Excessive demands for personal attention hurt the Iowa caucuses

Hillary Clinton embarked on a road trip to Iowa immediately after making her campaign official on Sunday. She has several small-scale events scheduled for today and tomorrow in Monticello (Jones County) and Norwalk (Warren County), a sign she is committed to winning over Iowa caucus-goers.

Most politically engaged Iowans look forward to seeing presidential candidates in person during caucus season. We like to hear first-hand where the contenders stand on issues that matter to us. As a group, we are generally willing to give all contenders serious consideration before making up our minds.

Unfortunately, some Democratic activists seem to think that candidates prove their worth in Iowa by fawning over local VIPs. That mentality hurts the Iowa caucuses, especially when pooh-bahs broadcast their sense of entitlement to national reporters covering the campaign.

Let’s be frank: Clinton doesn’t need a full-court press to win the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Every poll of Iowa Democrats taken during the past two years has shown a commanding lead for her. Nevertheless, her national campaign manager Robby Mook promises to be “humble,” “take nothing for granted,” and “out-compete and fight for every vote we can win.” Clinton is assembling a large field staff here and plans to come back to Iowa many times between now and February.

Speaking of which, if you believe Clinton took Iowans for granted last time around, running a “haughty, top-heavy campaign” that was “just going through the motions” but not making any real effort, you may be surprised to learn that the candidate visited Iowa more than 30 times in 2007. She spent all or part of nearly 70 days here, holding events in dozens of cities and towns. Her campaign opened 34 field offices around the state and was working with many local activists.

The idea that Clinton’s campaign “didn’t have a strategy for caucus states” in 2008 is false. They had a strategy in Iowa, but Barack Obama’s team had a better strategy, which they executed flawlessly.

While we’re talking about revisionist history, it’s misleading to claim Iowans “punished [Clinton] with a third-place shaming.” Her team made plenty of mistakes here, without question. Despite those missteps, approximately 70,000 Iowans came out on a cold January night to stand in Clinton’s corner. Her supporters included many thousands who had never caucused before; I saw them in my own precinct, and so did other precinct captains I spoke with at the time. She carried 30 of Iowa’s 99 counties, including two of the ten most populous (Pottawattamie and Woodbury).

Clinton lost statewide because Obama’s campaign exceeded all expectations for turnout. But her showing was far from “dismal.” No previous winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses had ever mobilized anything close to the number of people who caucused for Clinton in 2008. Before that night, the record total turnout for an Iowa Democratic caucus was about 125,000 in 2004.

Pardon my burying the lede, but exaggerated views of Clinton’s failure in Iowa feed into the mentality that should concern anyone who cares about the future of the caucuses.

Writing in the Washington Post on April 11, John Wagner and Philip Rucker described the “enormous expectations of intimacy” Clinton faces in Iowa.

Jan Bauer, chairwoman of the Story County Democrats, expects to be courted persistently by Clinton and her aides before deciding whom to support. “I’ll be waiting to see how aggressively pursued I am,” she said. […]

[F]or Clinton, the journey to the White House starts this week before the proud Democratic activists in this small Midwestern state – entitled, yes, and perhaps a bit petulant, but each nevertheless wanting to be listened to, touched and wooed.

They expect to see Clinton in their living rooms and neighborhood coffee shops and bars, fleshing out a robust and progressive agenda on issues ranging from Wall Street reform to Islamist terrorists to climate change but also hanging out to answer questions, take some selfies or simply chitchat.

“We really are that spoiled,” said Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democrats. […]

Many Iowans thought Clinton came across as aloof and her campaign as dysfunctional – especially in contrast to the personal touch and grass-roots savvy of Obama, who represented neighboring Illinois in the Senate and spent a total of 89 days campaigning in Iowa. For example, Nilles said he talked personally with Obama five times in 2007 and collected voice-mail messages from the candidate.

Stop right there.

The case for keeping Iowa first in the nominating calendar is simple: we take the job of vetting candidates seriously, and our small state helps to level the playing field. Iowa caucus-goers don’t automatically gravitate toward the candidate with the highest name recognition, early poll numbers, or most money to spend on television commercials. Lesser-known contenders can gain ground by sharing their priorities and vision directly with voters.

When activists demand to be “aggressively pursued” as a condition of their support and depict personal phone calls from the candidate as the essence of the Iowa caucus “spirit,” all Iowans look bad by association.

