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CNN Live Event/Special

America's Choice 2024: Countdown To Iowa. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 19:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: This is it, the official kick-off of the 2024 battle for the White House and one state has the first shot at shaping the race.


ANNOUNCER: It's decision time in the bitter cold heartland.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Iowa has a huge, huge role to play here.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: There's no way that Iowa is voting against Trump.

ANNOUNCER: The first votes in a presidential contest that's testing American democracy in extraordinary ways.

TRUMP: Are you ready?

ANNOUNCER: Will a former president in unprecedented legal peril, get one step closer to a White House comeback?

TRUMP: 2024 is our final battle.

ANNOUNCER: It's Iowa's choice.

Tonight, after months of anticipation, the Republican race gets real. Donald Trump aiming to drive home his dominance over his GOP rivals.

TRUMP: We got to be sure that we put this thing being away.

ANNOUNCER: Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley --

HALEY: Our best days are yet to come.

ANNOUNCER: -- engaging in a heated showdown to be the top alternative to Trump.

DESANTIS: Nikki Haley is running on her donors' issue. I'm the only one running on your issues.

HALEY: If he's going to lie about me, I'm going to tell you the truth about him.

ANNOUNCER: The candidates at the back of the pack fighting to hold on and get their messages out.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I see a Republican Party that has grown lazy.

ANNOUNCER: Who will be left standing after Iowa votes.

DESANTIS: I'm asking for your support.

ANNOUNCER: And can anyone stop Trump from winning the nomination?

TRUMP: These losing candidates, they're not going anywhere.

DESANTIS: He's his own worst enemy by not being able to control his mouth.

ANNOUNCER: Now, it's time for voters to have their say.

HALEY: Don't complain about what happens in a general election, if you don't play in this caucus.

ANNOUNCER: Iowa could shake up the political landscape or lay the groundwork for a divisive rematch.

TRUMP: We will evict Joe Biden from the White House.

ANNOUNCER: 2024 is here and the first contest is getting underway, right now.



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: You are looking at live pictures of the Iowa state Capitol in Des Moines, on the coldest Iowa caucus night on record was dangerous subzero temperatures. But dedicated voters are braving the elements tonight to declare their choice for Republican presidential nomination.

Welcome to CNN's live special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. I'm Anderson Cooper.

TAPPER: And I'm Jake Tapper in the CNN election center.

Less than an hour from now, the action begins in the first pivotal contest of the 2024 race for the White House. Five major GOP candidates are officially in the running, but the battle for Iowa is expected to come down to this, the clear front runner, Donald Trump versus the rivals who are essentially fighting this evening for second place.

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, all of them with the shared goal of defeating President Joe Biden in November. Soon we're going to bring you the first results of our entrance poll of Iowans as they're heading into the caucuses. These will be early clues about what they're thinking as they make their choices.

Our anchors and correspondents are on the scene. They're inside caucus sites where votes will be cast and counted, and they're at the candidates headquarters, as this consequential night unfolds.

And we count down to the start of the caucuses in the first critical votes in Iowa.

Lets go to my colleague, Dana Bash. She's at a caucus site in Clive, Iowa, just outside Des Moines -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we are here at a very large caucus site in Des Moines, three caucuses will actually take place in this one venue you see. It's empty right now. People are just going to come in at this hour.

And in one hour from now, we're going to start getting answers to the question we've been asking since former President Donald Trump left office in a way that he did not want unwillingly in January of 2021. And that question is it what level does this party he joined in promptly took over still support him.

Every single elected official, every activist, even campaign staffers, I've spoken to on the ground here in Iowa, expect he is going to win. The question is, by how big of a margin?

And the big question for second, between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, of course, the stakes are high for both of them, but the highest for the Florida governor.


He and the super PAC that supports him, they have put everything into this state of Iowa. I've been texting with some of his caucus captains, those who are going around to a nearly 1,700 places in this Hawkeye State and they are working on at this moment, making sure that people have rides that they are not snowed in, that they have childcare.

All of that is so, so critical and Jake, Bob Vander Plaats, he is one of the most prominent evangelical leaders here. He supported the last three Republican winners. He supported Ted Cruz. He supported Rick Santorum. He supported Mike Huckabee.

This time he did endorse Ron DeSantis. He told me that the energy he's feeling is like you saw in those other three contests. No one will say so publicly, frankly, even privately, but the vibe from team DeSantis is that they know finishing third even a distant third if Nikki Haley's energy is really robust, really make it hard to move on.

That's why as one senior DeSantis adviser said to me tonight, he is running through the tape, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Dana Bash, thanks so much.

Let's check in with Kristen Holmes right now, who is at Trump HQ, I think in Des Moines, Iowa.

And so much about this evening, Kristen, is about the expectations game. Trump posted something on truth social saying he was leading Nikki Haley by 57 points, I think. That's -- that's not really totally consistent with the expectations game. But what are the Trump officials telling you.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I mean, that seemed to just be Trump being Trump because what we've heard from senior advisers now for months is playing the expectations game, even though we have seen poll after poll showing Donald Trump leading here in Iowa by roughly 30 point, they are insisting that anyone above 12 would not only be historic, but should be celebrated.

They have privately been telling me for months that they did believe the margins could be closer than what those public polls were showing. In addition to that, they've been telling me that they are worried that if he fall short of a 20 point gap in any way hey, but that's going to be viewed as a disappointment at a time which they really need to be building momentum.

Do they think he's going to win tonight? Yes. Do they think its going to be decisive victory? Yes.

But the big question is, how big is that margin going to be? Will it give Donald Trump the momentum he needs going into New Hampshire? Will it stop the momentum that Nikki Haley has going into New Hampshire.

That is what they are looking for and Donald Trump himself has been doing his part. He has been urging his supporters to show up in caucus. In fact, at an event yesterday telling people, even if you are sick as a dog, even if you vote and die afterwards, it'll be worth it -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Good stuff. Kristen Holmes with Trump HQ in Des Moines.

