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Trump's Hold On Evangelical Voters In Focus As Iowa Caucuses Kick Off Amid Freezing Temperatures. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 14:00   ET



JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Is it older voters who may be less inclined to get out in these types of temperatures? That's just what people don't know right now. We're going to have to wait and see. And obviously, depending on how that impacts different kinds of voters that can get out, that could impact some of the results. We are looking at how strong will the former president be? He has had a commanding lead in the polls coming out of Iowa. Will he be able to really clinch that commanding lead tonight?

What does the race for second place look like, especially for Governor Ron DeSantis, who has staked so much here in the state of Iowa to really launch him forward to the next stage of the primary? Or somebody like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who's had a lot of momentum as we are heading into the first voting. So let me let you listen to DeSantis and Haley. Here's what they were saying to their supporters.


RON DESANTIS, PRESIDENTAL CANDIDATE (R): 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.

DANA BASH, ANCHOR AND CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: 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?

NIKKI HAYLEY, PRESIDENTAL CANDIDATE (R): 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. That's not something that we should be proud of. We should want to win the majority of Americans.


DEAN: And so while the Haley campaign feels really good and the candidate herself there telling Dana that she really likes that she's pulling all of these different types of voters across the spectrum, the DeSantis campaign, Kaitlyn, will make the argument that they have enthusiasm on their side, that their voters are less squishy when it comes to certainty that they're going to show up at the caucus sites tonight. So they feel good about that. Of course, we're just going to have to see who shows up and how they vote.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Yeah, it's a critical question. And Jessica, you're near the site of the DeSantis watch party where they're going to see who does show up and who votes tonight. But we know his campaign is going to great lengths to get people to show up in caucus. They're even offering rides to caucus goers.

DEAN: Yeah, that's exactly right. They are offering rides to caucus goers all across the state. They're being told to reach out to their precinct captains, to the people that are affiliated with the campaign, that there are cars, buses, vans that will be in place to make sure they can safely get to the caucus site. And Kaitlan, this really gets at one more thing that the DeSantis campaign specifically is really looking to make a difference for them tonight. And that's their ground game and organization.

We've talked about this in covering them for the last several months. The super PAC that's aligned with them never back down has poured millions of dollars into the state of Iowa. They have knocked on over 900000 doors. They have touch points with hundreds of thousands of people all across the state. Now they're hoping that that's going to make a difference no matter what. But especially when you have this weather to consider when it may be a little bit harder or more challenging to get people to these caucus sites.

But in talking with some people, again, they just don't know what's going to happen tonight. They think that's going to make a difference. They're hopeful it's going to make a difference. But we have to see how it all comes together, especially as the sun goes down here. Right now, you can get around around the area of Des Moines. But I will tell you, the wind is what is a killer. And when it gets really dark, it is those conditions outside are absolutely punishing, Kaitlan. And so, we're just going to have to see how that plays in to the makeup that we see at these caucus sites tonight.

COLLINS: Yeah. Hoping everybody stays safe. Jessica Dean, thank you. Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Let's go to Elisa Raffa at the Weather Center. So, what are Iowans contending with tonight?

ELISA RAFFA, CNN WEATHER ANCHOR: We've got temperatures, Anderson, that have been below zero since Saturday afternoon. Des Moines just hit zero degrees right now. But that wind chill is still at 20 degrees below zero. You still have temperatures as cold as eight degrees below zero up in Sheldon with those wind chills as cold as 30 degrees below zero. We've got wind chill warnings in effect for most of the state because those frostbite times are so small. We could find hypothermia symptoms of confusion, difficulty speaking, stiff muscles in temperatures and wind chills this cold.

This evening, as some of those caucuses are going on, we're looking at temperatures as much as 10 degrees below zero. Those wind chills as cold as 30 to 35 degrees below zero. Frostbite can happen in 20 minutes or less. When you look at all the past caucuses, yes, Iowa is cold, but temperatures in the 30s and 40s are nothing compared to that zero degree temperature that we have out there today for this year, 2024. The past coldest caucus was 16 degrees. That was back in 2004. And I want to mention that this cold snap is happening in the midst of their warmest winter on record.

