Building a Statewide Party

Pete McRoberts, a close observer of many Iowa Democratic campaigns, kicks off Bleeding Heartland’s series of guest contributions on how the party can recover after routs in two consecutive elections. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The days after any election offer for winners, some hope and excitement, and for losers, the opportunity to examine – in as close to real time as possible – where candidates and organizations succeeded, and failed. We get a re-set. If used properly, the days and weeks after an election loss – no matter how hard that loss is – can affirmatively help us do better at what we sought to do.

This is not a wholesale analysis of the Democratic Party in Iowa or the 2016 numbers, and it’s not a general ‘how to’ guide. It’s an attempt to go under the hood, and look at some very specific structural issues highlighted by the elections of 2014 and 2016. At a gut level, it’s very easy to conclude there’s no upside of such a clear election loss. But these losses are something more than simply parties exchanging power, or a reflection of competing views about the future.. They represent one of our deepest forms of communication with one another. If we listen — and act — we can create a party in Iowa that once again, not only wins elections, but is truly representative of the millions of people in the state whose hopes and fears are both real, and for whom we do our work.

The Trifecta

At present, state Republicans hold the Iowa House of Representatives, the Iowa Senate, and the Governor’s office – the “trifecta.” The last time voters made this choice was in 2006, when Governor Chet Culver took office with a clear majority of 54%-44.4% over Jim Nussle. Culver won 565,000 votes and carried 62 counties.

In the primary, Culver won over his nearest competitor by a convincing 7,500 votes.

Now to the “under the hood” part. Culver won 84 counties. He lost Polk, Dubuque, Linn, and Johnson. Of the four larger counties he won – Black Hawk, Pottawattamie, Scott, and Woodbury – his margin of victory in those counties was a total of 1640 votes (Ed Fallon’s margin of victory in Polk was more than that, as was Mike Blouin’s in Linn.) In plain terms, Culver lost the combined vote of the top Democratic counties in the state – in a Democratic primary that he won.

There’s a positive map right here with two pieces, more applicable today than we would have known in ’06. Democrats who want to win in Iowa must take the long way around. They affirmatively choose the more labor intensive process of literally identifying the numbers of votes a candidate needs in each county, and matching those needs up with actual, literal people on the ground.

Two years after the Culver win, Iowa made history with a caucus operation, the likes of which the country had never seen before. Participation broke records. People were counted and they were committed. Look at the numbers again – that year, nearly 230,000 Iowa Democrats caucused – nearly 200% turnout from four years before. Add 600,000 to that number, and you have votes for President Obama in the state. On that same day Senator Tom Harkin was reelected, with another hundred thousand votes.

This is not intended to be a trip down memory lane, nor does it imply those spectacular cycles have ever been the ‘default’ spot for Iowa Democrats. 2010 was extremely difficult; but by 2012, a very sturdy statewide operation meant once again, Iowa was blue.

These elections were all part of a different trifecta, with local and national consequences. This trifecta had three distinct pieces – 1) the state party, 2) the statewide senior electeds, and 3) every four years, a national campaign. These three entities created and maintained the infrastructure for every part of the state where there were Democratic votes to be had. They and they had an existential interest in and constituent demands to do just that.

2014 and 2016 are the first two elections in thirty years without all three of those components, and now Iowa is a red state.

What’s Next?

The hard truth, is that today, we are on our own. It is beyond dispute that the existing forms of this duo, the state party and a national campaign every two or four years, is simply inadequate.The concentration of voters in the larger counties make them not only obvious but necessary bases for any operation setting up shop. In previous years, those voters may have been the ‘base’ for a statewide win, but remember, in relatively recent years, Democrats were winning by hundreds of thousands of votes – margins far greater than even the larger counties could provide.

Present voting demographics simply don’t allow for much other than that. In the absence of statewide infrastructures – which continue in and out of cycles, the best we have done is to focus on those counties, and attempt to drive up our vote totals.

This process, while probably inevitable in the current party structure, is wrong. The results have been painful, because this approach number one, writes off too many people, and number two, is no way to win an election. There just aren’t enough Democratic voters in these counties to make Iowa a blue state, and even if there were, that default position means that a party is on a collision course with itself. Strict reliance on densely populated areas means an echo chamber for Democrats, making permanent the divide between a few larger counties and the other 93.

