12:00 P.M., EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C., VIA TELECONFERENCE
MODERATOR: Hi everyone. Good afternoon. Thank you for calling into this Foreign Press Center teleconference. Our briefer today is Mr. David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Mr. Yepsen is the former chief political writer, political editor, and political columnist with the Des Moines Register, and he has had a career spanning over 30 years all in Iowa.
So he’s here with us today to talk about the caucuses occurring tonight. So he’ll give brief introductory remarks and then we’ll open it up to a question-and-answer session. The operator will give you instructions on how to pose your questions. So with that, I will just turn it over to Mr. Yepsen.
MR. YEPSEN: Well, thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I hope I can be a useful resource to all of you. I am talking to you from the press filing center here in Des Moines as everyone gathers to begin to cover tonight’s events. Let me just give you a lay of the land here a little bit before we get started. All the polling shows that this race is really too close to call. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum are really in a jumble for first place. And I certainly expect those three to be the top three finishers based on those polls, but we don’t know obviously what the final turnout is going to be.
The – Romney is picking up a lot of support from party moderates and from Republicans who think he’s the most electable of the candidates. Rick Santorum is picking up a lot of support here at the end from social conservatives who like his views on social issues like abortion and gay rights. And Ron Paul is showing a lot of strength from economic conservatives who are worried about the nation’s budget deficit and debt. And he’s also – has a message that resonates about pulling American troops out of their bases around the world and cutting foreign aid spending. So those are kind of the frontrunners in this event tonight.
I think one of the things that’s going on here is that the Republican Party in America is really struggling a little bit right now to figure out what it’s for and what it’s against. The party out of power often times has a little bit of problem defining itself, and so these caucuses are as much about electing a candidate as they are starting to fashion a message that the party can carry forward.
One of the other issues that comes up that may be of interest to some of you is the debate over immigration reform. These Republicans really are falling all over themselves to be tough on illegal immigration and I think the political consequence of that is it will make it very difficult in the coming year to reach any sort of accommodation in Congress with the White House over dealing with America’s immigration laws. The political consequence of that is I think many Americans of Latino ancestry are gradually moving into the Democratic Party, and that may have a long term adverse consequence to the Republicans. But that’s just kind of a brief overview, and I’d rather like to get to your questions and try to be a good resource for you in the time that we have. So let’s open it up.
OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1. Once again, if you’d like to ask a question or have a comment, please press * then 1.
The first question comes is from Lauren Fox. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Is that working?
MR. YEPSEN: Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Wonderful. So my question is about Ron Paul. He’s been kind of criticized for being a fringe candidate, and I’m wondering right now on the ground whether or not any of the other candidates are adopting some of his ideas to gain more supporters?
MR. YEPSEN: No, not yet. I think Ron Paul has been a fringe figure in American politics for some time, but I think events have made him a little more main stream. He gives voice to a concern that a lot of Americans have about our involvement overseas. He’s also attracting a lot of new people. I think there’s a – we’re in a time of hard economic troubles in America, and I think that’s prompting Americans to turn inward a little bit. We’ve seen this before in our history. There’s a lot of isolationist sentiment, particularly here in the Middle West. And so I think Ron Paul has really fought his way into contention here in the caucuses, largely on the strength of that message.
He is attracting a lot of young people, younger voters, many of whom incidentally were for Barack Obama – some of whom who were for Barack Obama four years ago, just on the strength of change. They’re really frustrated by what they see going on, and so the short answer to your question is I don’t see the other candidates moving to adopt his message.
But I would expect as this campaign goes on, and it’s a close race, that both the Republican candidate and Barack Obama are going to be thinking about ways to adopt some of Ron Paul’s – the themes that he has struck. We’ve seen this before in American politics. Ross Perot, for example, the candidates started to try to adopt his message. So the important thing about Ron Paul is not Ron Paul, but what he is saying and his message.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you so much.
MR. YEPSEN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Veronika Oleksyn. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi there, thank you so much for doing this today.
