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Inside Politics

Hours Away From First Votes Of 2024 Presidential Race; Trump Predicts "Tremendous" Win But Warns Against Complacency; Nikki Haley To Iowa: Today "We Make History"; Latest Polls Show Trump With Commanding Lead In Iowa; Iowa Trump Supporter: "Joy To Serve The Lord" By Helping Trump; DeSantis Attacks Haley For Not Courting GOP Voters; Bitter Cold Blankets Iowa As Caucuses Kick Off 2024 Primaries; Trump, Haley, DeSantis Make Final Pitches To Iowa Voters. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Welcome to Inside Politics. Live from Iowa. Here we go. The first votes of the 2024 presidential election are tonight. After months of rallies and tens of millions of dollars in campaign ads, voters will finally have their say. And in the last few hours, candidates are scrambling to reach as many of those voters as possible.


DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: We have to get it done quickly. We have to set the stage.

NIKKI HALEY (R) 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Think of the fact that you might be making history at this moment.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY (R) 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They are nation's best days actually still busy.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL) 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Here in Iowa, you have the ability to change the trajectory of American politics.


BASH: Tonight, we'll come down to the one word we use each and every election day turnout, who can get the most voters out. The record- breaking cold weather here in Iowa will make that even harder than ever before.

Take a look at the scene outside right now. Sub-zero temperatures, dangerous conditions complicating travel to the caucus sites, 1657 separate caucus sites across the state. It is a crucial night where we'll learn how strong Donald Trump's grip on the Republican Party really is. And if any of his rivals can beat expectations and change the nature of this race.

CNN is covering these Iowa caucuses from all angles. I want to start with Alayna Treene, who's been following the Trump campaign. Alayna? ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Well, good afternoon, Dana. I really want to focus on Donald Trump's closing arguments to Iowans over the weekend. And his main message was to please turnout any caucus. We know that over the past several days that Donald Trump's team has been a bit concerned about turnout. That's in part due to the frigid temperatures here in Iowa, the record cold that we are seeing for a caucus.

But it's also in part due to his commanding lead in the polls. His advisors tell us that they are a bit concerned that people may look at his lead in the polls and assume that they can stay home that Donald Trump is going to win this regardless. And really Trump has been saying don't do that. I need you to turnout and show up for me.

Take a listen to what he told his supporters in Indianola yesterday.


TRUMP: It's nasty out there. You know, from the airplane to the car was about 20-feet and I'm saying, wow, that's blowing as you have a hard time reaching -- you have a hard time reaching it, but it's getting better. I worry about that. You can't sit home. If you're sick as a dog, you say, God I have to make it. Even if you vote and then pass away, it's worth it, remember.


TREENE: Now, Dana, a pretty remarkable comments from the former president and he was clearly joking a bit there. But look, the message is, we really need people to come out and turnout. We know that a key part of Donald Trump's ground game strategy here in Iowa is to try and turnout as many caucus goers as possible, specifically, first time caucus goers.

And the main goal as well is not only to win Iowa, but they want to win Iowa by a big enough and definitive enough lead to set the tone for the rest of the primary season, and also to try and blunt the momentum of Donald Trump's Republican rivals, namely Nikki Haley. Dana?

BASH: All right, Alayna, thank you so much. Yes, we are told he is very concerned about the idea that people are going to feel complacent, and he has such a big lead that he won't get his people out. So, we're going to be monitoring that tonight.

And now I want to go to Eva McKend. Eva, Nikki Haley has already held her first event of this caucus day. What did she say?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Dana. She was over at the Drake Diner, a popular spot here in Des Moines. And she was telling voters that she was excited that she's not worried about the weather, that she feels as though there is momentum on the ground and that people will in fact turnout.

You know, she has centered her campaign on this electability argument, arguing that she would be the strongest candidate to go up against President Biden in the fall. She's now telling Iowans that they have the opportunity tonight to set the tone for this contest.



HALEY: Today is the day we make history. Today is the day we make history because we tune out the noise of the media. We tune out the noise of the politicians. And we raise the voices of Americans that say, we want a better day. We're going to make it happen.


MCKEND: Now, interestingly enough. At the end of that, she said that she would take Trump over Biden any day of the week, but she is hoping that that is not the outcome in this contest. But the big question on many folks' minds, Dana, will Iowans turnout. Some of the roads in the more rural areas of this state have still not been plowed.

But listen, I'm speaking to Iowans, and they're telling me that they will turn out that they take this process very seriously, that they think it is a huge honor that such a unique thing in this country that they have the opportunity to hear from presidential candidates, sometimes multiple times. Not every state has that chance and that they want to come out tonight in their community and have their voices heard. Dana?

