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Diplomacy in Action

Preview of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses

Host, WHO News Radio 1040 Des Moines
New York, NY
December 22, 2011

The Opinions expressed by non-governmental speakers are solely their own and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy.  Their presence at the Foreign Press Center does not constitute an official endorsement of these views.

11:00 A.M EST

NOTE: The opinions expressed by non-governmental speakers are solely their own and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy. Their presence at the Foreign Press Center does not constitute an official endorsement of these views.

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. I want to thank everyone for calling in to participate in this morning’s Foreign Press Center conference call with Simon Conway. Simon is the host of the WHO News Radio 1040 Des Moines, Iowa, and he was recently featured in The New York Times as a new obligatory stop for Republicans on the campaign trail.

We’ll start this teleconference with opening comments from him with a little bit of his personal history, and then on to the significance of the Iowa caucus and the early voting there. He’ll then take your questions, which will be monitored by the operator, and you’ve been given instructions for those questions.

But right now, I turn it over to Simon Conway for his remarks. Thank you, Simon.

MR. CONWAY: Thank you, Melissa. Good morning, everybody. I am Simon Conway. I am the afternoon drive host on News Radio 1040 WHO. Although we are officially Des Moines, we have a very powerful signal and can be heard throughout most of the State of Iowa.

My show has indeed become almost a regular campaign stop now for those who wish to be president. I’ve had everybody, except Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, in my studio. Jon Huntsman is easy to explain; he’s – basically, he hasn’t been to Iowa and he’s not really running in Iowa. Mitt Romney, they’re still considering a request, but they haven’t been here much either. But everybody else has been in. In fact, I have Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, both of them will be on my show today. I had Rick Santorum last week and will probably have everybody in next week, which is the final full week before caucus.

In terms of my own background, I was born in London, England some time ago. (Laughter.) I don’t feel like giving the date out. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: No problem.

MR. CONWAY: Back in 1960, I was born in London, England, and grew up there, wanted to be a journalist since I was 9 years old, actually, and managed to achieve that aim. I spent a year living in Israel as well. And actually, that was my first job in journalism at a very young age. At the age of 16, I was working on a newspaper called the Jerusalem Post, that country’s – then, anyway – only English language national daily newspaper. That’s where I started, and went back to England after a year and always really wanted to come to America, always felt American in a lot of ways.

And so I eventually managed to come here about 11 years ago and did various things – ran a business very successfully, and that business led to some radio appearances, and then I found my passion, which was indeed talk radio. I am not a typical conservative talk radio host in the mold of Rush Limbaugh. We do all kinds of weird and wonderful things. We did 30 minutes on eggnog last Friday, for real. We did this – I also do fill-in work as well. I was on – did morning drive in Orlando this morning, and this morning we did a whole bunch of stuff on Dear Santa letters from kids. So we do all kinds of stuff, all kinds of weird and wonderful things.

In terms of the caucus process, it is perhaps the most grassroots process in the nation. And I say that quite deliberately, because when it comes time to vote, you can be voting in a school hall for sure, but you could equally be voting in somebody’s front room if it gets designated as a caucus precinct site. And that can and indeed has and indeed will happen, in the smaller rural communities in particular.

It is a very important process. It’s also very important to Iowa that we are first in the nation and that we retain this first in the nation status. And I can tell you that it’s not just the Republican Party that like Iowa to be first in the nation. It is also the Democrats. There’s numerous reasons for this to happen. One is the size of the state. We are big enough for us to be significant, and we are small enough that candidates with little or no money can actually make an impression here; whereas, if they tried to do it in, say, Texas or California or even Florida, they would struggle, which means you would reduce the field to those very popular candidates up front who could attract lots of money. And then it becomes about money and not about politics.

