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GOP Candidates Face First Test Of Primary Season In Iowa; Record Cold Temps Threaten Iowa Caucuses. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 15:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And welcome, I'm Anderson Cooper in New York alongside Kaitlan Collins in Washington, D.C. Welcome to our live coverage of the Iowa Republican caucuses, the first nominating contest in the 2024 race. The first in the nation contest is shaping up to be a memorable one.

Donald Trump, the frontrunner, is urging his supporters not to be complacent. Nikki Haley is making the electability case, arguing she's best suited to take on President Biden. Gov. Ron DeSantis says he's the only one who can compete with Trump for the Republican base.

Stakes are extremely high, the temperature is extremely low, and the entire nation is watching to see what tonight's results will mean for an already intense election year.

Let's get you to the ground with CNN's Alayna Treene in Des Moines.

So, Alayna, what are you hearing there in the homestretch?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Right. Well, after months of crisscrossing the state of Iowa and pouring 10s of millions of dollars into campaign ads, the candidates really spent the final days before tonight's Iowa caucuses delivering their closing arguments to Iowa voters and urging them to brave the frigid weather here in the state and turn out and caucus for them.

Now, Donald Trump has remained the clear frontrunner. He has maintained his commanding lead in the polls. But a big question is still whether or not his path to the potential Republican nomination will become more difficult after Iowa. We're also paying close attention to whether Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis will emerge as the number two and see where they fare tonight.

A lot of people are trying to see which one of them will become the clear alternative to Donald Trump. And that is something that Nikki Haley actually addressed recently with our colleague, Kylie Atwood. Take a listen to what she said.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: How do you make this into the two person race between you and former president, Trump, if you don't come in second, if Gov. DeSantis comes in second and he's still in the race going into New Hampshire?

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We don't play in ifs. Look, I remember when there were 14 candidates in the race and I was 2 percent in the polls, and everybody was saying, how, how, how. I am showing you how. We're going to continue to show you how. Let's look and see what the caucus numbers are tonight and then let's head to New Hampshire because that's what our plan is.


TREENE: Now, Anderson and Kaitlan, according to my conversations with Donald Trump's campaign, they are anticipating that he will win tonight, just like the polls are saying. But a big question is by how much of a lead that could be. They really want him to win by a big enough margin that will carry him through the rest of primary season and blunt the momentum that any of his challengers may see, particularly Nikki Haley, who they're watching very closely as she rises in the polls in New Hampshire, which, of course, their primary is next week. Anderson, Kaitlan?

COOPER: Well, Alayna Treene, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

In Iowa, it's not just about where you finish, of course. It's about how you finish, the margins, whether you beat expectations or come up short. All of that can determine whether your candidacy fights another day after Iowa.

Let's go to John Berman at the "Magic Wall." So give us a sense of the thresholds the candidates are aiming to hit.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Anderson, it's really interesting. For Donald Trump, as Alayna was saying, he doesn't just want to win, he wants to make history. What would history be? Well, George W. Bush reached the highest number in a Republican caucus. He got 41 percent of the vote. Donald Trump, in theory, wants to get higher to that, maybe even get up over 50 percent of the vote.

For Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley in the battle for second place, it's all about beating expectations. And for Ron DeSantis, that means showing that some of these polls that show him slipping into third place are wrong and that he can regain the momentum. So what does that mean?

Ron DeSantis, first of all, benefits from the fact that 62 percent of his voters say that they will definitely show up. But Ron DeSantis is also hoping that the recent polls were wrong like they were in 2016. The final Des Moines Register poll before 2016 showed Donald Trump at 28 percent, Ted Cruz at 23 percent.

What ultimately happened? Ted Cruz won with almost 28 percent. Donald Trump was in second. So Ron DeSantis is hoping to show that his organization can get him over that hump, maybe not in the first place, but a strong second place. Now, for Nikki Haley, this is about campaigning in a way for a more general election type campaign. She is trying to appeal to a wider group of voters, not just Republicans, but also Democrats and Independents. The Des Moines Register poll finds that about 60 percent of people who show up tonight will be Republicans, but almost 28 percent will be Democrats or Independents who can vote if they change their party tonight.


So she wants to appeal to these people.

Where are these people? Well, let's look at the presidential election in 2020.

We can see these blue counties are where Joe Biden won. Obviously, there are Democrats and Independents there. They also happen to be where there are a lot of people. The bigger the circle, the greater the population. Nikki Haley is hoping to pick up votes in these population centers. And really, for both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, this is a little bit like Groundhog Day, Anderson.