Let me throw to Erin Burnett and the panel.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: All right. And, you know what its amazing. And were all sitting here watching this. Finally, were here.

Abby, the votes are actually going to start. And you saw Brian Todd, caucus doors are open. People are going in and yet it is this conversation about second and what a second really mean, right? There are second and then there's a distant second. And these things really matter.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I think we should be open to the possible ability that some of the kind of tropes of Iowa caucuses past in which maybe you don't have to win and you can get catapulted up to New Hampshire and that changes the full dynamic of the race may not apply here because we've never had a situation where we have essentially an incumbent, an incumbent former president, who for the sake of his party is more or less almost like a sitting president. He is not -- he is not shaken control over somewhere between 40 and 50

percent of the parties since the beginning of this process, right? And so, it really would take something extraordinary for that dynamic to radically change and for the candidates who are, it seems vying for second and third here.

I think at this point, that Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis are acknowledging Trump is likely to win. It's still unclear what they think second or third will get them, and certainly third really calls into question both or either of their campaigns and the road forward to them.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF CORRESPONDENT: And I think one key thing that Trump world is watching here that I've been talking to them about today is not just who comes in second, but also the size of the field. And does that change after tonight because they are much more concerned about Nikki Haley than they are with Ron DeSantis at this point, based on what the numbers look like and also based on what state is coming next, New Hampshire, where Nikki Haley has been doing better than Ron DeSantis obviously has there. He is not really campaign there near as much as she has.

And what Trump world is hoping for is that this race for second place continues after tonight because they believe that that is actually going to bend if it him going forward and their concern is if Nikki Haley does do well tonight, if Ron DeSantis is a third, if this is the end of his campaign, that then it consolidates Nikki Haley as the clear Trump alternative going into New Hampshire and they don't want to see that. They want to keep up this fight between Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley as Trump emerges as the clear front runner.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And what is the makeup, too, of Trump's coalition? If he does win, this will give us real serious clues about his strength and viability is a general election candidate.


We have seen him struggle with suburban voters in particular. Even the most recent "Des Moines Register" poll that came out on Sunday show that that was a key vulnerability from suburbanites, college-educated voters. Does he make any ground up with that? Size of the electorate if he does not, once again raise questions about whether he can compete well in a general election, which we've seen in last recent election cycles, would Trump is part of it, whether its the midterms or him on the ballot that has been a major vulnerability, what's caused a lot of concerns.

RAJU: And also, Haley, too. Can she expand beyond Democratic leaning voters? More moderate voters, can she eat away into more conservative voters? DeSantis, too, can he take away any of Trump's support from those evangelical voters kind of emulate would Ted Cruz did in his victory in Iowa, all huge questions tonight.

BURNETT: Right. I mean, he get at is such a picture of all of this tonight, when we start to see these entrance polls, but also when we start to see which counties where does Trump, do we see any of these changes on the suburban side of things?

Jake, we're going to be getting all of this with some of these entrance polls, maybe a tease and then a lot of these numbers tonight.


TAPPER: All right. Well be right back with our CNN live coverage of the Iowa caucuses right after this.



TAPPER: Images inside an actual caucus site in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It's three below zero outside, hopefully a little warmer inside. Voters here and across the strait -- across the state, are venturing out into this record cold caucus night to play a critical role and the selection of the Republican presidential nominee.

Let's check in with our correspondents covering Donald Trumps top rivals right now in their battle for second place essentially.

First, let's go to Jessica Dean, who's at Ron DeSantis headquarters in West Des Moines.

What's the feeling there? Because he obviously really needs to do well tonight.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He certainly does, Jake. Probably nobody has more stake here in Iowa than Ron DeSantis with the incredible amount of time and money that he has poured into moving much of his staff here. And you know what's been interesting is out on the campaign trail, what we've heard from him again and again as he talks about what he's done in Florida. That's really what he pitches to voters, that he can deliver on the promises that he makes. Then he points to Florida as the example.

But I'm told by a source familiar with the plans that tonight at the caucus sites, the many people who will be talking on his behalf to people there who are preparing devote that they wont be talking about that, that instead they're going to be talking about Ron DeSantis, the person, to really humanize him for some of these voters, to really talk about, I'm told, fights that he's taken on, on these people's behalf, moments of personal connection that they've witnessed to really, again, drive home his human side.

We know he's quite reluctant to talk about himself on the campaign stage. She will bring his kids out. He'll talk about his children. It took awhile for him to talk about his military experience, for example.

But advisers and people close to him want him to talk more about this. And again, were anticipating told that that's what will be the pitch to a lot of these voters tonight who've heard again and again about what he's done. He's record. Again, they want to leave, leave the voters with this kind of human, this humanizing version of Ron DeSantis, as we see the first votes being cast tonight in Iowa.

TAPPER: It's interesting, Jessica. Thanks so much.

Now let's go to Kylie Atwood, who is at the West Des Moines, Iowa, campaign headquarters of Governor Nikki Haley.

What are you hearing from the Haley campaign?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Jake, the Haley campaign feels like they have met their goals for Iowa and that's the case, whether or not they win this battle with Ron DeSantis to come in number two here in Iowa, and here's why -- they believe if Nikki Haley comes in number two, she's exceeding expectations. But if she comes in number three, that's not damaging to them.

And the reason for that is because of how much resources and time Ron DeSantis and former President Trump had put into the state. By contrast, she just hasn't put as much effort into the state as she has you know, across the board and to New Hampshire. And, of course, heading into South Carolina.

They point out that Ron DeSantis, really the stakes, couldn't be higher for him, given the fact that he has a 99-county operation, that he has the backing of Iowa's governor, that he has the backing of Iowa's top evangelical leader. And they also point out that the former president has touted the possibility of winning this state by 50 or 60 points.

