David Yepsen, the chief political columnist for The Des Moines Register, has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years. With Iowa’s corn already well-trampled by the herd of Republican and Democrat presidential candidates hoping to win the mysterious Iowa caucuses in January, and with the important Republican straw poll coming on Aug. 11, we thought it was a good time to ask Yepsen who’s winning and losing out there in the Hawkeye State. I talked to him by telephone on Thursday, July 26.
Q: What’s the most significant difference between what’s going on in Iowa this election cycle and in past years?
YESPEN: I think the intensity on the Democratic side compared to the Republican side. Democrats are far more enthused about this election than are Republicans. Democratic crowds are bigger and the enthusiasm level of those crowds for their candidates is much greater. If you put a decibel meter on Democratic events, it would register better than one you had on Republican events. I think Republicans are very down; they are very discouraged. They are not happy with their candidates. This is borne out in polls and in financial disclosure data. I don’t know if you saw The Wall Street Journal piece a couple days ago on how Democratic candidates for Congress and president have raised $100 million more than Republican candidates. It’s never happened before in political history. I think that tells me an awful lot.
Q: What’s it take to win the political support of Iowans?
YESPEN: The normal issues that the campaigns are all talking about -- Iraq, health care, the economy, terrorism -- are being talked about. But the one wrinkle that is true in both parties that is not probably true with the electorate nationally is the question of electability. Caucus-goers are party activists. They are people who care about their party and understand they are surrogates or stand-ins for similar people around the country, so they take pretty seriously the notion that they’ve got to pick somebody who can win in November. I think the question of electability is something that’s on the minds of caucus-goers from both parties -- can a candidate win? You find a lot of people who say they like one candidate or another, but are not going to support him because they don’t think he or she can win.
Q: For the Democrats, who needs to win the most in January -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards?
YESPEN: I think Edwards has got the most riding on this. He finished second four years ago. His fundraising is not the greatest. He really needs to win. He has to beat his showing of four years ago. If he finishes third, people are going to say, “Well, that’s worst than you did four years ago.” I think he’s got to win Iowa. I think he feels that and I think his campaign senses that. He’s worked very hard here over the years. I think he’s got a lot riding on this.
Q: Is there any real interest in any of the second-tier candidates among the Democrats?
YESPEN: Yes. I think this is what’s important to remember: This campaign has got about six months yet to go. That’s a long time, and a lot can change. Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden -- they’re all working very hard in this state, putting a lot of time in. I’m not willing to dismiss them yet. I think a lot of what we see in polls is just name ID. I just think these are three very good, skilled campaigners who are working the state hard. I just say let’s not be too dismissive of them yet, because events can really change the dynamic here and lighting can strike.
Q: Why is Mitt Romney showing so well so far?
YESPEN: Romney has run one of the best caucus campaigns I’ve ever seen. He’s run a very businesslike, precise, very efficient campaign. It really reflects sort of the CEO personality. I think that’s number one; he’s just running a really good campaign. He’s putting time in here. Time-on-task is probably one of the most important things a candidate can do.
The third thing is, he has a message that a lot of Republicans like, and that is, he won in Massachusetts, which is a Democratic state, and he turned around the Olympics. He has business experience, which appeals to a lot of Republican activists, and finally, I think he looks the part. He’s a good-looking guy. He’s an attractive candidate. All that wrapped together is why he’s ahead here -- and in New Hampshire, where he’s spent a great deal of time -- but not so nationally.
Q: Is John McCain as dead in Iowa as he seems to be nationally?
YESPEN: No. The McCain campaign took a hit, there’s no question about that. But again, there’s six months to go. He’s just got to spend time here. His people say that their support has not really eroded out there; the people who were with him beforehand are still with him now. His biggest problem, though, is message. It’s not strategy or tactics. He doesn’t need a lot of money to do this state. He just needs to spend time here. He’s already known to everybody, so it’s not like he’s a totally unknown candidate. His biggest problem is message. He’s selling something a lot of Republicans don’t want to buy: That is, stay the course in Iraq; that is, support for an immigration bill that’s pretty unpopular; and the McCain-Feingold (campaign-finance) bill that was unpopular with conservatives.
Q: What do Iowans make of Rudy G?
YESPEN: He’s leading in a couple of the polls I’ve seen. The scenario for Giuliani is, as a moderate, he can win if conservatives split their votes among other candidates. Romney gets a piece, Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo -- they’re all carving up the conservatives and the social conservatives. That can enable a moderate to win. That happened in 1980 when George Herbert Walker Bush won Iowa in a plurality because Reagan, Connally, Baker and others were carving up the conservatives. That’s the scenario for Giuliani and he’s starting to ramp up his campaign. He’s put more time in here, more people in here. I think he understands that there is a scenario where he can win this thing.