It's not like the repetition that we've come to think of Groundhog Day. But if the groundhog sees its shadow, you know, you get six more weeks of winter. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis want to be close enough. So this campaign lasts another six weeks.

COOPER: John Berman - John, thanks. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: And Anderson, my next guest is a popular conservative radio host. Jeff Angelo, a former Iowa state senator. And many of the Republican candidates have repeatedly been on his show, "Need to Know With Jeff Angelo."

Jeff, thanks so much for being here.

What are you hearing about how today is shaping up with the weather, what this could look like?

JEFF ANGELO, CONSERVATIVE IOWA RADIO HOST: Yes, I think we're going to see, Kaitlan, probably hardcore Republicans, hardcore Trump supporters showing up. I think that will give Trump the win. I do think that DeSantis is feeling very good about his turnout operation in Iowa and that he can get that strong second place finish.

But I don't think we're going to see a record crowd tonight. Looks like 30 below zero wind chills as the caucuses get underway and a lot of folks who were hearing the buzz about the Iowa caucus or thinking maybe about going to caucus for a candidate, they stay home and they make chili and cinnamon rolls tonight.

COLLINS: Whose supporters do you think - that sounds really good, but whose supporters do you think could be the most affected by that? Who - which candidate here? Because you do have these competing arguments from the Trump team saying his supporters are so devoted they'd crawl over glass for him. But you have DeSantis saying ... ANGELO: Yes.

COLLINS: ... that he's got people who - they've got this really good turnout machine that they've been working on for months. Nikki Haley's team arguing she has appeal in urban areas. It may be easier for them to get to their caucus places. What's your sense of who shakes out the best here?

ANGELO: I think that - I think you're absolutely right. I think the Trump supporters will walk through glass to - or a blizzard to get to the caucus. Obviously, Trump feels like they're willing to risk death to show up tonight. So I think he does finish strong. I do think the DeSantis operation has a strong turnout operation. I do think that he finishes second and will live to fight another day.

I think Haley's turnout operation isn't nearly as impressive. I do think her supporters are nearly as passionate. I think it costs her tonight. And I actually do think when she's doing a CNN interview after the caucus is over, she'll blame the weather and say, well on to New Hampshire.

COLLINS: When you look at what Trump has been saying in the past, I mean, even today I think he posted in one saying that he was up 57 points over Nikki Haley or over his competitors in this race. I mean, what margin to you expect Trump to have in this race? If the polls are accurate, if the numbers are the way that they're looking right now, I mean, would you be surprised if he finished under 50 percent today?

ANGELO: No, I absolutely wouldn't. I think he'll win by 25. I think he will finish under 50. And then if DeSantis can finish in second place, he'll point out that over 50 percent of Iowa caucus goers didn't vote for Trump. That means if everyone will coalesce behind the right candidate, then the folks who don't want Trump to be the nominee would be successful in pushing him out as the nominee.

And he'll argue it's him, Ron DeSantis. He's the guy that everyone needs to coalesce around. So it is a momentum game. It is an expectations game. And if he can get momentum and beat expectations tonight, I do think he goes into New Hampshire saying, I'm the legitimate alternative candidate to Donald Trump, not Nikki Haley.

COLLINS: I think if Trump wins tonight, he'll have done something that we - you don't often see someone who wins the Republican caucuses in Iowa do, which is not come to the state very much, didn't do the full 99 counties.

ANGELO: Right.

COLLINS: Not only did he not get the governor's endorsement, he's been attacking Kim Reynolds just yesterday in a pretty visceral remarks that he made in his speech. What do you make of that if I would still reward him, if he still wins, even though he hasn't spent a lot of time in the state and has done - attacked the governor.

ANGELO: Kaitlan, I think Donald Trump's a political unicorn, the likes of which we'll never see again. I think he defies all the rules. He's been defying all the rules. Remember that it was in Iowa that he said, well, I like my war heroes not captured, referring to John McCain. That would have sunk anybody else.


So he gets to defy all the rules, we understand, in regard to how politics operates. I think he is a political unicorn. I think after this campaign is over, I think we really need to go back to more of the normal politics we've come to expect, including retail campaigning in Iowa.

But he's allowed. He's given a pass to defy all the political rules because he's still seen as an outsider by the people who support him. Even though he's been president, he successfully tends to that outsider image and they give him a pass on all the normal political rules that apply to a Ron DeSantis or a Nikki Haley.

COLLINS: Jeff Angelo, we'll be watching closely tonight. I know you will, too. Thank you for your time.