So they feel like they are in a good position tonight with one of the folks who's familiar with the Haley camp's thinking, telling me, quote, it's not do or die for us tonight in Iowa.

TAPPER: All right. Well, they're setting expectations lower. I see.

Kylie Atwood, thanks so much. Let's go to some of the key caucus sites where our correspondents are standing by.

First, let's go to Boris Sanchez. He said a caucus in Des Moines.

Boris, what are you hearing from the Iowa voters there??

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake, a lot of different varying opinions as you might imagine here in the suburbs of Des Moines in Iowa. I want to give you a look at where things are right now. Were getting a trickle of voters coming in. This is one of the key precincts in the suburbs of Des Moines. And you're watching voters first register some of them are coming and to vote for the first time, we actually just spoke to someone who said that they are caucusing for the first time for President Trump in part, because of the economy.

Not sure who these folks might be voting for. Some of them may be coming in to potentially change their party affiliation, to change the registration. Soon, they're going to go into a theater behind us. And that is where the action is set to begin.

And one of the key moments tonight are going to be candidate representatives giving speeches on behalf of their preferred candidate. And right here, we have Brittney, who is going to be speaking for Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.

You got a bag full of stuff from the campaign, including this lovely hat you're wearing and you're set to give a speech tonight. What do you most excited about to share with his caucus?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, you know, as I was telling you earlier, my family's from Cuba and so they fled a communist regime to have a better life for the United States of America. And as U.N. ambassador, she really understands the threat of communism to our democracy.


So that's something that's just a really important to me personally.

And, you know, as a 32-year-old who still can't afford to buy a house, I love to have an accountant in the White House who can tackle inflation and get our economy on track.

SANCHEZ: As a Cuban American myself, I appreciate that love for democracy.

I do wonder if you think the winter cold this brutal storm are facing the sub-zero temperatures. How's that going to affect turnout today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. Coldest ever, but what I've seen is that Iowans are just built different cut from a different cloth. And I've talked to a hundreds of people on the phone. I think they're excited to still come out.

SANCHEZ: We'll see how turnout might impact things here, Jake.

For now, let's send it back to you.

TAPPER: Let's check in with Sara Sidner, who is at a caucus site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- Sara.

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, this is the second most populous city in Iowa and I want to give you a look at what you're seeing. We're inside the Kirkwood community college and you were seeing several different precincts. They've already started their work. There are people coming in.

They are registering those who are Republicans. You see the gentlemen there. And that fabulous bright jacket they will go show their ID and they'll look at the roles, bring him in.

There's also -- you have the capability of changing parties, but you have to register as if you're just registering for the first time. So you have to register. We've seen people do that here, too. We've seen a couple of people come in and register to be Republican, so that it can take part in the caucus. I'm giving you a look because this is the rec center. It's quite a

huge, wonderful building that gives a lot of space to folks. This is another caucus site here. And then there's one more. So, there's a lot of space.

And one of the reasons for that is, is that when they start the count, Jake, you will start hearing everyone talking at the same time, once about 20 or 30 minutes in after everyone is seated. They have their captains. They're ready to do the count that have their counters.

You're going to see people start yelling out names and they'll say things like, this is another caucus site right here, another precinct right here. You will hear people start saying names of the candidates. They will fill out what they have been given, which is a pre-printed piece of paper that has the candidates' names on it, people will choose those. They will hand those in. It's secret ballot. So you hand them all it. And then all of a sudden, the counters will start counting out loud.

So, we'll be able to hear in real time at each six of these precincts exactly who's doing well, who's going to be sort the number one candidate. And so what you'll hear people yell out, Trump, we've got one for Trump here. We've got one for Haley here, we've got one for DeSantis here.

And you'll hear that throughout this whole building, it will reverberate and will show that to you as soon because it happens 20 to 30 minutes into its pretty quick. We'll find out where these folks in these six precincts here in Cedar Rapids are going to go for -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Sidner in Cedar Rapids, fascinating stuff.

We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back with more CNN coverage of the Iowa caucuses, which began a little over half an hour for now. Voters across the state are getting ready to reveal their choices.

Stay tuned.



TAPPER: This is AMERICA'S CHOICE 2024, and were back with live coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the very first actual votes in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. And caucuses are being held all across Iowa and they officially get underway at the top of the hour.

There's a big wildcard in Iowa this evening and that's the weather.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers feeling the big chill firsthand. He's in Des Moines.

Chad I don't want to sound like the crowded the tonight show, but how cold is it? CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's so cold. Actually, it is so cold that I drove in from Omaha today and I could not even with the heater on full blast, I could never get it warm enough in the rental car to take my gloves off. It just wouldn't warm up, that's something else.

And if this was three days ago, we'd be talking about a cancellation. Jake, there were hundreds. I mean, hundreds of stranded stalled, rolled over semis in the middle of Interstate 80. It had to be an absolute nightmare to three or four days ago when the wind was blowing 40, it was snowing and people were just sliding off the roads. I couldn't believe there were still hundreds of cars that were still stranded and no one even looking at them, how he's -- there was tape around them that says yes, we check this out. Nobody's in here, but I'm thinking that was four days ago.

But anyway, rhetorical question, what's the first thing you do when you're getting your truck tonight to come down to the Iowa caucus, what's the very first thing? You might never guess.

TAPPER: Actually, you're asking me, turn it, turn --

MYERS: I'm asking.

TAPPER: Turn on the engine. I don't know.

MYERS: No, that's exactly the wrong answer. Here's what you do in Iowa. You hit the hood of your car because critters like this warmth when you park the car, you need to scare them out of their feral cats, raccoons, squirrels, they love underneath the hood.

