On Politics: Iowa Caucus Edition! – The New York Times

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On the morning after Hillary Clinton lost in November 2016, I stood wedged between television cameras, in the back of a hotel ballroom, and watched a Democratic breakdown.

Ashen-faced Clinton aides stood in stunned silence. Supporters wiped tears from their eyes. A sense of shock hung heavy in the room.

I kept returning to that moment as I traveled across Iowa in recent days as this Democratic primary moves, finally, toward votes being cast and counted with tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

The 2016 election was a turning point in Democratic politics; a deeply painful event after which nothing would ever be the same. Even now, that trauma lingers.

As the candidates made their way across Iowa, the 2016 race was the subtext — and often just the text — of their closing messages.

“The less 2020 resembles 2016 in our party and our country, the better,” Pete Buttigieg told voters. Amy Klobuchar pledged to build a “beautiful blue wall of Democratic votes,” citing her tour of “the states that we should have won in 2016.”

Even some of the political drama feels like a rerun: Some supporters of Joe Biden are fretting that some backers of Bernie Sanders may disrupt the caucuses tonight, citing old intraparty anger about the 2016 primary.




Why the Iowa Caucuses Are So Important

Protests in the 1960s, a mimeograph machine and a long-shot candidate all contributed to Iowa’s unlikely role in the presidential election process.

This was Iowa caucus night back in the mid-1970s. And these are members of the national media covering the voting. It was so unusual to see national media in Iowa back then that people actually paid to watch them. “The Democratic Party charged $15 a head for people to watch the media watch the people.” See, in previous years, Iowa’s caucuses just hadn’t attracted national attention. “There are 3,000 frozen media members in downtown Des Moines …” Just over a decade later, Iowa is the place to be. “… It’s Iowa caucus night. Let’s party.” [shouting] The caucuses are now a key part of the presidential election cycle. “Bush, 57.” They’re the first chance to see what kind of support candidates have among voters. So how did we get here, from caucuses that only Iowans seem to care about to the national spectacle we see today? Turns out, a lot of it was accidental. For most of Iowa’s history, its caucuses were dominated by political insiders. There was little room for input from rank-and-file members. An historian writing in the 1940s put it like this: “The larger number of party voters were deprived of a voice.” But the old ways start coming to an end in 1968. The country’s in turmoil, and so is the Democratic Party, mostly over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Basically, the party establishment wants to handle things one way, and many rank-and-file members have other ideas. All this comes to a head as the Democrats hold their national convention. Protesters gather outside. So do police. Inside, the mood is also tense. All this division leads the Democratic Party to rethink the nomination rules to include the voices of all party members in the process. This is how we come to the moment when Iowa becomes key to electing a president, basically by accident. First up, how Iowa became first to hold a presidential contest. It starts with new rules to give everyday members more of a say. So by 1972, winning Iowa now involves four stages. Iowans choose their top candidates, first at the precinct level. These are the caucuses at the heart of this story. But technically, there’s further voting at the county, congressional district and state levels. The new rules make things a lot more inclusive, but this creates new delays. Committees need to be formed, and everyone needs to have up-to-date party materials. The problem is, the state party only has an old mimeograph machine to make copies of all this. It’s really slow. So because of an old machine and a bunch of new logistics, the party decides it needs at least a month between each step to do it all. The national convention is set for early July, so you’d think that the state-level convention would happen about a month before, in June. Except, the party can’t find a venue that’s available to hold everyone. That little detail helps push everything earlier in a chain reaction. See what’s going on here? The precinct caucuses now have to happen early in the year. The party chooses a date that makes Iowa’s the first presidential contest. The New Hampshire primary has been the first kickoff contest since the 1950s, but Iowa Democrats aren’t necessarily looking for national attention. They just think it’ll be fun to be first. Still, attention is what they get. The story begins with George McGovern. “People didn’t know much about the Iowa caucuses. