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Local Political Reporters Talk Iowa Caucus

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Tomorrow is the big day. The Iowa caucuses will give us a first glimpse of where voters stand ahead of the 2020 election. Every presidential election cycle, national and international media outlets descend on the state to cover what's going on during the one-day event.

But we wanted to get a sense of what it's like to cover politics in Iowa when you're there year-round and what this whole process is really like for Iowans, so we've called on three Iowa-based journalists. Joining me to help dig into all of this is Clay Masters, lead political reporter at Iowa Public Radio.

Hi, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Barbara Rodriguez is a politics reporter at The Des Moines Register. She's been following the Pete Buttigieg campaign on the ground in Iowa.

Welcome, Barbara.

BARBARA RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: And James Lynch covers politics and government for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Hi, James.

JAMES LYNCH: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So let's jump right in. You've all been crisscrossing the state following the candidates. Can each of you describe what this last big push feels like? And, Clay, I'll start with you.

MASTERS: This last big push is the time for these candidates to basically make their closing arguments. They've been coming to this state for the better part of a year. I was with Joe Biden yesterday as well as Amy Klobuchar. And this morning, I was with Elizabeth Warren at one of her final rallies, and then Pete Buttigieg just a moment ago.

And you're hearing a lot of the speeches that they've been trying out in front of voters and in front of potential caucusgoers for the better part of a year. And now's the time where they're just making that final plea. And it's interesting to me to have been here covering this for this entire year or the past 12 months and just to hear so many of those same messages that, you know, as a political reporter covering the caucuses, I've pretty much memorized.

RODRIGUEZ: And I just want to jump in here and say that I feel like - I keep wanting to talk to Iowans to kind of see how they're feeling about this, and I feel like they're exhausted. And they keep telling me, I'm really excited for Monday. And they say that in a way that tells me that they have really tried to listen, and now they're just ready to do this and to kind of move on, to pass this along to the other early voting states.

MCCAMMON: They're kind of over it.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, absolutely.

MCCAMMON: As some of you know, I was a reporter in Iowa for a while, and I remember hearing that same sentiment. James Lynch, you're on the eastern side of the state there in Cedar Rapids. What's it like for you?

LYNCH: Well, I think pretty much the same. They're making their closing arguments. But what's surprising to me is at the same time, some of these candidates are still talking about their bio - giving that story, you know, where they came from - because there are a lot of people turning out this weekend who haven't been, like us, hearing them tens of times over the course of the past year. So it's not just about that closing argument, but they're still introducing themselves.

MCCAMMON: And we spend a lot of time this time of year talking about politics and policy, of course, which is very important, and looking at polls and trying to figure out what's going to happen. But you three are there on the ground. You have been there a long time in Iowa. And I want to ask you, you know, what are the kind of maybe funny or weird or interesting things that happen behind the scenes? Clay, I'll start with you. Is there a moment that stood out for you so far as you followed these candidates on the trail - something that'll stick with you?

LYNCH: Well, I'll come at this a couple ways. One, the thing that is sticking out to me this entire time is it seems like nobody knows what they want to do on caucus night. I mean, the last - four years ago, it seemed a little more clearer about who people were supporting. But everybody has had these long lists of candidates that they're considering. And so that has really stuck out.

There was this big event in November, on November 1, where everybody was trying to recreate that Obama magic from 2007, when he became this sensation that went on to win the general election, that went on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the primary election. Everybody was trying to have that make-or-break moment that that would be like that Obama magic. And nobody ever had that. And it's just a representation of what we've seen this entire time.

RODRIGUEZ: And I keep thinking about this woman, actually, that I met just a few days ago. I spoke to her in Clinton, which is this small city in eastern Iowa. And, you know, she told me that she had signed this commit to caucus card for Joe Biden a few days ago. So I immediately said, oh, OK. So you've you've made up your mind. And she's, like, well, you know, I just saw Pete Buttigieg. I saw Tom Steyer earlier today, you know. And so when I asked her if she was still undecided or if she'd suddenly become undecided again, she said, just a little bit.

And I feel like it just really emphasizes how agonizing this has been for Iowans these past few months, where they've tried to take this vetting job seriously but to the point where it's all-consuming. And, you know, I just - I'm thinking about her. I'm thinking about just so many Iowans who have told me, you know, I'm going to give myself 15 minutes before I go into the room and make up my mind.