I've been doing this now since what I moved to Nebraska 1976. So every time, even if you park your car at a Target, you park your car to Target, you come out of the Target, you go, and all of a sudden, you might see something scurry away. You save your fan belt, but you save the lives of our furry little friends under there.

They love the heat. They loved to be here and that's kind of where we are at this point. Is it cold? Yes. Is it cold in the wind? Very. Is it a cold than the non-wind? Not so much. It's okay -- Jake.

TAPPER: You're making a lot of assumptions. I mean, I perhaps I want some, you know, roasted squirrel. But we'll come back to that.

In Des Moines, Iowa -- Chad Myers, thanks so much.

Let's go to Brian Todd. He's at a at a pretty saying to caucus site in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Wow, its crowded there.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wow was right, Jake. Do not tell these Iowans at this weather is too tough to come to a caucus site. Check out this line. I'm not going to say it extends to the door, but it is starting to and these people are starting to file in to register check-in, sign-in. And we just talked to a couple of voters here who said, look, the

weather really was not an issue for them. Iowans are tough people. They're hardy. They can come out in weather like this.

One lady just told me, hey, were glad to snuff. Were just glad this snow wasn't tonight.


So here's -- here's where they're checking in here.

Here is a sample of one of the ballots that they're going to be filling out. This is the basic presidential choice ballot. Look how so easy and simple they're making this process. That's going to take place over there and just a few minutes.

But right now, what I want to do Jake is talk to Mary Ann Hanusa. She is the Pottawattamie County caucus organization chair.

Maryanne, first of all, what's your reaction to this? Pretty good turnout.

MARY ANN HANUSA, POTTAWATTAMIE COUNTY CAUCUS CHAIR: Well, this is great. We need to keep them coming here. We want a lot of people at our caucus.

TODD: You talk to me earlier about some of the challenges. You are basically in charge of the organization for all 40 precincts in this in this county, Pottawattamie County, which is a very active voting county. One of the biggest challenges that you've had in getting people to the caucus sites, the weather and everything else.

HANUSA: Well, to the caucus sites, that's -- the problem now is not so much in the city of Council Bluffs because the streets are a lot of state highways, a lot of the streets are well well-maintained, it's more of the rural area where you might have a gravel road and with these frigid temperatures that just turns that road into ice.

TODD: Talk to me about what one lady told you. She's in her 80s.

HANUSA: I did. I had a dear, loyal, a Republican who called me and she's in her 80s and she was quite upset because this will be the first caucus that she misses, because she cant get out of her road because the snow and the ice is just too much to deal with.

TODD: What are you telling voters to reassure them about the vote count? As you know, in the last three election caucus cycles in Iowa, they have been problems with the vote count on the Democratic and Republican sides. What are you telling people to reassure them that the vote is going to be fair, accurate, and come off without a hitch?

HANUSA: So the state Republican Party has worked extremely hard to have a system that is uniform across all of the precincts across the state of Iowa we have caucus packets that are delivered and we have to sign for them. So that we know exactly what is in there. Some of the materials of that caucus packets you're seeing in action right now, the list of registered Republicans.

And then when it actually comes to the voter to vote for president that is a highly its an orange form that can only be distributed by the Republican Party of Iowa. It can't be duplicated, it can't be sent via e-mail and then there's a very secure system for reporting those numbers back to Des Moines from all of the precincts across the state to get the final number.

And we're going to be watching you do all that in real time. Good luck to you, Mary Ann, and we'll check back with you later on.

One other look at the -- at the line here, guys, pretty robust. The speeches will be getting underway shortly after they call the caucus to order. That's going to come in about 30 minutes.

Guys, back to you.

TAPPER: Very exciting. Brian Todd in Council Bluffs.

Lets go to Dana Bash now at a precinct in Clive, Iowa -- Dana.

BASH: Jake, this is a huge caucus site. There are three individual caucuses that will happen in this site. They expect about 800 to 1,000 people tonight. It depends, of course, on the weather.

Let's just walk in. I can show you how big and how many people are here. First of all, this is the line for just one of the three here. There are people coming in from all over.

I want to take you over here to talk to one particular family because it was noteworthy, you know, we have been hearing about the fact that this could be a family affair. Forgive me.

Hi, guys. We're live I just wanted to talk to you.

Are you excited to be here?


BASH: Have you caucus before?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have, but I haven't voted before.

BASH: Okay. And you're here with your whole family.


BASH: Your mom's a little shy. That's okay.


BASH: And every everybody else. What made you want to come out in such a frigid night?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think its more important now, more than ever to just speak out and make your voice heard. It's hard times and we need to make sure we have a good leader in office.

BASH: OK. It's a secret ballot. So you don't have to tell me, but have you decided who you're going to caucus for.


BASH: Would you tell me?


BASH: Okay, alright. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So this is the kind of thing that we're seeing here first-time caucusgoers. We have people over here who are online.

I assume -- have you caucused before?


BASH: Every --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Since I was 18, yeah.

BASH: Since you're 18? So how many is this do you know?


BASH: We'll do the math.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, a couple, a couple, yeah.

BASH: How important -- I mean, it is frigid outside. Some of the roads are not great.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're Iowan. We're tough.

BASH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're hardy. We're the breadbasket of America and what we now is that this is saving our nation right now. We need to make decisions in regard to the average working family to get ahead financially. They are struggling.

You need 11,430, statistics that came out from the government two weeks ago, you need that a year to break even.

BASH: Have you decided who you're going to caucus?


BASH: How come?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because he proved in Florida -- I'm an anti- vaxxer.

[19:35:02] I'm a former registered nurse.

And he proved in Florida that he kept the deaths down, and that with the proper medication, that people did not die and they did not need to be hospitalized with extra costs.

BASH: Well, thank you. Thank you for talking to us. I appreciate it.


BASH: Tell me your name again.


BASH: Okay. Karen, thank you.

