Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. Maintains the blog "The Beat" at TheNation.com. He is covering the Iowa caucus for The Nation.
Iowa is awash in millions of dollars of negative campaign ads funded by so-called super PACs as voters head to their caucuses in the first real test of the 2012 election. "If you want to see the future of politics in America, turn on the television in Iowa," says John Nichols, correspondent for The Nation magazine. "If it is this kind of overwhelming flood of negative ads, literally flipping on a dime to take down any candidate who rises in opposition to the mainstream or kind of core Republican contender with the most money, it’s a pretty scary picture. And it is one that suggests that if we don’t get serious about addressing Citizens United [v. Federal Election Commission], we’re going to end up with a much uglier, much more destructive politics." Nichols estimates the candidates and their PACs spent $200 per vote in Iowa. The latest public opinion polls show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney holding a narrow lead of 24 percent over Rep. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Nichols says Santorum’s comments over the weekend about not wanting to "make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money" highlight how Republican candidates have failed to reach out to Iowa’s many minority communities. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement has tried to inject the voices of the 99 percent into the race by holding protests at events and both Republican and Democratic campaign headquarters throughout the state. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The first real test of the 2012 election is taking place tonight in Iowa, when Republican caucus members will choose their party’s presidential nominee from a playing field of seven major candidates. Tonight’s caucuses are expected to draw some 120,000 Iowans to about, oh, 1,700 meetings in the state’s 99 counties. They’ll elect 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention, which will be held this August in Florida.
As the vote in Iowa nears, the latest major public opinion poll taken by the Des Moines Register shows Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney holding a narrow lead of 24 percent over Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Romney focused much of his stump speech on criticizing President Obama.
MITT ROMNEY: We’re an opportunity nation. I hear the President wants to turn this into a European-style welfare state, an entitlement nation, where the role of government isn’t to provide our freedom and opportunity, but instead the role of government is to take from some to give to others, in the name of equality. That model hasn’t worked anywhere in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Polling a close second to Romney is Texas Congress Member Ron Paul, with 22 percent of likely Iowa voters. On Monday, Paul’s supporters took down a wall in their Marriott ballroom to accommodate the large numbers of people who came to hear him speak. Ron Paul told the packed conference room he is the only unique candidate.
REP. RON PAUL: The others represent the status quo, variations of the status quo. But they’re not talking about a foreign policy to defend America; they’re talking about mischief around the world and policing the world. Are they talking about change in the monetary policy and look at the basic problems with the monetary system and how it creates our financial bubbles? Are they—do they really care about personal liberties? When you look at the votes and what the President has been doing, they don’t care about your personal liberty, or it wouldn’t be continuously undermined. So, therefore, a lot is at stake.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, who picked up an informal endorsement from Fox media mogul Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, has surged from behind to place third in Iowa in the polls, with 18 percent of likely voters.
RICK SANTORUM: I would just say this: we have raised more money in the last few days than we have in the last few months. And going from zero to 60 in the polls, if you will, will help those resources a lot. I think you’ve seen other candidates who have had the opportunity to get a little national attention, that resources have followed.
AMY GOODMAN: Negative campaign ads from Ron Paul and a group that backs Romney helped to knock former House Speaker Newt Gingrich down to 12 percent of support from Iowa voters in the polls so far. Texas Governor Rick Perry is polling at 11 percent. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was born in Iowa, came in at 7 percent in the polls so far. The Des Moines Register poll did not track voters’ opinion on the seventh Republican contender, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.
More than $12.5 million will be spent on the election in Iowa by the end of today’s caucus, almost two-thirds of it spent by so-called super PACs, or political action committees, where individuals and corporations can drop unlimited amounts of money.
As all of this takes place, the Occupy movement has tried to inject the voices of the 99 percent by holding protests at campaign headquarters and events throughout Iowa. Monday night, they mic-checked a speech by Mitt Romney, chanting, "Stop the War on the Poor." Meanwhile, scores of protesters marched on the campaign headquarters of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, calling for kicking money out of politics. Protesters also focused on Democrats. On Monday afternoon, 12 Occupy Iowa Caucus protesters were arrested after staging a die-in at a Des Moines hotel where the Democratic National Committee has set up a communications "war room."
