Wednesday, January 29, 2020

As Iowa goes, so goes Iowa -- Jan. 30, 2020 column


Don’t expect Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses Monday to write history. More likely, they’ll will write history’s footnotes.

If Iowa’s quadrennial caucuses actually picked presidents, we might be talking about Democratic Presidents Edmund Muskie, Richard Gephardt and Tom Harkin. Or Republican Presidents Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.

All were winners in Iowa’s caucuses, but not one of them became his party’s presidential nominee, let alone president. In 2016’s caucuses, Cruz beat Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton barely edged out Bernie Sanders.

Iowa’s gift to the nation is picking also-rans.

The Hawkeye State began holding the nation’s first presidential contests after the turbulent 1968 election, when nobody cared who went first. These days, many argue Iowa’s demographics make it a poor choice to kick off the presidential voting. It’s 91% white, 4 percent black and residents are older than the national average.

Both the state’s Democratic and Republican parties will hold presidential caucuses Monday night, but with President Trump having only nominal opposition, all eyes are on the Democrats.

Candidates have lavished personal attention on Iowa for over a year, but a week before the caucuses something like 40 percent of Iowa Democrats still hadn’t made up their minds. Sanders appears to be in the lead, but maybe not. He, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren were bunched together within 8 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of state polls on Tuesday.

A Sanders win would thrill many young and progressive voters -- and the Trump campaign. Trump would love to run against the Democratic socialist. Trump and Co. call all Democrats socialists, of course, but Sanders is really a Democratic socialist, and proudly so. Trump planned a big rally in Des Moines Thursday to tout his accomplishments.

Democratic moderates – read: pragmatists – prefer tried-and-true Biden as the candidate they believe actually can beat Trump.

What’s at stake in Iowa for Democrats is just 41 pledged delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention. That’s all. California, which votes on Super Tuesday, March 3, by itself will select 495 pledged delegates.

Under Iowa Democrats’ complex caucus rules, a presidential candidate needs 15 percent of the first vote in a precinct to remain “viable.” If a candidate doesn’t reach the threshold, the candidate’s supporters are free to join another candidate, move to undecided or try to persuade people to join their first-choice candidate.

Since 1972, the candidate who won the most votes in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses has won the party’s presidential nomination in seven of 10 contested races, but only two of them captured the White House, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, according to a  history of the caucuses by the Des Moines Register. 

Since 1980, three winners of contested Republican caucuses won the GOP presidential nomination, but only George W. Bush in 2000 won the White House.

A record turnout is expected for the caucuses that start at 7 p.m. Central on Monday in 1,678 precincts around the state. Those who will turn 18 by Nov. 3, Election Day, can participate, as can unregistered voters who register on caucus night.

And, for the first time, Iowa Democratic voters who can’t get home for the caucuses can vote in nearly 100 satellite locations, 25 out of state. Many are in sunny places where winter-weary Iowans retire, in Arizona and Florida. But the Iowa caucus is also coming to Virginia at George Mason University and to Washington, D.C., at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Iowa Democrats overseas can caucus in Paris; Glasgow, Scotland; and Tbilisi, Georgia.

Also new this time, the state Democratic party will release the first, raw vote totals in precincts as well as the final tally. What could go wrong with transparency? Disputes over who the real winner is.

You’ll probably hear there are “three tickets out of Iowa” for presidential candidates. That stems from the historical tidbit that since 1976 only one Democrat or Republican contender has come in lower than third in Iowa and won the presidential nomination. John McCain finished fourth in 2008 and won the GOP nomination.  

That same year, Iowa Democrats gave Obama a clear victory, launching the little-known senator from Illinois into history, showing Iowa can be a key first step.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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