A Political Autopsy: What Went Wrong for Iowa Democrats, and How We Can Come Back Stronger for 2018

Guest author nwfisch knocked hundreds of doors in Dubuque County, which voted for the Republican presidential candidate this year for the first time since 1956. -promoted by desmoinesdem

As a delegate for Hillary Clinton throughout the caucus season, I became more engaged as the general election approached. I knocked on doors weekly encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot or else convince them to vote for Hillary and down ballot Democrats. I often pestered coworkers and friends about the election and the importance of speaking out against Donald Trump.

I have no regrets and don’t feel my time was wasted in standing for a competent candidate and against an unprepared and unqualified candidate. This post will air some grievances I had during my time as a volunteer this cycle, attempt to explain why Iowans flocked to the GOP, and offer some ideas for next steps for Democrats to take.

One of the main issues I encountered when door knocking was visiting the same houses over and over again. I’m not sure how the VAN [Voter Activation Network database] worked, but I found it odd to visit the same houses, see the same people, and get the same result from those people we targeted numerous times over.

Also, I recall one of my weekends spent was in vain. It was near a local college, and the registered voters there were all former students who had moved on. Most students claimed they couldn’t register because of they were from different countries, just here going to school. It was very frustrating as a volunteer assigned to chase ballots from people who didn’t even exist according to my list.

I also had concerns with the amount of literature available when I went door knocking, the literature was often only Hillary literature and not for other, downballot candidates. There also wasn’t a lot of yard signs, Clinton/Kaine stickers never arrived, and caucus stickers were still being used the weekend before the election. Not sure if fixing this would’ve stopped much, but when there was a 10 point loss at the top of the ticket, all aspects need to be justified or addressed.

I was thankful to have the opportunity to volunteer for the Democrats, and I will be glad to assist in efforts to win in 2018. In order to gain Democrats back into the fold, its important to at least attempt to understand why they left in the first place.

As much as I admire Hillary Clinton, she was disliked by Iowans. She was viewed as corrupt and part of the establishment. She was perceived as a person out of touch with Iowans on issues. Her very liberal positions on abortion and gun control hurt her performance in Iowa as well. The ideas Trump and the Iowa GOP have proposed–“Make America Great Again” or “Rejecting Political Correctness”–aren’t racist at their core, they are simplistic messages that make people and voters feel more comfortable. Those slogans, bravado and simplicity resonate a lot more with Iowans than discussions about economic issues, women’s rights, and gun control.

While the perception on Clinton may be viewed as incorrect by other Democrats, in my experience door knocking and interacting with voters across Dubuque County, I can say with confidence that perceptions on Clinton’s positions on issues jobs, abortion and gun control, combined with a failure to simplify her economic message hurt her in a Democratic stronghold, and undoubtedly hurt her in less Democratic areas of the state.

Finally, the fun part, getting voters to vote Democrat again. I think one of the biggest issues with Clinton’s campaign is there was a fear of sharing support for her in risk of being retaliated against. It’s important for Iowa Democrats to continue to speak out on issues that matter to us. The issues that matter to me are mental health funding and education. I can promise I will be speaking out on those issues until my last breath.

I think another area for Democrats to make gains is continuing to listen to farmers and people who work in agriculture. While not every person in agriculture is going to vote Democrat, its important that their voices are heard and valued. That’s what drew them to the GOP. A simple, comforting message that made them feel safe and a desire for simpler times. When a person’s word meant everything, things were closed on Sundays, and smart technologies didn’t exist. Those times aren’t coming back, but I think with simple messaging and simple policy issues and planks, the Democrats can win back some of those lost voters.

The Iowans and all who voted for Trump aren’t “deplorable” or “beyond reaching.” There are a lot of voters who felt left out and left behind by the Democratic Party. Trump and the Iowa GOP provided those voters who felt left behind a voice. We can be that voice as well. It is important for the voters who supported Trump to know that our doors are open. Iowa Democrats, despite not having majorities or the governorship will continue to advocate for all people. People of all ages, all socioeconomic statuses, all sexual orientations, all people will be supported by the Iowa Democrats.

