NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Des Moines. Boehner blinks, Nelson bows out in Nebraska, and Newt to Paul: No more Mr. Nice Guy. It's Wednesday and time for a...
NEWT GINGRICH: Systemic avoidance of reality...
CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)
CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. This week we're both in the studios of Iowa Public Radio in amazingly snowless Des Moines with the caucuses now less than one week away.
As polls show Ron Paul up and Newt Gingrich down, the former speaker repeals his no-negativity pledge. Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, even Mitt Romney all jump on the Iowa bus. House Republicans give in on the payroll tax extension. DOJ says no way to the South Carolina's voter ID law. And redistricting makes Republicans angry in Maryland, happy in Jersey. Nobody's happy in Arizona.
We'll focus on the caucuses here in Iowa for much of this hour, but first we begin, as we always do, with a trivia question. Ken?
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi Neal, and that Howard Dean scream happened in Iowa in 2004.
CONAN: It did, yeah.
RUDIN: OK, the trivia question is: Who was the last person to win the Iowa caucuses and lose the New Hampshire primary in the same year twice?
CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the last person to win the New Hampshire - win the Iowa caucuses and lose the New Hampshire primary in the same year twice, give us a call, 800-989-8255. No email this week because of the difficulties here in the foreign studio here in Iowa. But they can do it; we just can't.
If you think you know the answer, 800-989-8255. In the meantime, we're going to be focusing on Iowa, but we have to go right next door to begin with: Ben Nelson of Cornhusker kickback fame calls it quits.
RUDIN: Yes, he - the Democrat will not seek a third term. Now, there are some Democrats who say that he's a nominal Democrat, that he often did not vote with his party, and that's true. But the removal of Nelson from a third-term bid certainly opens up the Senate race - the Senate seat - for the Republican Party.
There seems to be no Democrat out there who looks likely to fill the shoes. They're talking about Bob Kerrey. The last I saw, Bob Kerrey was, you know, at the New School University in New York City. I don't think that's a good resume to run for the Senate in Nebraska.
So anyway, the Republicans are battling each other in a tough primary, but obviously right now that seat looks like it's leaning Republican. At the minimum, Dave Heineman, who is the governor there, Republicans would love for him to run and clear out the rest of the Republican field.
CONAN: And makes it even harder for Democrats to hold on to their majority in the Senate.
RUDIN: It was tough anyway. I mean, of the 33 Senate seats up next year, 23 are Democratic-held. So, you know, they had the numbers against them anyway, but this would have been a tough seat to hold for the Democrats either way.
CONAN: A week ago, we were on the countdown clock, yet again, this time on the payroll tax cut extension as the Senate had approved a two-month extension and gone home. The House of Representatives refused to do it, and Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was getting withering criticism on this from, among others, the president of the United States.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree. How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things, we can't do it?
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: It doesn't make any sense.
RUDIN: Neal, you got a nice applause there.
CONAN: It was, from the president, no less. But in any case, the withering criticism that counter for John Boehner was not so much the president, he can get by with that...
RUDIN: That's exactly the point. It's the Wall Street Journal. It's conservative and Republicans around the country. And also it showed clearly that Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republican Conference had no faith in the House Republicans. Why give President Obama and the Democrats a huge victory? And they did, by standing against the extension for two months, they kept saying it was a Band-Aid - to oppose the extension for two months of the payroll tax and then knuckle down and basically succumb to President Obama's argument, it was a big victory for the Democratic Party and a loss for the Republicans.
CONAN: And this is the way John Boehner finally admitted that it was all over.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world, but I'm going to tell you what: I think our members waged a good fight.
CONAN: Waged the good fight. Well, I guess we can put our countdown clocks away for, what, oh seven weeks now.
RUDIN: Exactly. But here's the thing. The Republicans, all along, were seeing that President Obama would capitulate, would back down, would acquiesce for most of the year, and I suspect that they thought the same would happen this time. This time, Obama said he would not back down and refused to back down, and it was the Republicans who basically had to change its mind.
CONAN: Just before we get on to the news here in Iowa, and there's plenty of that, redistricting - three states now, I guess Arizona map is nearly finished. Two Tea Party freshmen are going to face a more difficult road. Also, maps look like they're being finalized in the states of Maryland, where a Republican is being squeezed, and in New Jersey, where two Democrats are going to be forced to run against each other.
RUDIN: Yeah, let's start in the reverse order. In New Jersey, which is going to lose one seat, basically Steve Rothman, who is from Bergen County, decided he's going to move and challenge another Democrat, a fellow Democrat Bill Pascrell. So the Democrats will lose - New Jersey will lose one seat, and it looks like they will lose one Democratic member because two Democrats will run against each other in the primary.
In Maryland, it's the opposite. The Democrats control the whole process there, and Roscoe Bartlett, the long-time, long-serving - I think he's 80 years old - Republican, the new lines have put in a lot of more liberal, minorities - Democrats into his mostly rural district, and Roscoe Bartlett could be in trouble, as well.
