IOWA CITY, Iowa -- It may be nearly nine months until the first balloting of the 2020 primary, but candidates are practically tripping over one another in Iowa.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., visited the same Des Moines farmers' market on the same weekend this month. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., hosted rallies in adjacent ballrooms in Ames on back-to-back days. And Warren and Beto O'Rourke stumped at the same brewery in Mason City.
The reason is clear: With about 20 Democrats running for president, there are far more candidates -- especially ones counting on strong results in Iowa -- than there are slots to realistically move forward in the 2020 competition after the caucuses. That means most of the contenders are bound to depart the Des Moines airport in February damaged, dispirited or disappointed, if not politically dead.
"If you're not in the top three, it's fairly hard to imagine how the campaign can continue," said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Iowa operative and the state director for O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman. "I don't think that the bar is too high. That's just the bar. For all candidates."
The list of Democrats staking claim to the nomination is long. Where can Warren's brand of prairie populism catch fire if not in Iowa, where her staff of 50 people on the ground tops every other campaign's? Where can Klobuchar achieve liftoff with her get-along Minnesotan approach if not in her neighboring state? And where can O'Rourke's relentless focus on retail-level politics and recruiting a volunteer-powered field program work if not in the logistically complex caucuses?
The two leaders in the polls, Joe Biden and Sanders, must finish out front or risk failing to meet heightened expectations. And those polling closer to zero are wagering everything on an Iowa breakthrough. John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, has opened eight Iowa field offices and has run television ads in the state -- and visited all 99 counties by last August.
Across the field, Iowa offers a series of ideological, racial and generational subprimaries: between Warren and Sanders for the mantle of progressive leader, between Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to be the leading black candidate before the race pivots to more diverse states, and between Mayor Pete Buttigieg, O'Rourke and other fresh faces offering a turn-the-page-on-the-past candidacy.
"There is no escaping the fact that the stakes of Iowa are extremely high," said Robby Mook, who was Hillary Clinton's national campaign manager in 2016.
Just how important has Iowa been? The last Democratic nominee not to win it was Bill Clinton in 1992.
And those who stumble here often drop out quickly. In the large 2016 Republican field, three candidates quit within days. Another wave quit after also failing to gain traction in New Hampshire.
Iowa dashed Biden's presidential dreams once, in 2008, when he finished in fifth place with less than 1% of the delegates and immediately dropped out. Now running as a former vice president, his team knows he can ill afford anything but a strong showing to start the race in 2020.
On his first trip to the state after declaring his candidacy last month, Biden promised Iowans they would "see a whole heck of a lot" of him. "Ninety-nine counties, here I come!" Biden shouted to a crowd in Iowa City.
Sanders came from nowhere to virtually tie Clinton here in 2016, but this time he's a favorite, not an insurgent. In private, his rivals like to raise the bar for him by noting he should win in a landslide if everyone who caucused for him four years ago comes out again. There were bout 171,000 Democratic caucusgoers in 2016.
"I think Vice President Biden and Sen. Sanders do have a difficult challenge," said Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa and federal agriculture secretary. "They need to preserve while others need to grow. Both are not easy."
Pete D'Alessandro, a senior Iowa adviser to Sanders, said the campaign built a list of 24,000 Iowans, mostly through the Sanders email list, who said they planned to support him in 2020. Such a sizable ledger of supporters this early in the race is a big advantage in a state where voters are notoriously fickle, often demanding to meet multiple candidates before committing.
"We have every intention of winning here," D'Alessandro said. "We're working to win here."
Numerous lower-tier contenders need Iowa to breathe life into their candidacies, even if they finish shy of an outright victory. The gap between expectation and outcome has often been as important in Iowa as the results themselves.
Eric Swalwell, a California congressman and Iowa native, has already visited the state 19 times since 2017, according to a candidate calendar kept by The Des Moines Register. Julian Castro, the former federal housing secretary, installed a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman as his national deputy campaign manager.
Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who's expected to join the 2020 primary soon, has signaled a heavy focus on Iowa. At an off-the-record gathering of supporters and donors in Bozeman, Mont., this year, one of his guests was the Iowa attorney general, Tom Miller, who told people he planned to endorse Bullock and be his Iowa political guide.
As a neighboring senator, Klobuchar is already known in some parts of northern Iowa that overlap with Minnesota media markets. ("I can see Iowa from my porch," she likes to joke.) Her campaign headquarters in Minneapolis is only a two-hour drive to the Iowa border, making it possible to bus down volunteers as the caucuses near.
The rules of the Iowa caucuses have historically been inhospitable to all but the top finishers. Candidates who fail to get at least 15% in a caucus precinct cannot receive any delegates there and their supporters then have a chance to migrate to viable competitors.
But a new wrinkle in 2020 is that Iowa will now deliver two sets of results.
In the past, the party tallied up only how many delegates each candidate won. That will still happen. But for the first time, the total number of caucusgoers for each candidate will be made public, too, providing a new way for campaigns to spin the outcome.
"It certainly adds a new dynamic to the caucuses," said Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman.
The logistical heave of competing in 1,679 separate and simultaneous caucuses is significant -- the best organized campaigns will recruit a precinct captain, if not a team, at every site. In total, the campaigns have more than 150 paid staff members on the ground in Iowa already, led by Warren.
"The strongest campaigns in Iowa for sure right now are Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren organizationally," said Sean Bagniewski, the Polk County Democratic Party chairman, echoing numerous other activists, operatives and party officials. (Some also cited Delaney.)
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Notably, both Booker and Warren have supplemented their growing field teams with a data expert based in Iowa to improve their targeting of potential supporters. And both have engaged in the kind of personal touches -- endless selfies and one-on-one phone calls -- that have traditionally won over the activist class.
Not long after Marcia Nichols, an influential former labor official, told Booker's team that her elderly mother was a big Booker fan, he stopped by her mother's house to chat. Nichols said that gesture "played in my decision" to support Booker. "He's doing the right small-picture things," she said.
On another recent trip, Booker stayed the night at the home of Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats in northern Iowa. Weather had delayed Booker's arrival until after 1 a.m., but they stayed up talking anyway. "Finally, one of his staff minions said, 'Senator, it's 3:15 a.m.!'" and dragged Booker to bed, Meyer recalled.
Harris' efforts have been more low key. She has visited Iowa only once since March and some Iowans have grumbled that her absence is part of an effort to carefully manage expectations.
O'Rourke's often frenetic approach to campaigning, which brought him national attention in his failed 2018 bid for Senate against Ted Cruz, better fits the classic mold of an Iowa-style campaign. O'Rourke, 46, has been barnstorming every corner of the state and just finished a five-day, 16-stop trip.
Some advisers to Cruz, who won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2016, said they felt at times in the 2018 Texas race as if they were running against a mirror image of their own approach, with O'Rourke's busy schedule and volunteer-heavy field operation.
The pace for O'Rourke builds upon his image as a younger face for the party, a lane now crowded by Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., who burst from obscurity this year and has recently begun expanding his footprint in Iowa.
Booker, who just turned 50, has pushed to be part of the next-generation discussion, too. He spent last weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the states that follow Iowa on the primary calendar. But he made time for Iowa from afar, calling a columnist for The Des Moines Register to pitch his latest gun-safety proposal.
"Well, sincerely," Booker told her, "our strategy in this primary is to win Iowa."
NW News on 05/14/2019
Print Headline: Iowa's outcome for most 2020 contenders not good