So, you see that this is the kind of thing that is happening. We expect, as I said, hundreds of people here and we're going to hear when this actually gets started at the top of the hour. People who are representatives from the campaigns begin to make their pitches to people who came, who haven't decided yet, Jake.

TAPPER: Dana, I did the math and no one has ever accused me of being a math genius, but I think Karen has been to every single Republican caucus --

BASH: I'm glad you did.

TAPPER: -- Iowa caucus since 1976.

BASH: Uh-huh, yeah.

TAPPER: Since the first time the caucus was first in the nation for the Republican, in '76. Check, check with her to see if that my math is --

BASH: That's impressive.

TAPPER: I'd like to know she voted for that.

BASH: I will. I'll be back to you.

TAPPER: That'd be -- that'd be interesting.

Let's check in with Kate Bolduan now. She's in Ames, Iowa, at a -- at a site.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm not doing math on air. I'm just going to say that right now, Jake.

We're at Ames, Iowa. This is Sawyer Elementary School where there are three of the 24 precincts in Ames are all caucusing in this site right now. Where I am is where everyone is entering. This is the check-in desk and right here is where first, this is where folks can register.

This is Tom. Thank you, Tom. He's been amazing to me.

First time registration or if they're changing party, they registered here, and then they can check in over here.

And I was just talking to joining me now, is John Joiner (ph).


BOLDUAN: And you were -- you were just filling out this form. Tell me what you were first-time caucusgoer or what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, I was just switching parties to Republican. So I've caucused several times before.

BOLDUAN: Several times, but for Democrat?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last election, I caucused with Democrats. And so, this election, I wanted to come back and caucus with Republicans,

BOLDUAN: Tell me why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've kept really close watch on the election and listened to all the candidates and tried to make educated decisions. So I felt it was important to come and support the candidate that I chose.

BOLDUAN: The secret ballot. And here in, here at this site, this is the critical tool, if I may borrow for one second colored index cards, the caucus captains, they want you to put there.

This is the ballot. You fill it out. If your vote sat on a color but index card vote doesn't count. It's to avoid any funny business, if you will, to secret ballot, you don't have to tell me, but if you decided who you're going to be caucusing for tonight.


BOLDUAN: Would you tell me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure. Ive decided to caucus for Nikki Haley?

BOLDUAN: What is -- what is what determined that? What's driving your decision tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think she's going to be very strong and foreign policy. I was debating between her and Vivek. And I think her foreign policy is just going to be a lot stronger than what he was proposing, and I think with the current times globally, that's going to be very important for president.

BOLDUAN: We've been -- there's been a lot said about Ron DeSantis and his ground game and how what has been the outreach that you have been getting from all of the campaign?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Texts and e-mails and phone calls. And then I've been trying to keep track of when the candidates are around locally, so I can go see them in person also.

BOLDUAN: Did you know that hasn't been Nikki Haley? Have you been undecided on committed for a time? When did you decide?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I started out being Nikki Haley's camp and then I was considering Vivek very strongly, and probably last day or so then I decided to go with Nikki Haley.

BOLDUAN: John, can you tell me if you would who you voted for in 2020?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I voted for Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: And why not caucus for Donald Trump this time? What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think his policies were good, but I think that there's just too much distractions with him as president and that's why I didn't decide to caucus for Ron DeSantis. I just didn't think there was much change with going with DeSantis and that's why I've decided to go Nikki.

BOLDUAN: Fascinating. Which precinct are you?


BOLDUAN: Twenty-three. So you're going to be heading down to that gymnasium and we will follow you down there and see you in there.

It's great to see. Thank you so much for coming by, John. It's really nice to meet you.

So this is just some of what were hearing in Ames. Ames is in Story County, guys. And this is a county that broadly Marco Rubio, he won with 32 percent in the caucuses in 2016, Donald Trump was in, came in a distant third. This isn't the 2016 caucuses -- guys.

TAPPER: Thanks so much, Kate Bolduan. It's so fascinating.

I mean, this is what differentiates a caucus from a primary.

So, John, we have now checked in and this is going to sound like a verse from the "Music Man", Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Clive, Ames, whichever one you want, let's start with Ames.

What are you looking for?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I want to start with where Kate was just right there because this is page one. This is opening day of 2024, and that was interview was just a fabulous snapshot of what I'm finding when you're out on the road as well, disaffected Americans who don't know where their political home is.

A man who caucused for the Democrats voted for Donald Trump, considered Vivek Ramaswamy and then lands on Nikki Haley.

[19:40:06] That's a ping pong of politics. And I say that with full respect, no disrespect at all. That's how people feel. Where is my home? Who do I trust, who represents me?

And that's what makes this so unpredictable. And so, Kate is in a place that as she notes, Story County, right. This is a plus 17 Democratic county. If we come up to the 2020 map, Donald Trump won Iowa huge. She's in one of the places that Joe Biden won. She's in a Democratic county.

If you have people who used to vote for the Democrats -- yes, he was a Trump voter in 2020, but now still participating with Republicans. That's good for the Republicans. They're bringing in new voters are solidifying with this gentleman who voted with them for years ago. It's bad for Democrats. It means you're not winning people who you once had on your side. But so come back out here.

Number one, Joe Biden, win Story County. Now, let's bring it back out and bring it back. Doesn't want to come back out. Okay. Well, let's come back to 2016 and see if we come to the Republican primary here.

As this is a Marco Rubio area, as Kate just noted. The lighter red is Marco Rubio. What does that mean? Traditional Republicans, that's a place Nikki Haley, the old Republican Party, if you will, has to do well tonight.

So the fact that that gentleman, a former Democrat and a former Trump voter says he's for Nikki Haley is one sign of what Nikki Haley needs to do to build not only in that community center where Kate is, but where Sara Sidner was over here. She's in Linn County in Cedar Rapids. Ted Cruz won this last time. Joe Biden will probably Linn County come November or the Democratic candidate, assuming its Joe Biden.

