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Iowa caucuses roundtable

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We are just weeks away from the Republican Iowa caucus, the official kickoff to the presidential primary season. In many years, Iowa provides a golden opportunity for a candidate to break out from the pack or establish him or herself with a surprise strong finish. This year is different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Looking at the race in Iowa, former President Donald Trump up by 30 points now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Former President Donald Trump's lead is growing in the state.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Fifty-one percent of Iowa voters now support the former president as the nominee, while...

DETROW: In this race, the Republican field has only ever had one leader - former President Donald Trump. And that is despite the fact that he is currently facing 91 felony charges from state and federal jurisdictions and that he has not participated in a single Republican presidential debate so far. Republican candidates who are running against Trump to try and be the presidential nominee themselves, they've been reluctant to criticize or challenge the former president. Vivek Ramaswamy often goes out of his way, in fact, to praise Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It's a fact.

DETROW: Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, is the only candidate who has consistently criticized Trump and criticized his fellow candidates for not doing the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: The fact is that when you go and you say the truth about somebody who is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody, whether they've given him great service or not over time, who dares to disagree with him, then I understand why these three are timid to say anything about it.

DETROW: But perhaps as a result, Christie has often found himself at the back of the pack, struggling to stay relevant to the race. Trump, for his part, often seems to be ignoring the primary altogether when he does campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We have to send a great signal, and then maybe these people just say, OK, it's over now. It's over. We got to end it because we have to focus on crooked Joe Biden and the Democrats.

DETROW: Trump has reshaped just about every piece of the Republican Party. And about a month out, it looks like he's reshaping the Iowa caucuses too. To look at how strange Iowa has been this year and what it tells us about Republicans in 2023, I'm joined by two Iowa caucus experts, Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters and J. Ann Selzer, who's president of the Selzer & Company polling firm and who is widely viewed as the pollster with the sharpest understanding of Iowa's electorate.

So I'm going to start with you, Clay. You've covered a few caucuses now at this point. Does this one feel different to you?

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Well, definitely it feels a lot different. It's unprecedented, which is kind of a phrase that gets used almost to the point where it's exhausted.

DETROW: Yes.

MASTERS: But this is a very unprecedented time to have a former president indicted on several criminal charges and who is far away the front-runner of the race for the Iowa caucuses. You're not seeing a whole lot of growth within the crowds when you go see some of the other second-tier candidates. And those second-tier candidates are just really far down from where Donald Trump has been in the polls this entire caucus cycle throughout the year. So very, very strange caucus cycle, unlike any of the others that I've covered.

DETROW: Ann, you are the Iowa pollster. How different is the caucus compared to previous ones you've studied when it comes to the numbers, when it comes to where the candidates are at this point in time, about a month out?

J ANN SELZER: Right. Well, it's different in a couple of ways. For one thing, we've had sort of more, like, chaotic caucuses in terms of the polling, with a lot of candidates taking the lead with different polls. And this time, it's a consistent lead for Donald Trump. Significantly, in this poll, he cracked the 50% mark. He's standing at 51% of likely Republican caucusgoers saying he is their first choice. And that's meaningful for two reasons. One is that it's symbolic. If - anybody that cracks 50%, that's an emotional feeling there. But then secondly, it's algebraically significant, which is there aren't enough percentage points left over among the other candidates at this point to appear to be able to mount a charge.

DETROW: This latest survey that you put together was interesting on a lot of different fronts. I think, as we were talking before, a lot of your surveys have very aptly popped bubbles of the way people hypothesize about campaigns. And it said, well, that's not actually what's happening right now. You mentioned there was a few different ways that the data surprised you this time around.

SELZER: Right. I think one of the things that surprised us is - the theory was that if some of these lesser candidates would drop out, that would be good for other non-Trump candidates. And maybe that was a little bit of the three-point bump that Ron DeSantis got. But Donald Trump got an eight-point bump. So you kind of think that even though people are dropping out, they're coming, still more, to Donald Trump. I think another way is that we've heard people say, well, Donald Trump's got all he's got. He's got his group, and then you've just got to go get more people who've maybe never caucused before. Well, Donald Trump is 51% overall. He's 63% with first-time caucusgoers. So if anybody is out there apparently recruiting new caucusgoers, it appears to be former President Trump.

DETROW: So, Clay, Ann's talking about Trump with this 30-something point lead - again, over 50% in the latest survey. Again, this is somebody who is facing 91 felony counts right now. How does this translate to what you see and hear where you're at these events, particularly when you're at Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis events? How are people showing up at those events thinking about what's going on right now, making sense of this?