We do retail politics here. There is an awful lot of meeting these candidates face to face. Right now, we have candidates literally on tour. Michele Bachmann, who I mentioned before, is doing what we refer to here in Iowa as “the full Grassley.” Now, what that means, what that refers to, is Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, every single year, he visits all 99 of our counties. And when I say visits, I do mean visits. He gets out of whatever vehicle he happens to be in, he holds meetings, he goes to restaurants, he meets people, he listens to real people with real problems. Michele Bachmann is trying to do that in 10 days, so she will visit all 99 of our counties in 10 days. Rick Santorum took just under a year to do exactly the same, to visit all 99 of our counties. This is really hugely significant. It’s grassroots politics at its most basic level.

And so we here in Iowa are very blessed because we do get to question somebody who might become a president of the United States very up close and personal. Iowa also has a major significance in what happens in the country, even if it doesn’t have the best record of actually picking the next president. It’s not – I think three times since 1976, I believe, the Republican nominee has won in Iowa. So it’s not necessarily winning here, but you will get to meet potential presidents here. And certainly, the current President, Iowa was hugely significant in his ultimate victory.

That’s probably about all I need to say right now, unless you’d like me to go further, Melissa.

MODERATOR: No, that was an excellent opening.


MODERATOR: At this time, Operator, if you will select questioners, we will begin.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1. You will be prompted to record your first and last name. To withdraw your request, press *2. Once again, to ask a question, press * then 1 now.

Once again, to ask a question, press * then 1. Please stand by for our first question.

Our first question comes from Veronika Oleksyn with Kurier. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, hi there. The caucus takes place amid acrimonious gridlock in Washington, with a lot of people pointing fingers at the GOP, particularly in the last couple of days with the payroll tax fight. How do Iowans feel about what’s going on in Washington? And how is this likely to affect what happens on January 3rd?

MR. CONWAY: Well, I think Iowans, conservative Iowans in particular, are fed up with Washington, D.C., as indeed is most of the country. If you look at the approval rates of the United States Congress, they should all be hugely embarrassed. Unfortunately, they’re not. So that’s a very significant problem that we’ve got a Congress that seems to me, anyway, to have really no feelings for the people, complete disrespect for the people. It’s like mutual disrespect.

In terms of what’s going on now, if you own the language, you end up owning the argument. This isn’t a payroll tax cut; this is theft of Social Security. That’s what it is to start with. That’s where you’ve got to start. And people understand that. It’s also extension of unemployment benefit. Well, how long exactly are we going to do that? If you’re unemployed forever, are we going to pay you forever? So you’ve got all kinds of situations going on here coming into the mix. And two months just means we’re punting it down the field. It’s a waste of time.

On top of that, unfortunately, you’ve got a lot of lying going on. And they’re looking the people – the American people – in the eye and lying. My favorite lie right now is that this is going to take a thousand dollars out of the average American’s pay packet. Well, no it isn’t, because the only thing that’s been approved is two months. That means it’s barely a hundred bucks out of people earning 50 grand a year. And a lot of people are earning a lot less than 50 grand a year, and they’re not going to notice it at all. And unfortunately, nobody’s calling them on it.

So I think the people of Iowa, who are very educated and sophisticated politically, are very aware of what’s going on in D.C. And it is a mess and it’s quite disgusting, and I truly believe that the United States Senate got that vote together very, very quickly because they wanted to go home.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I follow up?

MR. CONWAY: You can, as far as I’m concerned.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

MR. CONWAY: They control the call. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Okay. I’m not sure how this works. Maybe just to follow up, you mentioned in closing that the people of Iowa are very aware of what’s going on in D.C., that they’re sophisticated politically. Could you talk a little bit about how voters in Iowa compare to the electorate in general?

MR. CONWAY: Well, let me put it to you like this. There are not too many markets in the country where the number one radio station – and here’s a plug for my radio station, News Radio 1040 WHO – is, in fact, a talk station, on the AM band. We are the number one radio station in the State of Iowa.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Zoltan Mikes with World Press Online.

QUESTION: I’m with World Business Press Online news agency. Good morning. I would like to ask the question regarding of the Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. Does it influence the voting of people in Iowa more than in other parts of the country or less than in other parts of the country? I know that the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney plays a role regarding the candidates. So I would like to ask you, what do you think about it especially in Iowa?

