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All eyes on Iowa: A view of the Democratic candidates from the key state

Irish journalist Colm Quinn is on the ground in Iowa to see how the Democratic frontrunners are doing.

A combine harvests a cornfield while a wagon waits nearby to unload it in the Loess Hills of northwest Iowa
A combine harvests a cornfield while a wagon waits nearby to unload it in the Loess Hills of northwest Iowa
Image: Jerry Mennenga/PA Wire

THIS TIME NEXT year, we’ll know who the next president of the United States will be. On the Republican side, Donald Trump is far and away the choice of the party faithful, with not even the threat of impeachment denting an average 86% approval rating over the course of his presidency. 

On the Democratic side, the title of Trump challenger is still up for grabs. National polls call it a three-horse race between former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Although with so many candidates still in the running — 17 as of publishing — there are still about a quarter of voters who have yet to commit to any of the frontrunners. 

After a summer of marathon debates and frantic fundraising, the campaigns now turn to Iowa — the first state to vote in the Democratic primary on 2 February and a key indicator of who will eventually win the nomination.

Barack Obama famously won the state by 8 percentage points over challenger Hillary Clinton in 2008 on his march to the White House. Hillary Clinton carried the state in 2012, winning by a razor-thin margin to set up her contentious slog with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. 

The state is small by American standards with a population of 3.1 million filling an area about twice the size of the Irish republic. Iowa is not so important for its demographics — the electorate is whiter, older, and more rural than the average Democratic voter — although doing well here does signal an ability to break through with voters who switched from Obama to Trump in the 2016 election.

A strong showing here can signal to the media, potential voters (and for some candidates — big pocketed donors) that a candidate is organised and battle-hardened enough to go through the 50 state nomination process and eventually contest the general election. 

Mad About Pete

ia-iowa-democratic-partys-2019-liberty-and-justice-dinner Pete Buttigieg Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Although a national polling average puts his popularity at 6.7%, less than 3 points ahead of Senator Kamala Harris, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, is betting big on Iowa to make his breakthrough. The media-friendly candidate, flush with cash from a mixture of small-dollar donors and wealthy backers, has opened more field offices in Iowa than any other Democrat. 

So far, that organisation seems to be paying off. Unlike the national numbers, polls now put Buttigieg in a four-horse race between Warren, Biden, and Sanders. 

Ryan Arndorfer, the mayor of Britt, Iowa (population 1,985) met with Buttigieg on Monday and he’s confident in his chances. “The idea that Pete is taking time to reach out to rural communities – those like mine – really means a lot to Iowans,” he said, pointing out that almost half of Iowa voters live in rural communities with less than 5,000 people.

The campaigns that focus their efforts in the larger cities like Des Moines and Iowa City may do well, but it’s the rural vote that wins the Iowa Caucus, and so far Pete has a huge lead with those voters in my opinion.”

When I asked him how he thought the overall results would go in Iowa, he was even more bullish, “People hate to make predictions, because no one wants to be on the record as being wrong. But if I was a betting man, I would say Buttigieg wins in Iowa, with Warren 5-7 points back.” 

Warren Rising

In the 22 polls run in Iowa since campaigning began Elizabeth Warren leads the pack, averaging just over 22% support. Known on the national stage as a senator committed to creating fairness in the US economic system, she has also fueled a cottage industry of news articles with billionaires lining up to denounce her — effectively doing her PR for her. 

election-2020-elizabeth-warren Elizabeth Warren Source: Bryan Cereijo/PA Wire

Sarah Carlson, a Warren supporter in Pleasant Mill in the suburbs of Des Moines, says that the candidate’s clarity on the problems facing the country makes Warren her choice. “The other candidates see there’s other structural things that need to change but I don’t feel like they have the right vision to get there. They’re not progressive enough,” she said.

Although she supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, it was the Warren campaign’s tenaciousness that changed her mind. “Canvassing the heck out of Iowa is how you win Iowa,” she said.

