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2020 Primary Season Gets Underway With Iowa's Democratic Caucuses


Let's talk politics. Here in the coffee shop, we've got two of NPR's best political minds - senior political editor Domenico Montanaro and Scott Detrow, who covers the presidential campaign and has been driving, like, everywhere in the state.


So many miles.

GREENE: Yeah. Hey, guys.



MONTANARO: And what about this crowd? So awesome.

GREENE: I know, right?

MONTANARO: I can't believe it. I walked in. I was like, I can't park anywhere.


MARTIN: So you two have been in Iowa the last couple of days, driving many miles, as we have said. We'd love to hear from each of you. What has stuck out as you have seen and heard the closing arguments from all these candidates?

DETROW: So I'll talk about Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg is, interestingly, the only Democratic candidate out there making clear contrast to the other candidates. Everyone else is just mostly talking about what they want to do and talking about Donald Trump. Buttigieg is saying that Joe Biden really wants to just kind of hit reset, pretend the Trump years never happened, go back to the way things were before. And he argues Bernie Sanders wants to do a political revolution. And Buttigieg is arguing, there's a real big middle ground in between the two of those, and that's where I am.

Elizabeth Warren is talking a lot about unity, going out of her way to praise a lot of the other candidates in the race. And that's actually a political calculation because her campaign is making this argument - you have a progressive wing, and you have the establishment, if you will, the more moderate wing. Elizabeth Warren is a progressive. She wants to do a ton of big things. But she has worked within the political system to get that done her entire career. And she is the choice to bring both sides together. That's her closing pitch.

MARTIN: OK. Domenico.

MONTANARO: So I'll talk about Sanders and Biden, obviously the other top two here. And Sanders is clearly the man to beat. I mean, you know, being in Cedar Rapids, two hours from Des Moines, he had a rock concert - literally, a rock concert. And more people - Scott can attest to this because he was there with me - more people left when the band came out than for Bernie Sanders.

GREENE: They were there to see him.

MONTANARO: They were there for Bernie Sanders. You know, he has got a huge, you know, advantage with young voters, anyone under 30. And for them, Joe Biden is, like, the worst thing that they could possibly imagine going to the White House, short of Trump. And they don't even consider him an option. You know, so you got Bernie Sanders, who's really talking about a revolution. And it was really kind of like a pre-victory victory speech that he was holding that night - talking about, you know, all of the things that we've heard Bernie Sanders talk about over the years. And all of his surrogates really had this feeling of celebration, like kind of kids anticipating the Christmas present the night before.

And you know, for Biden, it's a different thing. You know, voters here, 65 and older, I would say very strongly, intensely pro-Biden. And they are very intensely urgent about the threat of President Trump - very different than Sanders supporters, very different than Buttigieg supporters. You know - so I don't know. Biden's going to have to get all of those folks out to caucus. He's going to have to hope that you don't have a huge surge of young voters who come out 'cause they are definitely not pro-Biden people.

GREENE: Scott Detrow, you've, I mean, basically made Iowa a second home for the last months. So you've seen sort of the arc here. As we're heading into tonight - it's finally time to caucus - I mean, how are people feeling?

DETROW: I'd say there are two defining feelings here. One is enthusiasm. People are really engaged in this race. They've been that way since a year ago. Elizabeth Warren kicked this all off New Year's Eve 2018. So this campaign has been going on for a while. The Bernie Sanders campaign, I've talked to them a lot about this. They think there's a possibility that tonight Iowa blows through the all-time record for Democratic caucusing set in 2008 - about 240,000 people. The Sanders campaign is talking about the possibility of 250,000 people, which would be quite something.

The second predominant feeling is indecision, uncertainty. So many people - even this weekend, even just now talking to people in the crowd - aren't quite sure who they're going to caucus for tonight. And I think that gets to the deep worries that so many Democrats in Iowa and around the country have about a second Trump term. I said this before - I'll say it again - Danielle Kurtzleben, one of our colleagues, calls it analysis paralysis, and I think that's the perfect way to put it. We've got a crowd here, and let me ask - how many people here still aren't 100% sure who they're going to caucus for tonight?



GREENE: Well...

MARTIN: I feel like a lot of people have made up their mind, though.

MONTANARO: You got a few hours.

GREENE: A few, a few. Yeah, people here have made up their minds.

DETROW: Though I'll say there were people coming out of events - the campaigns were saying, hey, can you sign a commit to caucus card? And they said I don't know yet, I got to go and view a few more places. So...

GREENE: More shopping.

MONTANARO: You know, Scott talked a little bit about turnout, and that's one thing that's really struck me. You know, having covered the last few caucuses, I - you know, there's really, really a substantial floor of Democratic voters who've come out to all of these events. You know, some of this is, you know, expectations management. You know, if you know that you can't get that many people, you hold an event in a smaller room, and it looks more packed. But every single one of those rooms have lived up to the expectation for those candidates.

MARTIN: So one thing you hear a lot about here in Iowa - at least, I have - is this idea of electability. We heard it from a 38-year-old black pastor in Waterloo, Iowa. His name is Frantz Whitfield. Let's listen to this.

FRANTZ WHITFIELD: We have to get Donald Trump out of office. We need to have somebody that's electable. And I think that Joe Biden is the only person right now who is the electable candidate.

MARTIN: I mean, Joe Biden has a lot of support among African Americans around the country. But talk about this idea, how it's been used, of electability.

DETROW: It is what I hear more than anything else. And for months now, I've said - OK, well, electability is the most important thing to you. How do you define that? And everyone has a different answer, and everyone themselves aren't quite sure how to put it. And you have the campaigns making different pitches, too - Joe Biden saying, I am someone with a long track record, the experience; I can appeal to moderates, even Republicans, independents - that's electable. Bernie Sanders says electability is exciting your base, getting new people to show up - that's electability, going on and on. Elizabeth Warren makes a similar case.

Here's the great thing about tonight. We will finally have some concrete results to say electability - well, here's who came in first in the Iowa caucuses; here's who came in a close second; here's who didn't do too well.

MARTIN: A metric. Right.

DETROW: Yeah. Metrics are coming now, going forward.

GREENE: And then we go to New Hampshire. And I mean, Domenico, what is it at stake here for these candidates here in Iowa as we go forward?

MONTANARO: Well, it's huge stakes. I mean, the fact is the last four Democratic presidential nominees won Iowa - the last seven of nine. And that's hugely important. And you know, we can talk more about electability at another point in the show, but there are tons of examples where people are defining it very, very differently depending on who they're considering.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow and Domenico Montanaro here at Smokey Row in Des Moines with us. Thanks, guys.

DETROW: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Thank you.

MONTANARO: Happy caucus day.

GREENE: Yeah, you too.

MARTIN: Happy caucus day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.