BASH: OK, Eva. And, yes, you'd certainly know from experience about what it's like to get your car stuck in a snowbank and I'll just leave it at that. I appreciate your great reporting here. Eva, thank you so much.

And like Eva, I've been here in the Hawkeye State for the final stretch of this campaign, speaking directly to voters and candidates themselves. Here's what Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have told me in the last 12 hours as they make their closing arguments.


DESANTIS: Donald Trump is the party of the Washington D.C. establishment. They've lined up behind him. I am the part -- I'm the candidate that would be a change agent in Washington D.C. And I like that contrast.

HALEY: I'm a conservative governor. I was a conservative ambassador. I'm going to be a conservative president. But at the end of the day, I'm going to treat people with respect. I'm going to over communicate everything that's happening all the time. And I'm going to focus on lifting up everybody, not just a select view.


BASH: I want to bring in my great panel of reporters who are also here, trudging through the snow and the cold weather here. Jeff Zeleny and Kristen Holmes, both of CNN, and the Astead Herndon of The New York Times. It's finally here.


BASH: I now. It's hard not to be to be giddy, particularly for people like us. I will say you can't see my feet, but I'm wearing the same boots that I wore in 2000 when I covered the Bradley campaign here, and you guys need some new trends on these snowbirds.

Let's just start by setting the table with a little bit of history. And that is the winning margins here in Iowa over the past several cycles, starting in competitive caucuses for Republicans. Ted Cruz won by just a little bit more than 3 percent. Rick Santorum, not even a full percentage point 0.1 percent. Mike Huckabee had a pretty big win by Iowa standards over 9 percent. George W. Bush even bigger 10, Bob Dole three. And then Bob Dole in 1988 even bigger.

I don't think you go all the way back to Bob Dole. Jeff Zeleny, but I think what you started covering back in 2000, right, mixing (Ph) all of those.

ZELENY: In the Bush campaign. And I was looking back at that this morning, the same year that you were breaking out those boots. George W. Bush won here in Iowa with 41 percent of the vote. That was extraordinary. I'm not sure that history is our best guide for this because there is a former incumbent president who's running.

And one thing has been stable throughout the turn of the season here in Iowa. From spring to summer to fall now back to winter, is that Donald Trump has had this commanding lead of this race. So yes, this campaign is pointing to that 1988 figure with Bob Dole. But that is not the expectation.

The reality is the final one registered poll yesterday, the gold standard of polling showed him 28 points up. He doesn't necessarily have to hit that. But 12 points would be considered a big setback. So, look, as we're looking tonight is the former president going to go beyond 50 percent. If he does, that is a remarkable figure.

One other thing we're looking at, Nikki Haley. She's been on the move here. But what if that poll raised her expectations? So, the bottom line is I've been checking around with some undecided voters and there really have been a lot of overlap several days as you've met between Haley and DeSantis.

There actually are some people who aren't turning out. I talked to one person this morning in western Iowa. She said her street is still not clear. So, for all those caucus sites we talked about, 28 counties in Iowa, only have one caucus location. People will be driving a long distance in some rural areas. Will that hurt Trump? Will it help Haley here in the suburbs? All those things we're thinking about as the day goes on.

BASH: Yeah. I mean, that's such a good point -- all the points that you've made were great points. But the rural areas in particular, which does tend to be Trump country, and in any state but especially in Iowa.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Trump's team is sending cars to certain people. They have cars in various areas ---


ZELENY: I hope there are trucks, not cars.

HOLMES: The trucks, trucks, I assume trucks as well four-wheel drive. But they are anticipating -- the snow they were anticipating the weather, and they also know that the rural areas were hit the hardest. So, they do have an operation in place to get people to those caucus sites.

BASH: OK. One of the things that we cannot lose sight of which is really the most important dynamic right here in Iowa. And maybe going forward we're going to see is Donald Trump. His staying power. How devoted his supporters are to him?

I came with you yesterday to his event here in Iowa. It was fascinating to be back out on the trail with him. I spoke to one of the people who was going to be a caucus captain. She was wearing the white hat with the bold letters special hat. And she talked to me about why she is so committed to Donald Trump. Take a listen?


BASH: Was there any point that you said, woo, I'll consider one of the other Republican candidates?


BASH: Never. You're completely committed?


BASH: How come? How come?

NELSON: Because he will -- he is for the people. And I fully believe that God will bless him as he seeks the Lord in serving our nation, serving our people. And it's a joy to serve the Lord as I help reach out for President Trump.


BASH: And Kristen, I asked her, is there anything that he could do that would make you walk away from him? And she looked at me like I was -- like, I just -- I just didn't know. I lost my mind. Absolutely not nothing. And she said, well, I mean, if he does something really bad and I said, I'm guessing January 6 is not hard to bat. And she said, absolutely not. That didn't happen. That wasn't hit.