MR. CONWAY: Well, first of all, this is the United States of America, and I do not believe for one second that Governor Romney’s faith should play any role at all in a decision as to whether or not he should be president of the United States. That’s number one.

I do not believe it is playing as big as it did four years ago, and I’m very pleased about that. If you see today’s poll, I believe it shows him leading in Iowa. So clearly, it’s not as big an issue as it was. There are certainly people here, as there are in every community in the country, who, frankly, can’t see beyond the end of their noses, and they have a very entrenched position when it comes to things like religion, and even a particular branch of their own faith, if it isn’t the same as somebody else’s branch of the same faith, who would never consider somebody of a different branch. That is true. But I think they are very small in number, and I don’t think it will play into the finished result.

QUESTION: Okay. A follow-up is that I know that, for example, Rick Perry and his people made some suggestions about the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, that this the reason why I ask. I wondered if you maybe think that it should play a role. My question is: Will it play in Iowa a bigger role a smaller role than in other parts of the country?

MR. CONWAY: In all seriousness, I don’t think it’s going to play a bigger or a smaller role. I think it’s far less significant than it was. It was certainly made into an issue four years ago. There’s no doubt about that. But actually, that really happened beyond Iowa, after Iowa. I don’t think you’re going to see that playing a huge role here. As to what’s going on in the rest of the country, I’m not intimately connected with those parts of the country, really. I don’t think it will play a big role in Florida, where I spent the last ten years of my life. I can tell you that.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much. I appreciate.

MR. CONWAY: You’re welcome.

MODERATOR: Hey, Simon. Let me – this is Melissa. Let me just ask you a couple questions.


MODERATOR: If you would just give a little more information about the state of the race and what your expectations for the results are for the caucus, just any of your comments on that.

MR. CONWAY: Well, actually it’s quite interesting. I’ve – one of my other things that I do, I’ve just been hired as a columnist on Newsmax. And I’ve written my first piece, which I think is going to be published today. And it’s headlined, “Iowa Isn’t Done Yet.” And what I mean by that is this race is wide open. There are still a very large number of people who have yet to make up their minds as to which way they’re going to vote. You certainly, obviously, have some people that are entrenched, and you have other people who are just not convinced. They haven’t had their fire lit, their passion lit by one of these candidates yet, which is why these statewide tours are so important. I mentioned Bachmann and Santorum. Rick Perry is doing 44 cities. Newt Gingrich is doing 46 cities right now. That is going on right now. These things are going to play a huge role.

The other thing is: Iowa cannot be bought, and I don’t mean that in an underhand way. Having the biggest ad spend is not going to win you Iowa. You have to get out and meet the people; that’s how you win Iowa. And there are a number of candidates that have done that work, and there are number of candidates who have not, and I think you’re going to find the likes of Bachmann and Santorum and Perry doing better at the caucuses than their poll numbers might suggest right now. But we’re not done. There’s about a week and a half to go. This is not done.

MODERATOR: Well, great. Thank you for those comments, and we’ll continue with questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tao Zhang with Caixin Media. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. And thanks for your explanation. My question is – I mean, one of the important factors for getting success in Iowa is that you can get yourself well known around the country. But for the (inaudible) really difficult. I mean, Romney (inaudible) Ron Paul. Does that mean much to them? I mean, compared to them as maybe to Perry, to Bachmann?

MR. CONWAY: Yeah. Because – let’s – you mentioned Ron Paul. Ron Paul has been doing quite well in the polls recently. If Ron Paul, let’s say, picked up – let’s say at caucus time, Ron Paul polled 7 percent – and I’m not suggesting he’s going to, by the way, but let’s say that that was the actual result. We get to January the 3rd, the results come out, Ron Paul’s polled 7 percent. I think Ron Paul drops out of the race. I think it’s very, very significant what happens here in the caucuses. And yes, it’s not just about getting well known. It’s about showing that you can rise to the top in real politics with real people and real votes. That’s why the first of the nation status is so important here.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CONWAY: You’re welcome.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Nancy Ku with Fuji TV.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Nancy. I was wondering –

MR. CONWAY: Nancy Drew.