And in Arizona, two Republicans find themselves with less hospitable districts, including Ben Quayle, the son of Dan Quayle, and so that - those seats have been made much more competitive with this new redistricting scheme.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last person to win the Iowa caucuses and lose the New Hampshire primary in the same year twice, 800-989-8255. No email this week. We're going to start with - this is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Rochester, Minnesota.
BOB: Yes, hi, this is Bob Shixta(ph) from Rochester, Minnesota, and I believe that the answer is Dick Gephardt.
RUDIN: Well, Bob, I know you're a first-time caller. But Dick Gephardt - actually Dick Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses once in 1988, but he did not win it the second time he ran for president.
CONAN: Nice call, Bob.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - let's see if we can go to - we're trying to go to - let's see if we can go to Deborah(ph), Deborah with us from Chanhassen, Minnesota.
DEBORAH: Hi, I am not like Bob. I call all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUDIN: I think Bob's a first-time caller.
DEBORAH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know Bob's voice. He makes me goofy. Hey guys, welcome to dreary Iowa or Ioway(ph).
RUDIN: Did she say dreary?
DEBORAH: George W. Bush.
CONAN: George W. Bush, two-time president of the United States.
RUDIN: Well, actually, George W. Bush did lose the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he won it in 1988. So he did not lose New Hampshire twice.
CONAN: Nice try, though, Deborah, appreciate that.
DEBORAH: Thanks, bye.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is David(ph), David with us from Charlotte.
DAVID: Hi, good afternoon, guys, and happy holidays. I'm going to guess Bob Dole.
RUDIN: Bob Dole is the correct answer.
CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.
RUDIN: He won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 but then lost, shortly after, to George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire. He also won the Iowa caucuses in 1996, lost New Hampshire to Pan Buchanan.
CONAN: So hang on the line, David, we're going to take down your particulars, and we will mail you off a fabulous Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt in exchange for your promise of a digital picture of yourself that you can email us, and we'll put that on our wall of shame, congratulations.
DAVID: Great, I certainly appreciate it.
CONAN: All right, David - I hit the right button on this laptop computer. In the meantime, we have some developments here in Iowa, and that is Newt Gingrich, just a couple of weeks ago seemed to be surging, seemed to be rushing to the lead. The latest polls show him withering under a blizzard of anti - of negative advertising from, among others, Ron Paul. Yesterday on CNN, Newt Gingrich was asked about the criticism he's getting from Ron Paul, who described him as a serial hypocrite.
GINGRICH: I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American.
CONAN: And this in particular, hearkening back to some pamphlets that Ron Paul distributed 20 years ago or so, when he was out of office, which contain some very insensitive language. Ron Paul says, well, he hadn't been paying a lot of attention to them.
RUDIN: Well, I kind of think what Newt Gingrich was talking about was Ron Paul's views on foreign policy and national security.
CONAN: Specifically, he mentioned those pamphlets.
RUDIN: OK, well, there's also that issue, as well, when Ron Paul was out of Congress. I mean, he left Congress in 1984, ran for president as a Libertarian in '88, came back in I think '96. In between that, he ran the - he under his name, the Ron Paul Political Newsletter and a lot of anti-gay, anti-African-American, anti-Semitic statements were in his newsletter.
Now, Ron Paul says I never read it, I didn't write this, it's abhorrent to me, I repudiate it. But it went out under his name. This issue did come out in 2008, when Ron Paul ran for president last time, but obviously now as a potential frontrunner - and he may very well be the frontrunner, I'm speaking to a lot of people who think that Ron Paul with his dedicated, you know, cadre of supporters, could win this thing.
The more somebody gets into the limelight, as we saw with Newt Gingrich, as we saw with Rick Perry and Herman Cain, Ron Paul, you know, his past is coming back to haunt him.
CONAN: The other person who seems to be steady in the polls, as he has pretty much throughout this entire process, is Mitt Romney, who first was under the radar here in Iowa, now running a lot of advertising. If he loses, he's not going to be able to say I didn't pay a lot of attention. He's spent over a million dollars, him and his PAC, to run ads, including this one, which is now up on the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
MITT ROMNEY: I'm going to get rid of Obamacare. It is a moral imperative for America to stop spending more money than we take in. It's killing jobs, and it's keeping our kids from having the bright prospects they deserve. The experience of balancing budgets is desperately needed in Washington, and I will take it there. I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.
CONAN: And the old tactic of, in your own voice, attack the president, be presidential in your approach, but your PAC, the people who are supporting you also, they're the ones who run the negative ads attacking people like Newt Gingrich.
RUDIN: Right, everybody's doing that. Rick Perry is doing that, as well. When it's a Rick Perry ad, a Mitt Romney ad, a Ron Paul ad, it's very positive, very - talking about the candidate in positive terms. When your PAC puts - your SuperPAC, they call it - when the super political action committee puts up these ads, it's viciously withering, negative ads.
CONAN: We should also mention Gary Johnson, former Republican candidate, now leaving the party. He's officially declared he's going to be running for the Libertarian nomination for president of the United States.
RUDIN: And there may be a challenge to him, too. Don't count out Ron Paul, if he doesn't win the Republican nomination, as a potential Libertarian candidate.