MASTERS: A week ago, a lady said to me, I literally stay - I'm losing sleep about this at night, trying to think who is going to be the most electable candidate.

MCCAMMON: Iowans take this very seriously, don't they? James Lynch, you've covered a few of these, I believe.

LYNCH: Yeah. And one of the things that strikes me about this cycle is the number of people I talked to this weekend who have their mind pretty much made up, but they're trying to decide on a second choice in case their first choice isn't viable. And, you know, they're - which is interesting to me that, you know, it's gotten - they've gotten that far - that they've made up their mind, and now they're looking at a second choice in - just in case, a backup - their safety candidate, you might say.

MCCAMMON: I'm hearing a lot of uncertainty that you're all hearing as you talk to Iowans on the ground. And I would never ask you to prognosticate. I think that's always foolish. But, you know, there's a lot of polling in Iowa. You never really know what's going to happen until caucus night. All of that said, are you getting a sense of the mood of voters as you travel around?

LYNCH: I...

MASTERS: Well, I would - go ahead, James.

LYNCH: Sarah, I would say that they're very anxious and eager to caucus. I think they really want to do this. I mean, we've seen big crowds and lots of energy and enthusiasm over the course of this campaign. And there's a sense of, all right, I'm ready. Let's do this. Even if their mind isn't made up, they're ready to caucus.

MASTERS: I'm really going to be interested to see how the - how this plays out for the U.S. senators who have had to be in these last couple weeks stuck in Washington with the impeachment trial serving as jurors. It'll be interesting to see if that time away had any kind of effect on how they finish on caucus night.

RODRIGUEZ: I keep thinking about all the conversations I have with people about the No. 1 issue for them is wanting to pick someone who could defeat President Trump. And I feel like it shows - there's been this conversation about whether someone is so stuck on a particular candidate that they wouldn't be able to support another candidate. And to me, I'm really curious.

I guess I don't know that this would actually be answered tomorrow, but it makes me think of this whole conversation about progressive versus moderate when so many Iowans will tell you that they like Bernie Sanders and they like Joe Biden in the same breath. And so, you know, I'm sort of just curious to see whether the the ultimate, you know, idea of wanting to pick a candidate who could defeat Trump - whether that's going to be this sort of dominant idea for people as they go to - at this point caucus, but then vote in the future early voting states.

MCCAMMON: Right. And, of course, Iowa is, of course, where this all kicks off tomorrow. Now, as you three know well, critics of the caucus system say that it's inherently unfair because - for a lot of reasons, including that it caters to able-bodied people who have the time to spare to travel to a caucus site during a narrow window of time and participate. What efforts are you seeing and what kind of conversations are you hearing about how to make this process more inclusive?

MASTERS: Well, after the 2016 caucuses, the DNC basically said, Iowa, you have to make this more inclusive. There were these virtual caucuses that were originally something that people were going to be able to caucus with their phones. That got scrapped because of cybersecurity concerns.

There are a number of satellite caucuses, so people that can't make it to their precinct location can go to, you know, like, a nursing home. Or maybe we're talking about shift workers who don't have to leave their place where they're located. But there - I think there are definitely going to continue to be concerns about just how inclusive this process is moving forward.

RODRIGUEZ: I think that there's going to be a lot of eyes on the Iowa Democratic Party in terms of all the things that they're committing to delivering on caucus night. And I just think that there's going to be a lot of scrutiny in terms of whether they're - you know, they're going to make sure that there's as much accessibility as they'd like. And I think people are going to be speaking up more and more about the fact that they weren't able to caucus for whatever reason, and so I'm really curious about all of that.

MCCAMMON: James, I want to end with you because you have covered a few of these, as I understand it. I mean, what surprised you most this year, if anything?

LYNCH: I think the energy and just a more aggressive energy. And I think - I mean, it's really aimed at Trump. If the caucuses had been a year ago or a year after 2016, I think we would see the same energy. Democrats have just been energized by 2016, and it's building up and building up like I haven't seen in previous cycles. And that's why I say people are really ready to caucus. They're ready to go out there and make their voices heard.

MCCAMMON: All right. That's James Lynch of the Gazette joining us via Skype from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Barbara Rodriguez of The Des Moines Register - she was with us from Des Moines - and Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines.

Thanks to you all.

MASTERS: Thanks, Sarah.

LYNCH: You're welcome.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.