NPR logo

Embedded In Des Moines: A 'Times' Reporter's Year Covering The '16 Campaign

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/464558681/464586682" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Embedded In Des Moines: A 'Times' Reporter's Year Covering The '16 Campaign

Elections

Embedded In Des Moines: A 'Times' Reporter's Year Covering The '16 Campaign

Embedded In Des Moines: A 'Times' Reporter's Year Covering The '16 Campaign

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/464558681/464586682" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

New York Times political reporter Trip Gabriel has spent the past year in Iowa, covering the political operations, speeches and rallies leading up to the first vote of the presidential campaign.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump's announcement yesterday that he would not participate in tomorrow's Republican debate, hosted by Fox News, is one of the many surprising twists in the lead-up to Monday's Iowa caucuses. A lot of reporters have flown into Iowa to cover the campaign, but my guest, Trip Gabriel, is one of the few national reporters who have been based there for the past year. Gabriel is a political correspondent for The New York Times who spent 12 years as an editor overseeing the Sunday and Thursday Style sections. He has been a political reporter at the Times since 2011. In 2012 he covered the presidential race, reporting on the campaigns of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. We're going to talk about Iowa's unique place in presidential elections and some of the more unusual developments in this year's race. Trip Gabriel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did The New York Times create an embed position in Iowa, and why is it you?

TRIP GABRIEL: Well, I'll answer the second part first, Terry. About a year ago, my editor - the political editor of the Times, Carolyn Ryan, came to me and said, you seem a little Midwestern, why don't you move to Iowa for the year. And I was a little skeptical about the assignment. I think a lot of folks have - who are in and outside of politics or just reading about politics or participate in politics have mixed feelings about the prominence that Iowa has in the national nominating process. And I had those same skepticisms. You know, in retrospect I think it's turned out to be a very successful assignment. And because Iowa is the first nominating state, the first state that gets to actually record the votes of Democrats and Republicans, an awful lot of pre-lift off activity takes place in the state, and it just seems to get longer and longer. So being here for a year has been a great advantage in terms of, you know, gaining sources in the state. I covered the race here in 2011 four years ago. But like everyone else in the national press corps, I kind of parachuted in when a candidate came here and then left, you know, after two or three days and ended up probably calling the same handful of sources that most national journalists call. But being here for 12 months has been immersive and informative, and I think that we've gotten a much deeper range of coverage than if we had done it the traditional way.

GROSS: What's an example of a story that you think you got only by virtue of being kind of embedded in Iowa for the past year that you wouldn't have gotten if you were flying in and out to cover a specific event or just following one candidate?

GABRIEL: Well, there are several that come to mind. I mean, maybe the one that, you know, got the most kind of attention was just kind of a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the kind of the field effort, the ground game that Donald Trump has invested in Iowa. From the get-go Trump has been such an unconventional candidate. And, you know, there were - at every moment there have been questions about, does he take it seriously? Is he actually going to run? Is he going to release his financial disclosures? Is this another play to get publicity for his business ventures? So one of the things you have to do in Iowa to take it seriously here is to, you know, have a real field staff. It's a caucus state. It's not a primary state. And that requires candidates to develop, you know, what we call a ground game. So there were a lot of questions about how serious Trump was about that. And a lot of the early reports indicated - because he hired a state director who had a lot of experience doing this, and he actually hired about a dozen people or 10 or 12 people who are being paid - so the early reports were that the Trump ground game was very serious. You know, by dint of being here, I got to meet a lot of people that were involved in that. And I got to meet a lot of the volunteers that were being recruited or attempted to be recruited. You know, I had a couple of article - a series of articles - that raised some, you know, some questions about just how serious that effort was, and in fact ended up presenting a more skeptical picture of it than other reporters had had.

GROSS: Well, yeah, you wrote basically that he didn't have much of a ground game, that the staff was really small in Iowa. And soon after that, you were basically not allowed in to a Trump event. You were told that it was a private event, it wasn't open to the press. But you noticed that there were about 20 other journalists inside even though you were not allowed in. So what happened exactly?