CONAN: Or a third-party candidate. We'll have more about that and more on the situation here in Iowa, less than a week to go before the caucuses, it is still anybody's ballgame. We'll be back in just a minute. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Political Junkie Ken Rudin and I are in Des Moines today, at the studios of Iowa Public Radio. The first votes of the 2012 nominating contest will be cast Tuesday night at 7 P.M. all across Iowa.
Candidates like Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum need to place well to keep their campaigns afloat. Others, like Texas Congressman Ron Paul, see the first voting contest in the nation as a catapult into the national spotlight a week before the first primary in the country, that of course in New Hampshire. We're going to be there next week.
There are differences between caucuses and primaries. Within caucuses, there are differences in how Republicans pick their winners and how Democrats choose theirs. Of course, only the Republicans are caucusing this go-round. Barack Obama is going to face no opposition.
So Iowa Republicans, who's your first choice? Who's your second? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And joining us here in the studio at Iowa Public Radio, where she's a reporter, is Joyce Russell, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
JOYCE RUSSELL: Hello, Neal.
CONAN: And what happens on Tuesday night?
RUSSELL: Well, neighborhood meetings happen. They're held in the evening in all 1,700-plus precincts. They're essentially organizational meetings for the party, but in presidential election years like this one, they include a vote for the presidential candidates.
Now, in the case of the Republicans, it's essentially a straw poll or a preference poll. Attendees express their preference for the Republican presidential candidates. Those results are reported to the media, but the results are not binding when it comes to selecting delegates to the county and then the state and then the national conventions.
So that's why you don't normally hear how many delegates to the national convention each candidate in Iowa won. There are 25 in all, by the way. Sometimes you'll see that in charts, where people will break it down, well, they got this many delegates. But that's kind of...
RUSSELL: Speculative. And the state party strongly urges that the delegates reflect the preference poll, but there's no obligation that they do so.
RUDIN: Joyce, we always talk about the Democrats, how they'll spend five hours debating ethanol and then whether Neal Conan should still be host of TALK OF THE NATION, things like that. But the Republicans basically have their straw poll, and they leave pretty soon. Is that correct?
RUSSELL: Well, a lot of them do. But, you know, the real diehards will stay and debate the party platform, and then they do elect delegates to the next - to the district convention.
RUDIN: And I was listening, four years ago, there were 120,000 Republicans who showed up at the caucuses, but they were on the defensive over George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. Now, they seem to be on the ascendancy, or at least more energetic than they certainly were four years ago.
RUSSELL: Well, yeah, and it will be interesting to see how that affects turnout at the caucuses. And the Democratic caucuses, there were huge lines. There was huge interest in Barack Obama. And because people can change their party affiliation at the caucus site, people planned - they had the list of how many registered Democrats or Republicans are eligible to vote at that caucus, but if huge numbers of independents or the opposite party come and change their party affiliation in order to participate, then you have huge crowds.
You actually had traffic jams at the Democratic sites last time.
CONAN: But is it one of the - you just cast a ballot, a paper ballot?
RUSSELL: Well, it's not even a ballot.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUSSELL: They don't give you a piece of paper with a slate of candidates. They give you a blank piece of paper, and you write the name of the candidate that you want. Now ahead of that, people are able to stand up and make their case. So a well-organized candidate is going to have people at as many precinct caucuses as they can who will stand up and say this is why you should vote for Mitt Romney, or this is why you should vote for so and so.
But then they're handed a blank piece of paper, they write the name of the person on, and then they count those, and those are reported.
CONAN: And so - but do they gather in groups around each candidate?
RUSSELL: That's how the Democrats do it, and it's a much more complicated process, and that's - the way the Democrats do it, a second choice is much more relevant. So people gather in groups for their person that they want, and then they have to have a certain number or percentage in order to be viable.
So if someone is then named not viable, then other people go after those people and try to get them to come to their group. Cokie Roberts once famously described the Iowa caucuses as like a Tupperware party, but she was talking about the Democrats and not the Republicans.
CONAN: This is different. Ken?
RUDIN: Joyce, the caucuses start 7 P.M. Central time, 8 o'clock Eastern. When do you think we'll see results or get a sense of what's happening?
RUSSELL: Well, because this is a Republican affair, it happens pretty quickly, actually. I was at Republican caucus last time, and before that, they were even done there, they were declaring Mike Huckabee the winner of the Republican - so within the hour, it seems like it usually happens.
CONAN: And this is announced per district around the state?
RUSSELL: Well, it's reported into a central location, and then those are all counted, and totals are what we end up with.
CONAN: So almost as much as the Democratic caucuses, this would seem to reward people with good ground game, good organizations.
RUSSELL: Absolutely. There's some exception. There have been exceptions to that over the years, but in general, the more people that you have going to those caucus sites, standing up - because people do turn out at the caucuses who are undecided. If you've got somebody there speaking for your man or your woman, you have an advantage.
Now, last year was a very good example of where that didn't really hold true. Mitt Romney was very well-organized, and then Mike Huckabee, you know, his thing really took fire with the evangelicals behind him, and he was able to win.
