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CNN Live Event/Special

Interview With State Sen. Chris Cournoyer (R-IA); Iowa Holds Presidential Caucuses. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 13:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And welcome to our special coverage of the Iowa Republican caucuses, the first primary contest in the nation.

In a few hours, the GOP will be one step closer to choosing a nominee to take on President Biden. Today, the candidates making their closing pitches to caucus-goers in the Hawkeye State, hitting the trail in the middle of a record cold snap.

This is the capital of Des Moines, where it is two degrees below zero, so cold that even the traditional sky-high enthusiasm among Donald Trump supporters may not be enough insulation. Trump himself has expressed concern his margins could take a hit from the frigid temperatures.

CNN's Eva McKend is on the scene in Des Moines.

So, what are the candidates saying in these final hours?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, Nikki Haley, she began her day at the Drake Diner here in Des Moines, a popular spot.

And she's basically telling Iowans to get out and caucus for her this evening. She says that she's not worried about the weather, that she's feeling a lot of momentum and excitement on the ground. She has really centered her campaign on this notion that she would be the strongest person to go up against President Biden in November, so principally about electability.

Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis crisscrossing the state as well. Take a listen to what he had to say.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People are going to say there's only two possible nominees, Donald Trump or Governor DeSantis. We're 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. I think Iowa will show that very clearly.


MCKEND: So you see Governor DeSantis there. He's really caught in a battle for second place with Nikki Haley, as both of them really try to emerge from this contest this evening as the principal Trump alternative.

Meanwhile, the big question is, will Iowans turn out, despite this brutal winter weather? The Iowans I'm speaking to say yes, that they take their role in this process very seriously. They think it's a huge honor that Iowa goes first, so that they have had the privilege of vetting these candidates, and that despite this negative -- negative temperatures, below-zero temperatures, they do plan to go out to their community centers among their community and participate in the caucus tonight, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Eva McKend, thanks very much. We will check in with you throughout the day.

That cold is where we go with John Berman at the Magic Wall.

So, what do you think this means for turnout, John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Let me show you, Anderson, where the weather could have an impact in Iowa -- everywhere, the entire state.

The deep yellow here is where there are windchill warnings, the pale yellow, winter weather advisories. It is just everywhere. And they're forecasting temperatures really low, like minus-14. That's without the windchill in Des Moines, Davenport minus-16.

So which candidates will this affect the most? You can make some different arguments here. You could say, well, it could impact Donald Trump. The latest polls have him way ahead. Maybe he has the most voters to spare. On the other hand, they may take his lead for granted and not show up.

What about Ron DeSantis? In this same poll from "The Des Moines Register," 62 percent of Ron DeSantis supporters say they will definitely attend the caucus. It's 56 percent for Donald Trump, 51 percent for Nikki Haley.

The issue for Ron DeSantis, though they are committed, it's where they might be in the state. He's making a big play for evangelical voters. Everywhere you see on this map with the darker colors, it has the greatest percentage of evangelical voters. I will circle these areas right here. What do they have all in common in, these areas?

Look at the populations. The places with the biggest circles have the greatest population, the smallest circles the lowest population. A lot of small circles there for these evangelical areas where Ron DeSantis is trying to run up the score. That means fewer caucus places at these precincts, a longer distance to travel over icy roads. That could be a problem for Ron DeSantis, getting his people those long distances to the polls. Well, where do they have the most polling places? Let me circle the

areas right here with the biggest populations. Let's figure out what they all have in common. I'm going to take out these filters right here. All right.


And I want to show you the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump won. Joe Biden won six counties, but they're largely in those major population centers with a lot of voters, which means a lot of precincts, which means you don't have to drive very far to get there. Who could that benefit?

Maybe Nikki Haley. She's making a big play for independent and moderate voters in these urban and suburban areas, university towns like Ames, where Iowa State is, Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is. This is a place where moderates and independents have done well, including in 2016.

Marco Rubio, if you look at the caucuses there, he finished a very close third here. It's a tough to see the difference between his red and Donald Trump's red. But Marco Rubio actually won in these areas that I circled right there, where there are probably a lot of caucus sites, a lot of precincts you can show up to. Maybe that will benefit Nikki Haley. We will have to see, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, John Bergman, thanks very much. A lot hanging in the balance.

Here with the team in New York. Joining us is Doug Heye.

Let's start with you, Doug.

The -- who has -- in terms of the ground operation, who has the better ground game?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Without question, Donald Trump.

And I think one of the more interesting things about this campaign in the general, but also here in the primary, is that Donald Trump has a real professional organization, which he sure didn't have last time he was running in the primary and in the general. His result was impressive in 2016, given that, yes, he was a force of nature, but Iowa's all about organization.