The increasing nationalization of our politics doesn’t help matters. The national party’s strategy relies heavily turning out traditional minority groups and new Americans, and that means lots of voters nationwide. Iowa’s demographics are different, though they should not be daunting. In addition, there are states in which the uber-urban strategy of winning the one big county can be a successful one – Colorado comes to mind. But Iowa’s relatively stable population is dispersed more evenly, including in the intensely rural 4th Congressional District, a place Iowa Democrats cannot succeed by ignoring.

So, there is clearly a need to have the discussion about where the party should go – but let’s keep it short, and to the point. We already know the answer. The bigger question is: how do we get there? How do we take the enormous wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion from everyone – from the rank and file to the public faces of Iowa Democrats – and use that to create a statewide party?

Because there’s no time to waste, I believe while the post-mortem is always necessary we should focus on a few things which do have answers, and processes that we can begin, today. If we do, then we have reason for optimism.

Showing Up

The simple answer – is show up. Because everyone agrees with that, let’s put some meat on the bones and talk about what that means. Even with the wipeout at the legislature, we know that those elections are ones that can often survive ‘waves,’ and that time and time again, Republicans are elected in areas where national Democrats lose, and vice versa. Why? It’s because the winner in an election doesn’t simply parachute into a community, set up a few phone banks, hand out walking packets and then leave the day after the election. They live and work in the communities, they listen to people, and they are truly invested in the community. They provide a service, they are recognized as being someone in addition to a Democrat, and they are more often than not the face of the party to literally thousands of voters. They are both the workers on the ground as well as messengers for their values. In that way, the raising up of a new generation of candidates for local and statewide offices will be critical to party’s future and is one of our most critical and time-sensitive projects.

They don’t have to try and think about what appeals to people; they know what does, because they’ve learned what’s going on and what people need.

We have got to be able to reconcile the fact that this structure – as close to one on one ‘grassroots’ Democratic organizing is also not enough.

So, we are at the point in which the remaining pieces of the state Democratic party literally have no path to winning an election. They are good pieces. They are necessary pieces. They are illustrative to us right now, because they tell us what we need to create and what we need to do. The good news is, the diagnostic test has been done for us, and there have been recent and successful models for us to use. Now.

Turning a State

There’s a very real world example of how showing up turns a state. Anyone’s post mortem of the Trump win will no doubt contain many diagnoses, but the fact is, this national campaign had some structural weaknesses and it won anyway. It won quite frankly because the Republicans were ready to plug holes in field and in states’ infrastructure, they did it starting years ago, after a significant loss, and they did in spite of pressures to do otherwise. It was smart.

A fact that journalists noted over the last couple of years, and maligned in recent months regarding the Trump campaign, is that the Republican National Committee truly did staff up and manage its off-year and on-year field operation. They nationalized it. There’s no way they could have expected that the top of their ticket in this cycle would have deferred entirely to the party, but the point is, the party didn’t defer to anything beyond its control, and did not defer to any campaign. They didn’t wait for the top of the ticket or the Congressional / statewides to pony up before they did their share.

Let’s crunch those numbers, too. According to reports as late as October, the Republicans had roughly 400 staff on the ground nationally getting ready for Get Out the Vote operations in dozens of states. The Democrats didn’t exactly sit this one out, either. The Clinton campaign understood that the organizational efforts were an existential question to her candidacy. So they literally did everything they could. In previous years, that would have been met with a vibrant statewide infrastructure.

The reverse was true for Republicans. Much hay was made by pointing out that in this cycle, the Republicans appeared to ignore the famous ‘autopsy’ after the Romney loss in ’12. They did ignore plenty of it. But what they did follow was simple, and they got it absolutely right. They made a conscious decision to back-burner the regular and cyclical questions and instead zero in on field, to be ready. They started this at the end of the last cycle, which is, for us, right now.

This project was never on the front page. It was tedious. It took years. But this is a test case for the theory, because unlike every other Presidential campaign in the modern era, the party was on its own. No one could have predicted a Presidential nominee to rely so heavily on a party structure. In every other election in our collective lifetimes, that is just malpractice. Without a doubt, it gave our side a lot of confidence going into 2016. In the rearview mirror, that is clear and convincing evidence that the importance of field cannot be overstated. Let me be explicit: if you have to choose between field and the candidate – pick field.