  • Validation of @robs with Van

    Back when the VAN actually worked, each voter would have candidate data stretching back several years. for example, Obama supporters may have been identified for 2012 and 2008. Senate and Congressional data for an individual Senate or Congressional candidates may have been identified for each individual voter. Actual records of votes in primary, General and even school board elections were dentified by voter. Campaign strategists could use this data to scrape down to the marginal voter that needed party encouragement to get to the voting booth. Today most of that valuable historical data is missing – dumped in the transition from a state managed system to aa national system. Strategists are then left with raw lists of D, R and I sorted by sex and possibly interest group, if that. it may be OK for messaging, but it’s just not enough data to target who we need to target — the marginal voter. Where does the blame go? It goes to the DNC consultants that designed the system, as well as many private consultants that kept data created by Democratic volunteers. These consultants profit from its sale and the candidates on deck for any current election are left dangling in the wind with no good historical data. Privatization does not work well in government and we as Democrats criticize it regularly. Why should we think that privati«ation of our own campaign tools would work much differently?

  • Voting history shows

    “Actual records of votes in primary, General and even school board elections were identified by voter ”

    Yes, they still are when I access the VAN. There’s a lot of “activist” data on me there, too, mostly accurate.

    • I think one issue

      is that not everyone who uses the VAN has access to the same level of information.

      Also activists in some counties have maintained better databases than others (at least that’s my impression).

      • You're welcome

        Though in general elections we’re stuck with VAN lists because that’s the marching orders the staffers have.

  • Enlightening comments

    My big takeaway from these well stated comments are that Iowa Dems really need to develop resources independently of (or at least equally with ) DNC hotshots that show up to harvest our data (and apparently leave us little in return).
    Considering the fact that all the DNC-preferred candidates were defeated, I believe that Iowans selecting candidates like Mowrer over Judge/Vernon-types would generate more enthusiasm.
    The most glaring weakness is the lack of viable gubernatorial/congressional candidates younger than 60! Unless our smart, passionate youth are given candidates and issues to fight for, our dear Iowa may remain red for quite awhile. Questions:
    1. Who is up to run against Reynolds for Governor in ’18?
    2. When will Iowa gain a non-limbaugh media presence? I don’t think people understand the importance of 24/7 WHO propaganda with absolutely nothing to counter it out here in the hinterlands. Messaging is pretty critical.
    Thanks for the post!

  • passive tense doesn't cut it in reference to establishment Democrats

    Nothing “went wrong” with the voters in this election. Hillary Clinton and her crony cabal were known quantities. They treated the rank and file Democrats with elitist disregard, if not outright contempt – they’ve been doing that for 24 years now – and even stupid yokels can smell that attitude from the next county.

    Hillary Clinton did not approach political campaigning as a public servant offering to represent her constituency but as an entitled heir whom only “deplorable” people wouldn’t vote for. It was up to the voters to prove their worth by coronating her and they failed. Shame on them, right?

    What “went wrong” with Hillary Clinton was Hillary Clinton.

  • pROBLEM:

    “Her very liberal positions on abortion and gun control hurt her performance in Iowa as well. ”

    So… are we supposed to back down on those things then? Sorry but the people who are voting solely on those issues have been gone since at least 1980. Softening won’t gain you back those votes in Dubuque but it’ll lose you even more votes in Iowa City (last I checked our votes still counted).

    If anything we need to push harder. The NRA’s de facto position is “mass shootings are the price we pay for a free society,” and we need to tie the GOP to that. Feel free to popularize the phrase…

  • Karl wins the Internet!

    “They treated the rank and file Democrats with elitist disregard, if not outright contempt – they’ve been doing that for 24 years now – ”
    Young enthusiastic new political folks don’t like it when old pols treat them as if they know nothing. It was only 50 years ago when we, as young people tried to tell the old guard why they were off track in Viet Nam. Have we forgotten the truth that may come “out of the mouths of babes?

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