Iowa field notes: 29 candidates, 2100 plus events, but who will win the first contest to be the next President of the United States?

The Liberty and Justice Celebration, Des Moines, Iowa, USA, November 1st, 2019.
This and all photos below are by Alex Paul Shantz


It’s the first Friday in November, and inside an arena in downtown Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, guests in smart clothes eat dinner around an elevated stage. Suddenly, the lights dim, artificial smoke envelopes a walkway, and the pop song ‘High Hopes’ blares out. Around one end of the arena, across three levels of tiered seating, thousands of people jump to their feet, dancing and waving three feet high letters that say “Boot Edge Edge”. Striding along a walkway towards the stage is… Pete Buttigieg, the 37 year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana?

At this point, I realise I’m at one of the most unique political events I’ve ever attended. Part fundraising gala and part political rally, but with production values that more closely resemble a pro wrestling event. It is in fact the Liberty and Justice Celebration, the final and most important multi-candidate ‘cattle call’ in the year-long campaign preceding the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Cory Booker addresses an event in Davenport, Iowa, USA on December 7th 2019

When I moved to Iowa last summer, I knew I wanted to experience how, every four years, back gardens, coffee shops, restaurants, living rooms, and community centres across a state the size of England and Wales become the centre of a national debate about the future direction of the United States. In the run-up to the caucuses, local residents (and sometimes a few curious onlookers from other states and countries) show up to meet, greet, listen to, and ask tough questions of all the candidates vying to be the next president of the United States.

Now, in January 2020, the end is in sight. In just two weeks time, over 250,000 Iowans are predicted to show up to one of 1681 local precinct (roughly equivalent to a UK council ward) caucus on Monday, February 3rd. Braving freezing temperatures, in school gyms, church halls, and even private homes, registered Democratic voters will stand with neighbours to form a preference group for their first-choice candidate. Groups with 15 percent or more of the total attendees in them are considered ‘viable’ and their support gets locked in. Then, members of ‘nonviable’ groups realign to their second-choice candidate and final totals are recorded.

The results in Iowa matter not for how many delegates for the nomination each candidate wins, but because the caucuses traditionally can make-or-break presidential campaigns. Barack Obama’s surprising victory in 2008 catapulted him to the White House, while Hillary Clinton’s inability to beat Bernie Sanders in 2016 were indicative of her struggle to win in the Midwest in the subsequent general election.

So after a year of electioneering, over 2100 candidate events and tens of thousands more campaign events, where do things stand? The two most recent polls showed support for the top four candidates ranging from 24 to 15 percent. For the campaigns of former Vice-President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, caucus night could be very unpredictable.

Nevertheless, some personal observations may help Lib Dem Voice readers analyse for themselves who may ‘take’ Iowa (in order of their current polling).

Biden

In urban areas, Joe Biden’s campaign presence has felt the least visible of the frontrunners, but he remains popular with older voters, and I suspect he might do very well in more rural parts of Iowa. Also, many Iowan Democrats want nothing more than to beat Trump in 2020, and could ‘lend’ Biden their support if they feel he is best placed to achieve this outcome. (Right: Jo Biden in Iowa City, Iowa, USA on August 7th 2019)

Sanders

Bernie Sanders has had a noticeable core of supporters from the start (thanks to his distinctive platform and near universal name recognition) who seem committed to turning out on caucus night. So the question for his campaign is how many undecideds they can convince in the final weeks – and the challenge for other candidates is to beat his campaign’s get out the caucus operation.

Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg’s support visibly increased last autumn as he ended the year as the frontrunner. However, it feels like his support is slipping a bit, so it will be interesting to see how many of these 2019 supporters actually turn into 2020 caucus voters. Buttigieg probably has to win or finish a very strong second in Iowa in order to keep his momentum going.

Warren

Elizabeth Warren has invested deeply in her Iowa ground game so her campaign could turn out unexpected caucus-goers and do well on the night. She is also a popular second-choice among Iowa Democrats, so her support could increase significantly during re-alignment – assuming these voters are not already committed to another viable candidate like Sanders. (Right: Elizabeth Warren in Iowa City, Iowa, USA September 19th 2019)

There are also some wild-card factors that could impact the result:

  • Several popular Iowa Democratic politicians still have not endorsed a candidate. If one or more of them expresses a preference this close to caucus night, it will likely sway some undecided voters.
  • Billionaire Tom Steyer has spent twice as much as any other candidate on TV ads in Iowa and voters have noticed his positions on climate change and term limits. Steyer’s domination here could influence voters in the final days. (Fellow billionaire and former New York CIty mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign is skipping Iowa to focus his time and money on states that vote later in the process.)
  • The volatile behaviour of President Trump seems to helps Joe Biden. For voters craving stability and predictability from the White House, Biden feels like someone they can trust as president. Another foreign policy crisis like Iran could increase Biden’s final numbers.
  • Finally, there might only be two weeks left, but many voters remain undecided. Who these voters finally decide to back will likely determine the outcome on February 3rd.

The queue for a selfie with Elizabeth Warren, Iowa City, Iowa, USA, September 19th 2019. Warren takes pictures with each and every person who waits.

* Alex Paul Shantz is a former member of the Liberal Democrats who now lives in Iowa, where he most recently was a field organizer for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Originally from London, he previously worked in public policy in Washington, DC for the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank.

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2 Comments

  • David Warren 19th Jan '20 - 8:22pm

    Thanks for this Alex. I am hoping Elizabeth Warren wins the nomination and goes onto be elected President.

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