Iowa hasn't really had a cold snap so far this season. So this is really the first time that Iowans are really feeling coldest extreme. And I also want to mention that Des Moines has not been below zero since February 2021. So, this doesn't happen all that often. Anderson.

COOPER: Elisa Raffa. Thank you so much. We know where cost or caucus goers may see some rough winter conditions. The question is, where do candidates really need folks to show up? John Berman is back at the match of all to game this out for us. What are you looking at, John?


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Let me show you three different counties, Anderson, really east, west, and center that tell the story of tonight. Let's start with Dubuque in the eastern part of this state. I'm pointing this out because Dubuque, it's always close. In the presidential race in 2020, Donald Trump won, but by just a few points. In 2016, in the presidential race, Donald Trump won, but by only one point. In the 2016 Republican caucuses, you can see it was Donald Trump who won there, but by less than a point. It's sort of this knife's edge county, or at least it has been.

And tonight, as you watch this, see if Donald Trump is able to build up a substantial lead in this county that's always close. If he is, that'll tell a story maybe of where the night is going. Keeping the 2016 map up here, I'm going to go to the far western part of the state. I pointed this out before. This is Ted Cruz country, or was in 2016, an evangelical part of the state. Sioux County, it's a small county, only 1% of the state's population. Ted Cruz won this with 33% of the vote. But what's so interesting to me about this county is Donald Trump wasn't in the top three in this county with a heavy evangelical vote.

Tonight, again, I would not expect that to happen. You will likely see Donald Trump's name somewhere in this mix. The question is, is he able to blow it out in this county where he didn't even show up last time? The biggest county in the state is Polk County, which is where the capital is of Des Moines. This is a county where in 2016, in the Republican caucuses, Marco Rubio won. 26% of the vote, Ted Cruz at 25%. This is a county that Joe Biden, also won in the presidential election. More Democrats here. This is a county where Nikki Haley has to do very well.

Independents and Democrats can vote tonight. Again, in the Des Moines Register poll, 70% of caucus goers identified as Republicans tonight. But Democrats and Independents, which make up about 28%, if they register as Republicans, they can vote tonight. There are a lot of them in Polk County, Anderson. And if they show up and change their parties, they can make a difference.

COOPER: All right. John Berman, thanks very much. Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Thanks, Anderson. And Jackie Kucinich is here with us. Jackie, you've covered a lot of Iowa caucuses in our days. I mean, maybe none like today is with as cold as the weather that our friends are craving. We're safe inside. But I wonder what you do, what you make of what the turnout could be impacted by this. Because, you know, the Trump campaign has said they believe a lot of first-time caucus goers are going to show up to hit for him. But are they as inclined to show up when the weather's this treacherous outside?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is where enthusiasm. It really, really matters. And Trump has been, unlike in the last time he ran against Ted Cruz, he actually has an organization in Iowa. And it's pretty vast. I mean, our reporter, Jess Bidgood, met a woman who was organizing, met a caucus, a precinct captain, who was organizing rides for people to get to caucus. And I think you'll probably see the same thing with Ron DeSantis, who also has quite the organization there.

Haley, of course, in the last Des Moines Register poll, was polling above Ron DeSantis. But her organization on the ground, she hasn't been there as long as the other two campaigns. So that will be an X factor here, because you have to really love a candidate to come out in this kind of conditions. I don't care what they say. This is different even for Iowa. It is cold. And Jessica said it. The wind is no joke.

COLLINS: Yeah. And Daniel, what do you make of the kind of expectation managing that we've seen from Trump's team in the sense of what this could look like, given, you know, Nikki Haley's team is putting out a video today of how many times he's said that he's up by 60 points in Iowa.

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean, with Trump, I also look at who he's attacking and when. And he's offered a little spray on everyone here, from Vivek to Haley. So, what that indicates to me, at least, is that at this point, he knows that there is some ground gaining among both DeSantis and Haley and even Vivek. And he wants to quell that as quickly as possible. He wants to see as big a win in Iowa tonight to just put the perception that this primary is over, that these are all stragglers, and that there is no chance at all of any kind of real surge of anyone but him in this primary going forward.