HOLMES: Yeah. That is what Donald Trump's team is really banking on is that devotion that he has from his supporters. Donald Trump himself has expressed a lot of concern about what is going to happen on Monday. When he goes back to 2016 all the time. When he lost Iowa to Ted Cruz. It's something that's still bothersome. It's something that's still he fears could happen again. His team has told him repeatedly that your supporters are more devoted than any other supporters. Meaning, that if the weather is a impact on some people turning out, it is likely to impact other campaigns and not yours, but it's not easing his concern.

And they aren't -- you just really brought up a really good point here, which is they have been leading by 30 points, 28 points. They want the biggest margin possible, but they are tempering expectations too. They know that it's possible that turnout is going to be lower than expected.

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIME: This is also a little different of a Trump operation. From 2016 to now they have gotten more targeted. They know their voters a lot more clearly. And when I talk to Trump people, they say that's what's going to help them today is that they're not as haphazard of an operation as they were in 2016.

But they know who they need to send those cars to. They know the communities that have those kinds of untapped. Trump supporters are specifically looking at first time caucus goers to try to change the makeup of that electorate.

So, I think this is certainly a day we're looking at the margin for whether Trump can actually live up to that polling. But I also think this is a campaign operation that is more well suited to deal with these conditions than the Trump campaign. We knew in 2016,


HOLMES: If it works today -- if they comes today. If he comes out of Iowa with a 20- or 30-point lead. This is the strategy that they are going to deploy if he's the nominee in every states.

BASH: Let's talk a little bit more about the former president looking over his shoulder. And he seems to be looking much more over his shoulder at Nikki Haley. I'm not suggesting that any poll shows she's anywhere near him. But the real race here is for second place.

Listen to what he did on the trail yesterday. Stepped up his attack on her and what she said to me in response.


TRUMP: And Nikki did a good job. She was OK. But she's not right to be president. I know it very well wrong -- the wrong thought process, their own policy. And honestly, she's not tough enough. She's not tough enough.

HALEY: I find it comical because when I was at the UN, he always used to tell people don't mess with her. She's tough. And look, I was tough as a governor. You know, I took on, you know, you know, whether it was like passing the toughest illegal immigration law in the country? Whether it was taking on my own legislature when I made them start to record their votes on the record? Whether it was at the U.N. with Russia, China and Iran. Everybody that's ever worked for me or worked with me, no one ever questions my toughness.


BASH: So, I mean, she's basically saying, bring it on.

ZELENY: Without a doubt. And if he's saying that here or for New Hampshire, probably both. That's clearly what he's trying to do. I think by him saying that that could sort of energize some of her voters, because it's a very thinly veiled, perhaps sexist remark saying she's not toughen up. Anyone who's watched a debate that you moderated right here in Iowa last week.


And I've really seen a lot of her -- they think she's pretty tough. I ran into a voter last week at one of her events Ann Wagner. And I was thinking about that this morning. She said that she wants to send message with her vote for Haley here that the race should go on and that everyone is not a Trump supporter, and they are concerned about this.

I think as we step back, we covered, you know, so many ins and outs of the legal cases. But this is the first time tonight that voters will weigh in Republicans and say this is the person we want to sort of have a rematch with the former president.

So, I think that one place and other things, she's obviously focusing on the suburbs. It's the Marco Rubio strategy. He narrow -- he almost beat Donald Trump here in 2016. It was just a one percentage difference. So, the suburbs, the votes, and they've grown considerably since then. Dallas County and Polk County are the two big population centers. That's for strength.

So, look for that tonight. That's what she was trying to do. She's not as organized as DeSantis. But boy, I'm looking at those population centers. We talked about 2000. I was grown and changed significantly since then.

BASH: And I just want to quickly play off of that because one of the things that DeSantis has been saying, if you look at the Des Moines register poll, is that and he's got facts to back it up, or data that some of her support -- more of her support than other candidates comes from independents and even some Democrats. Listen to what DeSantis told me about that, and then what Haley told me.


DESANTIS: There's only two possible nominees, Donald Trump or Governor DeSantis were the only ones that have strong support amongst bedrock Republican conservative voters. And like to win a republican nomination, you have got to be able to do that.

BASH: Does it concern you in a Republican contest that it's not sort of more of the Republicans and it's more of the Democrats and particularly the independents? HALEY: No, because it's exactly what I told the Republican Party they should do. To me, Republicans have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. That's nothing to be proud of. We should want to win the majority of Americans.


HERNDON: You know, that's primary rhetoric versus general election rhetoric, right. Ron DeSantis is making a clear argument saying that he is the only one that's the ceiling, the base Republican voter. That's reflected in how when we talk to people.