After six months of campaigning, 13 Republican presidential debates and millions of dollars spent to flood the airwaves with ads, voters are finally getting a say in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
We go right now to Des Moines to speak with John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, maintains the blog "The Beat" at thenation.com.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, John. Talk about what’s happening so far in these last few hours before the caucus.
JOHN NICHOLS: Good morning, Amy.
Well, it’s been a very wild last few hours, especially around Rick Santorum. As you mentioned, the polling suggests that he is on the rise and potentially pulling together the evangelical vote that had been split between Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and to some extent, Newt Gingrich. I was with Santorum last night, and it was a really remarkable event for a candidate who’s been on the sideline so far. Now he is literally surrounded by dozens of television cameras and real crowds of Iowans. And he is the one injecting at least a measure of uncertainty into tonight’s process. But I will emphasize that everywhere I went, I saw crowds of Ron Paul backers, as well.
It’s very intense, and there’s a real politics, not merely on the television screens, although that’s where most of it’s played out, but also on the streets. There’s a lot of political energy, and some of that political energy, and some of the most exciting political energy, is actually coming from the Occupy Des Moines and Occupy Iowa Caucus folks, who are very present at a lot of events and in a lot of places, not just in Des Moines, but around the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is saying. He was a second-tier candidate until a jump in the polls last week. While campaigning in Sioux City over the weekend, he made a controversial comment about cutting entitlement funds for African Americans.
RICK SANTORUM: I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.
AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, your response to former Senator Santorum’s comments just this week?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s an unsettling comment, and it’s a particularly unsettling one because in Iowa there is a significant African-American population, not just in Des Moines, but in a number of other cities. These are folks who have really been hit hard by deindustrialization, the shutting down of factories, and a lot of the shifts in our economic system in this country. African Americans have been hit hard in Iowa, and there is a very well-entrenched, very active community. And to have a candidate for president making comments like that, instead of reaching out to the African-American community, is unsettling.
Really, one of the things that’s worth noting, Amy, is that these candidates on the Republican side have made very little, if any, effort to reach out to Iowa’s many minority communities. And I know it’s often said that Iowa is an overwhelmingly white state. It is. But there’s growing African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American communities here, and they have been largely neglected by the Republican candidates, just as the advertising for the Republican candidates tends to neglect a lot of the core economic issues. You don’t see ads on television talking in the way that you’d expect about unemployment, about real job creation. So many of the ads are just repeating of hard-right, social conservative talking points, obviously aimed at a tiny portion of the population, rather than the whole of even this state.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2003, a controversy arose over Rick Santorum’s statements about homosexuality and the right to privacy. In an interview with the Associated Press, Santorum said he believed mutually consenting adults do not have a constitutional right to privacy with respect to sexual acts. During the interview, he made comments that shocked many, saying, quote, "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." Those, the words of Rick Santorum, comparing homosexuality to bestiality in 2003. Are these issues being raised, John Nichols?
JOHN NICHOLS: Not directly, but you went to the heart of the matter there, Amy. Rick Santorum’s appeal, his core appeal, is to the hard-right social conservatives, often referred to as evangelicals, but also a very conservative Catholic base, particularly in the eastern part of the state. Santorum has reached out to these voters, attracting endorsements from pastors, as well as from people involved in anti-gay-rights campaigning in Iowa. And there’s been a lot of that. Remember, Iowa was one of the first states to allow for same-sex marriage, and there’s been real battles on the ground here. Santorum has positioned himself on the anti-gay-rights side.
