Explaining Iowa's Raucous Caucus | Crooked Media
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January 11, 2024
What A Day
Explaining Iowa's Raucous Caucus

In This Episode

  • The Iowa Caucuses are back! Trump is the clear favorite, but there’s a tense battle for second place that is all going to play out on Monday. We dive into what the caucuses even are, how they work, and what their role is in this year’s presidential election.
  • Then, Crooked’s very own Tommy Vietor joins the show after being on the ground in Iowa himself. He walks us through what it was like sneaking into Republican campaign events, and what voters said.


Show Notes:





Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Friday, January 12th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Juanita Tolliver: And I’m Juanita Tolliver and this is What a Day, what a month, what a year. Whatever you want to call us. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, what a year feels right, the year just started and we’re already feeling it. [music break]


Juanita Tolliver: On today’s show, we’re focused on one story and one story only because it’s that time, y’all. The 2024 election has officially begun because the Iowa circus, I mean, caucus, is back. 


[clip of unknown Republican] We win the Iowa caucus. I will get elected president. 


[clip of Donald Trump] If you are a first time caucus goer. You can learn how to caucus. And I’m going to have to learn too by the way, I haven’t done this before. 


[clip of Nikki Haley] Iowa starts it. You change personalities. And by the time it gets to South Carolina, it gets bigger going into Super Tuesday. 


[clip of unknown Republican] We are on track to deliver a shock to the system. 


[clip of unknown Republican] Everybody should know that we are still in this race. 


[clip of Ron DeSantis] Anybody who thinks I’m getting out of this race, they’re crazy. 


Juanita Tolliver: [laughing] The lies, the lies. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh my God. 


Juanita Tolliver: The lies. None of those people are continuing after Iowa. 


Priyanka Aribindi: An incredible montage. Wow. Shout out to our producer for that one. That was some great work. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, the music made me want to do a little square dance moment, but okay. This weekend is the final high pressure stretch for candidates to get face time with voters. And let’s be honest, Iowa doesn’t reflect the country at all. I think it’s 94% white, but it gets so much attention each election year because it’s first and it sometimes makes or breaks campaigns. So we’ve got you covered on what you need to know before Iowans cast their votes on Monday, for which Republican they want to run against Joe Biden. Which we know, it’s going to be Trump. But what and who poses a real threat to his nomination, if any. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Later on, Pod Save America and Pod Save the World co-host Tommy Vietor is going to stop by to tell us what he saw up close when he was on the ground in Iowa last week. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] The Trump people actively denied us access to all of their events. Um, we snuck into Eric Trump’s town hall meeting anyway. 


Priyanka Aribindi: But first, we’re going to break down how exactly the roughly 2 million voters in Iowa can be so pivotal to the outcome of our elections. Four years can feel like a century these days. 


Juanita Tolliver: I mean. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, which is why it’s absolutely crazy to think that the last Iowa caucuses took place in February 2020 in a world pre-COVID. What a different life. But Juanita, can you give us a refresher on how these caucuses work and why they are important in the bigger picture of American politics? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, so caucuses aren’t like regular primary elections. It’s more involved than just heading to a polling place to cast your ballot, mainly–


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: –because it takes more time out of your day, which is pretty crappy for people with jobs and children and other responsibilities. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: But it’s a chance for voters to engage with candidates and other voters and really make a case for what is important to them. The Iowa caucuses don’t always guarantee a party’s nominee, but they can give candidates a huge boost and weed out the weaker ones. Remember that Barack Obama came through with that early win in Iowa in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, and a lot of people credit that win to really propelling him forward to secure the presidency. 