They really do often see Nikki Haley as a kind of creature of the establishment or someone who reflects more of a moderate independent slice, but that's not what the base of the party is. Nikki Haley is pointing to the general election, talking about where Republicans have really faltered over the last couple of years. But the problem is she's got to get there.

BASH: She's making the electability argument.

HERNDON: Of course.

BASH: We'll see if anybody's really listening to that. We're going to take a quick break. The final pitches, last minute endorsements, frigid temperatures. We've got it all here folks. It and all matters. Closer look at the counties. You heard Jeff talking a little bit about that critical in these caucuses.




BASH: A live look across Des Moines where it is cold. I mean it's frigid to be honest. The sun is out. That's good. It's picturesque. It's gorgeous over at the state capital, but it is minus one-degrees. And that is without the wind chill factor.

The last time it was anywhere near this cold was 2004, it was 16 degrees and that as a daytime high. Check this out. I took a photo. I was watching local news of what the temperature was over the weekend. I mean, that just gives you a sense. It's actually hard to describe how cold it is here. It is becoming a little clearer just who exactly is going to make up the candidates' voter basis.

Among the highlights, former President Donald Trump is firming up support with the state's influential evangelicals and college educated conservatives. And Nikki Haley is bringing in support from independence and crossover Democrats.

CNN John Berman is joining us live at the Magic Wall to give us a better sense of what the stakes are and where we should be watching this hot guy stay tonight. John? JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: What is it feels like temperature of minus 38 because I have no idea what minus 38 feels like. It chills me to even think about what that feels like.

BASH: It hurts. It's actually physically painful.

BERMAN: It sounds like. All right. Each of these candidates has a lot at stake here. But each one of them has sort of different stakes. Let's talk about Donald Trump. Obviously, he's got this expectations issue right now with polls showing him at or near 50 percent. He wants to achieve a huge victory and historic victory.

The closest anyone ever got to 50 was in the year 2000. That was George W. Bush 41 percent. Donald Trump wants to do better than that now. Ron DeSantis is running a fairly traditional Iowa caucus campaign.

What do I mean by that? He's trying to appeal to evangelical voters. Where are the evangelical voters in Iowa? And sometimes they can make up 50 to 60 percent of Iowa caucus goers. They're here in the northwestern corner of the state. These areas wherever you see the darker shades that's where they have the greatest density of evangelical voters.

I said this as their traditional campaign because -- look at these areas right here. Let's go back to 2016. And you can see the yellow was where Ted Cruz won. By and large, the heavily evangelical areas that is where Ted Cruz did well. This is a different election though.

There's something I want to show you that really blew my mind, Dana. And I think you'll appreciate this, too. Let's look at these two northwestern counties right here. We'll dig in to Lyon County, which is very evangelical. Donald Trump didn't even finish in the top three. In 2016, it was Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, just to the south.

Sioux County, also a large evangelical population. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump not among the top three in these heavily evangelical counties. That is not what we expect this time that Des Moines register poll has Donald Trump with the majority of evangelical support. So that could look very different.


While we have 2016 up here. Let me give you one more comparison here. Nikki Haley is running a campaign. I think Jeff Zeleny said this, a little bit like the Marco Rubio model. Now it's a little hard to tell because Rubio and Trump are both red. Rubio is a brighter red. You can see Marco Rubio won in Des Moines, in Ames, where Iowa State University is Iowa City.

Davenport, these urban suburban areas is where Marco Rubio did well, a very strong third place. Not coincidentally. That is where Joe Biden. He won six counties out of the 99 in the 2020 election but a lot of them were those very same areas, Dana, where Marco Rubio did well in 2016. That is where Nikki Haley wants to pick up a lot of votes. BASH: So fascinating. Thank you for showing us that. We're going to talk to a Dave Cacciola, a veteran Republican here in Iowa. A little bit more about that very point. John, thank you so much. I've had a chance here in Iowa to talk to a lot of voters about who they like and why. A surprising number are still undecided, including Donald Gee.


BASH: Who are you leaning towards?

DONALD GEE, IOWA VOTER: I'm leaning towards I think Nikki Haley or DeSantis. I really -- I think Governor Reynolds in Iowa, Kim Reynolds, a lot of people really respect her opinion. And I think her endorsement of DeSantis mattered a lot.

BASH: Does it matter to you?

GEE: It does, yeah. So that's why I'm kind of in between Nikki Haley and DeSantis because I really liked Nikki Haley. I think she'd be an incredible first female president. But Kim Reynolds supportive DeSantis maybe like reconsider and think we really want to look at both.


BASH: So, he's trying to figure out who he's going to vote for other than Donald Trump. We're going to hear from some more voters a little later in the program. And a top Iowa Republican strategist is here next.