But where it was -- what was Donald Trump's kryptonite in 2018, 2020.2022, the suburbs, right? That's why Ted Cruz did better than Donald Trump in the suburbs. He was third in this county in 2016. And if you come into the 2020 presidential map, again, Joe Biden wins this county the by six points there.

So do we see some seeds? If Donald Trump wins Iowa tonight, as good for Donald Trump. But is it just rural voters, just evangelicals, just farmers? Or is he beginning to recover at least suburban Republicans, you know, them outside of Philadelphia as well. Now some of them are moderate, some of them people who swing back and forth. But for Donald Trump good to be a competitive general election candidate, he has to start to win back suburbanites, starting with Republicans, then moving on to independence and soft Democrats.

So this is the 2020 map. Again, Brian Todd was over here. He's in Pottawattamie County. This is -- that's Nebraska, right? So, you're now much more rural, much more conservatives, you get out here, come back to 2016 in the Republican primary this is a place again, crews Trump Rubio. You had this split.

Do you get this again tonight? Now that its Donald Trumps party, do you get a split so that Haley or DeSantis or both can argue I have a rationale to go on or does Trump win this in when this big, this is a place if you come out here to look at the map again and bring out 2016, Iowa. This is out here. This is where Trump needs to run it up.

If Trump wants to get above 50 percent, he wants to quiet any talk that he's vulnerable where Brian Todd is tonight is a great place to watch.

TAPPER: And it's fascinating stuff.

Let's go to Brian Todd actually right now in Pottawamie -- how do you say it? Pottawattamie.

KING: You got it.

TAPPER: Pottawattamie County. Brian, tell us what you're seeing

TODD: Angie, we're about ready? Yes.

TAPPER: Oh, his cameras there. Can you hear me, Brian? Brian Todd?

Brian Todd, I guess that's why -- it looks like he's ready. Okay. That's got to him. Okay, go.

TODD: Yes.

TAPPER: What are you seeing there?

TODD: Okay. Sorry, Jake. Well, we've got a building crowd here and there was some question about turnout. I don't think those questions are there anymore because the turnout is very, very strong here at turn middle school in Pottawattamie County in Council Bluffs.

I'm going to talk to a voter here, Angie Thomas.

Angie, hi. Thanks for talking to us.

First, talk to us about the whole buildup about the weather and turnout. If not affecting this place. What are your thoughts on that?

ANGIE THOMAS, IOWA VOTER: Well, of course, id like to be warmer, but I think is important to come out to the caucus tonight and it was really excited about it.

TODD: You're switching from Trump to DeSantis. Talk to me about, you know, the reasons that you want to do that tonight.

THOMAS: I just really like what DeSantis stands for. I think he stands for family. I lied the club campaign is random it's really been clean. It hasn't toward people down and I appreciate that.

TODD: Would the speeches by the surrogates maybe change your mind or are you pretty much set than what you want to do tonight?

THOMAS: I want to listen to what they have to say. I'm interested in what they say.

TODD: So, you might change.

THOMAS: That's possibility. I suppose. My daughters first time, so it was very important to bring her in a to the process.

TODD: That's great. Is she going to be voting, too?


TODD: Great. How excited are you about that?

THOMAS: Really excited.

TODD: Is there a divide in the family about who's supporting who?

THOMAS: No, but I think everybody gets to pick who they need to, who they fill in strongly about.

TODD: Good luck tonight, Angie. Thank you for talking to us.

So, that's just kind of one sampling here, Jake. Again, a lot of bus here. They're going to call this caucus to order in a short time, the Pledge of Allegiance, then they're going to elect by voice vote, the caucus chair, the permanent chair, and then the speeches will take place.

The surrogates have three minutes very strictly timed to give them for speeches. We've talked to the surrogates to about the messages that they're going to impart to people here will bring some of that to you later.


And, of course, again, what gets us really excited of why we love covering the Iowa caucuses? We're going to show all this to people in real time -- Jake.

TAPPER: Just as our reporters have been talking to voters, so have our pollsters. And right now, we can reveal the first information from our entrance poll of Iowa voters as they went into caucus sites across the state.

David Chalian is here with that.

David, what are -- what are you seeing?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, Jake, we are trying to take stock of what does this electorate look like in Iowa tonight. Now, these are early entrance poll results. These are people who arrived at the caucus site early. These numbers will change throughout the night as we do more interviews.

But look at this. We asked folks, are you part of the MAGA movement 53 percent, a majority of those that we've interviewed thus far say yes, they consider themselves part of the MAGA movement, 41 percent say no, they're not. We also asked folks -- do you think Joe Biden legitimately won the

2020 election? Sixty-eight percent, 68 percent more than two-thirds of those in these early entrance full results showing up or living the caucus sites say no, he did not, wrongly saying no, he did not win legitimately in 2020.

And then we asked, if Donald Trump is convicted of a crime, do you still think he's fit for the presidency? A similar result here, nearly two-thirds of those who've showed up at the Republican and caucuses tonight in Iowa, at least these early arrivers tell us yes, Donald Trump is still fit for the presidency, even if convicted of a crime, these numbers show a very Trump aligned Republican electorate, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. David Chalian, thanks so much.

Let's go to Anderson Cooper and the panel in New York.

COOPER: Jake, thanks very much.

Here with the team.

So, let's talk about these, these entrance polls. Obviously, that's very --

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Forward looking electorate for Donald Trump right here. Yeah.

COOPER: That's your professional assessment.

AXELROD: That is.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Mr. Joiner did not respond to that, but I probably --

AXELROD: No, these people have already joined. They're not joiners

Look, I think that there are two there are two contests tonight. One is Donald Trump versus very high expectations, and the other contest between Haley and DeSantis for second place, and they're very distinct races, but the more vote Donald gets, the fewer votes they're sharing, and the closer they are, the better the margin for him.