[clip of Barack Obama] And in New Hampshire, if you give me the same chance that Iowa did tonight, I will be that president for America. [applause and cheers]


Juanita Tolliver: God, I miss him. [laughing]


Priyanka Aribindi: What a hopeful sound that was. I know Iowa is going to play out a little bit differently for Republicans versus Democrats. Can you explain you know why that is? What that means exactly? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. If you’re a Republican voter who wants to participate in the caucus, you got to free up your upcoming Monday and be there in person at a local school, library or other caucus spot. In the room, there’s a review of administrative information about the party, debates about which issues are important to voters. And then at the end, people write down their preferred presidential candidate. These votes are tallied, and the results help determine how many of Iowa’s 40 national convention delegates each candidate receives. Obviously, the more delegates, the better the candidate’s shot is. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: Now, the democrat’s process doesn’t look the same. Before this year, caucusing Democrats gathered to discuss issues and candidates like the Republicans, but to show which candidate they support, they’d then physically move to join preference groups. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. Okay. 


Juanita Tolliver: Picture your high school library. For example, if you support Joe Biden, go stand by the bookshelves. If you’re supporting Bernie Sanders, stand in the group by the door. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: People would then shift around if a candidate isn’t viable. But that won’t be happening this year in Iowa. Dems don’t have to go in person. Instead, they just have to send mail in ballots between Monday and March 5th. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. Okay. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, a big shift in the practice here. And they really lucked out because for Republicans, in-person attendance might be low this year. And not just because some Republicans don’t see a point in caucusing with Trump so far ahead of the rest of the field. There’s a winter storm that is bringing absolutely freezing temperatures to Iowa. We’re talking up to a foot of snow that is expected through Tuesday, plus a low of -13 degrees and a high of four degrees. Let’s be real. Nothing would get me out of the house in that weather or anything close to it.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Let alone this cast of characters. I’m sorry. [laughter] The last thing I’m leaving, I’m actually staying in my home. So thank you so much for that context Juanita. Now we’re going to shift on to what the deal is with this year’s caucuses. Monday is nothing too special for Iowa Democrats. The primary isn’t until March 5th. As we just said, the first time Democrats anywhere in the country go to the polls will actually be in New Hampshire on January 23rd. So Iowa is really the Republicans show this year. What do we have to expect from them? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. So just to address the elephant in the room. 


[clip of unspecified news reporter] Former President Trump is dominating the polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses. 538’s polling average shows him more than 30 points ahead of his rivals. 


Juanita Tolliver: 30 points. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Hmm. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. [laughing] The more traditional approach leading up to the Iowa caucus is pulling a full Grassley. That’s the term to describe when a presidential candidate visits all 99 counties of Iowa before the caucuses, named for Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. He was known to do that all county tour every year. And yeah, Trump is not doing that. 


Priyanka Aribindi: No. 


Juanita Tolliver: Mainly because he doesn’t need to. But Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis both did, while Nikki Haley focused on big population centers. Now that we’ve gotten the rundown on why we should care about Iowa, it’s time to talk with someone who has really seen all of this close up. We chat with Tommy Vietor about his time in Iowa last week for Pod Save America’s limited series On the Ground. Episodes one and two are out right now in your Pod Save America feeds. We’ll talk about what he saw, what he snuck into, and what he thought about the state in this election and what he regrets. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] I had so much Pinot Grigio, [laughter] I should not be doing this.


Juanita Tolliver: That’s after some ads. [music break] 




Priyanka Aribindi: And we’re back, as promised we are sitting down with our in-house Republican voter impersonator, Tommy Vietor. Tommy, you play the part really well. 


Tommy Vietor: Thank you. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Welcome back to What a Day. 


Tommy Vietor: I’ve had this haircut for 43 years now. We call it the Mitt Romney. And it gets you in a lot of places. [laughter]


Priyanka Aribindi: Serving you well. So, Tommy, you just spent the last several days on the ground in Iowa getting a real feel for the energy right now leading up to January 15th. We heard that Crooked Media did not exactly get the royal treatment from some of the candidate’s PR teams. What was your experience there like? 


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, it was a real range. So the Trump people actively denied us access to all of their events. Um, we snuck into Eric Trump’s town hall meeting anyway. But, um, you know, they did not want us. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Hot ticket. 