On the flip side of that, John McCain actually tied for third place in the Iowa caucuses last time, even though he had really no organization at all. The caucus that I went to, nobody even stood up and spoke for him, although I did see a man with a T-shirt that said sportsmen for McCain. So there were supporters out there.
CONAN: So this is going to be fairly straightforward compared with the Democrats.
RUSSELL: It is.
CONAN: And should be over pretty quickly.
RUSSELL: Yes, I would say within the hour.
CONAN: And what does this insanely good weather - turnout should be pretty good.
RUSSELL: I don't know that weather really affects - you know, we're hardy here, and, you know, people talk about the weather effect, but unless it's really just sleeting and driving sleet and snow, I don't think the weather really affects it that much.
CONAN: Joyce Russell, thanks very much for your time. Joyce Russell, a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. She's with us here in the studios of Iowa Public - we're actually in her studio, we'll put it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Also here with us is J. Ann Selzer. She's the president of Selzer and Company, a public opinion and research firm based here in Des Moines. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Nice to meet you in person.
J. ANN SELZER: Well, it's always great to be with you.
CONAN: Six days to go. Who's up?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SELZER: I'm not going to even raise so much as an eyebrow to give you any indication that I know anything other than our most recent poll that we took in November.
CONAN: In November? So we've seen other polls since then.
CONAN: And they're not your poll, which of course is the gold standard. But lately, we're seeing that Mitt Romney seems to be holding steady, but Ron Paul seems to have taken the lead.
SELZER: Well, we had in our - the three polls that we conducted show only Ron Paul getting consecutively better and better showing in every poll that we did, and he's the only one that didn't have a big surge. He's the only one that didn't get a lot of media scrutiny until about now. And we do know that his organization is strong in the state.
So I think Ron Paul, it doesn't surprise me that some of those polls are showing him doing well.
CONAN: There are other people who have spent a lot of time in this state, and you think for example of Rick Santorum.
CONAN: And Michele Bachmann, of course, is from next door.
SELZER: Yes, and Rick Santorum may be the lesson learned about organizing in Iowa, that putting in face time and going to 99 counties and holding a lot of events may not be sufficient if you're not the right candidate with the right message.
CONAN: Yet, we're seeing that Rick Santorum seems to be picking up some endorsements, some pretty significant endorsements over the past couple of weeks.
SELZER: Yes, and I think that's kind of the X-factor, that do you kind of get this informal coalescing of people who are interested in those social issues coming together behind one candidate. I will say, though, that the mood in Iowa is very different than it was four years ago when Mike Huckabee won, and people have a tendency to refight the previous war.
And there was a thought that as a social conservative, that's all you really needed in order to win Iowa. The mood is far more geared to thinking about the economy, jobs, tax reform. That's what's on the minds of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers.
RUDIN: Ann, two things. First of all, if you last polled in November, by doing it once a month, you're going to do - I guess the next poll, the final poll will be next Sunday, correct, before the caucuses?
SELZER: That's correct. You'll get a preview Saturday night.
RUDIN: You don't get a chance to see momentum then. I mean, if you're doing it in November and then at the end of December, it just seems like you miss out what's changing in Iowa.
SELZER: Well, I think we see what's changing in Iowa during the final time that we're in the poll field, in the field with the poll. We saw in 2004, Howard Dean go from a contender for the top spot down to fourth place just during the four days we were in the field with our final pre-caucus poll.
So we see - we will see the momentum. We will see the final momentum that matters in our poll.
RUDIN: It seems like more evangelical Christian candidates seem to do better in the poll. In other words, they're underrepresented in the polls than so-called moderates; that so, in other words if Mitt Romney is supposed to be among the leaders with Ron Paul or whoever else, it seems like a more evangelical conservative candidate can do better than the polls indicate.
SELZER: Well, if the evangelicals who are coming to caucus unite around one candidate. Right now, they're pretty fragmented in terms of their support, and that's what Mike Huckabee did not have. He did not have a contender for that portion of the Republican Party, and that's why he did well.
CONAN: In fact, we're seeing some calls today by some evangelical Christian leaders in Iowa for a Santorum-Bachmann shotgun marriage, as some have described it, to unite their campaigns. Where one is strong, the other should give way; where the other is strong, the other should give way in order to have one more coherent candidacy.
SELZER: Well, Michele Bachmann made a direct pitch saying, look, we have a weak president in terms of his overall standing with job approval. There's been no better time to get exactly what you want in a president, meaning strong on the social issues that have been - you've been disappointed in previous Republican candidates. So now is the time to stand for purity. So she's been trying to be the one that they will come behind and think that they could win forward.
RUDIN: OK. So we have - the poll is coming out. The actual caucus is coming out on Tuesday. What do you see different than you have four years ago? It seemed like four years ago - and I was just mentioning this to Joyce Russell before - that it seemed like the Republicans were on the defensive. They were more, you know, fretting about Bush and the war and the economy, things like that. They seemed to be more energized this time.