MR. YEPSEN: Happy to do it, Veronika.
QUESTION: Great. I was just wondering, looking forward, how does what happens here tonight affect the New Hampshire race and the other races in the next couple of weeks? And let’s just say Santorum or Paul do well tonight, do you think either of them stand a realistic chance of becoming the official nominee of the Republican Party?
MR. YEPSEN: I don’t think that Ron Paul has a chance of becoming the official nominee. I think it’s an open question with Rick Santorum. The effect of Iowa on subsequent contests is twofold. One is it will winnow the field of candidates. Some of these candidates will leave tonight and they really are no longer viable candidates. I mean, Michelle Bachmann is a good example of somebody who may fit into that category tonight. Her polling numbers have not been good.
And what happens to campaigns who do – who finish outside the top three? Their money dries up. They can’t attract campaign donations and so they really have a difficult time continuing. So I would expect you’d see some candidates drop out of the race.
Secondly, there will be some candidates who get elevated in this race if they have a strong, surprising finish, then their – they will get a lot of media attention and additional contributions going forward. And I think that will be a benefit to them. It will help slingshot them into contention. They get a great deal of media attention and you’ll see some candidate or two get a good media bump coming out of this.
QUESTION: Okay. Great. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Before we begin the next question, I just want to remind the questioners to please state your media organization before asking your question. Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Johan Anderberg. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Johan Anderberg. I work for the Swedish magazine Fokus. I wonder – there has been some talk about the Republican establishment, but in making the case for Romney, such as Bob Dole and George Bush the first, and I wonder how much – what your take is, and how do you think they will – sort of coordinated effort, or is it just a coincidence?
MR. YEPSEN: I’m not sure I understand your question.
QUESTION: Do you want me to say it again?
MR. YEPSEN: Could you repeat your question?
QUESTION: Yeah. Sure. There has been some talk this week about the Republican establishment rallying around Romney. Do you think there is something called the Republican establishment? And do you think they are behind Romney in this?
MR. YEPSEN: Yes. I do think the Republican establishment is starting to coalesce around Mitt Romney, and I think there’s ample evidence of that in some of the endorsements that he’s receiving. If he wins here in Iowa tonight and then again in New Hampshire where he leads in the polls, I think the Republican Party will pretty quickly fall – the rest of the Republican Party will pretty quickly fall in line. That’s one of the reasons why Iowa’s important to him. It’s not certainly the only thing he’s got to win, but if he could win here and win in New Hampshire, it would become very difficult to stop him for the nomination.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks a lot.
MR. YEPSEN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Silvia Pisani. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Johan Anderberg from the Swedish magazine, Fokus.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. I am Silvia Pisani from La Nacion newspaper in Argentina. Thank you for doing this. The first question is just for organization purposes and is very concrete. I would like to know: Do you know exactly at what time this night we are going to have the final result of the caucus? That would be very helpful to organize our work. And the other one – I would like to ask you – you said to another colleague two minutes ago that for – you don’t think that even if Ron Paul win today, it would be easy to him to have the nomination. Instead you said, if I don’t misunderstood, that it was – it could be yet an open question for Santorum. Could you please elaborate a little bit more on that? What will happen if for Ron Paul if Ron Paul wins today? And what will happen to Santorum in the event if he wins today. Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: The caucuses begin at 7:00 p.m. Central Time. I would expect that shortly after they begin, you will see the network entrance polls start to be released. The networks are conducting a poll of caucus goers as they go in, and I imagine you’ll be seeing those results first. I would think that about two hours after the caucuses start, probably about 9:00 p.m. Central Time, we’ll start having actual results being reported for the caucus – for the caucuses. It depends – and some of this will depend upon if they have problems with their reporting system. I know that the Republican Party is very concerned about its security and its numbers. There was a threat from some hackers, and so hopefully it will be only a couple hours after the event starts that we’ll start to get results. So that’s the best I can tell you for planning purposes what to try to work toward.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: The second part of your question is dealing with Ron Paul. I think Ron Paul has – the strength of him is his message. It’s a Libertarian message. I think it’s a bit of an isolationist message, but it’s certainly a message of turning inward for America. And we’ve seen that force in American politics for generations and – internationalist versus isolationist. Those terms may be a little bit loaded to some people, but I think that’s the shorthand to try to describe what’s going on here. The country has huge debts and deficits, and there really is the two wars that are very unpopular and very costly. It’s interesting that in many of Ron Paul’s events, there are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So there is that sense of what are we doing over there; let’s bring our people home; let’s close down some of these bases around the world and tend to our own problems here in the States.
