In a specific discussion, Friday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – Leahy spoke to Jim Larew who is a long time friend and resident of Iowa. Larew is also a leading Democrat from Iowa who served as an aid and chief of staff to former Senator John ‘Chet’ Culver.
During the second hour, Larew and Leahy discussed the upcoming Iowa Democratic caucuses on Monday.
Leahy: On the line with us now, our good friend and our ambassador to the Democratic presidential field. Long time Iowa expert. Democratic attorney. Jim Larew. Good morning Jim.
Larew: Good morning. It’s so flattering to be an ambassador and not to have paid any kind contribution at all. (Leahy laughs)
Larew: That’s the old-fashioned way.
Leahy: The old-fashioned way. How long have we been talking together on the air? Almost a year now? It’s been a long time.
Larew: It has been. We’ve been on a number of times.
Leahy: The big news is the Iowa caucuses will be held Monday evening. I’m flying up there on Sunday. I’m broadcasting Monday morning from WHO studios in Des Moines. I’ll be attending a caucus somewhere in the Des Moines area that night.
And then if all goes well, you and a colleague will be in the studio with me at WHO sometime in the morning. Depending on how late you stay up in Iowa City. But we’ll be talking about the caucus itself. You know, some people Jim hold college reunions in the Caribbean. We’re going to hold one in Des Moines, Iowa in February with the temperature in the high 20s. What’s wrong with us?
Larew: There’s a special place in heaven for political nerds (Leahy chuckles) and we’ll be showing our colors here. And I’m looking forward to it.
Leahy: I am too. I was talking with the morning host of another program on another station here who has a long record of being in news, and he said, mercifully I’m not going to Iowa this year. And I said, I’m going and I’m excited about it. And he looked at me like, what’s wrong with you man. (Chuckles)
Larew: Well, there you are. I think cold as it has been sometimes for a caucus. It ought to be ok and not a lot of snow that sometimes happens. There will be a full turn out I would expect whatever that may mean. A lot of people there.
Leahy: Basically, the talking point out there right now is Bernie has a little bit of momentum. The latest polls show that Bernie’s Real Clear Politics polls show he’s a little bit over Biden by 23-20. I saw a piece of by Nate Silver where he said that in the last eleven contests the polls have gotten it right. Is it still fluid out there? What’s the horse race look like?
Larew: Well it is quite close. And different polls show different results. But on the whole, I don’t think anyone disputes, that Sanders, Biden, Warren, and to a lesser extent Buttigieg are in the top tier. Klobuchar, maybe half of what Buttigieg has whatever that may be. There’s movement. And for a field of this size, it feels like those races to me almost since I’ve been doing this almost forever. If you reach back to 1988 there’s a big field in the Democratic side and in 2004.
And what those have in common is a large field. One the vote has dissipated among a lot of people. And two, you have people who stand for establishment criteria and others who pose themselves as being outsiders. That makes a difference. You can expect that one or more of these candidates will have a surge of support that came out of nowhere in the last ten days. I think that’s likely to happen. Exactly who that will be is open to speculation.
Leahy: Ah. So what will cause a surge one way or the other?
Larew: Well in the Democratic Party, although it happens in both instances, it’s more likely to happen in the Democratic Party because of this threshold that we create for the caucus process or what we call “viability.” This means you have to have when you come to the caucus at least 15% of those who are in attendance.
And if you don’t have that threshold, you have to disperse and join another campaign’s candidacy or you can go to a group that we call uncommitted. Statistically, or just by experience, if you have a candidate in Iowa who by this time or caucus night doesn’t have 20% more or less of the vote, then on a statewide basis, you go across 678 regular precinct caucuses and an additional 87.
If you don’t have that kind of that in many precincts your not going to be viable. And many of those less viable candidacies are not well organized so the people out there don’t have any direction. So they just do what they want to do. That is the basis for a surge.
Leahy: So the free market at work of all these 170,000 people making independent choices.
Leahy: Jim, just a note, I love the idea of the caucuses as a participatory democracy. When I was up there in November with you, there were several people that said well, maybe it’s time for the Iowa caucuses is over. I don’t feel that way at all. What’s your take on it? Is this the last gasp? Or will it continue to be strong in 2024 and beyond?
Larew: It might be the last gasp. One never knows. To be first is a coveted and really important position. In the past, people who have done reasonably well in Iowa have ended up being our nominees or presidents in fact. They look back at Iowa as being a good experience. I think it would be too much of a burden if a place like Iowa were, in fact, choosing the final delegate or nominee.
But you’ve got to widdle the field. And in this case 25 down to a manageable number. You’ve got to do it somewhere that the playing surface is level. Where the rules are fair. Where there are no dominant party brokers stopping a newcomer from coming in. And Iowa meets all those thresholds. Maybe some other states do too.
But really the Iowa population although we’re not as ethnically and racially diverse as some, you measure Iowa voters on the ideological kinds of the spectrum which are pretty well-informed as a general Democratic Party. And I think that’s probably true of Republicans too. So you’ve got to have some place to start.
We’re pretty good at widdling. We’ve been widdling for a long time. (Leahy laughs) Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator, had a famous commercial seem pretty direct. We know it’s something that has to be done and it’s pretty brutal. And in fact, the case not because they’re not great people, it’s just not their time. There are people who wake up in the morning and say I should be president and the public doesn’t agree.
(Leahy laughs) (Inaudible talk) 25% number and often times Michael in the past, we’ve said in Iowa we’ll widdle it down to three or two. I think this time you’re going to have maybe four or five tickets. And that goes to the issue of beating expectations.
Larew: We haven’t failed to meet expectations and both can have a rippling transformative effect on a campaign. That is to say, if a front runner in Iowa loses a lot of altitude that balances in a negative way to go on to New Hampshire which is an open primary. Or Nevada which is a caucus state. Or South Carolina which is a primary state. And it’s also the states that people come out of nowhere. That happened with Kerry and Edwards who both gained about 20 points in 2004. This year feels very close too.
You can just feel the wind rip through the campaign in the last few days. You can just feel like that someone put a weight around your candidate’s neck and it just goes sinking. So I think you’re going to have some rising campaigns at the end. And you’re going to have some sinking ones. We’ll know when we meet on the fourth because we’ll all be exceptionally bright people telling the public what happened the night before.
Listen to the second hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Background Photo “Iowa Capitol” by Cburnett. CC BY-SA 3.0.