COLLINS: Well, so what does that mean for Nikki Haley? I mean, she's obviously hoping to totally disrupt that.

MATT MOWERS, FORMER TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ADVISER: Well, look, Nikki Haley obviously needs to come in second place at this point. She certainly wants to come in second place. She needs to catapult into New Hampshire, where she is gaining on Donald Trump, but she's not there yet. Most polling still shows her down at least 10 points, some showing her more. I know. CNN's poll shows her a little bit closer. But the fact is that she wants to have a good night. She wants a one- on-one race with Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis is going to have a lot of existential questions to answer tonight for his campaign if he doesn't come in second place. He's been out there saying that he needs to come in first for most of the campaign. He's now also staked his entire operation on this state. If it doesn't pan out and he doesn't come in second, I think even his biggest supporters are going to ask, what's a path forward for him?


COLLINS: I mean, he does. Right now, his travel plans are to go to South Carolina tomorrow morning and then to New Hampshire for a CNN town hall with Wolf Blitzer tomorrow night. I mean, could tonight disrupt that?

MIKE LEON, HOST, CAN WE PLEASE TALK PODCAST: That's a lot of travel miles, right? By the way, happy John King, John Berman at the wall day for everybody. You know, as a Florida resident on this panel, 14 months ago, everybody, November of 22, and again, DeSantis ran against a candidate that wasn't that great in Florida. We saw what we thought would be the birth of the next wave of the GOP field and how 14 months later, here we are. All the chips are in the basket for Ron DeSantis. As you were saying, if he does not finish in the top two here, this is going to be really, really scary stuff for the DeSantis campaign.

I don't even know if he makes any of those events. We're going to find out in the next seven to 10 days what the DeSantis camp will look like. But a strong second place is a must. Anybody in the DeSantis camp that you talk to after the re-election and as he started the presidential run will tell you, Iowa was always the focus. Don't let them lie to you. Iowa was always the focus. So today, all eyes are on Iowa for him. He has to finish in second place.

COLLINS: Well, Jackie, what do you make of how Ron DeSantis, what he's saying in recent days? Like you heard him speaking with Dana Bass just earlier today about. The end of this race, he's much more explicit in his criticisms of Donald Trump. He's much more media friendly than he was certainly at the beginning of this campaign when he was kind of in that era parent to Donald Trump era.

KUCINICH: He has also started this underdog pitch, but also he kind of re-emerged this thing that he's been saying at the early part of the campaign, which is it's a two man race between me and Donald Trump. And it is very clear in his note that has not a thing any longer. I haven't heard him say it as recently as he said it to Dana. But listen, he's trying to say he took a very traditional route to becoming the nominee in Iowa. He courted evangelicals. He did the tech. He has a lot of Ted Cruz people on his team or did.

And the difference is the X factor here is, is that Trump evangelicals really like Trump, particularly in Iowa. They like Trump. And whether that model is going to be broken tonight, that's one thing that I'm going to watch because I think it'll be really interesting.

MOWERS: And that could actually serve Ron DeSantis well. I think it's going to be really interesting tonight if temperatures are actually keeping people home, if turnout is down, his campaign has been targeting the folks who are showing up every four years of the caucus. They are going out there and they're talking to the same Republican activists. Not to mention, if you look at the Des Moines Register poll, his voters are not made up by as many seniors as Donald Trump and Nikki Haley supporters. That also may play into those who feel safe to go out and negative 20-degree wind chill factors tonight to go caucus.

LEON: I was going to say, Kaitlan, think about in pro sports. Anybody who spends this much money in that state, who gets the endorsements of the governor and the biggest evangelicals in the state.

KUCINICH: Bob Vander Plaats, yeah.