Ron Paul himself is probably a bit of a flawed messenger. He’s just – he has run as a Libertarian candidate before. He has published controversial writings before. So I think he may have baggage in terms of his own personal electability. And that is why I don’t think he will be the Republican nominee, but that’s why I do think that the message, the things he’s talking about are important, because no matter who the eventual nominee is going up against President Obama, there are a lot of Americans who feel – who agree with what Ron Paul was saying. How do we reduce the size of government in our lives? How do we reduce our – make dramatic cuts in spending? Can we start pulling in from around the world in order to save money and tend to our own business?
The second part of that question was about Rick Santorum, and I think Rick Santorum has already won something in the caucuses just by coming up so quickly in these polls. He’s a figure in American politics that I would pay attention to, because even if he does not win the nomination this time, he may well do so in the future. He has had troubles getting some support because many – some Republicans don’t think he’s electable since he lost that – his last race for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. So I just think this could be the start of his political comeback. If he does well tonight, finishes in the top three finishers, he will be seen as the new leader of social conservatives in the Republican Party, and that’s – that will be – that will make him a force for some time to come.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MR. YEPSEN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Stephane Bussard, and once again if you could please state your media organization.
QUESTION: Yes. Stephane Bussard from Le Temps newspaper in Switzerland. Thank you, Mr. Yepsen, for answering our questions. My question is: How do you assess the evangelical vote in Iowa? We can see that it plays a very important role and that Rick Santorum is really focusing on that. And how do you see that on a nationwide, the evangelical vote? Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: Evangelicals are an important part of the Republican Party. Last – in the last caucus four years ago, they formed about 60 percent of the turnout – 6-0, identified themselves as either born again Christians or evangelicals. So that’s a substantial number of people. In the latest polling, however, that number has dropped to about 30 percent. So one of the questions tonight is just how many of them are going to show up and whether they are as big a force this time as they were last time. That – so that’s one of the questions to be answered tonight. I think they are a definite force in American politics and have been for some time. Jimmy Carter in 1976 won the White House with the help of evangelical voters. They switched their allegiances in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, and they’ve really never come back to the Democratic Party.
And so religion and politics in the United States is a part of our history. It’s the reason a lot of people came to this country and helped start it. And on – at both ends of the spectrum, you will find religious conservatives and you will find religious liberals, people who are motivated to be involved in politics by virtue of their religious faith. And the best example of that in our politics is – was the Civil War and the anti-slavery movement. We also saw it at work in the Prohibition movement in the 1920s, and now we see it in the – some of the antiwar activities of the Vietnam era, and now in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’re also seeing it in the context of gay rights, gay marriage, and abortion issues. So it will be an important factor.
