The inflated importance of Iowa will end. Here’s why.
The Hawkeye State will try and hang on, but it’s not produced an important result for over a decade.
Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts — including their latest attempt to re-write history — America is changing. Indeed, Trump himself is the best example of that. The country has gone from its first African American president directly into one who inspires white supremacist murder. There is, perhaps, no greater change than that.
As such, previous certainties have collapsed and conventional wisdom no longer provides the steer which political nerds crave, leaving even the most sacrosanct institutions in peril.
What could this mean for 2020?
Arguably the most consistent element of any primary season over the last four decades — both for Democrat and Republican — has been the Iowa Caucus. The official start of the nomination process. Whether it propels hitherto unknown candidates into the fast lane (a la Barack Obama 2008), whether it solidifies someone as a front-runner, of whether it allows a candidate to launch surprise attacks to keep their skin in the game (a la Ted Cruz 2016), Iowa flexes its power early; far beyond what it’s mere 6 electoral votes in November imply.
That meant that Jimmy Carter went from polling at 2% before winning Iowa, afterwards, he rocketed to 37%. That’s the story anyway. Up until now…
This weekend, the political world descended on the Iowa State Fair where 20 candidates ate food, held babies, and drove campaign buses. They even showed us that they, like us, are human too. They feel what we do and they react like we do. It was apt, perhaps, that in a state that caucuses — a system that relies on emotion and instinct — and in a state that rewards connection and empathy, we saw the most empathetic moment of the campaign yet when Andrew Yang cried as he took questions from a mother whose children were the victims of a deadly shooting.
With the justifiable exception of Beto O’Rourke, virtually all the Democrat candidates were in town, offering a universal nod to the state’s importance. Even Kamala Harris, previously someone who was betting on Nevada, South Carolina and California to bring up her delegate count clearly recognised Iowa’s importance and launched a 5 day charm offensive, equipped with a large bus to tour the state. Marianne Williamson even moved house to Des Moines in June!
The shroud of power and influence still seems to envelop the state. But there are reasons why the caucus’ significance will decrease rapidly, staring now.
Historically, Iowa would set the media narrative pretty much in stone for the rest of the season. A good performance in Iowa and candidates would see a polling surge, secure significant funds, garner more positive media coverage and benefit from the all-important momentum carrying them into a unassailable lead.
But even now we have already started to see the steady erosion of all of the above. In 2008, while Obama won a surprise victory, but a win in New Hampshire a week later kept Clinton in the race and curtailed at least some of Obama’s new found momentum. Bernie Sanders then did to Clinton what she had done to Obama when he won in New Hampshire four years later. It’s not just a Democrat phenomenon, either. In 2016, Ted Cruz came first with Trump coming second; the eventual nominee finished closer to third than first. The 2012 GOP caucus was bizarre in its own right. (Santorum/Mitt Romey).
That omnipotence of Iowa has decreased.
This can partly be attributed to new campaigning methods whereby candidates are increasingly confident in their abilities to appeal to hitherto ignored corners of the electorate and do not feel the need to rely on traditional approaches or traditional regions. Indeed, there is no where on the electoral map that the Democrats aren’t going to target in 2020; Presidential or Congressional. They are simply not allowing previous convention to dictate their campaigns. At this point I accept that despite Iowa’s declining importance, it will likely remain etched into folklore until a major candidate skips the state’s caucus and still goes on to win the nomination.
This is also linked to the rise of new media — or rather the decline in traditional media. Access to 24/7 coverage across any one of a dozen or so platforms means that any given news story lasts only about two days, no matter how significant it may appear at the time. Let’s say, for example, Warren (or anyone for that matter) under-performs in Iowa, the sheer speed of her team’s rapid-response will spin it, saturate, then move on before the Des Moines Register has written its byline.
Secondly, the Democrats have made it clear that identity and diversity is important to them. Something that has led to good things — more POC, more women, and an openly gay man are all in the top tier of the field. There is also an argument that the Democrats’ rainbow coalition would be sufficient to beat Donald Trump on its own if turnout is high enough without even having to flip his 2016 voters.
An inflated focus on Iowa, therefore, is totally out of step with the Democratic zeitgeist. Let’s start with its raw population — a mere 3.2 million — an even smaller % of whom will vote in the caucus. By that metric, Iowa ranks 31st in the union. A more nuanced analysis presents an even more unrepresentative picture. Take a look at various demographic measurements of the registered Democrats in the USA average versus Democrats in Iowa.
The above table indicates how radically distorted Iowa is compared to the rest of the party, never mind the country. Enormous distortions across virtually every demography. There will of course be kick-back from the Iowa Democrat Party, but the facts are, the state is out of step with where the party wants to go and the amount of influence it wants to exert is increasingly disproportionate.
Finally, there is every chance that there will be no clear winner in 2020 so any dominate media narrative that may have previously been available will be radically reduced anyway. This is compounded by the recent rule changes this cycle made by the Democrat party (and accepted by all candidates). There are now more viable metrics of ‘success’ that candidates can latch on to. For example, next year, it is quite possible that entirely different candidates could theoretically win; the delegate equivalent (with separate candidates winning the 10% digital versus the 90% in person caucusing); the intent in a raw count; and the final preference in a raw count. This is an idea that Iowa pollster, Ann Selzer, support when she claims ‘there will be more candidates able to claim legitimacy for their campaign’ as a result.
All is not lost though, Iowans. You may just have to wait a little bit longer. If current trends are any indication, then Iowa could be considered a swing state; the Democrats will certainly hope so anyway. Their Congressional delegation will likely be impacted too (currently 3:3), not least through the re-election of vulnerable Joni Ernst. Come November Iowa will be in the spotlight once again, but as for the media circus pitching up for primaries every four years, those days might be numbered.
Oh, final thought, if you do want media attention on your state, best not follow the advice of Steve King.