So, you know, going in, you'd think that he is a really good spot and this certainly reflects that. I just want to say one other thing. Organization, like I've been involved in Iowa caucuses and you put a premium on organization. The Trump campaign has done that. The DeSantis campaign has done that.

Haley has been late to this and she's counting the momentum to overcome that. It could happen and she could get second place here. But that would be unusual, especially on a cool now -- a cold night line this.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And to add what David is saying. This is the opportunity for the Trump campaign to show that they are actually able to build a proper ground game which does have implications for a general election. Can you do that while you're also in court? Can you do that when your money is being pulled in various directions?

And whereas Haley and DeSantis, in a way, they've semi-outsourced their work to PACs, right? To these outside groups that have unlimited fundraising. But it's proven to be a little wobblier in terms of shaping a campaign. Those are inside things, but I think they're things that are important going forward to think about, as we look at how these candidates perform.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think two things can be true. I think you can look at these early numbers and say, this looks like a good electrode for Trump. But if I were looking ahead if this holds and 32 percent of people who showed up in this caucus said Trump is not fit for the presidency if convicted of a crime that, that's a troubling item. If that holds and if it's a little bit more than what we've seen in some of the polling.

COOPER: You think that's actually high, the 32 percent.

JENNINGS: Well, if that were true --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Those are Iowa primary electorate.

JENNINGS: I mean, yes, I mean, if these are like engaged actively voting Republicans who, show up and say, he's not fit, if convicted of a crime, I mean, you got to have these kinds of people in the fall to win a close election. And so I'm anxious to see how this shakes out by the end of the night because that to me is a pretty --

URBAN: That's the thesis. That's the thesis of the case for DeSantis and Haley. That's what they've been running on, right? That's their -- that's their raison d'etre, right? They are saying that Trumps not going to vote for me is a vote for Donald Trump. That's what Vivek had said, right, in his piece there. And with DeSantis as well, that Trumps not going to make it for the long run, and I'm the guy -- I'm the guy to be.

So whether or not that holds true, we'll see tonight and we'll see what the president is number, former president's numbers are, if he surpasses 50 percent is at 52, 51. I think he falls below 50, it's going to be -- it's going to be kind of a loss.

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But by the way, I think we may be seeing the greatest political comeback in modern political history tonight. If Donald Trump does break 50 because keep in mind, I know I don't need to see it for this table, but quadruply indicted, 91 felony accounts, two impeachments against him. Is that in just four years, he is back to a place where he is dominating this caucus. Very likely statistically, and is in first place in New Hampshire, the next contest.


I mean, it's just remarkable what he has been able to do and how he's been able to shift voters sentiment back in his favor, and such an unprecedented way.

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And then the question becomes for whoever does -- for whoever does come in second here, can they make a sustained case for themselves moving forward? If Trump does go on to win by over 50 percent and can reasonably make a claim that he's had a dominant performance and clearly has a dominant hold on the base of the Republican Party, can Haley or DeSantis, whoever comes in second make a case that they are better gamble in the general election? Can they distinguish themselves in a way that I would argue we haven't really effectively seeing them do in this primary, its part of why they haven't been able to get traction.

Haley obviously, in a much stronger position in New Hampshire, you could see sort of an easier path for her coming out of Iowa, but that's going to be an important question for their campaigns. How do they quickly spend tonight --

COOPER: What do Haley and DeSantis need to do in order to move forward?

AXELROD: But I think DeSantis is I think if he doesn't come in second year after all, he's invested in the state of Iowa. I think he's got a one-way ticket back to Tallahassee.

But for Haley, she's got the luxury of knowing. She's doing well in New Hampshire. This would give her momentum if she got second place here. It's not a -- it's not a killing proposition to come in third, but it will raise questions.

URBAN: Anderson, I just want is one thing too. We talked about this earlier. What if no one breaks? What if -- what if DeSantis and Haley finished should the teen still right? What if there's -- nobody breaks 20? If there are 19, 17?

Is that really -- if you come in second with 18 percent of the caucusgoers, does that really saturated place?

AXELROD: To Scott's point though -- I just want to raise one thing about Scott's point. Two things can be true. Donald Trump can be dominant in the Republican Party and the results tonight might show that, and he's -- could have made major problems in a general election because of these 32 percent that you mentioned.

COOPER: We're keeping a close eye on turnout at caucus sites as Iowans are about to cast the first votes in 2024 presidential race, in the midst of a record breaking deep freeze. It all begins just minutes from now when Iowa Republicans decide who they want to challenge President Biden.

We've got cameras from reporters inside multiple locations across the state to cover the caucuses, and the results live. Once the caucuses begin, we'll have our first chance to reveal which candidate is the early leader based on our entrance poll.

Let's go to our caucus reporters. First to Sara Sidner in Cedar Rapids in Eastern Iowa -- Sara. SIDNER: Hey, Anderson. Yeah, this place is starting to fill up, a lot of folks coming here. We've got six different precincts and we have this lovely family who showed up with their two very adorable formerly cold children. Now, they're here. They're warm, and they're the cutest things ever.

Hi. Tell me your name.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Eric. It's my wife, Sarah.

SIDNER: Nice named by the way. I'm also Sara.

So, Eric and Sara, and who are these lovely little kids?


SIDNER: Lydia and Caleb -- hi, guys. Hi. Are you sleepy bag? Lil bit.

Tell me what you're doing. Have you ever caucus before?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. This would be time number three for me and --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it's my first time in Iowa.

SIDNER: Okay. So this is your first time in Iowa? You've not done this before. Have you given some tips or have things changed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looks pretty similar. Yeah.

Sarah was describing me how things went in Minnesota and sounds about the same. So just maybe a little bit warmer sometimes. So --

SIDNER: So, Minnesota, I mean, you it gets this cold there. That's like kind of the norm, right, Sara, this has nothing to you.

