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Iowa Matters Less Than Ever in 2020

The proof is in the candidates’ travel schedules.

Joe Biden in Iowa

We’re less than one month away from the Iowa caucuses, which means it’s time for everyone to complain about the Iowa caucuses. But the usual knocks about the outsize role of the first state in picking the president every four years should ring more hollow in 2020. Iowa matters less than ever, and the proof is in the candidates’ travel logs.

In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic candidates cared so much about Iowa that they practically lived there. (In 2008, Chris Dodd literally lived there, relocating his family to West Des Moines.) Between the end of the 2004 presidential election and the 2008 caucuses, three candidates spent more than 100 days in Iowa. John Edwards, the second-place finisher in 2008, spent 110 days in Iowa. Two candidates—Edwards and Bill Richardson—visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Barack Obama, the eventual winner, stumped in Iowa for a significant, if not quite as intensive, 89 days.

During the 2004 campaign for Iowa, Howard Dean hit 110 days in the state, helping his long-shot bid attain frontrunner status as the caucuses neared, though he ended up in third place after the actual voting. The second-place finisher was, naturally, Edwards, who like Dean covered all 99 counties, though he did it in less time: 77 days. The come-from-behind winner, John Kerry, clocked 81 days in Iowa.

This time around, with a Feb. 3 caucus date that is slightly later than in 2004 or 2008, only the quixotic John Delaney has a mathematical possibility of reaching 100 days in Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar is the only other candidate with a shot at reaching 80 days. Klobuchar and Delaney have visited every Iowa county, but no one else is expected to join them. They are also the only two candidates who cleared even 50 days by the end of 2019. Last year, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were in Iowa for a piddling 49 days, Elizabeth Warren for 45 and Joe Biden—who 12 years ago spent a whopping 120 days in the state by the time the caucuses rolled around—a mere 41.

In the new year, with the caucuses rapidly approaching, no candidate (save for Delaney) is embarking on an Iowa-or-bust strategy. Back in 2008, between Dec. 1 and the caucuses on Jan. 3, the top candidates spent at least 23 of the campaign’s final 34 days in Iowa. But this month, Buttigieg isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 12, and in the meantime has spent three days in the Super Tuesday state of Texas. After a couple of days in Iowa at the start of the year, Klobuchar went to Nevada and New Hampshire. Sanders left last Sunday and won’t be back until this Friday. For the first half of the month, Warren is campaigning in the state only on the weekends, while last Tuesday she held a rally with Julián Castro in New York. Biden hasn’t been to Iowa since Sunday, relying for now on a bus tour of surrogates.

To borrow the language of Drew Magary, a columnist for Medium’s Gen magazine who recently complained about Iowa’s excessive influence in presidential politics, why aren’t Iowa’s “trucker-hat voters who, by now, probably have Jake Tapper on speed dial” being fussed over as much as in the past?

Because the Democratic National Committee wanted it this way, and engineered changes to the process that have sharply reduced the influence of the Iowa caucuses, along with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Beginning in 2008, the first two states have been quickly followed by Nevada and South Carolina, and soon after that, by a quasi-national primary on Super Tuesday.

The belief that Iowa was a must-win state was always overhyped. Most of the time in the modern primary era, going back to the 1980s, the winner of Iowa in either party hasn’t been able to muster enough momentum to win the next contest in New Hampshire. And today, the sheer breadth of the Super Tuesday map, along with the compressed timetable, has persuaded candidates to crisscross the country, hunting for votes as well as dollars.

Advocates of a national primary, rejoice!

Warren has stumped in 26 states, going well beyond the first four and those in play on Super Tuesday. If there’s one state she favors more than the other top candidates, it’s her neighboring New Hampshire, which she visited for 31 days in 2019, compared with 27 for Buttigieg, 24 for Sanders and 16 for Biden. But over the course of 2019, she hoped to establish herself as a national candidate, with major rallies in states that aren’t voting in February—such as Minnesota, New York and Washington—and an active field operation in several post-Super Tuesday states. Even in November and December, despite losing altitude in the early states, Warren could be found in the March states of North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia and Oklahoma.