MR. CONWAY: Oh, Tu. Okay. I misheard that.

QUESTION: I did read Nancy Drew a lot when I was younger.

MR. CONWAY: I really did hear Nancy Drew. I apologize. Good morning, Nancy.

QUESTION: That’s okay. Good morning. What is the possibility that Gingrich or Romney might not even end up in the top two winners in Iowa?

QUESTION: I think there’s a distinct possibility that that could happen. I really do, because as I keep saying, we are a long way from done. We’ve got people crisscrossing the state. It is hugely important. Mitt Romney –I can tell you Mitt Romney hasn’t done much of that, because he’s not been here in Iowa all that much. Newt Gingrich hasn’t done much of that because, frankly, Newt Gingrich wasn’t running a campaign. Newt Gingrich was going from debate to debate to debate, wasn’t doing anything in between those debates – okay – but was winning debate after debate after debate and clearly appeared to be the smartest man in the room. And suddenly he’s rising in the polls.

Well, there’s two things you need to win Iowa. You certainly need popularity, but you also need organization, and he didn’t have any, because he wasn’t here, because he wasn’t running a campaign. Romney is slightly different, because he had an organization on the ground from four years ago, but it really has not helped him that he has not been here very often.

QUESTION: And can I ask one more question?


QUESTION: I know there’s the phrase “three tickets out of Iowa,” which refers to the Iowa caucus basically deciding the three candidates that will stay viable throughout the rest of the race. Do you think that’s going to be accurate this year or not?

MR. CONWAY: In all seriousness, it depends on who fills those three places. But I don’t necessarily believe that’s the complete story this time, no. Put it this way: If Newt Gingrich comes in fourth place, he’s still alive. No question he’s still alive. So I don’t believe that that will hold true particularly this year. It depends on who holds those first three places. If those first three places, for example, go to Romney, Gingrich, and Paul, not necessarily in that order, then I do believe whoever comes fourth will still be alive.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR. CONWAY: You’re welcome.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Janet Silver with Australian Broadcasting.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. With regard to getting back to the conservative vote, particularly the Christian conservative vote, there seems to be some – I guess, some division, if you will. And I’m wondering what’s driving some of that division within the Christian conservative vote and what particular that demographic is looking for in a candidate.

MR. CONWAY: Well, they’re looking for somebody who’s pro life, first of all. I can give you that without even questioning your question still further. What kind of decision are you – split are you talking about?

QUESTION: There’s a couple of bodies, for example, that the leader has decided to endorse one candidate, board of governors have decided they’re not going to endorse any candidate.

MR. CONWAY: Okay. All right. Now I know what you’re talking about. Yeah. I mean, I talked about this yesterday. To be perfectly honest with you, the FAMiLY LEADER decided to stay neutral, but their CEO immediately came out for Rick Santorum. I thought that was a very bizarre situation, and I said so loud and clear on my show yesterday afternoon. It makes no sense to me at all, particularly as Rick Santorum got a phone call from that same man on Saturday asking him to drop out of the race. Three days later he endorses him. It’s a very strange situation. I can’t really explain that particular thing, but I do not believe they’re representative of Christian – religious Christians in the State of Iowa. I really don’t. I don’t believe they’re relevant anymore, and I think they’re striving for relevancy in terms of the organizations representing people.

And in terms of the second part of your question, what are they looking for, they’re looking for people who absolutely are pro life. But this election, which everybody understands, is always going to be about the economy. Everybody gets it. So that isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to stand up and say, “Hey, life begins at conception, and gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.” That isn’t going to be enough to garnish that Christian vote this time, because if it was, we’d be looking at a completely different race. Everyone understands it’s about the economy. It’s always going to be about the economy, this time perhaps more than any other time for a significant period of history.