GABRIEL: Well, you know, the Trump campaign has not been especially cooperative with my efforts here. But on my own I called half a dozen of what - you know, kind of super-volunteers, folks called precinct captains, who are in charge of, you know, recruiting Trump supporters to commit to caucus for him on Feb. 1, next Monday. And, you know, the strong impression I had from actually finding out what these folks were doing is that they just - they weren't doing much. They seemed to be sort of lacking a leadership from the paid Trump staff. The campaign was committing some basic errors of organizing in terms of the kind of people they called. One of the guys I spoke to was, you know, you just - you go down a list of potential voters that the campaign supplies, and they literally supply volunteers like this with a script. And this gentleman's script encouraged people to come out and vote, but he wasn't asked to determine ahead of time that that was actually a Trump supporter. So one of the most fundamental kind of mistakes of getting out the vote is if you turn out supporters for another candidate. So this guy said, well, I've gotten a dozen people who say they're going to come to the caucuses, but I don't know whether they're going to support Donald Trump or not. There were a series of flaws in the operation that turned up in the story I wrote.

GROSS: So you published this in the Times and then soon after went to a Trump event, and you weren't allowed in. You were told it was a private event, not open to journalists. But looking into the room, you could see about 20 other journalists there. So do you think this was payback for the article?

GABRIEL: It did suggest that. It was at a Pizza Ranch. They told the other 15 to 20 journalists where it was going to be. Actually, they put them in a van and drove them from an earlier Trump rally to this Pizza Ranch restaurant, and they hadn't told me but I determined where it was, I guessed where it was. I walked in the door, I went through the Secret Service screening. I was there about 60 seconds, and I was told to leave and escorted out by a police officer following the directions of a campaign staff member. You know, in fairness, the campaign state director texted me when I asked and said, oh, I didn't even know you were there. But I was indeed the only reporter that was asked to leave.

GROSS: So you wrote about that, not in the Times's hard copy, not in the actual newspaper, but on the website. What kind of response did you get to that?

GABRIEL: My first instinct was not to write about it. I just called my editor and said, hey, guess what happened? I just got kicked out (laughter) - kicked out of an event. And he said, oh, you've got to write about it. So I did. And it appeared online as part of our, you know, kind of politics blog. A lot of the journalists that cover journalism at the other major outlets picked it up and it got a fair amount of response.

GROSS: And how did that affect your relationship with the Trump team and your ability to get into events or to talk Trump himself?

GABRIEL: Well, it hasn't improved things but, you know, I have been able to get press credentials to go to Trump out rallies. They haven't continued to exclude me. The folks who run the campaign don't return my calls, but they had stopped returning my calls a while ago perhaps because of other coverage. And they basically stopped returning the calls of most journalists. I mean, the ground game operation by Trump here, which, you know, on further examination I think is stronger than it appeared to be earlier this month, but unlike many other candidate's campaigns, the Trump folks have sort of dropped a portcullis gate down and are very shy about - or just wary or just closed about disclosing any details.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about those nuts and bolts. What makes the nuts and bolts about getting out the vote in Iowa different from states that have primaries as opposed to caucuses?

GABRIEL: Well, the first thing to understand is that a caucus is just very different from a primary. I mean, if it's primary day in your state, you can drop by the polls, you know, at any point for just a few minutes over, you know, a 12 or a 14-hour period. A caucus requires people to come at a given hour. It happens to be 7 p.m. on a cold winter night - February 1 - in Iowa. It's about a two-hour process. It can go on even longer than that. The Democrats in particular have a more complicated process than the Republicans. And historically, far fewer registered voters turn out to caucus. It tends to be the most partisan folks and they don't just walk in the door on their own - some do, but many of them need to be activated and motivated. And campaigns in Iowa have developed, you know, elaborate operations to get out these voters.

GROSS: And you could see what the odds are. You're talking about Iowa, where chances are, it's going to be cold, maybe snowy, maybe icy. It's at night. Most people don't want to go out on a cold winter's night. Especially if you're an older person, you're less likely to want to do it, or if you're a young parent and you just got home from work. Your kid or kids are at home, less likely to want to go out. So what are the approaches some of the candidates are taking to make sure that, you know, voters are delivered to the caucuses?