SELZER: Well, I think they're energized because they think they have a - they believe they have a good shot to take the White House. They think they are - they can hold onto the House of Representatives, and they think they can take the Senate. And that would be, you know, a very strong and powerful position for them to be in, but they need to win the White House in order for that to happen. So I think there's an energy, thinking there's an opportunity here. It's relatively rare that you can unseat a sitting incumbent. They think this is their year.
RUDIN: How important are endorsements? Everybody talks about if only so-and-so would endorse so-and-so that would change so-and-so's prospects. Are endorsements as big as, you know, political junkies like to think they are?
SELZER: Well, I don't think endorsements close the deal, but I do think they can open a door. That is, if someone that you respect, somebody that you admire can give you an idea of why they support this person the way they do or if a newspaper that's not known for a particular brand of politics endorses somebody unusual, it can open the door to questioning - taking a second look at a candidate that maybe you hadn't considered.
CONAN: We want to hear from callers. Republicans in the state of Iowa, who are you going to support come Tuesday? 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Don is on the line, calling us from Pittsburgh.
DON: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
DON: What I think is this: There's a fair chance that what's going to happen nationally is that none of these candidates are going to take enough votes in the primaries to win on the first vote at the convention. And if that happens, I believe there's a fair chance that Jeb Bush will get drafted.
CONAN: Ooh, you...
DON: The Iowa caucuses are an ideal place for him to try - sort of put a feeler in the water because it's a write-in vote as the person was just explaining so...
CONAN: As Joyce Russell was telling us. Goose bumps all over political junkies everywhere, brokered convention. Ken Rudin, is this a possibility?
RUDIN: Let me think for a second. No.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUDIN: And the reason is not - first of all, the last time the Republican convention went past the first ballot was 1948. Last time a Democratic one was 1952 for the presidential thing. The thing is, for the most part, you have a lot of winner-take-all states and especially after the April primaries, when the April - the primaries start in April, they're almost all winner take all. So, you know, unlike the Obama vs. Clinton battle that lasted throughout June, I suspect that we can have a nominee sooner than you think. And, of course, if Mitt Romney wins in Iowa and wins in New Hampshire - and, of course, that's a big if - it could end even sooner than we think.
CONAN: Well, Don, thanks very much for the call. Of course, Pittsburgh, eastern part of Iowa. You're listening to the Political Junkie here on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken Rudin, of course, is with us, along with Ann Selzer, president of Selzer and Company, a public opinion and research firm, polls for The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg. She joined us here in the studio at Iowa Public Radio. Have you ever seen before the caucuses so many people undecided?
SELZER: You know, there's a little bit of a myth of the Iowa undecided vote, and we're a little bit responsible for it, I think. When you ask who is your first choice, there will be about one in 10 who say I don't have a first-choice candidate at this point. So that's relatively low. There are 60 percent of likely caucus-goers who have a first choice but then say they could be persuaded to change their mind. Now, in our last poll, we probed that group and said, well, what's the reason that you have a - you think you could be persuaded to vote for somebody else?
Is it because there's something that you fear will be revealed about your first-choice candidate that will be a problem? And 25 percent said that's - that bothers them. Sixteen percent said, oh, I already know something about my candidate that I think that could become a bigger problem, so I'm kind of withholding judgment there. Ninety-two percent said I always wait until much later in the process. So they have a first-choice candidate for the most part.
They're just open. You know, it's Iowa. There's no advantage to locking in all that early. The campaigns haven't organized all that well this time around, so they're not asking people to commit. And if you're not asked, why would you?
CONAN: Ann, the other part that we hear about a lot is Iowans do not like negative advertising, and, boy, we're seeing and this last week in particular a whole lot of negative advertising.
SELZER: Well, there is such a thing as Iowa nice, and that, again, is sort of the myth that Iowans won't respond to negative advertising. They might not like it, but clearly, there are campaigns that live and die by them.
RUDIN: We did see four - we did see eight years ago when Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt were battling for the lead in Iowa and they went after each other so - with such nasty commercials that it was John Kerry and John Edwards who pushed them to three and four because of the negativity. So in that sense, it backfired.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is - excuse me. I'm having trouble with line seven. I apologize, Andy from Slater, Iowa. If you could - if we could move him to another line, somehow we'd like to get him in.
RUDIN: I never like line seven.
CONAN: Or - well, Slater, Iowa, of course, is one of the great garden spots of the world. In any case, Ann, you were going to say?
SELZER: Well, I was going to say I carry around what I call the Register graph of doom for Howard Dean, and you see him going, as I mentioned, from being a top contender falling into fourth place. And that was at the height of those negative ads that were - just the onslaught right then.
CONAN: And as we come down to the wire, the bus tours, the - are people going to be resentful of those who did not spend as much time in Iowa - Mitt Romney - as others did, say, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum?
SELZER: Well, I think the Romney campaign maybe. We may find out that this has been a very shrewd sort of maintaining plausible deniability. If they don't come in well in Iowa, they never intended to come in well in Iowa. But if they win Iowa - terrific. But I believe that they've had kind of a stealth organization all the time. I understand that his event in Davenport last night, they were packed in, and people had to be shuttled into a, you know, into adjacent areas.
