Wake Up To Politics - February 1, 2016 - Special Report
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Monday, February 1, 2016I'm Gabe Fleisher for Wake Up To Politics, and reporting from WUTP world HQ in my bedroom - Good morning: THIS IS YOUR WAKE UP CALL!!!
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- Caucus Day After months of speeches, debates, and polls, the first votes of the 2016 election will finally be cast tonight. At 7pm Central Time, across Iowa, caucus meetings will begin – and by the end of the night, the winner of 2016’s first contest should be announced.
- Turnout will be key in Iowa, with larger turnout benefiting upstart candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The final Iowa poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register’s legendary Ann Selzer, was released Saturday.
- The poll, known for its accurate predictions, showed Trump leading the GOP field with 28% of the vote, Ted Cruz at 23%, and Marco Rubio at 15%. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton led with 45%. Sanders was close behind at 42%.
In honor of Caucus Day, Wake Up To Politics presents this Special Report from the seventh Republican debate last Thursday:
The first time I entered a debate Spin Room was in October 2012. The debate had been between Sen. Claire McCaskill and her Republican challenger, Rep. Todd Akin, and the chaotic race had received national attention for Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”. After the debate, a small group of reporters from across the state gathered in the Spin Room to question the candidates. Although the contest had been very unpredictable, the Spin Room was a carefully orchestrated affair. The campaigns had agreed beforehand who would come out first, how much time they would have, and then who would follow. I was able to ask questions of both campaigns, as were most of the journalists there. In fact, only controversy arose: one of the candidates didn’t show up. Opting to instead go home with his family, Congressman Akin sent spokesman Rick Tyler to answer questions in his place, causing a furor among the press.
Last week – nearly four years later – I was back in a Spin Room. This time, the setting was much grander but much less controlled. Once again, I was questioning Rick Tyler, this time in his capacity as Communications Director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Tyler was telling me he had a $20 that presidential frontrunner Donald Trump would, indeed, show up for the Republican debate later that night, despite Trump’s threats to boycott. “I don’t think Donald Trump can resist tens of millions of people watching a show [without him] when he has an opportunity to be [in it],” Tyler told me. “I can't imagine he’s going to forgo that.”
Tyler, a seasoned political operative (who said he remembered me, and the controversy he caused in the Missouri Spin Room well), was wrong: Trump did not show up for the Des Moines, Iowa debate airing on Fox News that night. But I did.
For the second time in three months, a parent and I drove up to Des Moines – currently the political capital of the world (until later tonight, at least) – to attend a presidential primary debate Thursday. In both trips, I watched the debate from the Press File as a credentialed member of the media and then participated in the Spin Room activities afterwards. Both experiences shared similarities, but were also largely different.
One of the things that was clear about the Republican Press File and Spin Room was that it was grander – while the Democratic Press File had been in a gymnasium, this was more of a fancier setting. Instead of cookies and chips, a real meal was provided for reporters at the Republican debate.
Both Press Files were fairly high-tech, since it is apparently a requirement now for debates to have a high-tech sponsor. At the Democratic debate in Des Moines, Twitter co-sponsored. This time, Google was partnering with Fox News.
A Google spokesperson described the partnership as an attempt to “bring together the political acumen these networks bring with the technological innovation of a place like Google,” which was evident Thursday, with large screens showing political search trends.
Simon Rogers, a Data Editor at Google, described the search trends as his “baby,” explaining that they were tracking the real-time data for the first time – and indeed, the press file was surrounded by screens updating every four minutes to show the search interest in each candidate, across the country and in the early states. But why does it matter who people are searching for, I asked Simon. Is there a connection with that and how they vote for?
“We don’t really know,” Simon told me, although he did cite studies in foreign elections where polls showed a much closer race than search data indicated, and the latter ended up being right. “There’s definitely something there, because it’s this kind of unconscious search interest in stuff that people care about,” he said. “There's a really interesting relationship there that we're starting to explore.”
I checked in at the Google Trends station of the Press File later, and if Simon is to be believed, they spell good luck for Donald Trump tonight: the businessman (who did not even attend the debate) led in Iowa search queries among his GOP rivals in all but one four-minute interval over the course of the two-hour debate. He was briefly overtaken by Marco Rubio at about 9:30pm, perhaps indicating an unexpected breakout for the Florida senator in the caucuses.
In addition to the real-time Trends, Google was also launching an experimental Search feature Thursday. As Rami Banna, a Product Manager at Google Search, explained it, the new feature allows candidates to reach people who are searching for them with their own content.
Along with organic web results, a search for “jeb bush” or “marco rubio” during the debate would also yield “content generated absolutely and directly from that campaigns right in their results: content that includes images, and videos, and long text [up] to 14,400 characters, whatever they want, entirely up to their team,” Rami said. And, a search for “fox news debate” would show “different cards from the different campaigns…combined into one reel, meaning there will be a shadow, online debate that's happening on Google Search at the same time,” he explained.