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in them.” He’s the long-shot candidate. He’s been at the bottom of national polls. “He often walked the campaign trail alone, little known by the voters.” Most people think this guy, Edmund Muskie, is going to be the big winner in Iowa. “That challenge is great, but we can meet it.” Then comes caucus night. As the people vote, state party officials gather at their headquarters. Richard Bender is one of them. “And we had about 10 or 12 press people show up. These press people included one guy, Johnny Apple.” Johnny Apple, a 37-year-old political correspondent for The New York Times. Iowa’s Democrats aren’t ready to publicize the results right away. They hadn’t expected much demand. According to Bender, only Johnny Apple asked for them that night. “I happen to be fascinated with such things, so I made it my business, beforehand, to understand it.” Bender sets up a phone tree to gather results from across the state. He adds them up himself with a calculator. And the next day, Apple’s article helps swing the national spotlight onto the caucuses. He’s got quite the story to tell. Muskie’s won, but just barely. Not the runaway win people were expecting. And McGovern comes in a strong second. No one expected that, either. The reformed caucus rules helped a long-shot candidate rise to the top. And because this is happening so early in the election now, and because Apple’s article gives the results national coverage, something else happens. “That got picked up by some of the national news shows.” “The Democratic front-runner has been damaged in Iowa.” “And wow, all of a sudden, we were being paid attention to.” McGovern eventually wins the Democratic nomination. “I accept your nomination with a full and grateful heart.” He loses the presidential election, but some haven’t forgotten what those early caucuses did for McGovern, including Georgia’s former governor, Jimmy Carter. Three years later … “There was a major headline on the editorial page of the Atlanta Constitution that said, ‘Jimmy Carter’s running for what?’ [laughter] And the ‘What’ was about this big. [applause] I’m running for president.” … Carter heads to Iowa before any other Democratic candidate. He’s got no national profile. “He didn’t have hordes of press following him around. It was a very lonely campaign.” Washington pundits call his candidacy laughable. “I remember when we couldn’t find a microphone.” “Jimmy Who?” becomes a catchphrase. Carter’s own campaign film plays it up. “Jimmy who?” “I don’t know who he is.” But as long as Iowans come to know him and like him, Carter bets that the media will start paying attention, just like with McGovern four years earlier. Carter campaigns as locally as possible. One day, he learns that he’s been invited on a local TV show. “And I said, that is great. I can’t believe it. I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, ‘Do you have any favorite recipes?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, recipes?’ He said, ‘Well, this is a cooking show.’ Well, they put a white apron on me and a chef’s hat. That was my only access to TV when I first began to campaign in Iowa.” His opponents are in Iowa, too, but they spend far less time there. Carter wins. “Surprisingly top of the class after his win in a somewhat obscure race in Iowa against the others.” “You can’t tell until we go to the other 49 states, but it’s encouraging for us.” A year later … “I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear —” … he becomes the 39th president. Now we need to head to 1980 because we haven’t talked about the Republicans yet. Here’s the state’s Republican chairman that year. He’s asked why Iowa’s caucuses have become so important. “I think because Jimmy Carter got his start in Iowa in 1976.” The Republicans in Iowa are keen to copy the Democrat’s success, and one candidate in particular gets inspired by Carter’s underdog win: George H.W. Bush. He’s running against Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and others, and he’s near the bottom of the pack. “Your name isn’t really a household word, but Ronald Reagan can —” But Bush goes big in Iowa. He gets a surprise win. It’s a far cry from just months before. “I was an asterisk in those days. And my feelings got hurt. And now, I’m no longer an asterisk.” Bush is now the third underdog to get a boost from the caucuses. The next morning on CBS, he distills the essence of this new Iowa effect. “We will have forward, ‘Big Mo’ on our side, as they say in athletics.” “ ‘Big Mo?’ ” “Yeah. Mo — momentum.” Bush loses to Reagan, but becomes vice president. And the desire to capture the “Big Mo” from Iowa has only grown, thanks in large part to Iowa’s embrace of being first, and the media storm that descends every four years. That’s despite the fact that most candidates who win … “This is a job interview.” … don’t become president. Plus, many point out that the state’s overwhelmingly white population doesn’t reflect the country’s diversity. “I actually think that we can find places that represent that balance of urban and rural better.” But the race to get the “Big Mo” out of Iowa persists because it’s the first chance to upend expectations, and put political fates in the voters’ hands.

