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The Scene From Iowa As Caucuses Begin


Across the state of Iowa, voters are gathering at caucus sites where they will start making their choices for president just minutes from now. Here at NPR, our political team is also gathering to take us through the evening as the results start coming in. I am joined here in the studio by NPR's Ron Elving and Mara Liasson.

Welcome, you two.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

KELLY: And from Des Moines by NPR's Domenico Montanaro, who's also with us. Hey, Domenico. Domenico, can you hear me? All right. We will circle back to Iowa in a second and get the take from there.

LIASSON: Sounds like a party.

KELLY: It does sound like a party (laughter).

ELVING: Sounds like a caucus.

KELLY: Mara, you kick us off. Because this has been such an unpredictable race, so I'm not going to ask you for any predictions of how this night has gone. But set the stakes here for us. What do each of these candidates have at stake? How do they have to perform to call tonight a triumph or something close to it?

LIASSON: Well, I think Bernie Sanders now has high expectations. He's been leading in the polls. He's been surging. But in some ways, he has the least at stake because he has tremendous amounts of money. He has a grassroots movement. He's not going to get out of the race no matter what happens here. His, you know, existence in the field doesn't depend on a good showing in Iowa. But I do think if he doesn't come in first, it'll be a surprise 'cause I think the conventional wisdom is that he's going to win. Don't forget; he came in within, I think, 0.2%...

ELVING: Point-three.

KELLY: Super close last time.

LIASSON: ...0.3% last time with Hillary - against Hillary Clinton.

I think Joe Biden has a lot at stake. He has never been the kind of establishment front-runner that Hillary Clinton was. I think that in honest moments, his campaign will say he needs to come in a close second. Other times when they're speaking publicly, they'll say, oh, third would be fine. But he is somebody who's - for whom a good showing in Iowa will allow him to continue to raise money, and he really needs it.


LIASSON: He raised the least of the front-runners.

KELLY: Got it. OK. And I am told Domenico Montanaro is with us now from Iowa. Hey, Domenico.


KELLY: Hey. So you have been all over the state, I gather, racking up the miles in your rental car. Would you set the stage? What's it feel like there tonight?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, I think Mara's right when she talks about the Sanders campaign and the energy that's around him. The stakes have really been risen - have really been made pretty high for Senator Sanders. He needs to win tonight. You know, the energy is around him. He had the biggest crowd that we've seen so far with this rock concert two hours from Des Moines in the eastern part of the state in Cedar Rapids.

You know, the only person that kind of came close to that was Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who had about 2,000 people at a high school here in Des Moines. He's expected to do pretty well in the Des Moines area and surrounding parts. And you wonder what that's going to mean for Joe Biden because a lot of those moderate voters - he draws a lot of older voters, too.

You know, Joe Biden - the energy has been kind of lackluster, frankly, here. He's had events that are packed, but they're in smaller venues. The people who are there are mainly 65 and older. They have a strong intensity about them, about the need to get rid of President Trump.

KELLY: Right.

MONTANARO: But quite frankly, his ending campaign event was not the same as some of the other candidates.

KELLY: Just real quick, Domenico, are all the candidates there in Iowa now? Because several of them were at the Senate impeachment trial, they had to fly across the country.

MONTANARO: I mean, they have been here...

KELLY: Yes, yes.

MONTANARO: ...For sure, over the last couple of days. I'm not exactly sure of all of their whereabouts at this point. But, you know, we know that Bernie Sanders, in fact, is going to be holding events at the airport so that he can get on a plane if he needs to return.

KELLY: Wow, OK. Ron Elving, it is not just the Democrats' night tonight. There are Republican caucuses. President Trump has a couple of challengers, but safe to say he's looking pretty good?

ELVING: Yes, and there will be some people, perhaps, for uncommitted, which might be an option that would appeal to people if they're disturbed by some of what's been coming out in the impeachment trial and what have you. But as a rule, the Republican Party was united behind Donald Trump and rallying around him before impeachment and during impeachment. And at this point, there's no reason to think that that's going to change, at least not in the foreseeable future. So we expect that this will be pretty much a Democratic show. And the Republicans are going through the motions, and the turnout will probably be quite minimal.

KELLY: All right. I want to skip back to Iowa. We're going to be going back-and-forth all night between Iowa and the studios here in D.C. And I'm going back to Iowa because NPR's Don Gonyea is at a caucus site where things are beginning to warm up. People are starting to arrive there. Where are you exactly, Don?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: So I'm in Des Moines. It's Precinct 11 in Des Moines. We're in what looks like the old cafeteria of a former junior high school, former Franklin Junior High School. And, Mary Louise, four years ago in this precinct, they had 222 people show up to caucus. This year, they expected more turnout. They put 300 chairs out. But I can tell you, sitting here in the back of the room, every single chair is full. There are people standing on the sides of the room, and there's still a line going out the door - people coming in to check in or even to register for the first time. And they can't get things going until everybody who's in line at 7 o'clock, five minutes from now, the official start time - they won't start until everybody who's in line at that time gets checked in and registered.

KELLY: And what kind of people are there? Who's in the line, because there's been a lot of questions about, will young voters come out? Will older voters come out? And how might that sway what happens tonight?

GONYEA: So we have a real mix of people here. Now, this is an urban area. We're in a neighborhood in Des Moines. It's the Beaverdale neighborhood. So this looks like as, you know, as diverse of a crowd both in age and, you know, and in other aspects as I have seen running around the state all this week. But again, we're in the big urban area. And here's the thing. People - you can feel the buzz in the room. People just seem so ready to finally, like, cast a vote, and not just cast a vote - you know, to announce their preference, but to make a statement - to make a statement.

KELLY: So tell me, as somebody who's spent much of the last year in Iowa, something surprising that someone said to you today, where you thought, I hadn't thought about it that way.

GONYEA: Well, you know what it is? There has been so much anxiety this time. It's not that they're just picking their favorite candidate and going with it, 'cause that's what you get to do when you're first in line, you know?

KELLY: Yeah.

GONYEA: They're running the numbers, and they're waiting to see, like, which one can beat Trump 'cause beating Trump is the most important thing. A lot of them are still undecided. A lot of them are undecided still today right now. But the clock is ticking down, and they have to put a name on a card and stand with their group...

KELLY: Right.

GONYEA: ...You know, within the next two hours.

KELLY: OK. My thanks to Don Gonyea, and also Domenico Montanaro in Iowa. I want to bring in NPR's Sarah McCammon, who is here in the studio with me and who will be joining me to co-host our Special Coverage at the top of the hour. I'm so grateful you will be here because you know way more about Iowa politics than I do. Your quick take on what you're watching for tonight?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, I spent time at Iowa Public Radio as a reporter before I came to the network. I was in Iowa in Des Moines four years ago and eight years ago for the caucuses. And, you know, I'm just thinking tonight about how much we'll learn and not learn tonight. I mean, I covered primarily the Republican race last time. And you may remember Texas Senator Ted Cruz won. We were - there was still a lot of questions about whether or not Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination. And also, remember; in Iowa, Jeb Bush sort of fell down to the bottom of the pecking order. So we'll see.

KELLY: OK. Who knows how tonight will go? NPR's Sarah McCammon, who will be with me at the top of the hour for our Special Coverage. Thanks also to Ron Elving and Mara Liasson, who are here in the studio with me. This whole team and a whole lot of others from the NPR Politics squad are going to take us through the next several hours. Special Coverage of the Iowa caucuses is just coming up.

I'm Mary Louise Kelly. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.