Ryan Lizza provided the ultimate example of this phenomenon in a November 2007 feature about the Obama campaign:

Obama, who had sometimes seemed to eschew the details of campaigning which Clinton appears to revel in, has become more enmeshed in the state’s idiosyncratic politics. Consider the conquest of Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Every campaign wanted Fischer’s endorsement, but the Obama campaign pursued him relentlessly. At a recent lunch at the Des Moines Embassy Club, a restaurant on the forty-first floor of the tallest building in the state, Fischer explained how Obama’s Iowa operatives used his closest friends to persuade him to back Obama. One, Lola Velázquez-Aguilú, managed to decorate part of Fischer’s house with photographs of Obama that featured thought bubbles asking for Fischer’s endorsement. (“Has anyone told you how great you look today?” an image of Obama taped to a mirror said. “So, are you ready to sign a supporter card?”) When Obama staffers learned that the late Illinois senator Paul Simon was a hero of Fischer’s, they asked Simon’s son-in-law, Perry Knop, to call Fischer and make the case for Obama. At one point, Obama himself invited Fischer onto his campaign bus and told him that he had to stay aboard until he agreed to an endorsement. When Fischer insisted that he had to make the decision with his wife, Monica, Obama demanded Monica’s cell-phone number, and he called her at once. “Monica, this is Barack Obama,” he said when her voice mail came on. “I’m with your husband here, and I’m trying to go ahead and close the deal for him to support my candidacy… . Discuss it over with your man. Hopefully we can have you on board.” The Fischers were sufficiently impressed to endorse him, two weeks later. “I think the Iowa campaign has been run better than the national campaign,” Fischer said.

Upon reading that paragraph for the first time, my husband commented that Fischer had inadvertently made a strong argument for scrapping the Iowa caucuses. Stories like this one are why some national journalists portray Iowans as “petulant” and “entitled.”  

Based on conversations with committed Iowa Democrats going back to the 1980s, I believe most caucus-goers are sincerely looking for the best person to win the election and lead the country. Yes, they expect candidates to come to Iowa, but no, they don’t demand personal ego-stroking in exchange for their support.

I didn’t caucus for Clinton in 2008. Whether I caucus for her next year will depend largely on how she campaigns. Will she articulate a progressive vision? Will she offer more than platitudes about economic inequality? How does she envision enacting policies like paid family leave and child care assistance if Congress remains in hostile Republican hands? According to Amy Chozick and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, Clinton is still working out the details on her economic proposals.

Iowans should press Clinton for specifics and give all of her rivals a fair hearing. That’s different from using our privileged role to demand that candidates cater to our vanity.

John Deeth has been the voice of fear that Clinton will seize the chance to kill all caucuses if she becomes president, because of a “chip on her shoulder about Iowa.” I don’t believe the front-runner harbors a grudge against Iowans. But if our state party leaders do have to fight to save our first-in-the-nation status a few years from now, news clips with entertaining tales of prairie prima donnas won’t help their cause.

P.S. – I don’t mean to suggest that Democrats are solely or primarily to blame for the caucuses’ image problems. Prominent Republicans have done their bit to make Iowa caucus-goers look petty and high-maintenance too.

  • Thanks for this post!

    Our job as caucus participants – in either political party – is to support the person we think will best lead our country in the next 4 years. Since I first caucused in 1984, I’ve looked at where we are as a country, what’s needed next, and then talked with candidates about what they intend to do before deciding who to support. I’ve been to enough caucuses to know not everyone will agree. I’m okay with people disagreeing as long as it’s about the future of our country.

    I agree with you. These folks are corrupting the process when they make it about themselves, and it definitely goes on in both political parties. I’ve been annoyed for years about the people who want to be wooed by the candidate, mostly bothered by their distorted sense of self importance. Give me a break! The next president of the United States should not have to complete a checklist to satisfy your self importance.

    The sign that should be on every campaign office across the state: “This election is not about YOU. It’s about the future of our country and ALL the people who live here. If you think it should be about YOU, maybe you should wait in the car.”

    • Agree

      I couldn’t agree more.  After a few visits, we know where the candidates stand on the issues but some people want to hear it personally, from the candidate’s mouth to egotist’s ear, over and over again. It is a waste of the candidate’s time wooing these self-important demanding people.  Makes us all look bad.  

  • Hit it right on the head

    The case for keeping Iowa first in the nominating calendar is simple: we take the job of vetting candidates seriously, and our small state helps to level the playing field. Iowa caucus-goers don’t automatically gravitate toward the candidate with the highest name recognition, early poll numbers, or most money to spend on television commercials. Lesser-known contenders can gain ground by sharing their priorities and vision directly with voters.

    When activists demand to be “aggressively pursued” as a condition of their support and depict personal phone calls from the candidate as the essence of the Iowa caucus “spirit,” all Iowans look bad by association.

    I really have nothing of substance to add…this is right on.  Activists in the early states need to have humility (an excellent quality), not entitlement (a terrible quality).

  • atta girl!

    Isn’t it depressing the extent to which politics is about ego?

  • Meh, just meh

    What would be so bad about a primary in Apr or XXX?  The rest of the country does it just fine.

  • First Picks

    The best way would be give the first pick to the state that wants it.  By that I mean change the order every four years.  The state with the highest turn out of voters gets first pick in Caucus/Primary.  Second highest gets the second choice. State with the lowest turnout gets the last pick in primary/caucus season/  It would increase voter turnout nationally as the state parties would want the earlier pick. And a good turnout helps the Democratic party

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.