MASTERS: Well, most of the conversations that I have with the voters who are turning out to these Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley events are looking for an alternative to the former president, and they're not talking about any kind of concerns that they might have about what another time for Trump in the White House would mean for democracy or anything like that. They're talking about trying to find an alternative to the divisiveness that Donald Trump has had. They're wanting to move on. But as I mentioned before, we're not really seeing the kind of groundswell you see for support in candidates of caucus cycles past. I'm thinking of, like, Barack Obama or Pete Buttigieg or even Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz. You saw these - this kind of what felt like a grassroots growth that has happened.

And so on the non-Trump events, a lot of these people are still trying to make up their mind. But when Donald Trump is so far and away the front-runner, you wonder what kind of momentum somebody can have when they're coming in at polls like Ann's so low. You know, Ron DeSantis has done the kind of traditional model that has rewarded candidates in the past, where he's done all 99 counties where he's - that's every county in the state of Iowa. He's picked up the endorsement of Governor Kim Reynolds, and it's very rare for a sitting governor to endorse. But you're just really not seeing the kind of movement that you would expect in past cycles where that's given some candidates much more trajectory.

DETROW: I'm curious what both of you think about this other factor. You know, the way that people frame Iowa is so much that people their reward the retail campaigning. You have to put in the work, right? Not only does Trump have his legal problems, he has made campaigning kind of a minimal-effort thing. He's not participated in a single debate yet. He has not gone to Iowa anywhere near the amount of time that other candidates have spent there. And yet he doesn't seem to be being punished for it at all by caucusgoers. Does that surprise either of you?

SELZER: I'm aware that he's got a much more sophisticated campaign team, and that the rallies that he's holding - they're the big town halls - they're really working those crowds and getting commitments out of them. One rally could be - what? - six, seven, eight town halls that some of the other candidates would do. And I was visited by a reporter from CBS Miami the other day, and he told me that the DeSantis campaign has pledged to knock on 1 million doors in Iowa. And I looked surprised. And he said, are you surprised? I said, there are only - what? - 1.2 million households in Iowa. So what counts as a door knock?

MASTERS: That's right.

SELZER: But it could be that kind of massive effort, which I think we would see just observationally.

MASTERS: And I go to these different Trump events, and it is much different than it was eight years ago, where there is a video that plays that explains how the caucuses even work. I mean, I've talked to Iowa potential caucusgoers who have told me that they have never caucused before. And so the Trump campaign is signing people up. You see these people working the crowds. One volunteer I remember saying, hats and shirts don't translate to a victory. He put it much more eloquently and quicker than I just did. But you're seeing much more of an effort than you saw eight years ago, for sure.

DETROW: And this is the point in an interview with you in the month before a caucus where I'm contractually obligated to talk about Rick Santorum just for a moment, who...

SELZER: Oh, good.

DETROW: ...Is the patron saint of a candidate who comes from behind at the very last moment and surprises everybody with this huge last-minute surge of support. It's not just him who's accomplished that. This is something that has happened time and time again. When you look at the data of where caucusgoers are with this contest, do you see any possibility for anybody to pull that off over the next month?

SELZER: Well, the ghost of Rick Santorum whispers in my ear, never say never, because he was polling in, you know, 4, 5, 6% in our next-to-the-last poll. He only got double digits the first night of our final poll and then grew and then grew and then grew. And if you look at the overall number, it wasn't that astonishing. But the trajectory from those nights - that night after night building - you know, he ended up winning the Iowa caucuses.

DETROW: Clay, what have all the conversations that you've had at all of the events for DeSantis, for Haley, for Trump, for anybody else - the state of this race a month out, what do you think that tells us about the state of the Republican Party in 2023, going into 2024?

MASTERS: This is still very much the party of former President Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are trying like heck to try to have some kind of a groundswell. But what the former president has done to take control of the Republican Party is still very alive and well. You're seeing it even, like I said earlier, the people that are showing up to these other candidates' events. They're not saying anything too negative about the former president. They're saying they just want to move on. And so it's kind of a miraculous thing to see where things were eight years ago and to see how much just his grip on the Republican Party has strengthened since his first presidency and as he's running for a third time.

DETROW: Yeah. That's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters. Clay, thanks so much.

MASTERS: You're welcome.

DETROW: As well as J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company polling firm. Thank you so much.

SELZER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIL TRYTHALL'S "WICHITA LINEMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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