Tommy Vietor: The DeSantis people never responded to our emails and they wouldn’t credential us, but we just walked in anyway because, frankly, they needed to put some butts in seats. Um, [laughter] but Vivek Ramaswamy’s folks not only led us into their events, but they gave us an interview with him. So they definitely were by far the most open campaign in terms of access, besides maybe Asa Hutchinson’s campaign, which again, you know, like we went to a Asa Hutchinson town hall meeting. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Surprising. 


Tommy Vietor: Uh, good news it was at a brewery. Bad news for him, there were 20 people there and 15 of them were college kids from California. So it’s not not going great for Asa. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Got it. 


Tommy Vietor: But his staff was lovely and nice. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah I feel like the more access you got, the more likely they are to drop out tomorrow, you know? 


Tommy Vietor: Exactly right. 


Juanita Tolliver: So obviously Trump has an advantage here. The polls, the powerful endorsements, plus all of the voter data he has from his previous campaigns in Iowa from 2016 and 2020. But for his opponents, this was really their first time hitting the ground in Iowa. But Trump didn’t really make a big effort to show up in the state. Uh, during a recent event while he was busy having dinner in Mar-a-Lago. He had his son, Eric, phone conference him in. Take a listen. 


[clip of Eric Trump] Say hi to the entire crowd. 


[clip of Donald Trump] Well, I just want to thank everybody for [indistinct] [sound of applause and cheers]


Juanita Tolliver: This is so pathetic. 


[clip of Donald Trump] And always remember, we got the farmers of Iowa $28 million dollars [indistinct] [laughter] and I can’t think about Joe Biden doing that. He wouldn’t even think about it, and he wouldn’t know how to do it. 


Juanita Tolliver: Way to phone it in. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Quite literally. [laughter]


Juanita Tolliver: Okay, so what was that all about? Did people in the audience care that Trump wasn’t actually there in Iowa? 


Tommy Vietor: No. So this was a, um, an event featuring Eric Trump in, uh, a little town just north of Des Moines. The folks who were there seemed to be mostly Trump diehards and fans. And so I think they didn’t mind at all that Donald Trump wasn’t there in person. In fact, they were absolutely thrilled when Eric called him on the phone and patched him into this event. I got to tell you guys, brings me no pleasure to say this, but Eric Trump was very good on the stump. 


Juanita Tolliver: What!? 


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s what I heard. 


Juanita Tolliver: I don’t buy that. 


Priyanka Aribindi: That’s what I heard. 


Tommy Vietor: His speech resonated in the room. The phone call he made to his father not only got the crowd jacked up, but also he did it. It was a broader narrative of my father always picked up when he called him. He made it a story about his dad’s character and the way he raised them. 


Juanita Tolliver: Ugh. 


Tommy Vietor: And there were lots of oohs and ahs.


Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t believe that for a minute. 


Tommy Vietor: I know. 


Juanita Tolliver: Trump did not raise his own children. Let’s establish that fact.


Tommy Vietor: I know. I know it was such bullshit, but it cle– it really worked well, he did a good job. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Well, um, I guess you have to pick up the phone if you’re not present, I suppose. Anyways, you spoke also with Dave Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University. His team partnered with civics and surveyed over a thousand Iowans this past October. They found that 95% of those likely caucus goers voted for Trump in 2020. For this year, though, Dave’s team has Trump polling in the low to mid 50s. Here’s a clip. 


[clip of Dave Peterson] We asked people who aren’t supporting Trump. Why not? And they gave us essentially two sets of answers. The one set of answer was I’m not supporting Trump because of Donald Trump, because of January 6th, because of, uh, the indictments. Those people are backing Nikki Haley. The DeSantis people say it’s time for a change or I just like another candidate better. Right? So they’re not supporting Trump, but they’re not it’s sort of incidental to what Trump has done. 


Priyanka Aribindi: So, Tommy, what does Dave’s insight there tell you about Trump’s opponents in 2024? 