Then, he walked me over to the Google station, where we conducted a demo right there. Rami took a picture of me and another Google employee on his iPad. Then, he opened the app Google created for the campaigns to use in this experimental feature, attached our video, and clocked “publish”.
He then clicked over to the Google Search page on the screen, and within seconds, our photo had appeared in a card like the campaigns were publishing, under the search query “Arnold Vinick”.
Why Arnold Vinick? He was the Republican presidential nominee in Seasons 6 and 7 of “The West Wing,” the longtime NBC political drama. “I think we are all [West Wing fans],” Rami told me. “It's hard to dispute Season 6. I think that was the season of all seasons…We’re at a Republican debate after all, so I felt Arnold Vinick was the appropriate one to do.”
As the debate drew nearer, I continued to chat with reporters and Google employees, meeting as many people as I could in the time. There was certainly a “clubby” feeling to the room, as many of the journalists knew each other well. Having been to the Democratic debate, I had gotten to know some of them myself, and it was interesting to talk about the election with those who had also been covering it.
Soon, I took my seat in the back of the room: at this debate, unlike the Democrats, Press File seats were assigned, and I was way in the back, with the blogs and foreign-language publications (speaking in rapid-fire Spanish that my two years of schooling in the language could not discern).
During the debates (the undercard and main events), the Press File mostly stays silent. Much of the room is tweeting or keeping notes for stories they will file later, although noises do slip out occasionally. Funny lines (intentional or not) by the candidates often caused soft laughter among the reporters, while some of the tougher lines brought “ooos”. Questions from three YouTube stars were also the fodder of jokes, with one reporter expressing disbelief that “Ducle Candy” could be the real name of one of the questioners, and others mocking Jeb Bush for referring to the social media site as “the YouTube”.
Watching a debate in a media filing center and watching at home are roughly the same experience – except for debate WiFi was far slower. Why, then did so many reporters come? Afterwards, most of them headed to the Spin Room, our real opportunity to talk to candidates and their representatives. Unlike the Democratic debate, where the Spin Room and Press File were housed in separate buildings, the two areas were adjacent at the Republican debate. However, part of the room next to the Press File was gated off, which we were told would be where the candidates would answer questions.
This was intended to give little more order to the Spin Room, as candidates or their surrogates were to walk up and down the aisle, answering questions as they went. Of the campaigns, only Rand Paul really honored that. Most of them stayed in one place, as reporters jockeying for places around them on the other side of the gate. After the undercard debate, three of the participating candidates (Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santourm) braved the Spin Room, although they all ended up answering questions on the more open side of the gate.
One of the most interesting parts of the Spin Room was after the undercard. Of course, I was familiar with all the candidates, but remained doubtful about their chances. Up close, each one delivered an impassioned case as to why they still had a chance in Iowa, and at the nomination.
Santorum and Huckabee gave similar answers, with the former comparing reports to “lemmings, run around saying ‘look at this poll, look at this poll’” and criticizing TV networks for “segregating the field” into two debates before any votes had been cast. “I love FOX,” Huckabee said, speaking to one of their reporters, “but you give me as much helium in my balloon as you give Donald Trump over the last year, I’d be leading in the polls.” Santorum and Huckabee, both past Iowa caucus winners, seemed so confident in their impending victory.
“Well, I think we surprise you guys on Monday night. I did eight years ago, Rick Santorum did four years ago, we’ll do it Monday,” Huckabee said. Santorum, meanwhile, went so far as to talk about his re-election as President, saying, “I intend to come back to Iowa four years from now and run for re-election.”
“We expect to do exceptionally well. We expect to surprise people here on Monday. We absolutely feel some momentum out there, and I think we're going to jump ahead. How far? We'll wait and see,” Santorum said. “Wait 'till Monday,” he kept repeating.
After their debate, Santorum and Huckabee both skipped out to attend Donald Trump’s veterans event, which he was holding in protest of the main debate. Both defended their decision to go to the Trump event during the primetime debate – where many reporters joined them – the same way: saying they had “nothing else going on at 8:00 tonight,” so why not “go over there and support the veterans”.
The Spin Room was mostly full for the undercard candidates, although in time, the crowds around each campaign thinned, as reporters readied to watch the main debate. Three of the top-tier candidates went to the Spin Room after the debate plus Jim Gilmore came back (he ended up spinning for longer than any other candidate, not letting his 0% polling support get in the way).
I decided to ask the same question I had asked Martin O’Malley at the Democratic debate to all the campaigns: “Why will you (or your candidate) be the best President for young Americans?” I knew I didn’t want to ask a process question (Do you think you won the debate? Will you win Iowa? What’s your message to Donald Trump?), like most of the Spin Room questions are, and I also wanted to represent young people and touch on issues facing my generation, while not asking an outright policy question the candidates would have rehearsed for.