That's why Ted Cruz ultimately won.

COOPER: Ted Cruz had a very good ground game back in '16.

HEYE: Very smart and very good, deeply tied into county and precinct- by-precinct level.

But Trump was a force of nature that nearly won it all.

COOPER: I'm told that Ron DeSantis has a very good operation. He has a very good operation, very seasoned professionals, and he's

worked that state hard. He's gone to all 99 counties, a lot of them more than once, more than twice. But Trump doesn't have to work as hard as the other candidates. He gets more attention in whatever he does. He certainly is better known by Iowa voters as well.

And so we're going to see, I think, Trump do very well in counties that Ted Cruz won last time that Donald Trump might have come in second or even third place.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's also sort of an indication of the way Trump is running in 2024, which is a little bit of the benefit of having been the president.

He runs the Republican Party, full stop. At the same time, he's also running sort of a little bit like he did in 2016, as an outsider. So, in 2016, as Doug pointed out, he did not have the organization. Now he does. And he's sort of running as an outsider. So that duality of his campaign is a feature we're going to, I think, continue to see as this unfolds.

HEYE: The anti-establishment establishment.

FINNEY: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: To me, yes, I spend a bit of time in Iowa. I'm involved with the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library there, Herbert Hoover, the only president from Iowa.

And I think this story of Iowa is actually a story of the GOP elites versus the GOP grassroots, because what you have in Iowa is GOP elites, electeds. Kim Reynolds, the governor, Bob Vander Plaats, an elite evangelical leader in the state, former electeds who are no longer in office, but used to run the state, all have decided that they're friends with Donald Trump, but they're going to support someone else.

And, in most cases, that someone else...

COOPER: Yes, Vander Plaats, I interviewed him last night. He's supporting DeSantis.

HOOVER: Very clearly for DeSantis.

I mean, they all -- it's almost like they got in a room and said, who's going to be our guy that isn't Trump, right, because they're all for DeSantis. It's like they made a strategic calculation to try to back somebody that wasn't different -- that was different from Trump that would turn a page for the Republican Party.

And when you look at the polling and you look at the energy and you look at where Trump is, you see that it perhaps didn't translate. So are the elites able to influence the grassroots, or does the grassroots have its own inertial momentum despite the elites, which has, frankly, been the story of Donald Trump all along? COOPER: Vander Plaats last night told me that the ground game that

Ron DeSantis has, the operation he has set up is leap years ahead or light years ahead of what Ted Cruz had in 2016, which was, to your point, a very good operation.


And then, look, this is really a test of those kind of endorsements. It's a test of the ground game thesis. I mean, DeSantis' team has blown through an unprecedented amount of money before a single vote's been cast. And the latest "Des Moines Register" poll shows that momentum's actually moving away from him. Nikki Haley's been catching more.

But given the vaunted importance of a ground game in Iowa, this is really a test for Kim Reynolds, a very popular governor. Can she convert that endorsement to people on the ground? Can Bob Vander Plaats convert that endorsement to evangelicals getting out, especially in these conditions?

I think Donald Trump's throwing out the rule book on a lot of issues. I could test the idea that -- or there's a particular irony that Donald Trump isn't an elite. There's no definition, objective definition of elite that doesn't include a guy with...

HOOVER: But, in Iowa, amongst the Iowa GOP, he doesn't run the state. He's not the governor.


HOOVER: He wasn't -- he's not the lieutenant governor, who...



AVLON: No. To your point, the grass tops tried to come up with an alternative to Trump, and the grassroots, to a large extent, seemed to really be bought in.

COOPER: It's interesting this argument that Vivek Ramaswamy has been making, and some even supporters of DeSantis have been making it for DeSantis, which is that a vote for them is actually -- if you want Trump, if you like Trump, a vote for them is actually a vote for Trump, because they will protect Donald Trump in a way that Donald Trump cannot protect him himself from the deep state.

AVLON: It doesn't make a lot of sense.

And, actually, I think that's why you saw Donald Trump going after Vivek Ramaswamy.


AVLON: I mean, a lot of people thought that if I could just be a MAGA Mini Me, that will be a safe place to be within the Republican Party. No. It's a one-way street, man. He's coming after you one day.

COOPER: What are your expectations for today?

FINNEY: So, I think turnout is probably going to be down overall. It will be interesting to see. We have been talking a lot today about seniors and whether or not they will brave the cold, the dangerous conditions, particularly in rural areas, which opens up an opportunity for younger voters to have their voices heard.