Don’t worry: I am not only advising any Democrat to look to the Republicans, saying, “Do that.” Going back under the hood, this successful Republican operation starts to look very familiar to anyone active in the Harkin / Vilsack / Culver years. You want to know who these people were before they were statewide elected officials? They were the ones spending money and effort everywhere. They were the ones going through county list after county list for months at a time. Literally. They were the ones who signed up for the extremely difficult process of building their own statewide operations, knowing it would be years before they would see the benefits. They knew that if they did so, they would be ready to ride a wave toward our direction, and hopefully survive one in the other direction.

The Republican field operation of 2012-2016 reflects what their party did when they were on their own and in the wilderness. They’ve got a different model than Democrats do, but that field operation is literally what won them a Presidential election, and what took advantage of the second cycle of the Iowa Democratic Party being on its own.

The Iowa Democratic Party can show up, too. The party can grow into this new role of being the one thing left standing. The party must move away from its focus on election calendars, and instead, prepare for and build a structure that will exist through and after any candidate for any election.

Ninety-Nine Counties, One Party

The only viable path to restoring competiveness for Iowa Democrats is through an aggressive, and permanent statewide field operation. In previous years, this space was occupied by official and political operations by senior officeholders. Staff worked for years building out these structures; literally. At any given moment from 1975-2013, there were people – hundreds over the years – whose jobs were quite literally to spend day after day on the phone, and combing through local information to both find out who the voters were, and at the same time, building relationships based on trust and effectiveness.

These structures were put in place so they could either do their official duties, or so they could win major elections. The results of 2014 and 2016 make a sustained structure a must-do item in Iowa.

Three and half decades of success in a blue state were predicated on a simple idea. You want someone’s vote? Ask for it. Not in the month before an election, but in the years before it. Just as you can’t compete for votes in six-month period before an election – the structure you build doesn’t have to go away after the ballots are counted, either. And it’s the lifeline.

Paying the Price

While there are some competing ideas as to what a statewide and permanent field operation should like (I am partial to bona fide staffed regional offices, but let’s talk) there is absolutely no way to avoid the fact that whatever the model, this is not cheap. Asking donors to support a full blown expansion of the party’s field structure will be a real test of will, and of a willingness to compete. It is also without a doubt that party leaders will shudder to think that literally hundreds of thousands of dollars each year could go not to candidates, but to “out there” in the state.

The argument to drop $500,000+ (!) a year into sustained field will make people howl. And it should; that’s a lot of money, and all of it comes from donors who care about electing more Democrats. But we are no longer in a state in which that same $500,000 can even protect one member of the State Senate from being defeated. If our choice is to create and strengthen a structure that works – or – to simply repeat things which recent history shows do not work –the ask becomes far easier. We must look at this approach as key to being a competitive party in the future.

But, no one has to wait for the party to come along, and none of this is contingent upon anything at the party level. Donors and activists can lead these efforts. Just as there simply aren’t enough voters in the larger eight counties to make up for some of the deep red parts of the state, there is not, and there never will be enough ‘organic’ money in Iowa for a successful statewide or Congressional race, or for the legislature as a whole. But there most certainly is enough interest and in-state money to commit to a long-term party infrastructure – a 99 County operation.

In short: 1) we have the road map. 2) we have the resources. The question is, do we have the will? I believe we do.


It’s almost impossible to find a silver lining in the outcome of the 2016 election – almost. But the truth is, people in Iowa deserve any silver lining we can find. They deserve more than us blaming one or the other candidate and they certainly deserve more than anything walking up to losing faith in voters. Peoples’ lives will be affected by this election, and if even just a few of the winning candidates keep their promises, then we’re looking at a rough patch.

But there is something we have which we didn’t have on election day. We know to a precinct what people are thinking, at least as expressed by their votes. We don’t have to guess or go on our instincts. We can go with what we know and we can go to the people who have told us what they think and what they need from Democrats.

I believe we have a path to showing more and more Iowans that this party can be there for them, too, and that we can not only listen to them but govern for them. Let’s go get into the field – let’s get into the state. Let’s show voters that we trust them, and that they can trust us. If we do that – then we will truly be a party for all Iowans.

Let’s go do it!

Pete McRoberts works in state and national public policy in West Des Moines. Previously, he was an aide to an Iowa Governor, US Senator, and Member of Congress. In his home of northeastern Iowa, he was a nominee for the Iowa House of Representatives, and managed a successful Iowa Senate race. Contact Pete at

Top image: Map showing the 2016 presidential results by county, via Wikimedia Commons

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