DES MOINES, Iowa — Despite the incessant media coverage, most Americans at this point aren’t really paying that much attention to the Democratic nominating contest. But here, you can’t escape it. As caucus day approaches, the city is taking on elements of a political theme park.
Not ten minutes after leaving the airport, I drove past a “Pete-mobile” van with a giant, smiling Pete Buttigieg face emblazoned on either side. The first two places I stopped in town, a 1950s-style diner near Drake University and a coffee shop a few blocks away, had signs posted saying major media outlets would be broadcasting from those locations on Monday (CBS at the diner, NPR at the coffeeshop). In both places, reporters were already lurking—a film crew loafing in the coffeeshop, a reporter at the diner scribbling away while a middle-aged white guy in a “Tío Bernie” shirt excitedly held forth about the coming revolution.
Campaign yard signs abound in the neighborhoods, as do political ads on every TV. Over the course of a 30-minute lunch on Wednesday I saw ads for Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders—even multiple Tom Steyer ads. At a Biden campaign stop Thursday in Newton, just east of Des Moines, there were as many members of the press as there were attendees.
The media blitz can be distorting. Iowa has always been inundated with news media ahead of presidential caucuses, but this year it seems different. Joseph Fernandez, a 56-year-old Des Moines attorney and Democratic precinct chair, says although Iowans have always taken their caucuses seriously, “We’re increasingly led by the media. Before, we set the narrative. Now we’re reacting to polls and the news cycle.”
Fernandez supports Buttigieg, so his point is well taken. He says when recent polls came out showing the former South Bend mayor lagging behind Biden and Sanders, his fellow Buttigieg supporters fretted over it. As caucus day draws near, Fernandez says he’s seen “growing support and excitement” for Buttigieg, “but the news cycle is leading some people over their own judgement.”
Yet the polls and the news they generate can’t be ignored. In a race that seems to be narrowing down to a contest between Biden and Sanders, Iowa is the place candidates like Warren and Buttigieg need to make their mark if they want to stay in the running.
Still Time For Persuasion Among Undecided Iowa Dems
There’s still a good chance they might do so. A Monmouth University poll this week found that about half of likely caucusgoers in Iowa are open to changing their minds on Monday night.
Among Democratic activists here in Des Moines, that’s good news. It means that despite the impression of a Biden-Sanders contest, there really is no frontrunner. That leaves ample room for persuasion at the caucuses, which allows for more than one vote, and the votes aren’t private. Essentially, in a caucus everyone “votes” by standing at the table of his or her preferred candidate, then caucusgoers attempt to persuade one another to switch tables.
Chris Morse, 35, calls a caucus a “neighborhood-level conversation.” A staunch Sanders supporter and Democratic precinct chair in northwest Des Moines, Morse is optimistic about being able to persuade his fellow Democrats to get behind Sanders, who is emerging as a frontrunner and leading in most Iowa polls. (At least one poll this week showed him with a five-point lead.)
“The challenge is to identify opportunities for us to work together,” he says. “How do we move forward on the 90 percent of things we agree on and not get hung up on the 10 percent of things we don’t?”
Fortunately for Morse and his fellow Democrats, by all accounts there’ll be more people at the caucuses to persuade this time around. Every Democratic activist and volunteer I spoke to said that interest and attendance at precinct and county events and meetings has markedly increased in recent years.
Mary McAdams, 54, chairs a Democratic Party community group in Ankeny, a fast-growing suburb just north of Des Moines, says “Trump has absolutely boosted engagement. Over the past two years, monthly meetings of the Ankeny area Democrats have gone from about eight people to more than 50.”
Greater interest could mean a less decisive outcome, especially since the Iowa Democratic Party changed its caucus rules so more than one candidate might now plausibly claim victory. But for all the media buzz about deepening divisions between the party’s progressive and establishment wings, most Democrats here don’t seem overly concerned about intra-party competition. Although McAdams is a Warren supporter, she says she’ll get behind whomever the eventual nominee is, 100 percent. “We would vote for a bag of potatoes if that’s who we nominated in July,” she says. “That’s what I’m seeing and hearing on the ground.”
That’s a big change from 2016, which deeply divided the party, even down at the local level, with disgruntled Sanders supporters refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton and attempting, at certain points, to hijack the state and county conventions. A lot of effort has gone into healing those divisions over the past few years, says McAdams. “At least in Ankeny, it’s been a conscious decision—at party meetings, committee meetings, parties, Christmas events. Because we saw what happened in 2016, and we can’t let that happen again.”
The focus on unity has gone hand-in-hand with efforts to keep people engaged. Morse explained to me how it used to be that volunteers in Des Moines melted away after elections and the hardcore activists had to start all over every cycle. But that didn’t happened after the 2018 midterms, which saw Democrats flip two congressional districts. “It’s been continuous organizing since then,” he says. “We’re in the process of building an activist army.”
If all this is true, Trump could face a tough race in a state he won by nine points in 2016—no matter who the Democratic nominee turns out to be.