So this is your first time here, but not your first time caucusing. Why do you caucus? Why do you come and do this? You have to go through extremely cold temperatures. You had to get the kids ready and we know that it takes a minute. Why do you show up to do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just the chance to have our voices heard and participate in the process here. So I've -- I've come and caucus ever since I was able to two its actually kind of interesting to find out that we can be involved in the process. So if you're in asked me, I'm going to tell you.

SIDNER: Yeah. What about you, Sarah?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's important to know who our leaders are going to be and I was saying that.

SIDNER: You guys know who you are definitely going for at this moment in time or can you be swayed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do. We know who we're going for.


SIDNER: You clearly are interested in the microphone. One day, my friend, you too might be able to use one of these. You're very cute.

So there you go. Been here three times, first-time here in Iowa. This place is filling up though, and I want to just give you a quick look at the room. Leon's going to show you -- my photographer going to show you what's going on.

By the way, they will start counting and just a few minutes here.


So, things will start to get really interesting -- guys.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Sidner in Cedar Rapids, fascinating stuff.

Lets check in with Brian Todd, who's in Council Bluffs.

Brian, what do you got there?

TODD: Well, Jake, much more of a turnout here than they anticipated. So much more that they have run out of these ballots. This is a sample ballot here, but they've run out of them. Many more people have shown up than they anticipated. So here's what they've got to do.

Our photographer, David Albriten (ph), can maybe take you pass these folks and show you what they're giving to people now. Sheets of paper from a small yellow legal pad. That's what they're handing out to people in order to facilitate their ability to vote tonight because they have run out of ballots.

The turnout here, exceptional, much better than they anticipated. They've also got to set up more chairs in here. I'm going to scoot over here while David shows you people checking in and getting their paper ballots. And then David will come over here and kind of zoom past me into the room that is pretty much at capacity.

Mary Ann Hanusa, who's running the organizational part of this, tells me that they're going to have to set up more chairs in there. I can already see people standing in the back row so this is going to be called to order shortly.

She did say that people who are in line right now when this is caucus is going to be called to order in about five minutes will be allowed to continue to register and check in before they start the caucus. So the short answer to the obvious question is -- yes, they will delay this for a couple of minutes in order to get people checked in and into the room so that the caucus can start -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yeah. Those roads are -- those roads are tricky tonight. Thanks so much.

So let's go back to David Chalian, who has more information from our entrance poll.

David, what are the voters telling us?

CHALIAN: We're looking at the makeup of the electorate. How voters are identifying themselves ideologically. You see here 54 percent of those arriving at the caucus sites called themselves very conservatives. These numbers will update even as we go through them here, 34 percent say somewhat conservative.

It's a very conservative electorate. In fact, it's more conservative than it was eight years ago. This number was 40 percent, eight years ago, of self-identified, very conservative voters.

The view on banning most or all abortion nationwide. We asked about 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucusgoers tonight, at least these early arrivers tell us they favor a national abortion ban, only 32 percent say they oppose it. And in terms of the overall issue set driving voters decision, the most important issues for these Iowa Republican caucusgoers, immigration at 37 percent, the economy at 36 percent, abortion at 11 percent, foreign policy at 11 percent.

This is an electorate largely driven by the immigration issue and economy.

TAPPER: All right. David Chalian, fascinating stuff.

And while were waiting for the actual votes to start coming in, let's check in with John King at the magic wall.

John, who are you looking for in terms of where you're looking for, you know what I mean?

KING: We're about to count, Jake, which is the wonderful part. People get to vote or last election ended a lot of turmoil, even violence. Now we have people gathering to vote and watching those caucus sites. It's a great thing.

In the end, it's about delegates, right? You need 1,215 delegates and everybody starts tonight with zero. So its a brand new race.

But with Trump so heavily favored, the question is, can he be stopped? So Iowa tonight is not about math. The math matters in the long run. Tonight, Iowa is about momentum.

So let's just look at the map and what were looking for right here. Again, if you go back to 2016, Donald Trump came to Iowa as the insurgent. He was the guy saying these established politicians, the Ted Cruz, the Marco Rubios, the Rand Paul is the Jeb Bushes, the John Kasich.

You know, Trump was against them. He came in second in Iowa that went on to New Hampshire. The rest is history. Now, the question is, he's not the insurgent anymore. He is the new Republican establishment because he has as David said, repopulated the Republican Party, reshape the Republican Party.

The one question tonight is, can anybody slow him or stop him? Because if he wins Iowa big tonight and wins New Hampshire big next week, then we do Nevada, the caucuses are Trump, South Carolina. This could be over in a few weeks.

The question is, can you slow or stop them tonight? And so where do you look for that to happen? Number one, you look where the people are, right? It sounds pretty logical, but Donald Trump does very well in the rural counties. See the smaller circles. Those are the small, less populated counties.

The bigger population centers, Des Moines, the suburbs around it, Sioux City, the suburbs around it, Cedar Rapids, the suburbs around it. That's the test both for Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. Can you win over people who maybe they voted for Donald Trump, maybe they voted for Donald Trump twice, who think its time for a change? Can they convince people it's time for change?

David Chalian describing those exit polls, a very MAGA, very conservative, sounds like a very Trump electorate. That doesn't necessarily mean they wont vote for somebody else because Trump has remade the Republican Party. They still think Donald Trump should be president.

That's a shame because it's not true, but it is a fact in today's Republican Party that so many of these people about to vote in Iowa believe the election was stolen when it simply was not. That is one of the biggest changes Donald Trump has had on the Republican Party.

So what else are you looking for? Let me turn this off, and let's come up in here. If you look at Iowa in the state right here, number one, the state with a significant evangelical population, conservative Christians tend to vote. They are driving force in the Republican Party.