GABRIEL: Well, the most fundamental way, is just, you know, lots of voter contacts. I mean, it really astounds me when I go to the campaign rallies around Iowa. All the time, people will tell you - and they've lived here all their life - they've never gone to a caucus. Turnout is about 20 percent of registered voters in both parties, and the mechanism, just how it's done is kind of obscure and mysterious to a lot of people. It's not entirely mysterious. What campaigns fundamentally do is, they want to identify who their supporters are - very old-fashioned ways of doing that by making telephone calls and by knocking on people's doors. And then once they've - and they give, you know, individuals numbers - one, two, three, four - depending on how strong you are leaning toward their candidate and then they have many other, kind of, follow-ups with that. They'll try to arrange rides for people if they don't have their own transportation. The Sanders campaign, which has a - Bernie Sanders's campaign has a particular kind of challenge that a lot of their supporters are younger and live in university towns, and they're encouraging these folks to go home to the local towns in Iowa where they actually live to caucus there. If you have a great deal of supporters, let's say at the University of Iowa, you know, 500 people might turn out for Bernie Sanders but they would only count - in terms of delegates - they might only count the same as if 50 people turned up for Bernie Sanders. So a campaign like that wants to distribute its supporters all around the state to win delegates - you know, have a chance to win more delegates overall.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trip Gabriel. He's a New York Times political correspondent who's been based in Iowa for the past year covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more about the Iowa caucuses. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times political correspondent Trip Gabriel. He has been based in Iowa for the past year where he's been covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. So many people are just mystified not only about how the caucuses actually work but why Iowa, who has such an obscure method of voting and is a state that's not really representative of the larger multicultural population in America, carries so much weight in the election. Having lived and covered Iowa politics for the past year, what do you have to say about that, about the amount of weight carried by the Iowa caucuses?

GABRIEL: Well, it's absolutely the first thing that everybody asks me, whether I'm in-state or out-of-state. You know, when I go back to New York, you know, people say, why the heck do we care so much about Iowa? And when I'm in Iowa, you know, Iowans always say, what do you think about the idea that we're going first? And, you know, there's always a defensiveness in their voice. They're very proud in Iowa. And they do defend their right to go first very aggressively. They love the attention. They like the money that's spent by candidates and media and everyone else that kind of floods the place. I have really mixed feelings about it. There's no question that Iowa is not demographically representative. I mean, it's got a very largely white population, fewer foreign-born people in Iowa than elsewhere. You know, it's first because of a historical sort of anomaly. But, you know, on the plus side, it is a rural state. It is not expensive to campaign here. So it does give an equal playing field or a level playing field to the kind of candidates that don't have a lot of money and might not have a lot of name recognition. And the first two to come to mind are Jimmy Carter, who won the caucuses here, and Barack Obama, who did the same.

GROSS: Now, because of the way that the caucuses work, you've said that Martin O'Malley might have a surprising role in the caucuses - not necessarily the role he'd like to have. So what do you envision as a possibility for the role he'll play?

GABRIEL: Well, right now the polls are showing, you know, almost a neck-and-neck race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and O'Malley has about 5 percent in the polls of support. But, you know, because of the - the Democratic rules require, in each individual precinct, a candidate's supporters has to have about 15 percent of the people in the room, and it's unlikely that in most precincts Martin O'Malley's supporters will equal 15 percent. And then what happens to those folks is - his supporters are declared nonviable, and then they have a chance to realign with either the Clinton supporters or the Sanders supporters. And there is a very kind of emotional and chaotic scene that often takes place in which those two other viable groups try to woo the O'Malley supporters into their corner of the room. And they literally separate into, you know, different parts of a given room, and then they recount them. So if either Sanders or Clinton is able to win the majority of these O'Malley supporters in the right precincts, it could make a significant difference.

GROSS: What is the historical anomaly that created the Iowa caucuses as the first event in the primaries?

GABRIEL: Well, Iowa has had caucuses since it, you know, achieved statehood back in the 19th century. In the early '70s, the - kind of the powers to be in both parties moved their caucuses ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which had always gone first. And so they moved them up to January. It was an attempt to attract, you know, more attention to the state. And, you know, the first time - the first - I think it was 1972 was the first cycle. Nobody paid a whole lot of attention. But four years later, Jimmy Carter came out to Iowa, and he traveled all over, and no one really knew who this governor from Georgia was. He ended up, you know, surprising everyone by doing very well in the caucuses in '76. And that just kind of set - and obviously went on to win the nomination and the presidency. And that established the pattern that, you know, both parties' candidates would come here, spend a lot of time early and invest a lot of energy into Iowa as a way to kind of gain media attention going forward. And it's worked repeatedly for lots of different candidates. Go back to, you know, Barack Obama being a great example.

GROSS: So Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. Rick Santorum won in 2012. They did not win the Republican primary. So how important really is the outcome in Iowa?

