The next step

Bruce Lear: “The post mortem for this election cannot be done exclusively in Des Moines by party professionals or even elected party committee people.” -promoted by desmoinesdem

The corpse of an election is barely cold when the concealed knives come out for the official, or more commonly, the unofficial autopsy to determine cause of death. What happened to those campaigns that looked so healthy in the glossy brochures and slick TV ads? The next of kin (the party faithful) are left to blame, grieve, and figure out how to get their affairs in order.

I’ve always believed the blame part is more “backside covering” than problem solving. The blaming usually begins from those just on the outskirts of active. You know, the ones who show up just around election day and linger, looking pensive and concerned, but do very little to get a candidate elected. They always seem the first to point a finger at what went wrong. I guess they calculate that since they didn’t do anything to help, there can’t be much blame to share.

“Captain Obvious” here believes we need to move beyond blaming to a serious discussion of what’s next. We need a framework to obtain data beyond raw numbers. Yes, numbers matter in elections, but there is always a story behind those numbers. The only way to get those stories is to take time to listen.

The post mortem for this election cannot be done exclusively in Des Moines by party professionals or even elected party committee people. If it is, that discussion will degenerate into protecting turf and defending results instead of true analysis.

No, this cannot be a one-and-done meeting over a nice lunch. This discussion needs to travel and be at least a yearlong listening to people who live in towns like Sloan, Alden, Pocahontas, Brandon, and yes, even Sioux Center, Orange City and Pella. This will not only allow the party to hear from voters, but it will also show rural Iowa that Democrats care about their issues more than a 30-second sound bite.

This election cycle, Laura Belin wrote here last week, Fred Hubbell’s campaign generated more votes than any other Iowa gubernatorial campaign since Harold Hughes in 1964 and still lost to Kim Reynolds by 39,000 votes. That is both astounding and cause for closer examination.

Hubbell lost because he lost in rural Iowa. It sounds simple, but like many things in politics, it just isn’t that simple. If it were, Rob Sand wouldn’t be the state auditor, and we wouldn’t be calling Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer Congress-people elect.

Hubbell won Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Dubuque, Davenport, Ottumwa, Burlington and Des Moines. Except for my hometown, of Sioux City, the biggest small town on the map, he swept the urban areas. But the map in rural Iowa on November 6 bled bright red.

Oh, I know, the boo birds in the bleachers say Hubbell was a business man from Des Moines, so he couldn’t relate to the small business person or farmer in Vinton or Doon. That may be true, but it also may be the issues and the messaging. We won’t know until we listen.

Another quick explanation is it was the “Year of the Woman,” but not just the Democratic Woman. Kim Reynolds caught that blue wave but turned it red. That also may be true, but I think there is more to the story.

The rest of the story is tucked away in the minds of rural voters, and we need to spend some time trying to unlock those thoughts. What would this type of prolonged but focused discussion look like?

It’s easier for me to describe what it isn’t. It is not polling, and it’s not traditional focus groups. Frankly, most people are weary of polls and even the good-hearted Iowa voter may try to lie to the pollster.

Focus groups are too controlled and I think too sterile for most rural Iowans. I’m talking about the groups where the questioner introduces a topic, doesn’t engage in conversation but records everything while another person silently observes body language. It’s too sterile and orchestrated for most people. Instead of being a test subject, most people would rather have a dinner table conversation.

Messaging is important, but if Democrats can just listen enough to get the limited number of issues rural Iowans feel passionate about, messaging will come easier. Sometimes Democrats write reams of white papers to message because they haven’t understood the real issue voters are describing.

For example, while Democrats were busy writing those position papers to justify their issues, Donald Trump was capturing the alienation and angst of the rural voters toward politics as usual. That’s how a demagogue like Trump was able to pretend to be a populist.

The Iowa rural/urban split is mirroring the rest of the country. Unless Democrats begin to mend that split, the party will literally become the “city party,” and every two years a Trump wanna-be will threaten.

So, before the party begins to cut with the sharp knives of blame, maybe we need to take some time to listen to rural Iowa and develop a strategy about what is heard. It would be time well spent, and people in the urban areas may discover a whole new Iowa tucked away beside the corn and the bean fields.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for 27 years with the Iowa State Education Association.

  • I sure wouldn't argue with anything said above...

    …and I agree that learning more about what rural voters want is essential. I am wondering, though — what if it turned out that in order to attract more rural voters, the Iowa Democratic Party would have to make some very difficult policy changes and compromises that would infuriate many currently-active Democrats?

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