I do think it’s also significant, Amy, that you point out Santorum’s disregard for right to privacy. One of the less noted aspects of the Santorum campaign is his passion for amending the U.S. Constitution. He wants to amend it to ban abortion. He wants to amend it to restrict same-sex marriage and gay rights. He wants to put in a balanced budget amendment that is designed mainly to shift funding toward faith-based programs. He wants to shut down the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals out in California and the western part of the United States, because he sees it as a liberal court. This is really a very radical candidate for president, a very radical right-wing candidate. And that has appeal to a portion of the Iowa electorate, but it’s really a very small portion. And I think as people become more aware of this, Santorum is going to have an awful lot of questions asked about his stances, not just in the past, but right now.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting on abortion, because Romney and Gingrich have been fighting over the issue. In one of those super PAC ads of Romney’s friends against Gingrich that have swamped the airwaves, he talks about Gingrich supporting some kind of tax-paid abortions. And then Gingrich, last night on television, said, in fact, that Romneycare, you know, talking about the healthcare plan in Massachusetts, included supporting Planned Parenthood and included supporting abortions.
But I wanted to go to Ron Paul right now, who is obviously very threatened by the Santorum surge and actually calling Santorum a liberal. But on the eve of the Iowa caucus, supporters of Ron Paul took down a wall in their Marriott ballroom to accommodate the large numbers of people who came to hear him speak. Ron Paul said individual liberty is the most important issue.
REP. RON PAUL: As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one issue. You know, they talk about a lot of issues. They talk about the foreign policy, monetary policy, economic policy. There’s one issue that has made America great, and the issue that you can answer all your questions on is individual liberty. That is the issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Ron Paul—talk about his place in Iowa right now and what you expect, John, and the positions that he has taken, among—most recently talking about North Korea, saying soldiers should be brought home from everywhere now—Korea, Germany, Japan, not just Iraq and Afghanistan.
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Ron Paul has been an absolutely fascinating presence in this Iowa race. He’s been fascinating because he came in with a set of stands, and he’s going out with the same set of stands. On his pre-caucus rally yesterday, a big rally he had, he talked very specifically about his opposition to interventionism abroad, his desire to bring troops home, his criticism of wars of whim in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere—a very blunt, very direct message. Also one on civil liberties. Now, the reason that that is significant is because most candidates in Iowa have really tacked hard to the right and to a kind of core set of Republican talking points. Paul has been the outlier here and has determined to stay there.
One of the fascinating things about Ron Paul’s appeal in Iowa is that it is not just to Republicans. Iowa has a very long tradition of anti-interventionism. Goes back to World War I. And to a greater extent than most states, this state has a real broad-based antiwar movement in many small towns and also, of course, in college towns like Iowa City and Ames. And Paul has made an appeal to that community. Now, those folks are not naive. They recognize that they disagree with Ron Paul on a host of social issues and also with—have real discomfort with things that have appeared in his newsletter in the past, particularly on racial issues. But there is a portion of the electorate here in Iowa, including some independents and, frankly, some Democrats, who will re-register tonight to vote for Ron Paul, to send an antiwar message. And Paul is clearly reaching out to that broader base. Polling suggests that among young people, he is usually the leading candidate. And if you go to caucuses tonight and see a lot of young folks, it’s very likely that they’ll be there to vote for Ron Paul.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, these questionable old newsletters you talk about, that much of the media doesn’t actually repeat what he said. This wasn’t him, you know, contributing to a magazine that maybe had other comments; this was—these were newsletters under his name, the Ron Paul Political Report and others, that said things like—described the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as "Hate Whitey Day," said 95 percent of Washington’s black males were criminals, a headline lamenting the country’s disappearing white majority, among others. This was under his name, though he says he robo-signed them. But how are young people talking about this?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. There is real discomfort with those newsletters. And I think the revelations about Ron Paul’s newsletters have done serious damage to his campaign. He was really rising in the polls, not just with Republicans, but also with independents, and frankly, I do think, with some crossover Democrats. When those revelations came out, I think they did serious damage to his candidacy. And one thing to understand about Iowa is that while it has a large social conservative population and is certainly a swing state, this is a state that has great pride in its role on the Northern side of the Civil War, in the support of its congressional delegation for civil rights back in the 1960s. And so, I do think that even with some older votes, not just with younger voters, there’s been a real discomfort with those revelations and some revulsion, frankly, toward them. I think it has harmed Ron Paul. By the same token, Paul has a core of supporters, most of them very conservative folks, or even libertarian, who will stick with him. And there will be some crossover to try and send that antiwar message. But there is no question that the revelation about his statements has done him damage.