So that now that he's here that there's - that organization may be ginning up the support and bringing crowds to show enthusiasm that may have been there all along.
CONAN: And when you and your super PACs spend over a million dollars in the state, it gets hard to explain that you didn't really care how it came out. Ann Selzer, thank you very much for your time today. We look forward to your poll on Saturday night with a glimpse...
SELZER: Thank you.
CONAN: ...of your poll. She's president of Selzer and Company. We're going to continue talking Iowa with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Stay with us. When we come back, we want to hear from Iowa Republicans. 800-989-8255. Email, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
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CONAN: This hour, we're concentrating on the Iowa caucuses, which are just six days away. Many outside of Iowa lament the power given to this state. Critics say the strong evangelical bloc here does not reflect the rest of the country, nor does the state's emphasis on agriculture. If you're going to the caucuses here on Tuesday, who's your top choice and your second? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us here at Iowa Public Radio. Also joining us here in the studio is Steve Scheffler. He's the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Republican national committeeman for Iowa. Thanks very much for coming in today.
STEVE SCHEFFLER: Thank you. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And you've not endorsed anyone?
SCHEFFLER: No. And I don't intend to, either.
CONAN: And how come?
SCHEFFLER: Well, first of all, as a veteran of three caucus campaigns - and I think they were pretty good salesmen. At the end of the day, most individuals, regardless of political philosophy will make their own choices, and so I think that many times an endorsement can actually be a divisive thing, especially when many of the candidates are saying the same thing. And so we just think it's best to keep their feet to the fire but, you know, trust Iowans to make the right decision on January 3rd.
CONAN: Keep their feet to the fire on which issues in particular?
SCHEFFLER: Well, any - those issues that's going to be facing a president, whether it's cultural issues or economic issues, and I know the organization I work for actually had a series of house parties all across the state featuring one candidate at a time. And we've encouraged people to come to those events where the candidate will speak, but they'll also ask him for some very specific public policy questions. So making sure, you know, there's only a few states - we're one of three or four states that gets that opportunity.
After that, leaves Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, basically; it's all about media bias, and so we have a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous opportunity here to put their feet to the fire.
CONAN: All about media bias in Florida, a much bigger state...
CONAN: ...a much more diverse state. But we're certainly seeing a lot of media bias in this state...
CONAN: ...$10 million, we're told over the past month.
SCHEFFLER: Right, right, right.
CONAN: And how much - this used to be retail politics. Obviously, that matters. So does ads during the football games on Sunday.
SCHEFFLER: Well, I think ads probably may play a more important part than they used to, but I still think at the end of the day, people want to have an engaging conversation with a candidate, not one or two times but three or four times, so they can evaluate these candidates one by one and side by side and then make their decisions. So I still think that's a very important part, and we better not lose that opportunity. Otherwise, it all becomes big, huge media bias all across the country. So it's an opportunity that Iowans need to prize and take advantage of.
RUDIN: Steve, Iowans say that you cannot turn on the TV for than five minutes without seeing a negative ad attacking one candidate or the other. Is this more unusual than ever, and what's the reason for that?
SCHEFFLER: Well, I think it is more unusual than in the past, and I guess it's because it's high stakes. You know, it's a wide open presidential race, and people seem to think that negative ads work, and kind of makes sure that another candidate's vote totals on January 3rd are suppressed. And I understand that candidates should and have the right to show differences of opinion in terms of political philosophy, but I guess, like a lot of Iowans, I'm a little putout with all the negative ads. It maybe takes somebody's past positions into account and basically distort other facts. So I think, you know, Iowans are kind of sick of that. I think at the end of the day, they're not going to pay attention to those negative ads.
CONAN: Let's get some Iowa Republicans on the line. 800-989-8255. You can also email us, email@example.com. We're going to make another attempt to get Andy on the line from Slater, Iowa. And, Andy, you're on the air.
ANDY: Yup. All right, very good. Nice to talk to you today.
CONAN: And glad we can get you on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDY: All right. I am planning on voting or caucusing probably for Romney. I'd like to do Huntsman, but he just doesn't seem viable, that that vote would then matter. So I just basically feel like the Republicans in Iowa are pulling us further and further right as a party, and particularly as an evangelical Christian we're just painted as a bit too hypocritical and a bit too hateful. So I like the Huntsman-Romney wing of the party better than I do some of the more socially conservative.
CONAN: OK. Andy, thanks very much. And is there one position in particular that would lean you towards former Governor Romney?
ANDY: Not in particular. I would - not in particular. I'd like it, you know, if like Huntsman he believe a little bit more in science and they were less able to attack the - our Supreme Court here in Iowa and get rid of those judges. But I don't know, I may vote Huntsman in any case.
CONAN: All right. Andy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And he is referring, of course, to the - when he's talking about the judges, this was the decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to say that gay marriage was legal under the Constitution. Those judges - some of those judges ran for extension of their terms and they were defeated. And it's interesting, how much do social issues play in this caucus, do you think, and how much do the economy - there's so many people out of work.