QUESTION: May I ask one follow-up? When you talk about the leader who had gone off and – the FAMiLY LEADER, who had gone off and endorsed Santorum, what kind of persuasion, if you will, do conservative Christian leaders have in terms of moving votes for one candidate?

MR. CONWAY: I honestly don’t believe they have any. The people I know here in Iowa – and I know religious ones and non-religious ones – they don’t wait around to be told who to vote for. I think, actually, the whole endorsement thing is really quite funny in a lot of ways, because I don’t think it has any relevance at all, none.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Idoya Noain with El Periodico. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this call. I wanted to ask a multi-part question. First, I wanted to know what is – what do you expect the turnout to be? Because I think in recent years has been very low. Also wanted to know what role has the debates play on this – I don’t know. I think there has been less money invested in campaigns and everything, and I wanted you to analyze the role that the long series of TV debates have had. And also, the third part is: What is going on with the Occupy the Caucuses? Do you think it’s going to also play a role? What are they preparing? How are the people reacting to the (inaudible) that they are preparing the –

MR. CONWAY: Okay. There really were multiple questions there, and if I miss one you may have to come back at me.


MR. CONWAY: So I’m going to start in reverse order. The Occupy movement is completely irrelevant in the State of Iowa. We have perhaps the most boring Occupiers in the country, and I mean that sincerely. They really are not relevant. They’re trying to become relevant. They’re completely irrelevant. They only thing they are going to try and do is invade campaign offices, and they’ve made their intentions very clear. Law enforcement is very aware. The governor of the state is very aware of what is going on, and I do not believe any protest they have is going to last more than about five minutes. They will be arrested.

QUESTION: And about the turnout that is expected and why the low turnout in Iowa?

MR. CONWAY: Well, we’re not going to have a low turnout. I think we’re actually going to have a very high turnout. The straw poll in Ames earlier this year – it was a record turnout. Normally to get – you actually have to pay to get into the straw poll in Ames. There’s an admission fee. And normally nobody actually pays the admission fee because the candidates buy out blocs of tickets and they give them out to people who they think are going to support them. That’s how it’s always worked. Well, I can tell you that this year at the straw poll people were arriving at the gate and paying to get in. It’s unheard of.

QUESTION: And the last part was the debate. Do you think they have altered the relationship of the candidates with Iowa voters?

MR. CONWAY: There’s no question that the debates have played a significant role this time. I think Newt Gingrich rose to the top because of his debate performance. I think Rick Perry, in the earlier debates – certainly the last two he did very well. I actually thought he won one of the last two. But in the earlier debates, when he was still recovering from his back surgery and he had some serious issues, that affected his poll numbers. I don't think there’s any doubt at all that the debates have had an effect on the situation in Iowa and across the country, frankly.

QUESTION: But can I do a follow-up on that? Do you think the Iowa people will prefer to see the candidates live like they have always done?

MR. CONWAY: Well, they are seeing the candidates live. You cannot win Iowa just by debating. Newt Gingrich is finding that out right now. Newt Gingrich had tremendous success in the debates, but if he doesn’t get out amongst the people it’s not going to translate into a caucus win. That’s why he’s doing a 46 city tour right now.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Simon, before we move on with questioning, let me just pose another one to you. Iowa is typically described as a one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, one-third Independent. What’s your sense of the state of the Democratic side of the race, and how do Iowans perceive President Obama?

MR. CONWAY: Oh, well, that’s a – let me answer two part – that in two parts. So yes, that’s another reason – what you just said is another reason why both the Republicans and the Democrats like Iowa to be first in the nation, because there is such a huge diversity of opinion here. And there is also a very strong Independent – even registered Independents here as well, very strong in the middle. And they want – they are waiting to be convinced as to who they should support. That is a very, very significant thing for them. So in terms of that, you’re absolutely right.