ANGELO: You bet, Kaitlan. Thank you.

COLLINS: And this will be the coldest Iowa caucuses on record. What are the candidates doing about it, what are they saying about it, we'll tell you next.



COOPER: Iowa Republicans are going to face brutal cold when they convene to caucus in just a few hours. Tonight, temperatures are expected to drop below zero across the state. Some places could hit 13 below. If you factor in the wind chill, it could feel like minus 35. There are concerns that the frigid weather could impact turnout, but the candidates are hoping voters will not be deterred.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you're sick as a dog, you say, "Darling, I got to make it." Even if you vote and then pass away, it's worth it. Remember.

GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) FLORIDA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The 186,000 people in 2016, it's probably going to be less than that and it may even be significantly less than that. So if you go out and you bring some family members and you bring some neighbors, that's going to make a huge, huge difference for us and so we're asking people to do it.

HALEY: Even though it is freezing outside, literally, we haven't seen anyone that's deterred from showing up at the caucuses.


COOPER: My team is back with me here in New York.

Karen, first to you, what kind of impact is this going to have?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it's going to make people question how badly they really want to go out tonight, right? And particularly in those venues where we heard - we've heard earlier things about shuttling people from parking to their venues. And for those venues that may have longer lines, because you have to check in, you get your form, you listen to some speeches, then you do your vote.

So for people who may see a big line, maybe they'll say, I'm not so sure. And particularly for Nikki Haley, who, as we saw in that Des Moines Register poll, a big portion of her support are Democrats who say they want to re-register as Republicans and caucus tonight and Independents.

And again, in a cold weather like this, they're going to probably say, well, do I really - is that really what I want to, do tonight. Again, I - this is part of why I think it really favors Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis also because they had - their canvassers were volunteers. She had paid canvassers. And the difference is when somebody knocks on your door with that passion and they want to evangelize you about their candidate, it's a - it's very different feeling than when someone who's been paid to just ...

COOPER: Interesting.

FINNEY: ... here's the talking points that says, can you please come.

COOPER: Doug, you know Iowa. I mean, do you think it hurts Nikki Haley the most?

DOUGH HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think we don't know who it hurts because there are so many variables here. If you look at where Donald Trump's support is the strongest, it's those really rural areas where you have far to go on icy roads.

And I would say it's not the cold that matters. It's the wind and it's the ice that's on the road. Iowa is used to cold. Kasie Hunt did a - interview this morning from Mars coffeehouse, which is a small chain in Des Moines. She was dressed for the South Pole. The person she was interviewing was wearing a light jacket.

We've seen people go to these events, whether it's for Trump or DeSantis or whomever, and some of them are wearing shorts. They're dressed like John Fetterman. So cold does not bother these people. But if it's windy, if it's difficult to get to their place, it could affect Donald Trump. And for the reasons that Karen laid out, it could affect Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis. It makes some of the calculus on this really difficult.


MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's just hard to tell to your point also, I mean, Trump's voters tend to be, you know, most enthusiastic in rural areas, but also compared to the enthusiasm level of other voters, they are more enthusiastic. How does that pale against the more urban dwelling Nikki Haley voters? Frankly, they don't have to get - go out to their car that far to drive that far to get to the place. So the most exciting part about right now is that we're about - it's about to start. The game's about to begin. And it's not a game, it is a contest for our democracy. And we've been talking about it and waiting for it and speculating about it for four years and it's now.

COOPER: There will be actual votes.

HOOVER: This time tomorrow ...


HOOVER: ... we will know what's happening. Somebody will be up. Somebody will be down. Somebody may be out.

AVLON: And we'll have some details. I mean, look, democracy decisions are made by people who show up. And people who live in Iowa have a, I think, a privilege and a responsibility to show up because the trajectory implications for this nomination and for the entire election will be set by this race. If this is closer than expected, we could have a real race on our hands.

If Donald Trump puts this away, that could be considered a fait accompli, despite the fact that you're going to have what, 180,000 people out of a state of 3.1 million vote. That's not a representative election. So we need people to show up and take the responsibility seriously, because to a large extent, they're setting the table for all of us in the United States.

COOPER: If Haley - I mean, if Haley beats DeSantis for second place, what does that mean for her campaign heading into New Hampshire?

FINNEY: Gives her momentum and we've seen that she is doing quite well in New Hampshire.


So it gives her a lot of momentum going into New Hampshire, which also could influence South Carolina, where she's behind Donald Trump. If she - again, she's making this electability argument, so if that starts to really resonate with people and they see that, well, actually, maybe there is an electorate for her, that could change some people's minds.