LEON: If you don't get your return on investment and all that, it's very tough for the DeSantis campaign to look down the road as we get to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

KAITLAN: Yeah, we will be talking about that very soon. Actually speaking up because coming up, we have some of the biggest Trump supporters, as we were mentioning, are evangelical Christians. A question right now is whether or not Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis can break through. We're going to speak to one of those very influential religious leaders we were just talking about who is supporting Ron DeSantis in this race. Also, what are the Iowa caucuses historically tell us about the race for the White House overall? We'll break it down after a quick break.



COOPER: Donald Trump has gained major support among a critical component of Iowa's Republican base, evangelical voters. They could be a key driver in tonight's outcome. And their votes could be an early sign of what's to come. Let's go back to CNN's John Berman. Tonight's gonna test John whether any other Republican can break Trump's hold on evangelical voters. Where do the candidates stand right now when it comes to evangelical support?

BERMAN: Well, they are all fighting for it, Anderson. There's no question about that. And when we talk about evangelicals in Iowa, they make up just 12.4% of the vote, which doesn't seem like that much. But in Republican caucuses, they play an outsized role. There's just no question about it. In 2016, they made up roughly 65%, 65% of Republican caucus goers. And Ted Cruz, seen as the candidate of evangelicals, he won. In 2012, they made up 57% of the Republican caucus goers. And Rick Santorum, seen as the candidate of evangelical voters, he won. And if you go back to 2008, a very similar story. They made up 60% of Republican caucus goers. And Mike Huckabee was the winner. He was seen as the candidate of evangelical voters.

I want to go back to 2016 because that tells more of the story about where we are right now. As we said, Ted Cruz, he won the caucuses back in 2016. If we look at where the evangelical voters are in this state, again, in the far northwest corner, the darker the color here, the more densely populated among evangelical voters. You can see these areas are where the evangelical voters are. And if I switch to the counties that Ted Cruz won. Yellow is Ted Cruz. You can see he did very well in all of these counties. This was Cruz County. Tonight, Donald Trump wants to do well in all these counties and the same counties he did well in in 2016 himself.

In a way, he wants to double where he was. And there are signs that he's on the way of doing that because the latest Des Moines Registered Poll support among evangelicals. I drew an extra line there. But you can see Donald Trump is at 51% among support among evangelicals. Ron DeSantis running. Ron DeSantis running second at 22%. But this is a group that both of them very much want to control tonight, Anderson.

COOPER: John Berman, thanks. Kaitlan?


COLLINS: Speaking of Governor DeSantis, he has poured a lot of time and money into Iowa, but a big question that we'll be looking at tonight is whether or not he can shake the former president's hold on evangelical voters there. One of the state's most influential evangelical leaders joins me now. Bob Vander Plaats is the CEO of The Family Leader. He endorsed Governor DeSantis back in December. Great to have you here. Thanks for joining us on such an exciting day in Iowa. Do you still believe that Governor DeSantis can win Iowa?

BOB VANDER PLAATS, CEO, THE FAMILY LEADER: You know, I really do, Kaitlan. It's almost like a perfect storm for him, no pun intended. It's frigid wind chills out there tonight. There's snow, there's ice. I think it's going to be a turnout game. He's built an amazing organization. Ted Cruz, was the best organization I've ever seen in 2016, and I'd say DeSantis' organization is light years ahead of where Cruz's organization is. So, if he gets the turnout, I think he'll do -- he'll beat expectations, but potentially he could win.

COLLINS: So, you think the weather will actually, in turn, help Governor DeSantis and hurt someone like Donald Trump, who right now is the frontrunner in this race?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, there's two things. That remains to be seen. There's two things that are going to play into a turnout game. One's going to be organization, and the other is going to be DeSantis. The other one will be enthusiasm. And what I've been seeing on the ground is I've travelled with the governor from campaign stop to campaign stop. There's no doubt he has the energy and the enthusiasm. Matter of fact, it matches a lot of what I saw with Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz in the late days of their caucus victories.