Tommy Vietor: Basically, what Dave’s insight tells me is that Trump’s opponents are battling it out to reach Iowa caucus goers, who were either never Trump and are turned off by him, or who like Trump, but think maybe he has electability problems and they want a more sure thing to take on Joe Biden. The challenge there is that that’s a small slice of the overall pie. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Tommy Vietor: The majority of Iowa caucus goers love Donald Trump, and even if he’s not their first choice, he’s often their second choice. So even if a Ron DeSantis or a Vivek Ramaswamy or Nikki Haley drop out of the race, a lot of those votes will go to Trump. So it’s just they’re all fighting over a pretty narrow slice of the pie. 


Juanita Tolliver: That’s a great point about second choices because I think people are getting real hype about Nikki Haley’s opportunity or prospects if DeSantis drops out. And the reality is DeSantis voters have the backup as Donald Trump, not Nikki Haley. 


Tommy Vietor: Listen, I think most of us would agree that Nikki Haley is a far more reasonable, rational choice. But, uh, yeah, I mean, a lot of folks who like her would be happy supporting Donald Trump, too. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. So you spoke to two voters, a father and son in Cumming, Iowa. What they said about who they’re supporting is pretty interesting. Their opinions are very, very different. Take a listen to Curtis Johnson and then his father Jay. 


[clip of Curtis Johnson] DeSantis has better policy, a lot better things. But I just don’t think he’s as charismatic as Trump. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] Yeah. 


[clip of Curtis Johnson] And Trump can just come to a place like Iowa and just really, really rile it up. And here it just seemed it was kind of just a slow talk and slow burner. And he has good things to say, but it’s just it’s not as captivating as Trump can be. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] Yeah. 


[clip of Curtis Johnson] You know, Trump has just viral moments every time he’s anywhere. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] Yeah. 


[clip of Curtis Johnson] And I just don’t get the same [?]. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] He’s a little low energy, huh? 


[clip of Jay Johnson] Yup, but but I’ll tell you, I’m a lifelong Republican. Seen with Ronald Reagan and the Bush’s. I will never vote for Donald Trump and I haven’t the last two times. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] Really? 


[clip of Jay Johnson] And I won’t this time. 


[clip of Tommy Vietor] What did he do that turned you off? 


[clip of Jay Johnson] I will never do business with or vote with somebody I don’t trust. 


Juanita Tolliver: I mean trust being front and center there. What do you think this dynamic between this dad and his son says about larger tensions among Republicans and maybe the decisive independent voters right now? 


Tommy Vietor: Yeah. So, I mean, I think what this really said to me and this might have been the most honest answer we heard from anybody during the time we were out there, because we were standing outside of one of Ron DeSantis’s events. It was unbelievably boring and terrible. [laughter] It like and like, and frankly, that was a theme for a lot of the DeSantis events. The guy’s got no rizz, as Priyanka might say. [laughter] His events are boring. Nobody is having a good time. No one is laughing. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh God. No one is smiling. And if you watch a Donald Trump event, the man is spewing hateful shit for half of them. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yup. 


Tommy Vietor: But people are having a blast. They’re laughing. He’s– 


Priyanka Aribindi: They’re eating it up. 


Tommy Vietor: –telling stories. He’s telling jokes. He’s swearing. Right? They love it. Like it’s fun to go to a Trump event. It’s fun to be part of that MAGA community. There’s some sort of sense of community, frankly, around it. And–


Priyanka Aribindi: Tommy, that’s going to get cut in a way that you don’t love. 


Tommy Vietor: [laughter] I know, I know, I know. Cut that along with the the Eric Trump compliments. But like DeSantis events are a slog. They’re low energy. He’s hectoring. He’s annoying. Like it’s just not a movement that anyone wants to be a part of, including this kid. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. I mean, it is easy to say that Iowa is just a big media frenzy. It only gets this attention because they’re first on the calendar. I mean, candidates and donors still pouring a bunch of money into this caucus, even though we know that what this is shaping up to be is a race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But still, if we have to pick, you know, something valuable that we learned here or some insight we are taking away from this, what is that to you? 