My question allowed me to represent my generation, while also asking a question they were unprepared for. It’s a question that doesn’t get asked on the campaign trail or in interviews or debates, so they didn’t have an answer ready, and the answers candidates gave allowed me to sort between those who could talk about student loans and economic preparedness on their feet, and who could only think to talk about being a parent as if that makes you a better President.
Most of the candidates/surrogates stumbled at the beginning of their response. “For young people?” many asked, after a few seconds – some not until they had launched into their rehearsed answer for why they would be the best President in general, but then remembering the question.
One surrogate, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), co-chair of Jeb Bush’s Illinois campaign, and one of Bush’s earliest and strongest supporters. Kinzinger, who has spent the past days earnestly campaigning for Bush in Iowa, didn’t mention anything with young people in his answer, instead explaining how Bush “understands what it means to be Commander-in-Chief”.
Meanwhile, Gov. Huckabee brushed off the question. “For young Americans? Because I've got five grandchildren who are younger than you. I'm fighting for them. If I win for them, you're going to be fine,” he told me.
Marco Rubio’s Communications Director, Alex Conant, also gave a short answer: “This whole campaign is about the future and about what the future will be for young Americans,” Conant said. “It's a generational choice. That's why he's running for President.”
Many campaigns did jump first to their children or grandchildren, such as Rand Paul, who said: “I've got three teenage boys and I hear young Americans all the time telling me what we should do.” Paul, however, continued. “I think that government ought to leave you alone, I think we're piling on too much debt, and that the debt's going to be handed to you, the next generation, and I don't think that's fair, frankly…I want a government that leaves you alone but I want a government that leaves you with economic opportunities so that when you get out of college you can get a good job,” he said.
Mike DuHaime, senior strategist for Chris Christie, said Christie is “somebody who really understands it”. DuHaime also said Christie “deals with what young people face in terms of finding jobs in the marketplace and understanding the skills people need to have a successful life,” because of his children. “He’s somebody who lives it,” DuHaime said. “He's a good Dad, and he…sees through the eyes of his kids, and he really understands it in a real way.”
Many candidates also touched on their careers working with young people as proof of their credentials to represent them as President. When I asked Ben Carson my question, he answered, “Primarily because my entire professional career surrounded trying to give young people a second chance at life”. Carson, continued, in an attempt to discuss policy, but ended up delivering a very disjointed answer. “I’m the one really spends the time talking about the economic situation. You don't hear anyone else talking about the fiscal gap, and how that's going to affect the next generation,” Carson said. But, in terms of quality of life, you know, it is imperative that we begin to talk about these issues.”
Famed Pennsylvania GOP strategist Charlie Gerow, co-chairman of Carly Fiorina’s campaign, also relied on Fiorina’s professional story. “If you have watched Carly’s career, she's a story about unlocking human potential, and that's what most young Americans really want: the opportunity to fully display their potential, and that's what Carly Fiorina's been about all her life, and that's the kind of President she'll be,” Gerow told me.
Cruz’s Rick Tyler spent some time talking about how Cruz is “looking to create growth, prosperity, and freedom, and our country depends on those things for the next generation.” Saying that Cruz’s rivals want “less cool stuff” in the country, Tyler went into detail about Cruz as a “big fan of movies [and] video games,” explain that Cruz is over level 700 in Candy Crush, loves Plants vs. Zombies2, and expressed marvel at how Cruz is “always pulling up movies on his iPhone...he can find them in two seconds.”
In the end, the most substantive answers came from two of the undercard candidates. Santorum told me if he is President, “we’re going to create jobs and economic opportunities, we're going to have stronger families so kids will have the opportunity to be raised in homes and in neighborhoods where there's healthy families and dads participates in their lives.” Santorum said that those issues are “going to be one of the big focal points of my campaign and my presidency.”
Finally, Jim Gilmore touched on real issues, as well. “I believe in education,” Gilmore said. “I believe that, most importantly, young people are not getting the opportunities coming out of college that they deserve, they're not getting career opportunities because of a lousy economy, and I have a plan to build up this economy, create more jobs, higher wages, but most importantly, career opportunities for young people.”
The spinning went on for hours after that, but the real message of the day was this race was now essentially a waiting game. “Wait ‘till Monday,” candidates kept saying. Now that caucus day is upon us, all we can do is wait.
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For more on Wake Up To Politics, listen to Gabe on NPR's "Talk of the Nation, the Political Junkie podcast, and St. Louis Public Radio; watch Gabe on MSNBC's "Up with Steve Kornacki, and read about Gabe in Politico, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Globe, and the St. Louis Jewish Light