Will Iowa Steer Democrats to the Center?

All the energy within the party is on the cultural left. In 2020, Iowa could put the brakes on that momentum.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (right) marches in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade in New York on July 12, 2015.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Oct. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

As promising as the political environment currently looks for Democrats, the future is filled with potential pitfalls. They are lurching leftward on numerous issues, from health care (with leading voices now backing a single-payer system) to immigration (where activists are insisting on more protections for illegal immigrants). Their activists’ growing affinity for identity politics—the notion that skin color, gender, and income level are the defining forces of American life—is repelling swing voters who otherwise might be looking for an alternative to President Trump. On cultural issues, such as the NFL anthem protests, the party base is finding itself increasingly out of touch with heartland values.

But political timing and geography could end up giving Democrats a lifeline in the next presidential election: the importance of culturally conservative Iowa to the Democratic nomination process. For all the excitement being generated by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, there’s a good chance that the state in the heart of America’s heartland could put a crimp in the best-laid plans of the Left.

Just look at the congressional Democrats who headlined Iowa’s famed Polk County Steak Fry last month. All three are relatively moderate: Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leader; Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain and Iraq War veteran; and Rep. Cheri Bustos, one of the few House Democrats to represent a district that Trump carried. The inclusion of leading pragmatists, at the event once hosted by former Sen. Tom Harkin, a strenuous progressive, was a far cry from the red-meat rhetoric attendees are used to hearing from aspiring presidential candidates.

Their message to the partisan Democratic audience veered from the pandering recited by so many of the party’s prominent progressives. To applause, Bustos proclaimed that voters “don’t want resistance, they want results,” chastising her party for being obsessively focused on Trump. Ryan slammed Democrats for becoming a “coastal party” that has lost touch with blue-collar workers. Moulton talked about focusing on the Trump voters that Democrats have struggled to win back. Just before the steak fry, the congressman went on MSNBC and tweaked protesting NFL players: “It doesn’t make me feel good to see people disrespecting the flag.”

To be sure, Iowa Democratic caucus-goers are predominantly liberal. Barack Obama’s upset in the 2008 caucuses propelled him to the presidency. But with culture overtaking the economy as the galvanizing force among the liberal base, many of the state’s Democrats aren’t biting. Iowa swung more dramatically towards Trump than any other state Obama carried twice, with 10 percent of self-identified Democrats casting ballots for the Republican. These voters largely support liberal causes, but they also want to hear their candidates talking about pocketbook issues.

“National buzz doesn’t automatically translate to Iowa success. Iowans like to pick their candidates. They don’t like to be told who the nominee should be,” said Carrie Giddins, who headed the state party’s communication efforts before the 2008 caucuses. “I’d be concerned as a Democrat that people are so turned off by national politics that they have to be brought back into the fold.”

Another important factor is how the Democrats’ growing focus on race and gender play in Iowa, where their own rank-and-file members are older and predominantly white. Iowa was one of the last states to elect a woman to Congress (in 2014), and she’s a Republican (Sen. Joni Ernst). It gave a historic victory to Obama in 2008, but he carefully steered clear of the divisive culture-war rhetoric so typical of current times. (At the 2007 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Obama said the reason he was running was “to protect the American worker, to fight for the American worker.”)

That homogeneous environment will make it challenging for prospective progressive candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Cory Booker of New Jersey to succeed in Iowa. Even Bernie Sanders won’t be guaranteed the same success next time around (if he runs) with more-moderate alternatives expected to be represented.

What’s ironic is that the partisan rules of the game that helped propel Donald Trump to the GOP nomination could end up saving the Democrats from the same extreme fate. The plethora of mainstream Republican candidates allowed Trump to win many primaries with narrow pluralities; a crowded field of Democratic progressives would give an edge to the few centrists expected to run. Superdelegates, who play a significant role in Democratic nominations, tend to keep the party moored to the middle.

Most importantly, the outsize roles of the small states in the presidential nominating process should offer an opening for moderate alternatives. For Republicans, socially conservative candidates such as Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee won recent Iowa caucuses, and pulled the party rightward. But for Democrats, the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses should be a much-needed moderating force as the party drifts in a McGovern-like direction.

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