SCHEFFLER: What I find kind of amazing is the press always talks about social issues being enunciated here at the expense of economic issues, and I just don't really see that at all. I see a lot of these candidates, whether it's Michele Bachmann or Perry or Santorum or Newt talking about economic and social issues - and I'm, frankly, of the yoke that those issues are interlinked. And if you don't have a candidate that believes that moral and cultural values are important, then quite frankly I don't think we'll ever get it right economically. So I think those issues are interlinked, and I don't believe for one minute that they've been overplayed. And if you look at the results of caucuses in the past, to say that, you know, the caucuses has been hijacked by the evangelical wing of the party, I think that's an overstatement.
I mean, George W. Bush won the caucuses here back in 2008, and you look at Bob Dole won the caucuses here in 1988. He won them in 1996. And so I think a lot of that is just media hype that has no credibility to it. And quite frankly, anybody with a value system that wants to be involved, I certainly encourage that. And so, again, I believe that that's just something that's been overplayed. But secondly, like I said before, I think those issues are interlinked and they're all important issues.
RUDIN: Steve, I first met you in 1988, when you were working for Pat Robertson. And back then, Robertson brought in a lot of evangelical Christian conservatives who never participated in the process before, or rarely did. And now, we kind of expect that we see a Mike Huckabee win in 2008. We saw a Pat Buchanan, less evangelical but certainly conservative, in 1996. How has the Iowa Republican Party changed since 1988 and Pat Robertson?
SCHEFFLER: Well, actually, I think the influx of those people that came in with Pat Robertson way back in 1988 have added a lot to the Republican Party. We elected people like Terry Branstad. We elected people like Chuck - or reelected Chuck Grassley in this recent election because of the conservative element in the Republican Party. We took control of the Iowa House. We almost took control of the Iowa Senate. And quite frankly, they've added a lot of vigor. And quite frankly, if you look at who the volunteer base of the Republican Party is today, it's those same people that, you know, some people, you know, some people cast dispersion on. It's a lot of those people that are in the evangelical, pro-life movement that are basically the backbone of the party in terms of the volunteer work today.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Jim's on the line from Des Moines.
JIM: Yes, I am in Des Moines, and I'm going to support either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum because the constant reports that Iran is threatening to cut off the Gulf of Hormuz, where I believe we get a sixth of our oil. And those two gentlemen both support ethanol, which is giving us now a significant amount of our oil and could be a whole lot more if we want them to do it. It's very much in the news. And you can't cut off our cornfields with any foreign people, so that's why I'm going to support those gentlemen.
CONAN: OK. Jim, thanks very much for the call. He's referring to reports today, I believe, in the news that Iran threatened to - in the event of additional sanctions because of it's nuclear ambitions - close the Strait of Hormuz. I think the Fifth Fleet said they might have a vote in that too. But in any case, the ethanol issue has been a critical one here for many candidates for many years. Is it this time around?
SCHEFFLER: I think it is. But I think there was a recent poll out, maybe four or five, six months ago, that said that ethanol subsidies was a deal breaker with only about 20, 22 percent of Iowans. And I think as Senator Grassley and others pointed out, if we have an equal playing field in terms of the energy question that, you know, eventually maybe we wanted to have to have subsidies anywhere across the board. So, you know, for Iowa's economy, it certainly is important. But again, I don't think ethanol subsidies per se is a deal breaker with most caucus goers this year.
RUDIN: We were - just a second ago, we were talking about evangelical conservatives and the influence they have. And yet, many polls seem to indicate or word on the mouth - or word on the street seemed to indicate that Ron Paul is also doing very well, who's not really an evangelical conservative? What is that all about? Where does the Ron Paul support come from?
SCHEFFLER: Well, I think a lot of Ron Paul support goes back to the fact that he is the one that's been consistent on the longest-term basis in terms of calling our nation to account for its humungous debt and overspending. And a lot of people are attracted by that, and I think rightfully so, knowing that he's the one candidate I think that's talking about getting rid of five federal departments. So there's a certain appeal to that.
And so there's an attraction there and, you know, he's going to bring out some new caucus-goers, which I think bringing new people into the party system is always a good thing. So he does every support there, but he's also - got his detractors because of some other issues, so.
RUDIN: I think Rick Perry only had three that he wanted to cut. I can't think of the third one.
CONAN: What the third one was, no? We also heard - seen different polls on the issue of Mormon religion, and this, of course, refers to Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both of whom are Mormons, and different polls showing that Republicans in this state might not vote for somebody because of their religion. How do you think that's going to break out?
SCHEFFLER: Are you talking about in terms of the caucuses or the general election?
SCHEFFLER: No, I don't think at the end of the day that people are concerned about that particular issue. What they are concerned about, I think, like myself, is why Mitt Romney, like Jon Huntsman, has not been to this state more often. And quite frankly, I think the candidates that have been here on an even long-term basis asking for the votes of Iowans is important. And so I think his lack of absence - or his absence here has been one thing. And I think also, some people are concerned about where is he at on certain issues.