Protests in the 1960s, a mimeograph machine and a long-shot candidate all contributed to Iowa’s unlikely role in the presidential election process.CreditCredit…Associated Press

Yet, as much as Democrats cannot seem to escape their past, the country’s political story has moved on. And now, on the cusp of the caucuses, the party faces its most significant decision since that crushing defeat: Does that 2016 loss, and all that followed in the Trump era, lead Democrats to dream big or dream safe?

“I’m torn between, do you vote for what you really want, or do you vote for what you think can happen?” Sara Curtin-Delara, a teacher from Coralville, told me, as she managed her 3-year-old son and listened to Klobuchar addressing a crowded hotel ballroom.

Biden hopes voters like Curtin-Delara go with safe. He’s closing his Iowa campaign arguing for experience and stability, casting himself as a steady hand in a dangerous world and a divided nation. Buttigieg has adopted a slightly younger variation of the same argument, saying the biggest risk for Democrats is “to look to the same Washington playbook.”

Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say the 2016 loss delivered a different lesson: Democrats cannot win unless they go big.

For Warren, the mantra plastered on her mint-green campaign signs is “dream big, fight hard.” Sanders promises to bring together a movement of millions, urging voters to have “the courage” to take on Wall Street greed, corruption and the military-industrial complex.

Even in the final hours, after years of angst and agonizing, Democrats still seemed slightly immobilized over how best to move past their old electoral wounds.

Curtin-Delara, who said she was choosing between Warren and Klobuchar, wondered if she should back the woman less likely to succeed in the caucuses to prolong her presence in the race. That, she argued, could give Democrats more time to pick the right candidate this time around.

“For the caucuses, it’s like, who do I want to keep in the race until tomorrow?” she said. “We can’t mess this up.”

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It was time for final preparations on Sunday in Ames, Iowa, where Warren supporters organized caucus cards at a “Get Out the Caucus” rally.

Our politics reporters were fanned out across Iowa this weekend, attending dozens of events and following the major candidates as they made their final pushes. We asked each reporter for a quick appraisal of their candidate’s campaign.

  • Katie Glueck: I’ve been on the Biden bus for the last few days, and the key test for him here boils down to two questions: 1) Is beating Trump the top priority? 2) Do Iowa Democrats buy Biden’s argument that he is the best-positioned candidate to do that? The Biden campaign bet goes like this: Democrats here may have thrilled to the expansive policy proposals of Warren and Sanders, relished the idea of a fresh face like Buttigieg or felt affinity for their neighbor from Minnesota, Klobuchar. But ultimately, they want to defeat the president, and believe Biden can do that. Yet over the last week, Biden’s crowds have often been thin compared to his rivals’. Party officials have quietly noted gaps in his campaign organization. And poll numbers suggest a volatile race. Will moderate voters come home to Biden? Or does that vote splinter, raising questions about Biden’s message — that he is the most electable candidate?

  • Sydney Ember: Sanders has distilled his closing message here in Iowa down to one word: turnout. It’s historically been a theme of his campaigns, but never more so than now: To win in Iowa — and in the general election, should it get to that — he needs more people to come out and vote. Sanders has a particular set of voters in mind. For his entire political career, he has gambled that he can get working-class voters and young people, both groups that typically do not turn out in large numbers, to vote — and to vote for him, because his message speaks to them. If he can get these people to caucus on Monday night, he has said repeatedly, he will win.

  • Astead W. Herndon: Warren’s final pitch in Iowa comes down to converting undecided voters to her message of unity. The campaign has largely ceded the idea that Sanders will own the committed left wing, and therefore it must make up ground by pulling in more pragmatic voter. That’s why she’s largely abandoned the talk of what her plans entail: She started the election motivating people on big change, but her final pitch was centered on her ability to win through uniting the party around a message of anti-corruption.

  • Reid J. Epstein: Buttigieg hopes Democrats are sick of relitigating the 2016 primary. The 38-year-old’s big message in the past week has stressed the need to “turn the page” on both the long-ago past and the party’s still-raw wounds. It’s less about ideology (he’s openly courting Republicans) and more about tapping into how people feel. It’s a savvy way of dismissing Sanders and Biden in the same breath. Buttigieg usually follows it up by reminding audiences that every newly elected Democratic president since John F. Kennedy had the sheen of somebody new to the national political scene. With three septuagenarians as his top rivals, Buttigieg hopes that means his turn is now.

  • Nick Corasaniti: For Klobuchar, the final pitch has been simple: Iowa, I’m one of you, and I can win. She has been attracting crowds in the 200 to 300 range, with a Saturday morning event at a brewery topping 500 people (and forcing me to file my story from the top of a brew canister). But for Klobuchar to be successful on caucus night, she needs Iowans to buy into her argument that her ability to win in Minnesota will translate to other Midwestern states — a “big blue wall” that can turn back the Trump tide.

  • Trip Gabriel: At a Mexican restaurant in Boone on Saturday, amid a crowd duly packed with millennials — so-called digital natives — there was Andrew Yang, offering his biting critique of the digital economy. Stuck in low single digits in Iowa polls, he has little chance of emerging from the caucuses with delegates. No matter how long his candidacy lasts, his ideas seem destined to have an enduring impact on American politics. At the end of his appearance, a graduate student told him he used to be a Republican, and that he had never donated to a Democrat; then he pressed Yang to take the $35 he had in his wallet. It reminded me of Bernie Sanders’s first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate in 2015, when a hat was passed among supporters who filled it with loose bills.

While the rest of the candidates duke it out in Iowa, Michael Bloomberg is stumping across California. It’s voting day there too, sort of — early ballots will be mailed to millions of California voters today ahead of the state’s Super Tuesday primary. The former New York City mayor is making stops in Sacramento and Fresno before ending his day in Compton.

He will pick up the endorsement of Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, a rising star in Democratic circles. Brown is one of several black California mayors backing Bloomberg, joining London Breed of San Francisco and Michael Tubbs of Stockton. With 415 delegates (10 times as many as in Iowa) California is one of the most important states in Bloomberg’s unusual bid for the Democratic nomination.

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