MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
From impeachment to the 2020 campaign, which moves from anticipation to action with tonight's Iowa caucuses, it is just the first of many contests on the road to the Democratic nomination and eventually to the presidential election in November. NPR's Mara Liasson is here with more on what to expect along that road.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So it's almost felt like the arrival of caucus and primary season has felt backburner because we have been so deep in the impeachment trial. That is all about change.
LIASSON: It certainly is. Today, tonight and tomorrow are the formal opening events of the 2020 elections. Obviously, in Iowa, tonight Democrats will cast their ballots at their caucuses. Tomorrow night President Trump appears in the well of the House before - speaks to both houses of Congress for the big curtain-raiser for him, the State of the Union address. It's the biggest audience he'll have all year. It's - every president gets to kind of kick off his re-election campaign with the State of the Union address, and we can expect to hear a campaign message from him tomorrow.
KELLY: All right. So when you look at the Democrats and the Democratic race, which starts getting sorted out tonight, what are you watching for? What do you see?
LIASSON: I see a very unsettled race, large numbers of Democrats undecided. Democrats are paralyzed by indecision because for them, electability is paramount. They consider President Trump an existential threat to everything they care about, and they just can't decide who is the best person to beat him and for good reason because none of the candidates seem like a sure thing to defeat Donald Trump. Each of one of them has huge vulnerabilities for the president to exploit. We've seen how he's gone after Joe Biden about his son's position on a board...
KELLY: In Ukraine.
LIASSON: ...In Ukraine. Bernie Sanders - you don't even need to do the research part of oppo research because his policy positions are opposed by big majorities of Americans. He wants to ban fracking and somehow win Pennsylvania. Even a majority of Democrats don't want to end private health insurance. Majorities of voters don't want to get rid of ICE or decriminalize border crossings. But still, you see every single Democratic candidate in Iowa spending so much time and effort just trying to convince people they can beat Trump. Uniformly across the board, that is every candidate's message.
LIASSON: I'm the one who can beat him.
KELLY: Well, and who can? I mean, what are the polls telling us?
LIASSON: Well, right now according to the polls, the idea of Joe Biden beats Trump by the biggest margin. But if the reality is that Biden starts losing primaries, he might not look so electable. The person who polls the best against Trump is generic Dem. Too bad he or she is not running.
KELLY: Not on the ballot.
LIASSON: Yes. And even though Democrats want this to be a referendum on the president, it's not just a referendum. It is a binary choice - Trump versus someone.
KELLY: What about Trump's standing? He's just looking like he's going to have weathered the impeachment drama that's unfolded in Washington. How's his...
KELLY: ...Standing looking?
LIASSON: His standing is either a glass half-full or a glass half-empty. He's the least popular incumbent. His approval rating has never crossed 50%. Majorities say they will not vote for him under any circumstances. His strong disapprove number is higher than his strong approve number. But if you talk to any dozen professional political people in the universe, they'll say he is the favorite right now. He's got a strong grip on his base, structural advantage in the Electoral College, all the advantages of incumbency. He dominates the media. He can use all the levers of government at his disposal. Witness what he was able to do even when he couldn't get the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden. He's now got Republicans in the U.S. Senate saying they want to investigate him. And he's got an economy that is not perfect, but it's pretty strong, and he's got a story to tell about black and Hispanic employment.
KELLY: Speaking of the economy, people, when asked, often will tell you they vote with their checkbook. Is the economy going to be the big issue on people's minds this year?
LIASSON: Actually, it might not. We may have moved on from, it's the economy, stupid, to, it's the culture, stupid. Of course, the president's going to lead with an economic message. Are you better off than you were four years ago? He believes the answer is yes. But according to the Trump campaign, he's going to run another us versus them campaign - immigration, prayer in schools, abortion, demonizing kneeling black athletes or The Squad, those four freshmen Democratic representatives. He wants to fire up his base, depress turnout on the other side.
Trump is a culture warrior at heart, and one data point that might show he's right is that in the parts of the country that have benefited the most from the Trump economy, that's where his numbers are the worst. Where the economy is doing the worst - record farm bankruptcies, a manufacturing recession - that's where his numbers are the best. So maybe culture trumps economics.
KELLY: We shall see in the long road ahead between now and November. Looking forward to working with you, Mara.
KELLY: NPR's Mara Liasson.
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