But there’s one wrinkle here, and that is social conservatives care about other issues as well. If you ask most Americans today what the most important issue is, they’ll say jobs and the economy. And social conservatives say that, too. So you have people who are religious conservatives, and they may be against gay marriage and they may be against abortion, but they also care a great deal about job creation and who can get the economy going. So it’s a little bit different than pre – prior campaigns where maybe there were more of these religious conservatives and they were voting more about some of these social issues. This time, without question, for everybody that’s --
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: -- jobs and the economy.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Yashwant Raj. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m – I work for the Hindustan Times, an Indian newspaper. My question is about – around the same time as the Republican start their caucuses in the evening today, President Obama will be speaking to Democrats in Iowa. Could you speak a bit about his chances in that state? Where does he stand in the state with his base? Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: Yes. That’s a very good question, and I’m glad you brought it up. Iowa is a small state, but in November it will be one of the battleground states, along with New Hampshire. There are really about six or seven states that are toss-up states in November that have been in recent elections, and Iowa will again be one of them. So President Obama and the Democrats have not just been sitting idly by here. They are trying to organize their own get-out-the-vote efforts for November. They are trying to counter some of this anti-Obama media that has just – and attack ads that have just soaked the airwaves here. So the President will be calling in to fire up his troops and make sure that they stay on the task of winning this state’s six electoral votes in the general election.
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up question?
MR. YEPSEN: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Yeah. In an answer to the colleague’s question some time ago, you said some of people who – some people who worked for Obama in 2008 are now working now with Ron Paul. Do you see this is a massive trend there or a significant trend, or is it just kind of just this way the politics is in that state?
MR. YEPSEN: I think it’s something worth watching. I don’t know if it’s – how big of a trend it is, but it struck me as interesting that a number of these people who say they’re – are for Ron Paul were for Barack Obama last time. And I think it goes to the crying demand many Americans have for change. They want to see things change, and they’re frustrated that Obama either has not delivered on change or it has not been dramatic enough. And so the – it’s ironic that they are moving on to the next candidate who talks about dramatic change, in Ron Paul. But some of that is very consistent on the part of these voters. Ron Paul has an antiwar message, and they’re attracted to that.
QUESTION: Thank you, David.
MR. YEPSEN: Yes, sir.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Martin Suter. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi.
MR. YEPSEN: Hi.
QUESTION: I am – I work for Sonntags Zeitung with (inaudible) newspaper. I have one question which follows up to what you said about Obama. I was wondering, is the Democratic Party in Iowa actually encouraging people to go to these Republican caucuses and to kind of change their registration and kind of act as spoilers or something?
And the second question that I have is: Do you see any structural similarities between the Democratic caucuses in 2004 with Kerry, kind of the moderate, winning among the Democrats, like – and it could be now today Romney winning among the Republicans?
MR. YEPSEN: Yes. Your first question – Democrats are encouraging Democrats to go to the Democratic caucus. They want to organize for the November effort. Anecdotally, some Democrats say they’re going to show up at the Republican caucus and change their registration, but I don’t expect there to be very many. We don’t have a great tradition of that in this state. And so I wouldn’t make too much about actual people crossing over.
The second part of your question, about Kerry in ’04, there is a parallel in that John Kerry – Democrats in 2004 were struggling. They hated the war. They wanted to find a candidate who could beat George Bush. And they liked what Howard Dean was saying. But when they went to the caucuses, many of them went for John Kerry on the theory that he was more electable. And you see the same thing happening on the Republican side this time. The activist Republicans have a real dislike for Barack Obama. They’re looking around, they want a good conservative, but they also want somebody who can win. And so that very much has been a part of the argument behind Romney’s campaign, that not only is he a good conservative but he’s one that can win. So yes, there is that – sort of that parallel with what happened on the Democratic side in 2004.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. YEPSEN: Yes, sir.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Olivier O’Mahony. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello. I am the U.S. correspondent for Paris Match. Thank you very much for doing this. My question is about Mitt Romney, and I would like to know what the problem is with Mitt Romney. He’s the one with the most impressive organization, the biggest amount of money to fund a very well-constructed campaign, and still he’s not very high in the polls. So, I mean, is it a religion problem or is it more like he seems to be aloof, as a ex-CEO of a private equity firm, to the grassroots electorate. And if he arrives tonight number two and not number first, how could that damage his candidacy, if he does damage it? Thank you very much.
MR. YEPSEN: Well, I think if he does finish in second place, that would damage his campaign but it would not be fatal, because a lot of people don’t really expect him to win. Now, his poll numbers have picked up a lot here in the last couple seeks, and so he has a chance of winning, and I think he would like to do what John Kerry did in 2004, which is to win Iowa, win New Hampshire, and start to roll up the nomination.