Sara Sidner, the -- and what's interesting there is, they're talking about -- the thing the young Republicans and I were talking about is electability. That benefits Nikki Haley. So it will be interesting. I'm looking at not just what the turnout is, but where it is and how. Does the evangelical vote split for Ron -- between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, or is Donald Trump able -- he got two-thirds of the evangelical vote in 2016.

Can he hold on to that? And do young voters turn out? Do seniors turn out and where? So I think that's going to be the most interesting, not just because of what it tells us about Iowa, but what it tells us about where the electorate really is.


HEYE: Yes, I think it goes back to what John was talking about, population centers.

And what was interesting to me, just yesterday, I saw a quote from a caucus-goer for Donald Trump, who said -- who was asked about the weather. And Iowa can handle tough weather, even if this is really tough weather. She said: "I would walk over glass for Donald Trump."

OK. That is a mind-set that means that that person is definitely going to caucus. But you do have harder issues if you're out in that northwestern corridor or anywhere outside of the population centers, where you have far -- far to drive and also roads that aren't necessarily as well kept. It makes that interesting to see, can Donald Trump get to 50 percent?

If he's at 50 percent plus one, he can argue that this race is effectively over at that point.


Everybody, stand by.

Nikki Haley is brushing off new attacks from the former president. Haley says Americans want to talk about key issues and not whether somebody's MAGA or not, in her words.

Meantime, Trump once again turns his legal troubles to campaign talking points during his final stops in Iowa. How is that resonating with caucus-goers? We will take a closer look during CNN's live special coverage.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


COOPER: Any moment now, Nikki Haley should be appearing at a campaign even in Pella, Iowa, is one of her last appeals to voters ahead of the Republican caucuses.

Earlier today she took aim at Donald Trump. He spent the weekend accusing her of not being part of his MAGA movement. Here's how Haley responded.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is not what Americans want to be talking about.

They're wanting to know why economy is high and -- why inflation is high, why everything's more expensive. They want to know why we aren't focused on getting our kids reading again. They want to know how we're allowing the lawlessness at the border that's out of control.

That's what they want to talk about, not whether somebody's MAGA or not.


COOPER: Iowa State Senator Chris Cournoyer is here now. She's the Iowa co-chair for Nikki Haley's campaign.

Thanks so much for being with us.

How are you feeling about tonight?


Nikki is certainly gaining momentum at the right time, peaking at the right time, and I think we're going to have a big surprise tonight at caucus.

COOPER: The ground operation that the Haley campaign has is not as deep or as extensive as DeSantis or the former president's. I mean, how concerned are you tonight about people actually showing up?

COURNOYER: Well, I have seen the team grow over the last 11 months. She has certainly put in the time and the effort, going all across the state, putting in the time, the town halls and talking with Iowans, listening, answering the tough questions.

And I think that that has paid off. And you see it in the polls. And I think you're going to see a lot of people show up at caucus tonight looking for that new generational type of leader that can serve two terms, that has the best chance of beating Joe Biden in November.

COOPER: What do you think success looks like for Nikki Haley tonight? I mean, does she have to come in second? COURNOYER: I think she will -- I think a strong second will give her

the momentum that she needs going into New Hampshire.

She has a strong lead in New Hampshire. So I think that a strong showing here tonight is going to take that momentum over in New Hampshire, and then, of course, her home state of South Carolina going into Super Tuesday. I think she will be very well-positioned to go one-on-one with Donald Trump and show the American people why she is the best alternative without all the baggage and chaos to move this country forward in a positive way.

COOPER: Marco Rubio just endorsed Trump over Haley. In 2016, Haley was a strong supporter of Rubio. I'm wondering what you make of Rubio's decision there.

COURNOYER: Well, I mean, everybody's entitled to endorse who they want to endorse. Obviously, I think Nikki is the most qualified. She's the candidate that beats Joe Biden by double digits in November.

And we really, I think, as Republicans, need to keep our eye on the prize. If we want to take the White House back, which means if we want to take the country back and move forward into a positive future, we need to elect someone that doesn't have all the baggage and chaos, that can actually serve two terms as president.

COOPER: The fact that Haley's support is in more urban areas with polls closer, caucus sites closer for people who maybe don't need to travel quite so much as in some rural areas, how much do you think that may factor in tonight in for -- to benefit her?

COURNOYER: Well, I live in a rural area, and my roads are plowed. The county crews and the state crews have done a great job clearing off the road.


So Iowans aren't afraid of getting out in a little cold weather. So I think we're going to have a great turnout. The enthusiasm at the grassroots at the local levels is high. The enthusiasm is high. And I think people are going to show up.