GABRIEL: There is no guarantee, particularly on the Republican side, that winning the caucuses here, you know, is going to set you up to be the nominee. In fact, the results on the Republican side have been fewer Iowa caucus winners have gone on to win the nomination, far fewer in the last - in kind of modern history. How important is it? It's extremely important this year for sort of different set of reasons. It's not just the Evangelical conservative vote that's going to drive the winner this year the way it did when Huckabee and Santorum won. If Donald Trump wins Iowa, he will have proven that he can get essentially a lot of low-propensity voters to come out and caucus for him. It's a very byzantine process. He will - if he succeeds in doing that, and he wins, he's going to be very well set up to win in the subsequent states. If he can motivate his voters to come out and caucus, it's going to be a lot easier to motivate them to come to a primary in New Hampshire or South Carolina or the southern states that follow on March 1, the Super Tuesday states. A lot of Republicans are going to - you know, are predicting that that will be the start of Trump running the table. On the other hand, if Ted Cruz, who's neck-and-neck in the polls right now with Trump, you know, comes out ahead of him, it could be a very significant blow to Trump, whose brand is that, I'm a winner, you know, I hate losers, I'm a winner. And if he's, you know, nicked here as, you know, a loser, a second-place finisher in other words, that could put a significant dent into his prospects in New Hampshire and going forward. So once again, it's not exactly, you know, who comes in first, who comes in second. It's how you perform in relation to expectations. And this year for, you know, various reasons - it's a little different from the last two cycles on the Republican side - I think it's going to be much more significant than it has been in the past.

GROSS: When you first got to Iowa about a year ago, would you have predicted that Cruz and Trump would emerge as the front-runners in the Republican party?

GABRIEL: I absolutely would not. And fortunately nobody else would've, at least for my own, kind of, self-respect. Now, there's been a tremendous upheaval, earthquake - choose your own metaphor. A year ago, you know, the presumptive nominee on the Republican side was Jeb Bush, maybe Scott Walker, who took an early lead here in Iowa. And, you know, for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton was headed toward a coronation. She was 50 points ahead of Bernie Sanders in polls in April. So we've ended up with much more competitive races and seen a huge surge by anti-establishment outsider candidates in both parties.

GROSS: My guest is Trip Gabriel, a political reporter for The New York Times. He has been based in Iowa for the past year covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. We'll talk about what front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have been doing to win over Evangelical voters after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Trip Gabriel, a political reporter for The New York Times who's been based in Iowa for the past year covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. Front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been trying to win over evangelical voters. Cruz has received the support of many evangelical leaders in Iowa, and yesterday Trump got the endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University in Virginia and the son of its late founder, televangelist Jerry Falwell.

So the evangelical vote is very important in Iowa. Why is it so important? Like, what is the size of that block of voters, if you can call them a block?

GABRIEL: It is very disproportionate in size. I mean, the percentage of evangelicals in Iowa is, you know, about 25 percent. Because of the nature of the caucuses, it sort of rewards the most ardent and, you know, ideologically-driven voters. And on the Republican side, that's tended to have a disproportionate turnout from evangelicals. Sixty percent of the Republican caucus goers in the last two cycles have been evangelicals, and you know, we've seen them kind of push over the top two very socially conservative candidates - Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 - and it's the reason that, you know, Ted Cruz is doing particularly well here in Iowa and, you know, is neck and neck with Trump in polls - more strongly than he's running nationally at this point.

GROSS: What are some of the things Ted Cruz has done to win over evangelical voters in Iowa?

GABRIEL: He's made this his game plan since day one. I mean, he announced his candidacy at Liberty University in Virginia - not in Iowa, but, you know, the Christian school. He's enlisted conservative pastors all around Iowa. There's 99 counties in Iowa. He has a kind of a pastor organizer in almost all of those counties. He's enlisted the support of Christian home-schoolers, which are a very active political group in Iowa. They have, you know, kind of strong networks among themselves and they're very good at turning out voters. Cruz held a big rally in Des Moines with 2,000 people this summer dedicated to what he called religious liberty in which he brought onto stage sort of florists and bakers from around the country who had been sued for refusing to provide services to gay couples who wanted to get married. He's just kind of used that issue to excite and motivate social conservatives in the evangelical churches.

GROSS: Ted Cruz's father is a pastor, and his father has been campaigning for him. Have you been to any of the rallies that his father has spoken at?

