Decision Time in Iowa

Iowa residents are in full-force caucus mode today, and White House hopefuls are canvassing the state making their final pitches. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson explains why this year feels different.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Later on our show we're going to turn to one of the biggest international story. We'll give you an underground report from Kenya where hundreds of people have died in post-election violence. But first, let's take a look at the fast-paced but calmer waters of American politics.

Call the Iowa caucuses coffee, tea and listen to me. In some cases, people have to declare their preferences openly to neighbors and friends. Here to tell us what's going on in Iowa is NPR's national politics correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So you've covered these caucuses before. How does it feel this time around?

LIASSON: This time around, it just feels much, much more intense. I've covered caucuses where one party wasn't competing because they had a sitting incumbent president, or in 1992, none of the Democrats came here because Senator Tom Harkin who was a favorite son was running and everyone else decided not to compete.

This time, Iowa is extremely important. Both sides have big wide-open fields and they have been here for months and months spending tremendous amounts of time, money, huge numbers of staff, volunteers, thousands of ads, it's just incredibly intense.

CHIDEYA: So what did the candidates do the night before the caucuses?

LIASSON: Well, the candidates are campaigning up to the very last minute. They're making their case. They're going door-to-door - a big push to try to identify their supporters and do everything they can to get them to come out, especially on the Democratic side, that's a big commitment. You have to go to the caucuses and stay for two hours. The campaigns are arranging rides, babysitters - everything that someone needs to actually get out of their house and get there.

CHIDEYA: How many Iowans typically go to these caucuses? Is it widespread or do most people end up watching the results at home?

LIASSON: Well, it's actually a very small percentage of actual registered voters. In 2004, 124,000 Democrats went to the caucus. That's a very small percentage; about 89,000 Republicans went. And the reason why such a small percentage of voters go is because, as I said, at least on the Democratic side, it's a big commitment of time. You also have to do it in public. You have to stand up in your precinct caucus and say who you're for and maybe even say why you're for them. So it's a big commitment and it's a very small universe and that's why the campaigns have been working so hard not just to identify people who are likely to caucus and have caucused before, but the people who they can convince to go a caucus for the very first time.

CHIDEYA: What about first-time voters, non-voters, independents? How does their participation or non-participation play into this?

LIASSON: Well, it's a huge factor this year. And as a matter of fact, it's a very controversial factor because the prediction of how many of those people - independents, non-Democrats, first-time caucus-goers are actually going to show up, has figured into the polling.

Now, it's very hard to predict a caucus result. It's very hard to design a poll that will actually determine who is a likely caucus voter and who's not. It's - nobody cares about what Iowa Democrats think, people care about what likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers think.

And the Des Moines Register's final poll used a model that included a lot of independents and non-Democrats because they believe that at least Barack Obama was going to be successful in his efforts to get those kind of people to go to the caucuses. And the other campaigns didn't like it at all because they felt that that kind of a model favored Obama and the poll did show him seven points ahead of Hillary Clinton and eight points ahead of John Edwards.

If you take other polls that are based on a model that show only Democratic regulars, people who have caucused before are going to show out tonight then Hillary does a lot better. So that is one of the big wild cards that everybody is going to be watching tonight. How many new people, how many independents, non-Democrats actually go to caucus because you don't have to decide in advance. You can show up at your precinct. You don't even have to be a registered voter. You can register on the spot. You can be a Republican and register as a Democrat for the purposes of the caucus tonight.

CHIDEYA: All right. There's always Mother Nature getting involved. The weather is another X-factor. What is it like? How cold is it? What's on the ground? Is this going to hurt?

LIASSON: Well, it's cold. I think, it's fine weather, actually, for caucusing. There's no icy storms or snow storms. It's cold, but Iowans are certainly used to that. It's cold and clear, and I don't think that's there's anything about the weather that is going to stop someone who wants to get out for going tonight. Maybe the Orange Bowl will be a bigger deterrent, a deterrent, but certainly not the weather.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Mara Liasson, NPR's national politics correspondent and she joined us from our election studios in Des Moines, Iowa.

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