MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It is caucus night in Iowa and, for Joe Biden, a test of whether he can win votes if he is not standing next to Barack Obama. Well, standing with the former vice president while he campaigns today in Iowa is Tom Vilsack, former governor of the state and, after that, secretary of agriculture under President Obama.
TOM VILSACK: It's good to be with you.
KELLY: All right. So it's a big field, as you know. Why Joe Biden?
VILSACK: First, it's clear to me that Biden is the most electable Democrat, better against Donald Trump than any of the Democratic candidates and is competitive in states that we haven't been competitive in in the past, like Texas. Secondly, I think if we're interested in actually moving this country forward, we have to have someone who not only has a plan and a vision but also has the capacity and the relationships to get things done domestically and to repair things internationally.
And then finally, I think one of most important characteristics of a good president is empathy, the ability to connect to people who have suffered. I think Joe Biden, because of his personal losses, understands what it means to suffer. And I think he is motivated in part in this race to try to heal the divisions within this country.
KELLY: So what do you think he has to do tonight?
VILSACK: I think part of it depends on turnout. I suspect the turnout's not going to be as great as 2008 but perhaps a bit more than what it was in 2016. In that scenario, I think Joe Biden does very well.
KELLY: You think high turnout favors Joe Biden?
VILSACK: No, I think an average to mid-sized turnout favors Joe Biden. I think if there is a large turnout and exceeds 2008, that may obviously support Senator Sanders' contention that he can somehow bring additional people into the process. I don't get that sense, like I did in 2008, that there were just going to be lots and lots of people showing up that had never been involved in politics before. At the end of the day, this is about delegates. It's not really about how many people show up because that's how you get nominated.
KELLY: To your point that a big turnout might favor Bernie Sanders and this sense that he has momentum behind him, for Democratic voters who are looking for change, who are looking for a revolution, why should they come out and support the former vice president?
VILSACK: In part because he's offering a transformational vision for the economy in this country that's based on combating climate change in a smart and thoughtful way starting with American agriculture, which will fundamentally change the economy not just of rural America but all of America. Secondly, it's about getting things done. It isn't about a situation where you just promise everything. It's about - have you been able to show in your past you've delivered? Joe Biden has delivered on big ideas in the past. He has a record that is unmatched in this primary.
KELLY: So what do you think explains his - according to the polls - lack of being able to capture that sense of energy that seems to be carrying the Sanders campaign right now?
VILSACK: Well, it depends on the polls that you're looking at. Whether or not the pollsters are skewed towards a younger voter or an older voter participation, you get different numbers. So the only thing we're going to know for sure is after tonight, we're going to know where things stand, at least as it relates to Iowa on to New Hampshire.
KELLY: Yeah. You know Iowa politics better than just about anybody, I'm guessing. What specifically are you watching for tonight that will tell you if it's going to be a good night for the former vice president?
VILSACK: Well, I think it's both turnout and the location of that turnout. If we see strong numbers of people showing up in smaller communities across the state, then I think Joe Biden is going to do very well because he's spent a substantial amount of his time courting voters in those rural small towns. I think it was a strong message for Democrats generally. It's an indication the Biden campaign's not going to forget about rural America, which, I think, is important and necessary in order to have success in November of 2020.
KELLY: So you're watching if he carries rural areas, not just the cities.
VILSACK: Absolutely. I think the rural areas - again, it's about delegates. You can have a thousand people show up in Des Moines, and that might affect one delegate. You could have a thousand people show up in three or four counties across the state of Iowa, and that could affect multiple delegates. It's really about where those people show up.
KELLY: May I ask, governor, where tonight will find you? Where do you caucus?
VILSACK: I caucus at Waukee precinct No. 5, and we'll be there in line at 6:30, signing our card. This is going to be the most transparent and most secure and most accessible Iowa caucus in the history of the caucuses, and so I think the party's done a good job of preparing for tonight.
KELLY: That is former governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack. Thanks so much.
VILSACK: You bet.
KELLY: And all through today and tonight we will be hearing from surrogates for other candidates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.