AMY GOODMAN: Iowa has been inundated with television ads critical of Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. Both parties agree the ad campaign, which has cost millions of dollars, is what accounts for Gingrich’s drop in the polls and Mitt Romney’s corresponding rise. A recent poll found 45 percent of all advertising in Iowa was aimed at attacking Gingrich. A group called Restore Our Future is responsible for a number of the ads, with no direct participation from the Romney campaign. The ads have been enabled by last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, which created powerful new channels for outside money—unidentified—to influence elections. Restore Our Future is the most prominent of the super PACs, or political actions committees, that have been formed as a result. Let’s go to one of the most cited anti-Gingrich ads. It’s called "Happy."
RESTORE OUR FUTURE AD: Know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich’s baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines. Freddie Mac helped cause the economic collapse, but Gingrich cashed in. Freddie Mac paid Newt $30,000 an hour: $1.6 million. Gingrich not only teamed up with Nancy Pelosi on global warming, but together they co-sponsored a bill that gave $60 million a year to a U.N. program supporting China’s brutal "one child" policy. As speaker, Gingrich even supported taxpayer funding of some abortions. And Newt is the only speaker in history to be reprimanded. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations—by a Republican Congress. As conservative National Review says, "his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas–made him a poor Speaker of the House. He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself." Newt Gingrich—too much baggage. Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.
AMY GOODMAN: One of those attack ads from the super PACs that has brought down Newt Gingrich in the polls, to say the least, John. The issue of this—of money—and I should say, I mentioned last year’s Citizens United ruling. I have to get used to 2012, because it was 2010. It was—
JOHN NICHOLS: I know.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
JOHN NICHOLS: The anniversary is coming up.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the money that is going—the untraceable money, the people behind these ads we don’t know, though we know some of these committees, of course, some of the closest former staff members of Romney.
JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. In fact, the advertisement that you showed is one that Newt Gingrich has specifically asked Mitt Romney to get off the air, and has suggested, very bluntly, that if Mitt Romney said to his former aides, "You should take that down," it would go down, even if he said so publicly, not a kind of backroom coordination. Romney has refused to do so.
And here’s the interesting dynamic. We have always assumed that Citizens United would play out initially in partisan races, where you saw perhaps a Republican candidate with dramatically more funding than a progressive Democratic candidate, something like that. That’s not what’s happened. The reality is that the first major Citizens United election, where you’ve seen massive amounts of money come in, particularly in negative ads that are not directly tied but clearly behind-the-scenes tied to one candidate taking down another candidate, has occurred here in Iowa. And it has been directed at, of all people, Newt Gingrich, a politician who for years said that what we needed was more money in politics. It’s been a fascinating playout, but it’s one people should keep a close eye on.
I think that when all is said and done, we are likely to have seen roughly $200 per vote spent by the various Republican candidates and super PACs in Iowa. That’s just massive amount of spending. And to have most of it, or at least very close to a majority of it, on television being negative advertising has an incredibly destructive impact on our democracy. If you want to see the future of politics in America, turn on the television in Iowa, and you see what it could be. If this is it, if it is this kind of overwhelming flood of negative ads, literally flipping on a dime to take down any candidate who rises in opposition to the mainstream or kind of core Republican contender with the most money, it’s a pretty scary picture. And it is one that suggests that if we don’t get serious about addressing Citizens United, we’re going to end up with a much uglier, much more destructive politics.
It’s one of the reasons why activists in Iowa will be going to Republican and Democratic caucuses tonight, urging those caucuses to pass Move to Amend resolutions. These are resolutions designed to encourage both parties to support the amendment of the U.S. Constitution to take out money from politics, at least in the form of corporate money that is uncontrolled and unrestricted.
AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols—
JOHN NICHOLS: These are essentially anti-corporate-personhood resolutions.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, but when we come back, we’ll also be joined by Thomas Frank. He’s written a new book. It’s called Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. Even as some have described the Republican Party in disarray, Thomas Frank makes a different argument about what’s happening in this country. And I’d like to get your comment on it, as well, John. John Nichols, with The Nation magazine, maintaining the blog "The Beat," is in Des Moines, Iowa, with us today. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.