week and tell people that he really is a viable - the viable alternative. But, you know, Iowa always is surprising us and is - puts people in positions that they had not been in before - Barack Obama being the prime example. The big difference between him, however, and Bernie Sanders for instance is that what Obama's victory did there was show black voters that he could win in a white state and that turned black votes to him. That's not likely to happen with Sanders.

GREENE: All right. Cokie Roberts and David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University joining us here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.