GABRIEL: I haven't. I've met him - this is Rafael Cruz - and he is a preacher. He's been very effective for Ted Cruz. Over a year, he's traveled around to churches, he's addressed churches, sometimes just in kind of coffee groups. He's showed a kind of a slideshow about America. He talks about his own journey to the United States as a Cuban migrant, a Cuban refugee. He talks very emotionally about how important America is and he has a way - he's been very successful in getting the more conservative Christian churches in the state to embrace his son, Senator Cruz.

GROSS: Have you been to any of the Ted Cruz appearances where it's at some kind of Christian institution and the audience there is comprised largely of conservative evangelicals, and is what he tells them any different than what he says to more varied groups?

GABRIEL: I have been - not necessarily - I haven't been to a church with Ted Cruz, but some of the, you know, the political evangelical groups that are national have chapters in Iowa and they've put on forums for multiple candidates, and these are all - you know, I won't call them tent revivals, but they're often - they're always very religiously themed. You know, I remember one forum where right before the Supreme Court delivered its decision about same-sex marriage last year, and, you know, Cruz called on everybody in the audience - there were about a thousand folks there - to, you know, get down on their knees and pray that the Court did not authorize or lift the ban on same-sex marriages in the various states, and you know, it was pretty fiery and pretty full of brimstone about, you know, his predictions for how the country would be going down the wrong road if such a ruling came down.

GROSS: Donald Trump is not, to my knowledge, an evangelical Christian himself but he has been trying to get the vote of conservative Christians, and to help him do that, he spoke at Liberty University, which is not in Iowa so I suspect that you were not there, but Liberty University is where Ted Cruz announced his candidacy. It's, you know, an institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Something that he said in there really made news so let's play that minute which kind of went viral. Here's Donald Trump at Liberty University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We're going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don't have to be politically correct or...

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: We're going to protect it, you know?

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And I asked Jerry, and I asked some of the folks because I hear this is a major theme right here, but, two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3[17 - that's the whole ballgame. Where the spirit of the Lord - right? Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And here, there is Liberty College, but - Liberty University - but, it is so true. You know, when you think - and that's really - is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that's the one you like 'cause I loved it and it's so representative of what's taken place. But we are going to protect Christianity, and if you look what's going on throughout the world - you look at Syria, where if you're Christian, they're chopping off heads. You look at the different places, and Christianity, it's under siege.

GROSS: That was Donald Trump at Liberty University. So the part that really made news there is the two Corinthians as opposed to Second Corinthians, and I'm wondering if you spoke to voters or potential voters in Iowa who are Christian and heard how unfamiliar he is with, (laughter), how to phrase Second Corinthians and what impression that made on him - 'cause he's professing to, you know, be very familiar with the Bible and yet there was something that sounded kind of tone deaf in the way he referred to Second Corinthians.

GABRIEL: One of the interesting mysteries about Trump's support in Iowa and elsewhere is, from so many points of view, he doesn't seem to be a person of deep or devout faith. And earlier this last summer, he was in Iowa and he said he had never asked God for forgiveness. He seemed to make a little bit of fun of the Christian Mass. And, you know, there has been a certain pushback by folks who don't think he's especially devout and realize that he's, you know, pandering to them. I mean, he's brought a family Bible to other rallies and he talks about how the evangelicals love him. The fact is lots of evangelical Christians do support Donald Trump. I mean, he wins their votes in national polls. He doesn't win their votes in Iowa where perhaps they're paying a little more close attention to him on this issue. There's an embrace of Trump's non political-correctness, his anti-establishment stance, his anger toward Washington that a lot of evangelical Christians in this country who are politically attuned feel. I mean, they don't like the Supreme Court decisions they feel have, you know, gone against their beliefs about traditional marriage. They don't like the cultural changes that the Obama administration - that they feel the Obama administration has introduced into the country. And even though Trump doesn't sound like he was much of an altar boy, you know, as a kid, the fact that he is - represents such an anti-establishment figure fits the worldview of many of these voters anyway.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Trip Gabriel. He's a political reporter for The New York Times who has been in Iowa for the past year covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Trip Gabriel. He is a political reporter for The New York Times who has been based in Iowa for the past year covering the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. Were you surprised that Bernie Sanders' campaign became so strong in Iowa? And what was the first sign that you saw that he was actually getting traction?