COLLINS: Well, I wonder where you think evangelical voters are going into this, because the candidates that you just listed, those were ones who primarily won those voters over. I wonder where you think evangelical voters are going into this, because the candidates that you just listed, those were ones who primarily won those voters over. But when you look at a Des Moines Register poll, the one that just came out over the weekend, it shows that Trump is leading among evangelical voters with 51% support compared to 22% support for Governor DeSantis, 12% for Nikki Haley. I mean, why do you think evangelicals, based on these numbers, are lining up behind Donald Trump?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, I think one is because Donald Trump now has a record. He had a record of accomplishment. He appointed three Supreme Court justices. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem. He did the Abraham Accords. He stood up for religious liberty. There's a lot of things that evangelicals would say, we're very appreciative of that. But, Kaitlan, where my pulse doesn't line up with the polls, that means every other person I visit with in my base would have to tell me they're voting for Donald Trump. And that's just not the case.

They tell me they're appreciative. Then the next breath, they tell me it's time to turn the page, get to the next generation of leaders that can lead on day one and for two terms. And then they talk about Governor DeSantis. That's why I believe DeSantis could defy the polls tonight and not only come in a very strong second, but he might actually knock on the door of winning this thing.

COLLINS: You just cited Trump's record, but I wonder where you think Trump himself lies on these issues, because Governor DeSantis told me he doesn't think Trump is pro-life.

VANDER PLAATS: Well, there's no doubt that the Trump of 2016 and the Trump of 24, we say he's just really not the same guy. He got the life question at, you're at a town hall with you, and he said he's willing to make a deal on it. He had the same question at a Fox News town hall just recently. And he said, that's why we're getting beat was because of the life issue and we need to win. That he said about Governor DeSantis and about Governor Reynolds, that by signing the heartbeat bill, that was an awful, awful thing. For us pro-lifers, that says now he's now pro-choice, not pro-life.

On the gender issue, when Megyn Kelly asked him, can a man become a woman? He couldn't answer that question. Those are issues that we have concerns with today. So, I can see why evangelicals are appreciative of what he did in his term as president, but now they really need to look clear-eyed as they go forward about who can win at 24 and then who can lead on our issues.

COLLINS: That moment you brought up, there are two town halls, the town hall with me, Trump would not say how many weeks he would support on an abortion bill. In the other town hall with Fox last week, when he was asked, he basically made it sound like, or he acknowledged the fact that the abortion policies that Republicans have pursued are hurting them at the polls and was saying you have to win votes. Do you think it's clear that Donald Trump is just politics driven on this, not policy or principle?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, I think it's definitely where he's at, because if you also recall in the midterm elections of 22, he threw the pro-life community under the bus and blamed us for not having the red wave or the red tsunami that we were supposed to have. But I'd remind everybody, those who were authentically pro-life, a Governor Ron DeSantis, a Governor Kim Reynolds, not only did they win in 2022, but they experienced the red wave in Florida and in Iowa that was predicted all across the country.


I think on the pro-life issue, on the life issue, people want to have authenticity. They don't want to have nuance. They don't want to have let's make a deal. They want to know where are you at on that issue. And I believe Governor DeSantis has been exceptionally clear he wants to be a champion for the culture of the sanctity of human life.

COLLINS: If Donald Trump wins the Iowa caucuses tonight, could you support him despite everything that you just laid out of what he said about your community?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, I think whoever wins the nomination, whether that be Governor DeSantis or the former President Donald Trump, they need to earn everybody's votes, especially those people that were not with them in the primary process. So, I would say right now, Kaitlan, let's stay focused on the election. Let's stay focused on the election. Let's stay focused on the election. Let's stay focused on the Iowa caucuses. Let's stay focused on the primary that's ahead of us. And then once we get to that point, we got to make sure that those candidates are willing to earn the votes and supports of the other camps that will make them a better candidate going forward.

COLLINS: Bob Vander Plaats, as always, perfect to hear from you, but great to hear from you on a day like today. Thanks for your time.

VANDER PLAATS: Thank you, Kaitlan. God bless.

COLLINS: And up next, a plea from Donald Trump to even his supporters who may not be well to come out tonights caucuses ahead much more on the race for the nomination and the freezing weather that is bad enough to make even the toughest Iowan rethink going out.