Iowa's Results Snafu Is A Backdrop To Trump's State Of The Union

Feb 5, 2020
Originally published on February 5, 2020 10:04 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Technical problems delayed the outcome of the Iowa caucuses by a day, but most precincts have now reported. For the moment, Pete Buttigieg seems to be emerging as a winner on delegate counts. He has a narrow lead over Bernie Sanders. During all of this, President Trump gave his State of the Union address last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2020 STATE OF THE UNION)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago. And we are never, ever going back.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with me now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: How would you characterize the State of the Union address?

LIASSON: I thought that the president was very confident. He gave a triumphant campaign-style speech. It was almost as if he was in a toned-down version of a MAGA rally. I thought it was one of the most partisan State of the Union speeches I've ever heard. And the crowd was the most partisan, from the refuse - when he refused the outstretched hand of Nancy Pelosi - didn't want to shake her hand in the beginning, to Nancy Pelosi ripping up a copy of his speech when it was over.

It was a very, very partisan speech. He had a campaign message. The first part was the economy has never been better in the entire U.S. history. And also, he had a whole bunch of base-energizing, cultural issues that he focused on, whether it was school prayer, school vouchers, the wall, immigration, abortion. He gave a presidential medal to talk show host Rush Limbaugh. And the president has reason to feel confident because Gallup just showed him with his highest approval rating ever, 49%. And the day before, the Democrats had managed to mess up, to say the least, the Iowa caucuses.

KING: OK. So he's making an optimistic case for reelection. In the meantime, Mara, in Iowa, we now have 71% of precincts reporting. Pete Buttigieg has a tight lead over Bernie Sanders. Both of them kind of declared victory from Iowa. Let me play that for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: I'm very proud to tell you that last night in Iowa, we received more votes on the first and second rounds than any other candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: A campaign, that some said, should have no business even making this attempt, has taken its place at the front of this race, to replace the current president with a better vision for the future.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

KING: OK. That was Sanders and Buttigieg. And then Elizabeth Warren right now for the moment looks as if she's come in third. What does it mean for the candidates who are now at the top, in that top three?

LIASSON: Well, I think that for those candidates, they all get some bragging rights. Pete Buttigieg was not leading in the polls; it now looks like he's going to end up with the highest number of delegates. Bernie Sanders won what you could call the popular vote. So he has some bragging rights. Bernie Sanders didn't get the turnout surge that he had promised, and he had said he could bring a lot of new people into the party. It turns out that almost the same number of Democrats voted as did in 2016 - not the really high mark of 2008. And Elizabeth Warren, who had been slipping in the polls, is still in the hunt. So she gets some bragging rights, too. So it's a muddled outcome for the top tier.

KING: And then there's the second-to-top tier. And Joe Biden ended up in that. He appears to have landed in fourth. What does - what does coming in fourth mean for his candidacy at this point?

LIASSON: This is a very disappointing finish for Joe Biden. He didn't even surpass the low expectations that his campaign had laid out publicly. They had said he needed to place third. But other Biden supporters had said he really needed to place a close second. He goes on to New Hampshire, where he hasn't spent a lot of time or money campaigning. New Hampshire really is Bernie Sanders' territory. He's from a neighboring state of Vermont, and he won the New Hampshire primary last time over Hillary Clinton by a huge margin - curvature of the Earth. And Biden is in the position where right now he has to hope that his South Carolina firewall - the first state with a lot of African-American voters - holds up for him.

KING: As Biden stumbles, this creates an opening for Mike Bloomberg, doesn't it?

LIASSON: It absolutely does. The whole rationale for Bloomberg getting in is that he thought that Biden was a weak front-runner and the left-wing candidates, he felt, were not going to beat Donald Trump. So Bloomberg, who has spent almost $300 million on TV ads, gotten himself into low double-digits in the polls, is waiting for the first four primaries to be over. And he's going to be a big competitor in the Super Tuesday states. He announced that he was going to hire 2,000 more staffers, double his ad buy or at least increase it by a lot. And last night, he gave a big rally in Philadelphia, and here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I think the results from Iowa underscore that we need a candidate who can build a coalition broad enough to unite the party and strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and beat him.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: You know, if you add up the votes of the centrist candidates - Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar - they are more than the votes that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders got. The big question is, who will consolidate that center-left lane? Biden looks very weak, and Bloomberg is hoping that he is the guy who can do that.

KING: OK. Winning Iowa is generally supposed to give candidates kind of a bounce as they head into the next primary in New Hampshire. With this mess that happened, does that deny candidates a kind of momentum?

LIASSON: Yeah. Momentum is perception. Remember Iowa only has 41 delegates. That's not the prize in Iowa. The prize is bragging rights, perception of being a front-runner, media attention and because of the chaos around the counting, that momentum was really undermined. And of course, it gave a lot of fuel to those people who think that the Iowa caucuses is a really bad way to start the Democratic nominating process. And I think that Iowa is really under fire again. The Boston Globe had a editorial today that said Iowa and New Hampshire should no longer be the first two states. They're not representative of the Democratic electorate. They're too old, too white. And it looks now like Iowa can't even count its own votes.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.