You know, prior to 2007, he talked, you know, in the affirmative for homosexual marriage, gay rights, was pro-choice, probably could be considered to the left of even Ted Kennedy, who he ran against in the Senate back in whatever year that was. And then when he came to Iowa, he talked on the right side, but now he doesn't talk about it at all. So I think there's a concern about where does he really stand on these issues, you know, period.
CONAN: We're talking with Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. And the political junkie is with us, as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get another caller in. This is John(ph). John is calling us from North Central Iowa.
JOHN: Yeah, thanks. I've heard people talking about undecided Iowans, and it is true that we kind of hold out to the last minute. I've done before. But, you know, this time, I am genuinely confused. I have been something of an ideologue, was a Huckabee supporter. This crop, I really like them all. I mean, I don't hate anybody. I don't even hate Romney. Santorum and Michele - she's awesome - are my ideologues but (technical difficulties)...
CONAN: And I think we're losing John so far.
JOHN: ...kind of - I think he might get her done, he might for the economy. I think we could stand him for four years. Although he's not my perfect ideologue, we could stand him for four years. He could prescribe Ex-Lax, get our economy going and give birth to, you know, a liberated financial system that's not all bogged down.
CONAN: And, John, excuse me. Sorry to interrupt. We - your cell phone dropped out there for a second. Which candidate are you talking about you think might get her done?
JOHN: Well, I don't know. I'm not really sure. I think if we put up with Paul for four years - although not my ideologue - he could prescribe some Ex-Lax and give birth to a liberated economy back to the what the Constitution said.
CONAN: I see.
JOHN: So - but I still don't know. I really - I'm not just pulling your leg. Normally, I do know. Like I said, I pulled hard for Huckabee. I met him. I spent a lot of time with him, just meeting him on the road. But this time, I really don't know. I think we have a good crop of possible choices.
CONAN: Well, let me ask you, Steve Scheffler. Yesterday we heard Newt Romney - Newt Gingrich – excuse me, falling into somebody's trap there - Newt Gingrich say, first of all, that Ron Paul cannot get the nomination and that he could not support him against - maybe even not against Barack Obama. There are people who say Ron Paul's positions on national defense and foreign policy are outside the mainstream. Is that going to make a problem for him here in Iowa?
SCHEFFLER: I think at the end of the day most people are going to be willing to enthusiastically support whoever nominee is, any of the six or seven people that are running for president. The bottom line is, I think that most of us wouldn't have ever dreamed that we could have a president as far left as Barack Obama, who, indeed, is following a socialist agenda. So I think at the end of the day, any of these candidates would be 150 percent better than what sits in the White House today. So I think at the end of the day that they'll support the nominee.
RUDIN: Steve, just a few minutes ago, you were talking these - the flip-flops or the switch in positions for Mitt Romney. But as we've seen the last couple of days, Newt Gingrich has a history also of renouncing previous positions. Do you think that's going to hurt Newt Gingrich as it seems to be hurting...
SCHEFFLER: I don't think nearly so much as Mitt Romney because at least he has tried to talk about, you know, where he's at today and tried to convince voters that this is where he's at, whereas Mitt Romney basically, as I mentioned before, is not even talking about these issues, where he went from left to right and now he's basically silent on those issues. So, you know, Newt, to his credit, is talking about why he's made those - these changes here and there. And I think when people hear it enough times that they believe that person is going to be consistent, do what they said they're going to do.
CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. Let's go to Seth, and Seth's with us from Northwest Iowa.
SETH: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call, Neal. It is an honor to share the air space with you at the moment.
CONAN: Oh, that's kind of you to say.
SETH: Oh, thank you. I would just like to say that I believe that when the caucus is all said and done, Ron Paul is going to pull through because he speaks to the pragmatic side of most Iowans. And whether you say they're Christian conservative or liberal, I think at the end of the day, that doesn't matter - no offense to your panel - because we're fair people.
I mean, the Supreme Court passed gay marriage for a reason. And I think that if you look at the facts back, the reason that those judges got knocked off the docket is because there was far too much money poured into it. And, yes, the small chunk of the true Christian conservatives went to the polls. But I think if you went across the board with every Republican in Iowa, they would say that they want a fair life for everybody, and Ron Paul stands for that.
CONAN: All right. Seth, thanks very much for the call. Given the split among the numbers of candidates, do you expect anybody to get over 25 percent come next Tuesday?
SCHEFFLER: I think at this point it's probably highly unlikely, and again, I think a lot of it is based on two reasons. One is the candidates have not been here near as often, except for maybe like Rick Santorum, have not been here near as often as they have in past caucus cycles when people want to evaluate their candidate after five or six encounters of those candidates. And secondly, it's because a lot of those candidates are very similar on a whole wide range of issues.
CONAN: Well, we'll see what the results are next Tuesday. Thanks so much for your time, Steve Scheffler.
CONAN: Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. He joined us here at the studios of Iowa Public Radio. Next Tuesday, Ken Rudin, our political junkie, will - going to be back on the road again in New Hampshire. Tomorrow, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will join Jennifer Ludden, who'll be filing in, to talk about the proposal to extend federal wage protections to home health care workers. Join her for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.