In terms of how the people are perceiving the President, you do have the – as in all races, you’ve got people that would vote Democrat no matter what, people that would vote Republican no matter what. So it’s not really worthwhile looking at those people, and that’s the same all over the country. You’ve really got to look at that Independent bit. And the Independent bit, in my experience, is not very pleased with the President of the United States.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. We’ll continue with the questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And once again, to ask a question press * then 1. Our next question comes from Nancy Ku with Fuji TV.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Nancy again. I thought of one more question. You mentioned that Bachmann, Santorum, or Perry might do very well in the caucus and might end up doing better then they’re showing currently in their polling numbers. If Bachmann, Santorum, or Perry ended up being one of the top winners of Iowa, does this actually translate into them becoming a viable candidate once again in the whole race, or does this just mean that they become kind of an obstacle for one of the other frontrunners?

MR. CONWAY: Well, it depends which one of them. And I just want to be clear. You used the word – I said – the words I said they would do very well. I didn’t. I said they will do better in the caucuses then their poll numbers are suggesting. If, however, one of them ended in – up in the top three, it depends on which one.

I think it would be very significant for Rick Perry. I mean, at the end of the day, this is a man who is the governor of the 13th largest economy in the globe. That’s a very big deal. So if Rick Perry ends up in the top three, very, very significant for him. I think that will give him a huge boost coming out of Iowa.

Michele Bachmann – I think it would help her a lot. Rick Santorum – I don't think it will help him that much because he’s just not resonating. I can’t even explain it. I’ve met the man five or six times. I can’t explain why he isn’t resonating, but he isn’t. Now, he’s showing some movement right now, no question. His poll numbers are going up. But will they go up enough to launch him into that position? He says the only thing he has – he said this to me: The only thing he has to do to stay in the race is to score a result higher than expectations. Well, expectations right now are that he’s going to finish one place above Jon Huntsman. That’s the expectation. So if he does better than that, he says he’s staying in.

I don't know that it’s going to lead anywhere because I don't believe he resonates, and I don’t understand why, but he doesn’t. He seems very – I think he might be too nice, in all seriousness. I think you need some nastiness in your being to become President of the United States.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: At this time, we have no additional questions.

MODERATOR: I will leave the line open for a minute or two if some journalists find themselves with questions. But Simon, for your interviews today, do you have a lineup or a specific focus that you want to interview your – or potential candidates?

MR. CONWAY: Well, we’re going to be talking to Michele Bachmann. And talk radio is very different to TV. TVs have to be scripted. Talk radio, we’re not. And I have an ADD brain, which wasn’t a disease when I was growing up, and actually is – I think is a requirement for a good talk show host. So probably sometime before I interview either one of them I’ll probably write down on a notepad a couple of questions, but really I just take it from there. It’s often depending on the answers I get and often depending on what pops into my head. So I don’t tend to over plan them.

The one thing we have been doing when we have these people in for a hour is we’ve been finding out who they are. So we’ve asked – if I’ve had them in for a whole hour, we might have spent 15 minutes on tell me about how you grew up, how you met your wife or husband the first time; do you remember what that was like; what was your first job? With Rick Perry: What was it like growing up with no indoor plumbing for the first five years of your life? And he also told me that his mum made all his clothes till he went to college. So you really get an insight into who these people are, as you’ve got the time to explore it.

So on TV, you’ve got five, ten-minute hits. They just want to hit the issues. The candidates want to hit the issues; the TV people want to hit the issues. I’ve got a three-hour show every day. We can sit back and relax and actually talk and get to know these people, and I think that’s also hugely important. We know who they are, where they’ve come from. That’s very important.

MODERATOR: Well, I just want to thank you so much for your time. I think we’ve kind of really settled in on what’s happening in Iowa, and we want to thank all the journalists for calling in and for posing their questions. So Simon, I wish you a wonderful day. Thank you so much for participating in this call with the Foreign Press Center, and we look forward to seeing what’s happening in Iowa.

MR. CONWAY: My pleasure. Any time.

MODERATOR: Well, very good. Well, thank you all very much for participating.

MR. CONWAY: Thanks everybody. Bye-bye now.

MODERATOR: Bye, Simon.

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