Tommy Vietor: The early state primary process is flawed, but it is incredibly valuable because it allows voters to get up close to these candidates, to ask them questions, to shake their hands, to see if they know what they’re talking about, to put them on the spot. And I really I mean it like, I worked in uh Iowa for a year for Barack Obama. So obviously I have rose colored glasses when I think about that experience because we won and it really catapulted him to the presidency. But I do think that whichever state goes first, there’s value in forcing candidates to do retail politics and take questions from the media and from the voters themselves. What I wonder is, after this Iowa caucus process in New Hampshire and South Carolina, frankly, where Donald Trump barely showed up, he spent more time in courtrooms than, you know, church basements taking questions. 


Juanita Tolliver: By choice. 


Tommy Vietor: By choice. I wonder if we’re just at a place where because of social media, because of Partisan news sources, uh, and just sort of information silos, that we are moving past an era where retail politics matters and you have to drive around these early states and meet people and kind of play the game. You know, Donald Trump is showing us that you can bypass the process. And, uh, really, you know, thumb your nose at it. I mean, he’s– 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 


Tommy Vietor: –ran around insulting Kim Reynolds, the very popular Republican governor of Iowa half the time, and he still seems like he’s going to get 50% of the vote. So– 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Tommy Vietor: I’m not sure that bodes well for the future of our, uh, political process for Iowa or any early state. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 


Juanita Tolliver: All right. Finally, tell us the most important thing from your road trip. What’s the best song to listen to when you’re driving through the beautiful countryside of Iowa? 


Tommy Vietor: So we couldn’t figure out how to get our Bluetooth to hookup to the car. [laughter] Actually we didn’t even we didn’t even try. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh God. 


Tommy Vietor: I’m not gonna lie to you. We didn’t even try. 


Juanita Tolliver: Wow. 


Tommy Vietor: But here’s something really fun. Caroline Dunphy on our team here, who made all the really great videos that have been up on the Crooked Media instagram, recorded every single song she heard at every event and is making a– 


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh my God. 


Tommy Vietor: –Spotify playlist of all– 


Juanita Tolliver: Oooh. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Incredible. 


Tommy Vietor: –Republican Iowa Caucus songs. So stay tuned for that. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Republican hype songs. 


Tommy Vietor: Republican– 


Priyanka Aribindi: All right. 


Tommy Vietor: A lot of Toby Keith, a lot of–


Priyanka Aribindi: I believe it. 


Tommy Vietor: –very on the nose America themed stuff where people don’t get the second layer of meaning or the irony of [laughter] some of the lyrics, but. 


Juanita Tolliver: Come on. 


Tommy Vietor: It’s good stuff. Dunphy is a genius. She was making all kinds of fun stuff. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Can’t wait to listen to your series and perhaps even more excited for this playlist. But Tommy, thank you so much for joining us and for bringing all of us down. This has been great. 


Tommy Vietor: Thank you both for having me on and for talking about the show. I really appreciate it. It was fun to make kind of. [laughter]


Juanita Tolliver: Big asterix.


Priyanka Aribindi: You can listen to more Iowa insight on Pod Save America’s limited series On the Ground. Make sure you catch up and listen to part one, because part two drops today in your Pod Save America feeds. [music break] That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Drink a glass of some Pinot Grigio and tell your friends to listen. 


Juanita Tolliver: And if you’re into reading and not just Tommy’s Republican cosplay tips, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at crooked.com/subscribe! I’m Juanita Tolliver.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


[spoken together] And let the 2024 chaos begin. 


Priyanka Aribindi: We sound excited about that. I don’t feel excited about it. 


Juanita Tolliver: I’m not excited, but I do expect it to end quickly. By the end of Q1, the Republican primary will be over, y’all. 


Priyanka Aribindi: It’ll be over. All right. [laughter] [music break] What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Special thanks to Natalie for producing today’s episode. And our showrunner is Leo Duran. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.