Mitt Romney has got a couple problems. Many Republicans think he lacks authenticity. They’re just not sure he’s a strong enough conservative because when he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he said and did things about social issues – gay marriage, abortion – that were different than what he’s saying today. And so there’s a real fear among some conservatives that he’s a fair-weather conservative, that he’s just saying these things now because he wants to get elected.
And so that’s kept him from closing the sale, and it’s also led a lot of Republicans to think he’s a little bit of a phony. And that’s been problem he has to overcome.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. I just want to let everyone know we have time for maybe one or two more questions before we have to wrap this up.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Pierre. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Pierre De Gasquet from Les Echos. Back on the evangelical vote, assuming the evangelical Protestants remain a significant force in Iowa, do you think, as a Mormon, Mitt Romney could have really a problem with this Evangelical and as a social conservative? And also from which moment do you think we have a two candidates race for the Republican nomination?
MR. YEPSEN: I – two-part question. The first is Mitt Romney’s – it’s very – Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith does cause him problems. There are Evangelicals who are not sure that – about his faith. They believe that Mormonism is a cult. Romney has spoken to this. It is very difficult for pollsters and political reporters to analyze it because people don’t come out and say, “Well, I’m religiously biased against somebody.” But it’s there. It rears its head every now and then. But I think it will be more of a problem for him in the deep south than it is here in the northern part of the country, just because some of those passions run a little deeper in the south; some of the Evangelicals are much more – are much stronger in the southern part of the United States.
QUESTION: I see.
MR. YEPSEN: I would expect we’ll have pretty much a two-person race by the South Carolina primary. There will be Romney and a – someone who is positioning themselves as a more conservative alternative running against him. And so I would expect him – and South Carolina would be – is good grounds for that kind of candidate, so I would expect that you’ll have the – you probably will have a two-person race by that time. If not, there will only be about three candidates who have a viable chance of winning the nomination at that point.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
OPERATOR: Our final question is from Anne Walters. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. (Inaudible.)
MR. YEPSEN: I’m sorry, Ann. I can’t hear you very well.
QUESTION: Hold on.
MR. YEPSEN: Yes. That’s better.
QUESTION: Can you hear me now?
MR. YEPSEN: I can hear you now.
QUESTION: Great. I’m with the German press agency DPA, and I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about sort of the role that Iowa plays as compared to the rest of the nation. I know we see every four years commentators from other parts of the country kind of coming out and saying Iowa is not really representative as a nation – of the nation as a whole. Do you think that that’s true? And if so, how do you think that shapes the political race as having Iowa as the first contest rather than some other state?
MR. YEPSEN: A couple thoughts: Iowa is not – does not have the same demographic and racial composition as the rest of the country. It has a relatively small minority population. And that has been one of the criticisms made of Iowa. In defense of Iowa, this is not an election; this is a party event. This is the Republican Party and the Democratic Party having their meetings and casting their votes. And the activists in each party do reflect the activists around the country in each party, and therein makes it an important early test.
Iowa is important because it’s first. It’s not the end, but it’s the beginning. Historically, it has – no major party nominee has gotten that nomination without doing – finishing at least third in Iowa. And the only exception to that was John McCain last time, who finished worse than third but did go on to win the nomination.
So this is – I think you have to look at Iowa not as a farm state in the middle of the country but as a state of activist Republicans who are taking a measure – an early measure of the candidates, and the judgment that they render has an effect on the outcome.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. And I think with that, we have run out of the time we’ve allocated for this. I just would like to take a moment to thank Mr. Yepsen again for taking the time to speak with everyone. And thank you to everyone else on the line for calling in. And one last reminder: The opinions that Mr. Yepsen has discussed today are completely his own and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy. And his presence here is not an endorsement of his opinions.
So thank you once again, and have a great caucus night.
MR. YEPSEN: Thank you.