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Excitement Is In The Air For First-Time Iowa Caucusgoers


And I'm David Greene in Des Moines, Iowa, where there is a lot that is hard to forecast. For one thing, whether a blizzard will hit parts of the state tonight and also who will emerge as winners of the caucuses this evening. I'm with David Yepsen, former long-time chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register, now at Southern Illinois University. And David, I don't think anyone knows that Iowa caucuses better than you do. I'm just going to say that.

DAVID YEPSEN: Thank you (laughter).

GREENE: What makes this process special in Iowa?

YEPSEN: Well, it's the first. It's the first place in America where you have presidential candidates being vetted by real Americans. Iowa is not typical of the country at all, but if you look at the activists that show up at a caucus, they look an awful lot like the people on the floors of the respective national conventions. And so Iowans (unintelligible) are a good surrogate, a cross-section of the activists in their respective political parties.

GREENE: I want to play some tape here because I met one person who will be running one of the caucuses tonight. She has a room reserved to do it in a student union at the University of Iowa.

JANELLE SMITHSON: I'll probably be running the show. And then we'll do our ballot vote and we'll count them all up, see who wins and then we'll move on to - what do you call that?


SMITHSON: Yeah, party business basically. Yeah.

GREENE: It's Janelle Smithson. She's president of the College Republicans on campus. We chatted with her inside that room in the student union with Lauren Freeman. She's president of the College Democrats, and the parties do things a little differently. In Republican caucuses, people write down their candidate privately.

GREENE: Lauren, the Democrat's is a different system. You actually have to stand there in front of your friends and peers and fellow students and classmates and, what, you say which candidate you're in favor of?

LAUREN FREEMAN: Yeah. So you kind of just - we say we vote - you vote with your body. So basically you just stand in the corner of your candidate and then they kind of count you and decide who wins from that.

GREENE: And how old are you both?

FREEMAN: I'm 20.


GREENE: Yeah, Janelle is 22 and leading a GOP caucus tonight. Lauren, the Democrat, will not be running things at her caucus. She'll be caucusing herself for the first time.

FREEMAN: I'm so excited, yeah. It's been months that we've been preparing. And I feel like I'm always explaining it to other people but then I'm always, like, well, I've actually never done it.

GREENE: (Laughter).

FREEMAN: So I mean, if I can do, you can do it. So, yes, I'm really excited.

GREENE: So I tweeted out that I was meeting with the two of you, and people started sending in questions. OK, here's a good one. Curious to know if the two of you can agree on anything at all.

SMITHSON: (Laughter). There has to be somewhere we can agree on or find some common ground.

FREEMAN: I think we do try to find common ground and, like, kind of do things together because I thinks students are less timid to go to something when it's, like, we're both supporting it, type of thing.

SMITHSON: I absolutely agree. And while obviously we have differences in things, I don't Lauren and I sit here and don't try to find a place where we can find common ground.

GREENE: David Yepsen, in this political climate, do they sound overly optimistic?

YEPSEN: It's great, too, isn't it? I mean, they're not cynical yet (laughter).

GREENE: No, and hopefully - and maybe never will be.

YEPSEN: Well, and that's good - that's what I like teaching.


GREENE: You know, totally different part of the state, away for the University of Iowa, I spent part of the week in the west, and there's a lot of support there - very rural area part of the state - for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Can you paint a portrait of western Iowa for me, just briefly?

YEPSEN: Well, western Iowa is very conservative, a lot of social conservatives there, very rural economy. I always say western Iowa is where America starts to wear cowboy boots.

GREENE: (Laughter).

YEPSEN: And so it becomes, for Republicans, it becomes a real target. You have some counties over there with 80 percent Republican voter registrations.

GREENE: Well, I stopped in a small town there. Farms were all around it. There was this one little strip with the bank, the post office, a couple restaurants. The town is called Persia, or at least I thought it was.

LARRY WATSON: It sounds more sophisticated if it's Per-siah (ph).

GREENE: (Laughter) OK.

WATSON: But really, you know, Persia is Iran now.



GREENE: Do you not want to...


GREENE: ...Have the Iran connection?

WATSON: No, no, no.


That was Larry Watson. He is a farmer in his 70s. He was sitting with a few other guys in a mostly empty bar called the Big House Bar & Grill. We had stopped there hoping to get some lunch, and the owner Lucy Knauss said she would fix us her famous burgers. They're topped with her mom's homemade sweet pickles

So what kind of town is Persia?

LUCY KNAUSS: Persia's a nice little town. Everybody knows everybody. That is for sure. I need to get through over here.

GREENE: You're saying I should get out of your way?

KNAUSS: Yeah. That would be a good one (laughter).

GREENE: Lucy raised three kids near Persia. Now she's a grandma. She's trying to keep the Big House open, but she's struggling. She wishes it were easier for a small business owner to get a loan. And she feels like of all the people running for president, Donald Trump might be the one to deliver for her.

KNAUSS: Try to do more advertising and get your business built back up, stuff like that.

GREENE: Advertise these burgers.

KNAUSS: Yeah. Yeah (laughter).

GREENE: So you like Trump because you feel like he's a different kind of candidate?

KNAUSS: I don't know. There's something about him that I just like, you know. And I'm really a Democrat, you know. But I guess he talks kind of more like me. He'd say it like it is, you know (laughter).

GREENE: Like when you told me to get out of your way. You weren't holding back at all.

KNAUSS: (Laughter) There you go.


GREENE: Now, Lucy Knauss told me that she is going to vote in the general election. She's not going to be caucusing tonight. She never has.

KNAUSS: I don't even know where it - where's it at this year? If Larry Watson's over there, he can really tell you about it. He goes to caucuses.

GREENE: Larry Watson, that's the guy over at the bar who welcomed us to Per-siah.

WATSON: You aren't the Secret Service, are you?

GREENE: He told us that he will be caucusing at the Lutheran church in Persia for either Ben Carson or Donald Trump.

WATSON: Well, I have to vote in caucus because at least I have a voice.

GREENE: And I'm still with David Yepsen here. And David, you know, the woman there who owns a bar telling me she'd never caucused and doesn't plan to. Many, many Iowans do not caucus, important to point out.

YEPSEN: Oh, that's true. I mean, you'll have - this is a state of 3.1 million people. You'll have, probably at most 300,000 people who will show up in caucuses. The record is 240,000 on the Democratic side, 122,000 on the Republican side. So most Iowans don't caucus. It's a pretty activist group of people who are showing up.

GREENE: So a really small subset in this state who could - and we should point out, I mean, it's not like if you win in Iowa, you're guaranteed the nomination, far from it, history shows - but a small group of people who can send a very powerful message at this moment in American politics.

YEPSEN: Well, and one of the things Iowa does, it - well, it elevates candidates out of obscurity. Jimmy Carter, George Herbert Walker Bush are examples, but most of the time, it winnows the field. It cuts that field of candidates down to size. And that's a big impact, too. Who comes out of here alive (laughter) politically.

GREENE: (Laughter) There's the question to leave us with. David Yepsen, thanks as always for joining us.

YEPSEN: Thank you.

GREENE: I've interviewed you many times. It's great to be here with you in person at the Smokey Row, this coffee shop in Des Moines.

David Yepsen, longtime chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register, now at Southern Illinois University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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