GABRIEL: I think it is really his first visit after his announcement, so we go back to May. And at that point, Hillary Clinton was, oh, probably 40 points ahead of him in the polls or something close to that. And I was out in Davenport, IA, eastern Iowa, to see another candidate and I saw Bernie Sanders was going to be in town, so I said, all right, I'll drop by. I thought maybe there would be 40 or 50 people there. Seven-hundred folks turned out to see Bernie Sanders, and that was, at that point, the largest campaign rally by any candidate in the state. Clearly something was going on. And I think it astonished no one more than the Clinton campaign, which had put a tremendous amount of effort into not repeating her loss from 2008 here.

GROSS: How is the Clinton campaign operating different in Iowa now than it did in 2008?

GABRIEL: Well, they've invested a lot in a ground game. They have field offices all over the state. Hillary Clinton herself came into Iowa determined not to hold these mass rallies the way she had in 2008 because the knock on her was that she seemed too elite and entitled to the nomination. And so she's run a much more kind of grassroots campaign in which she's tried to listen to individual Iowans, you know, in small groups. And, you know, generals fight the last war, and the Clinton campaign has, you know, just tried to not get out-organized by the competition in the way they were eight years ago.

GROSS: So what do you think they have been most unprepared for in terms of Bernie Sanders' campaign?

GABRIEL: I think they've been unprepared - and there are echoes of the Obama surge in 2008, as well. I mean, liberals - Democrats in Iowa are very liberal. They are among the most progressive, you know, Democrats in the country. And it's a mirror image of how conservative the Republican base is here. But there's a recent poll that showed that about 43 percent of Iowa Democrats describe themselves as socialists. That's - you know, Bernie Sanders calls himself a Democratic socialist. That is a kind of a degree of progressivism that you don't find among the Democratic voters in most of the larger states. And these are folks who are just hungry for a message like Sanders has presented, which, you know, it's very anti-Wall Street. It's opposed to money and politics, which he describes as corrupting politics. He's describing the erosion of the middle-class as being the result of a rigged and corrupt political system. And that kind of fiery message has resonated with a lot of people.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you have had any contact with the Jeb Bush campaign and what they're experiencing. I think they had so much money behind them, and he has such a, you know, political lineage. The assumption that a lot of people had and perhaps a lot of people in the campaign had as well is that, well, he'd be a shoo-in for the candidate, and it's worked out the opposite way. He's just constantly been polling so low in spite of all the money his super PAC has spent. So what do you get from people inside the campaign about what they're thinking now?

GABRIEL: Well, I have had a lot of contact with the Bush campaign. I mean, I, you know, can't believe they're in anything but shock. Bush has basically - at this point, he's been in Iowa only two days in January. There's a Republican debate on Thursday. He'll return for that - in Iowa. But he has a New Hampshire robust strategy. His abandonment of doing well in Iowa, you know, is I think is deeply demoralizing to his staff here. You know, at one point, when he was struggling, he sent all his - or many of his staffers that were in his national headquarters in Miami out to the various states. So the Iowa team doubled from about 10 people to 20 people. Apart from how well they're dealing with much, much colder weather, you know, they're going through the motions of a traditional campaign. Jeb has, you know, has a pretty significant footprint in terms of staffing and volunteers here. You know, the polls indicate that it's just - you know, his campaign is just not catching fire here. His super PAC, you know, which raised over a $100 million and kind of convinced people that he would be the presumptive nominee a year ago, is - it's been described as a circular firing squad. Instead of attacking Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, he's attacking the other establishment-leaning Republicans like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie - at least the super PAC is - in a way that a lot of folks think might be self-defeating.

GROSS: Why is that his strategy?

GABRIEL: Well, this is coming from the super PAC, not the Bush campaign. You know what, it's a mystery to me. I guess their strategy is to, you know - it's based on to me what is now an outmoded assumption, which is that Donald Trump will fade away, that Ted Cruz will fade away. They are such extreme candidates that this will eventually become a competition among the more establishment-lane candidates - Bush, Chris Christie, Kasich and Marco Rubio, and that, you know, let's make Jeb the leader of that particular pack going into the later primary states. I think that strategy is rapidly being exposed as shortsighted.

GROSS: Trip Gabriel, thank you so much for talking with us.

GABRIEL: It's my great pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Trip Gabriel is a political correspondent for The New York Times. He's spent the past year based in Iowa. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward looks back on Ork Records - a punk label that recorded Television, Richard Hell, The Feelies and Alex Chilton. A new anthology collects Ork's recordings. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.