HEYE: And Iowa is often, Anderson, not about who wins it. We always focus on the winner. It's who emerges. If Nikki Haley comes into second - comes in second place, and this is where the weather gets interesting on this, it means Ron DeSantis' campaign is over. He doesn't go to New Hampshire or South Carolina. He goes back to Florida.

COOPER: You think he would - I mean, he has said he would go on to South Carolina. You think ...

HEYE: Everybody's in until they're out. That's always the case. Chris Christie was not leaving this campaign until the moment he did.

COOPER: Yes. Doug Heye, thanks. Karen Finney, as well Margaret Hoover and John Avlon, thank you.

Inflation, border security, foreign policy, we're going to take a look at what the main issues driving Iowans are. We're going to go live on the ground. CNN's live special coverage continues next.



COLLINS: This just in as we are hearing from the Iowa Republican Party, which says there have been no systematic issues with caucus locations or precincts ahead of tonight's Iowa caucuses. Despite the weather, says the show is still on as planned.

CNN's Eva McKend McKend is in Des Moines covering all of this live.

Eva, let's talk about what you've been hearing from voters as you've been on the ground in there the last several days, what they say is driving them to come out despite that weather tonight. What have they been telling you?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, I've actually been back and forth the last several weeks, and I can tell you a number of issues are driving them. Sometimes I'm really struck by how thoughtful the questions to the candidates are. Some ask about returning civility to our politics. Others ask about foreign policy, immigration.

And as we speak, Kaitlan, the candidates are on the campaign trail right now, still in conversation with these voters, trying to make up some time that they lost during those two snowstorms last week. Take a listen to what they're telling them.


DESANTIS: You're never going to have an opportunity to have your voice pack more of a punch than it is tonight.

HALEY: Remember, 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. Thank you. God bless you. Let's do this.


MCKEND: And I just got off the phone with a prominent faith leader, John Palmer. He's a retired Iowa pastor and he has prayed for Gov. DeSantis during a number of events, town halls, our debate last week and he actually told me that he is switching his support from Gov. DeSantis to Nikki Haley.

So that just gives you a sense that Nikki Haley, Gov. DeSantis are really competing for the same voters here in Iowa, as they are locked in this battle for second place, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Eva McKend in Des Moines, thank you.

I want to bring back my panel with me now.

And Matt Mowers, when you're looking at this and you're hearing what Gov. DeSantis is saying there, making this argument, also more broadly to voters that if they care about policy and these issues that Eva just laid out that they should pick him. I mean, what happens if he doesn't come in that strong second place tonight? What is the message that they're sending?

MATT MOWERS, FORMER TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ADVISER: This is a - Iowa could be a springboard for Nikki Haley, could be a pair of cement shoes for Ron DeSantis if things don't go well for him tonight. I know he's got a lot of events scheduled, but as one of the other panelists said you're in this race until you're not.

Gov. Christie is a good friend. He had a full schedule set up for after Wednesday of last week and then dropped out on Wednesday. And so Ron DeSantis is going to have to look in the mirror really to decide does he have a path forward here.

Now, one thing a lot of candidates are looking for is what happens with the Supreme Court ruling in early March and there's going to be a motivation for a lot of these candidates to try to play this out as long as possible, most believe the Supreme Court's going to allow Donald Trump to be on the ballot but every politician has a little grain of hope and a seed of hope in their mind thinking maybe there's a chance they could absorb some of his voters if somehow he weren't on the ballot.

COLLINS: So you're saying ...

MOWERS: It's unlikely but that goes through their mind.

COLLINS: Maybe they'll stay in the race longer even if they don't do very well here in New Hampshire, because they're holding out hope that maybe something could trip up Trump down the road.

MOWERS: Now, the challenge for Ron DeSantis is he's running out of money right and often you don't get out of presidential politics and presidential campaigns because you're losing, it's because you're broke and so we're going to have to see how much money he actually has on hand if he comes in third place. That's going to dictate more than anything else how long Ron DeSantis is a candidate for president.

COLLINS: What are you hearing?

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Look, I mean this is the thing that donors are talking about right now that if they do not want to support and keep funding a campaign that has such a narrow path. But I would also watch DeSantis and he needs to ask himself how lean is he willing to make his operation if he doesn't have a good night tonight, because it's not unheard of for stubborn politicians to continue a presidential campaign if they - and just cut it up as much as they can to continue. And that's a question that DeSantis is going to have to answer for himself.


But, again, I'm not sold on this being a bad night for Ron DeSantis yet.