Biden isn't far behind Warren, having visited 24 states, though some of those visits have been quick stops for in-person fundraisers, which Warren does not do. Buttigieg has traveled to 21 states, and Sanders to 20. Their itineraries may not be quite as impressive as George H.W. Bush’s efforts in 1979 (328 days campaigning in 42 states) or Jimmy Carter’s in 1975 (260 days in 40 states). But they are seeing a lot more of the country than just Iowa.

With so much ground to cover, no single state has enjoyed a massive influx of new attention. Different candidates have prioritized different states. South Carolina is understood to be increasingly pivotal, but only the African American candidates (and self-help author Marianne Williamson) visited it for more than 20 days in 2019, in an ultimately futile attempt to siphon off Biden’s support. The top white candidates, not wanting to slight the African American vote, haven’t ignored South Carolina—Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren have each gone more than 10 days. But Biden’s stubborn lead there has probably dissuaded his rivals from investing in the state heavily.

Critics of Iowa and New Hampshire often say that more populous states like California should play a larger role in the process. Well, guess what: Buttigieg held 65 campaign events in the state in 2019. As California is a top source of Democratic campaign cash, 42 of those events were fundraisers (though only one in a wine cave). Biden has showed up the second-most, with 39 appearances, 27 of them fundraisers. Sanders has also bet big on California, holding the most nonfundraising events at 33, and fielding the most campaign staffers in the state. (Bryan Anderson of the Sacramento Bee tracks candidate activity in California by appearances rather than days because, he says, “It's become increasingly rare for a candidate to spend an entire day in the state” as “candidates often come to California for a few hours before going to another state like Nevada or Iowa.”)

It’s true that Iowa remains the most frequently visited state, even if it’s being visited less. And there’s a serious problem that’s raised many Iowa critics: that the state’s nearly all-white electorate is insufficiently diverse. The chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, blamed Castro’s demise on #IowaSoWhite, telling POLITICO, “How you fare in Iowa and New Hampshire sets the tone for how your campaign continues, and when you have these two states that in no way represent the diversity of the Democratic Party, it makes it very difficult for minority candidates to get momentum.”

Perhaps the first state in the presidential nominating process should look more like America. But Hinojosa’s critique ignores the impact of the DNC’s new polling criteria to earn a spot on the debate stage. Candidates do not necessarily have to perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire. A modicum of support in South Carolina, which has a majority-black Democratic electorate, or in Nevada, which has a significant Latino population, scores you an invite.

Still, a former aide to Castro, who saw Nevada as a potential breakout state, complained to POLITICO, “It’s tough because in places like Nevada, they rarely poll.” Even this complaint is overstated. While Nevada has been the least polled of the four states, in the period before the December debate, DNC-approved pollsters surveyed Nevada as often as New Hampshire and South Carolina. Moreover, Tom Steyer proved in December that a candidate can make a debate solely with polls from Nevada and South Carolina; he reached at least 4 percent in two polls from each state. He did not accomplish the same in Iowa, New Hampshire or nationally, and he didn’t need to.

Yes, Steyer has the advantage of being enormously wealthy, so he can flood the early states with ads. But that doesn’t change the fact that Nevada and South Carolina had as much say in who got on the debate stage as Iowa and New Hampshire did. If a candidate tried and failed after nearly a year of campaigning to notch at least 4 percent support in those racially diverse states, that’s not the fault of Iowa, or money, or white voters, or nonwhite voters. The failure is owned by the candidate.

The factor that has so far thwarted the candidates of color, along with several white also-rans, in the 2020 primaries is that they have struggled to gain traction with voters, of all demographic backgrounds, including the white voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Latino voters of Nevada and the African Americans of South Carolina. Castro never did better than 2 percent in any Nevada poll. Cory Booker has mostly performed in the low single digits in South Carolina. Kamala Harris was still qualifying for the debate stage before she dropped out, so she was not felled by the DNC rules, either.

The fact that, at this point, the Democratic Party is almost certain to nominate a white person is not evidence that voters of color outside of Iowa have been silenced. In fact, African American voters are the main reason Biden has been a mostly steady frontrunner, and Latino voters are a big part of why Sanders remains in contention.

None of this should end the debate about Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s placement on the primary calendar. But it should inform the debate. The DNC’s schedule changes have changed the way the candidates have campaigned, and they have increased the influence that nonwhite voters outside of Iowa have on the presidential nominating process. We can debate whether the current arrangement strikes the right balance, but we shouldn’t act as if there isn’t any balance at all.