PolitiFact hits the road to cover the Iowa caucuses

Thu, Jan 30, 2020

Election 2020

Most days, we fact-check politicians  from our desks in Washington and Florida. But in January, we went on the road to Iowa. Three PolitiFact journalists spent five days following the Democratic presidential contenders. Our crew included D.C.-based senior correspondent Louis Jacobson; south Florida-based staff writer Amy Sherman; and our audience engagement editor, Josie Hollingsworth, based at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. 

Here’s some of what they had to say about their trip, which covered roughly 1,100 miles and campaign stops for Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. 

Why Iowa? 

Why should Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, play such a large role in winnowing the field? This was asked especially after several candidates of color — African-American candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and Julián Castro, who is Latino — dropped out of the race. 

Political scientists say Iowans have trained themselves to be something special: A citizenry that is not only used to scrutinizing candidates first-hand, but one that demands it.

"Iowa caucus-goers take the process seriously, and are serious about trying to learn about the candidates and put them on the spot with questions," said David Redlawsk, a University of Delaware political scientist and Iowa caucus expert who has attended more than 100 caucus-related events in Iowa this campaign cycle. "Candidates have to be responsive, which is a learning experience for many of them."

The Democratic caucus process allows voters to switch their allegiance on caucus night if the candidate they support fails to reach 15% in the initial round of voting. 

As a result, "voters pay attention to multiple candidates rather than locking into one early, and thus spend more time actually comparing and judging between them than primary voters in other states would," Redlawsk said.

That’s been true for Nadene and Gary Davidson of Cedar Falls, a couple who attended an Amy Klobuchar event in Waterloo. The Davidsons were "95% behind Amy," but they had attended a half dozen events featuring various candidates and were still seeking out more.

Campaign are an emotional journeys

The events in Iowa offer a more intimate setting where caucusgoers can ask questions or take selfies. In the student center at Muscatine Community College, Yang’s speech was more like a conversation, with a few dozen voters huddled around tables. He asked the group why Donald Trump won in 2016.

"Because the electoral college sucks!" one voter called out.

A mother of an 8-year-old with learning disabilities shared with Warren her struggles to get services at school. She fought back tears, and Warren got emotional too. Eventually, they hugged.

At the televised town hall with Buttigieg, a woman who described herself as an anti-abortion Democrat asked Buttigieg whether he would state that voters like her belong in the party, and that the party’s platform should embrace diverse opinions on abortion. Buttigieg said he understood her position but wouldn’t follow her request. The woman was frustrated. Buttigieg said it was up to women to decide what is best.

The personal sharing went both ways. Biden talked about his late son Beau, who died of cancer. Klobuchar spoke of her father’s struggles with alcoholism and her grandfather’s hard work as a miner. Warren shared how her path in life included some unexpected twists and turns, including getting married at age 19 and later getting divorced. 

Trump remains the ultimate Democratic rival, even in the primary

Democratic candidates, we found, generally focused more on their differences with Trump than on each other. Still, there were differences in style.

Biden’s speech at a community college near Des Moines was held in front of a calm crowd where voters told PolitiFact reporters that their top priority was to defeat Trump. Biden campaigned as if he was already facing Trump. "The character of the country is on the ballot," he said.

By contrast, Sanders’ event in an auditorium in Ames was boisterous and drew enough voters, many of them college students or recent graduates, to fill up the aisles. The crowd seemed to identify themselves as part of a movement.

With several candidates bunched close together at the top of recent polls, political observers said the outcome on Feb. 3 is hard to predict. While every caucus seems to pack a surprise at the end, said Larimer of the University of Northern Iowa, "I think people are a little more undecided this year" due to the closeness of the race.

PolitiFact is also sending a team to New Hampshire before the Feb. 11 primary. We’ll include their reports in future emails.

The Iowa campaign stops

Here are the candidates our reporters saw in Iowa.

Joe Biden. The former vice president appeared in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, Jan. 25. He talked about the State Department under Trump and American soldiers suffering from concussions.

Pete Buttigieg. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he’s not too young to be the president and is the Democrat best positioned to reach out to a broad swath of Americans. Read our fact-checks of his town hall here and our fact-check about his statement on Republican support for universal background checks for gun buyers.

Amy Klobuchar. Despite polling below the top tier of Iowa caucus hopefuls, Sen. Klobuchar, D-Minn., drew a near-capacity crowd to a ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa, where she described her vision for a post-Donald Trump presidency. Read our fact check of her speech here.

Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders, I-Vt., called for a systematic change in the economy, health care, criminal justice, and the environment during 45 minutes of remarks to an overflow crowd near the campus of Iowa State University on Jan. 25. Our fact-check story brings you the highlights.

Elizabeth Warren. Sen. Warren, D-Mass., called for "big structural change" to help average Americans, rather than the richest and most powerful, in a town hall in the Mississippi River city of Davenport, Iowa. We fact-checked her remarks here.

Andrew Yang. Yang, an entrepreneur, talked about his proposals to give Americans $1,000 a month in "universal basic income" and $100 to spend on each federal election at Muscatine Community College on Jan. 23. Read our story fact-checking his economic claims, chased by this fact-check about how few Americans donate during elections.
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Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid is like Obama with Egypt in 2013. He’s wrong
 President Donald Trump’s defenders in his impeachment trial say the hold he put on nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine was not unusual. Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow said on the Senate floor that President Barack Obama did the same sort of thing.

"The Obama administration withheld $585 million of promised aid to Egypt in 2013," Sekulow said Jan. 21, "but the administration's public message was that the money was not officially on hold as technically it was not due until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"So they didn't have to disclose the halt to anyone. Sounds like this may be a practice of a number of administrations."

This comparison has become a popular talking point among the president’s supporters. But Sekulow’s comparison with Egypt is off the mark in several ways.

While past administrations have delayed aid, the circumstances and the nuts-and-bolts process, including keeping Congress in the loop, bear no similarities to the Ukraine affair. We rated this claim Mostly False.

In the summer of 2019, Trump put a hold on aid designed to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression. As part of that aid, the Pentagon had signed off on $250 million for weapons including Javelin anti-tank missiles, the last step before the money would be released. It was after that sign-off that the Trump administration put a hold on aid.

With Egypt in 2013, the Obama administration kept Congress informed as it responded to a coup in Egypt. With Ukraine, the Trump White House informed neither Ukraine nor Congress of its policy.

With Egypt, top congressional Democrats and Republicans were calling for a halt to aid. With Ukraine, members of Congress wanted aid sent to Ukraine; so did the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council. 

There was a hold on aid in both cases, but beyond that, the two episodes bear little resemblance to each other.

Tags: Facts, Iowa politics, presidential primary

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