In fact, at my little elementary school where I'm caucusing tonight, they're already setting up shuttles because they anticipate that the parking lot won't be big enough for all the people that are going to show up tonight.

COOPER: Chris Cournoyer, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

COURNOYER: Thank you.

COOPER: Donald Trump not just going after his rivals. He's also taking aim at people at the center of his many legal troubles.

We will see how voters in the Hawkeye State feel about this type of messaging in the homestretch next.



COOPER: Former President Donald Trump once again making his myriad of legal troubles a key part of his campaign.

This weekend, during a campaign stop in Iowa, he bashed the judge overseeing the defamation trial brought forth by E. Jean Carroll. That civil case is set to begin tomorrow. Still, Trump's legal fights have loomed large over the GOP presidential primary race.

CNN reporter Alayna Treene is in Des Moines for us.

So, how is the former present using his court battles to his advantage?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Anderson, Donald Trump is really putting his legal battles at the forefront of his campaign.

I know from my conversations with Donald Trump's advisers that they really view his political strategy and his legal strategy as largely one and the same. And that's why you're seeing Donald Trump talk about his legal issues so much on the campaign trail.

And I know, again, from my conversations with his team, that they really do think one of the best strategies on the trail for Donald Trump is to try and paint himself as a victim of political persecution. And that's exactly what the former president did during his rally in Iowa yesterday. He told supporters -- quote -- "These caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters and thugs."

He continued to say -- quote -- "The Washington swamp has done everything in its power to take away your voice. But tomorrow is your time to turn on them and to say and speak your mind and vote."

Now, Anderson, we should note that much of his incendiary rhetoric around his legal issues isn't necessarily based in fact. But it is something that his team believes is working well with his supporters.

And I also just -- a great example of this, I think, is what we saw last week, when Donald Trump took himself off the trail, not once, but twice, in order to appear in court for two of his separate cases. And part of that strategy was really -- and it enabled him to suck a lot of the media oxygen out of the primary and keep it on himself.

And I think it's really a great preview of what we can expect in the months to come, when Donald Trump is going to be bouncing between the courtroom and the campaign trail -- Anderson.

COOPER: Alayna Treene, thanks so much.

Now, let's go to CNN's John Berman at the Magic Wall.

John, let's remind people at home how Trump did in Iowa in 2016.

BERMAN: Well, he lost. He lost in the Republican caucuses.

And what's so interesting, Anderson, is, in a way, he's appealing to different voters this time around. Let's remember that, in 2016, Ted Cruz won the Republican caucuses with 26.0 percent of the vote, Donald Trump at 24.3 percent.

And, as I mentioned before, Ted Cruz really campaigned hard among evangelicals. And you can see that in these areas densely populated with evangelical voters, this is where Ted Cruz did the best and tried to run up the score. These are Cruz counties, Cruz counties, Cruz counties. That was 2016.

I want to show you a couple of these counties that have some of the highest numbers of evangelicals. Look at this. In the northwest corner of Iowa here -- let me just X out of that -- the northwest corner of Iowa here, Lyon County, Ted Cruz was first in 2016, Marco Rubio second, Ben Carson third.

Donald Trump wasn't even among the top three. One county to the south, in Sioux County, again, high number of evangelical voters, Cruz, Rubio, Ben Carson. Trump not in the top three in 2016. Now, as we're in 2024, in the latest "Des Moines Register" poll among evangelical voters, Donald Trump's at 51 percent. Ron DeSantis is at 22 percent. Donald Trump is just lapping the field, eight years ago, wasn't even among the top three in these counties.

And to an extent, you think Donald Trump has the idea that he's pretty safe among these voters. Why do I say that? Well, where is he spending all of his money right now? We have one slide here. We're going to show ad spending over the closing weeks of the campaign. Donald Trump's campaign and his super PACs spent $4.5 million targeting Nikki Haley, zero dollars targeting Ron DeSantis, so not fighting for the evangelical vote.

He thinks he has that in his pocket probably. Going after more moderate voters, the Nikki Haley contingent -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, John Berman, thanks very much. We will follow it.

My panel is back with me.

It is fascinating. We were talking to Alayna Treene about his legal troubles. I mean, it's a brilliant move by him to embrace them and to campaign off them. And he knows the cameras are going to be at these courtrooms. He's following the cameras and fund-raising off this.


HOOVER: And then insisting on being in court, even when his presence is completely not required.

COOPER: And claiming he has to be in court and that he's being taken off the campaign trail...


COOPER: ... and fund-raising over that.