Carlson started getting calls from Warren’s campaign 6 months ago but says the Sanders campaign only started calling her in the past two weeks. In a state where it’s not uncommon to meet a candidate more than once over the course of a primary campaign, little things like that matter. 

He Hasn’t Gone Away You Know

ia-iowa-democratic-partys-2019-liberty-and-justice-dinner Sanders marching in Iowa on 1 November Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

While still recovering from a heart attack in October, Sanders is hoping to capitalise on record fundraising hauls – from a one million voter-strong donor base – with a strong showing in Iowa. With so many candidates criss-crossing the state, the Sanders campaign is hoping that traditionally overlooked constituencies will be the difference come February. 

Latinos across the US favour Sanders above other candidates in their donations during this campaign cycle, and at 6% of the Iowa population could prove critical in a tight race. Sanders is banking on continuing his popularity with this community, and will be bringing Democratic party superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez along with him to a rally just outside Iowa City this Saturday. 

Sanders supporter Nick Salazar, from Muscatine, is the Iowa state director for the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). He says that Sanders’s appeal resonates in the Latino community because he speaks to their concerns over healthcare, education, jobs and immigration.

“When we talk about these issues, they affect everyone across the country but when we talk about minority groups, like Latinos, they negatively impact these communities a lot harder,” Salazar said.

And so Senator Sanders’s ideas are bold enough to address these problems. These aren’t just incremental ideas — these are bold policies that will help our community.”

Don’t Forget Uncle Joe

Maybe it’s because of his 8 years as vice president that he presents less of a shiny object to the media, maybe it’s because he has been the campaign frontrunner since he announced his candidacy, but for whatever reason, there is an enthusiasm gap in the Biden campaign that could make this the third Democratic primary that Biden has lost, along with his attempts in 1988 and 2008.

election-2020-joe-biden Joe Biden during the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration Source: Nati Harnik/PA Wire

His first problem is money, (he needs more of it), so he has reversed a campaign pledge to avoid using Super PACs — ostensibly non-affiliated committees with unlimited fundraising power — due to this shortfall.

Other candidates, especially Warren and Sanders, have made removing big-money from politics a campaign issue, and Biden will have conceded more ground to the party’s left and perhaps potential voters with his decision.

It’s not something that bothers Biden supporter Betty Brim-Hunter, the former Vice Chair of the Polk County Democratic Party, “I think that any candidate that’s out there that doesn’t have a Super PAC is a fool,” she said.

I don’t like Super PACs, I don’t. But you gotta look at who we’re up against. You’re not going to go fight a big fire with a bucket of water.” 

Brim-Hunter, who supported Martin O’Malley in 2016’s Caucuses, points to the TV ads that Republican party-aligned groups have started running in Iowa attacking Joe Biden as a sign of his strength.

“I’ve never in my 67 years seen the Republican party attack a Democrat in a primary campaign. Which tells me that the Republican party does not want Joe Biden as the candidate.” 

Biden’s saving grace could come in South Carolina, where polls suggest his viability among black voters will finally be proven. If Democrats want to defeat Trump in 2020, black voters will be a key constituency to mobilise. With that in mind, a poor showing in Iowa would not be the end of the world for Biden, but a bad performance in South Carolina would be fatal to his campaign’s chances. 

The Irishness of Iowa

No, this isn’t the part where we talk about how Irish-American everyone is there (about 13 percent claim ancestry, if you must know), but the way Iowans will vote on the night of the Iowa Caucus isn’t too different to our system of proportional representation. 

At Caucus sites – usually a large room like a library or school hall – voters will enter and walk to the part of the room designated for their candidate. Officials then conduct a headcount to determine first preferences. Where it gets tricky is when a candidate fails to reach quota, and that candidates voters are then released to walk over to another part of the room to another candidate. 

Unlike other states with first-past-the-post results, Iowa’s system means that second preferences could prove vital, especially if the democratic field doesn’t whittle down in time for 2 February. 

Colm Quinn is an US-based Irish journalist. 

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