Going back to my earlier point about electability: A lot of social conservatives don’t like Giuliani’s stand on social issues, obviously. But they are not single-issue voters. And they are concerned enough about electability that when Giuliani comes out here, as he did a couple of days ago, and talked about how his judicial appointees will be strict constructionists, the message here -- and these are my words -- from Giuliani is, “You’ll like my judges better than you will Hillary Clinton's.” I think the electability thing really helps Giuliani in Iowa with a lot of these Republicans at this point. That, plus the split among social conservatives really gives him an opportunity here.
Q: Are people clamoring for Fred Thompson or Newt?
YESPEN: Well, sure. Fred Thompson scores well on polls. There’s buzz about him. Newt Gingrich has spent a fair amount of time here in the last couple years doing different things. But Newt is not in this thing. It’s like the biblical line, “If you sound an uncertain trumpet, who will follow?” If he’s going to do this, he needs to get going and he’s really sent off some mixed signals about that.
Fred Thompson hasn’t showed up. There’s buzz here. But one of the questions I have about Fred Thompson in Iowa is, “Does he peak on the day he announces?” He’s got no infrastructure here. He’s got great name ID. I think a lot of what Fred Thompson has going for him is the feeling that Republicans are unhappy with the rest of their field. Once he gets in and people start seeing some of his warts and start picking at his record, and if they don’t see him as an aggressive campaigner or he doesn’t look committed here, I don’t think it will hold up for six months.
Q: Ron Paul is a Pittsburgh native and he is as libertarian as any Republican can ever get in this century. Is it possible for him to surprise anybody?
YESPEN: Not really. His views are too far out of synch with activist Republicans. He’s made a couple trips into the state. He needs to make more if he wants to really get something going here. He does attract some younger Republicans -- 20-somethings. Yet if you talk to those people, a lot of them are not even from Iowa. Young people are notorious for not showing up at caucuses. So I don’t think Ron Paul’s prospects in Iowa are very good because his message isn’t in synch with where Republican caucus-goers are. Also, he’s not spending enough time on task here.
Q: Now that Giuliani and McCain are not taking part in the Aug. 11 Republican straw poll, does that poll mean anything to the winners or losers?
YESPEN: Yes. Everyone expects Romney to win ... . But the straw poll is still important in terms of the second-tier candidates sorting themselves out -- Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson. They put something into this state and they’ve got to get something going and this is the way they do it. I would imagine one of those four may not be able to stay in the race as a result of a poor showing in the straw poll. That is the traditional role that the straw poll has played. Iowa winnows the field of candidates, and the straw poll is just one thing that will cut one or two of them down. Huckabee or Brownback, if they lose to the other, they really will be hard-pressed to raise money.
Q: Do you foresee any surprises on Aug. 11?
YESPEN: There’s always something that happens at that thing that you don’t expect. If I knew what it was, it wouldn’t be a surprise. I’m watching pretty closely that second tier just to see who really emerges, who can rally the social conservatives. Are they going to get one champion? The second thing would be, is there any spontaneous combustion? I mean, OK, Giuliani isn’t competing, McCain isn’t competing, Fred Thompson isn’t competing, Newt isn’t. But Republicans have a mind of their own. These guys will still get some votes. I think it will be a big story if one of them does really well without even having done anything here.
Q: Based on what you have seen so far of the candidates in either party, who impresses you the most -- either personally or operationally?
YESPEN: I think clearly Romney, operationally, is running a very impressive campaign. Mike Huckabee is a very endearing, personable candidate. He’s got a good sense of humor. He’s got skills as a politician and as a pastor. I’ve really seen him give some moving speeches. And I’ve got to include Rudy Giuliani, too, on that list of people who I think have done pretty well. On the Democratic side, obviously Barack Obama is still a celebrity here. And I think Hillary Clinton is showing some good discipline now in her campaign. She had some rough patches at first, and she’s trailed here in polls even though she leads nationally, but she’s running a pretty disciplined campaign.
Q: Who impressed you the most in 2004?
YESPEN: Well, Dean. We were all watching Howard Dean. And I think the lesson of 2004 is something to remember today. Kerry and Edwards overtook Dean and (Dick) Gephardt in December, OK? So here we are in July. We all need to get not too predictive, because events can and do change. Again, this goes back to electability. There was a button floating around out here that said, “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.” These caucus–goers will look at that electability and numbers will move quickly at the end.