Iowa has become the Gettysburg of the Democratic nominating process — a climactic battle, fought well before the end of the war, that will do much to determine the outcome of the struggle.
Many of the campaigns’ strategic choices are invisible, but the results of those decisions are evident in the level of commitment each campaign has made and in the content of their messages.
Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPresident Trump an anti-Semite? Talk about #FakeNews... New regs for Thursday: Apples, fish, missiles How Democrats can rebuild a winning, multiracial coalition MORE’s (Ill.) commitment to victory in Iowa was unambiguous. According to data from The Des Moines Register he has made 144 visits to Iowa communities, and through mid-November, Obama ran nearly a third more television ads than Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJimmy Kimmel doesn't rule out Clinton cameo at Oscars Chafee: Negative coverage of Trump ‘tiresome’ Poll: Clinton voters like award show speeches, Trump voters find them too political MORE. The New York senator also devoted about 40 percent less time to Iowa than did Obama.
Strapped for cash and hemmed in by public finance spending limits, John Edwards could only afford a third as many ads as Clinton and a quarter as many as Obama, but nonetheless put all his time into the state he has long known he must win, making 188 Iowa stops this year.
Clinton’s apparent willingness to allow herself to be outflanked by Obama in Iowa is surprising. With similar fundraising totals and the same number of campaign days, Clinton’s relative disadvantage in both ad dollars and time spent was a matter of choice, not of necessity.
The silver lining for Clinton is that Obama’s apparent lead could be, at least in part, a function of his greater presence. By equalizing the effort in the closing days, she retains a chance to prevail.
Though recently their messages have begun to converge, at the outset the candidates adopted rather different strategies in this realm as well.
Having made little progress as the candidate of hope, Obama seamlessly adjusted his message, becoming the candidate of hope and change. Less interested in bringing the country together — a theme of his early speeches — Obama kicked off his November “Change You Can Believe In” bus tour through Iowa with a speech using the word “change” 21 times in less than 28 minutes, according to the Chicago Tribune, though his early ads did not use the word even once.
Attempting to capitalize on her clear “experience” advantage, Sen. Clinton first put most of her eggs in that flimsy basket. Running on one’s greatest relative strength is not the most effective strategy when Iowans appear to prefer change over experience by about 2 to 1.
Her opponents’ most compelling need was to pierce the armor Clinton had developed during her years as a party heroine — a goal they achieved, with her unwitting cooperation, at the Philadelphia debate by surfacing her greatest vulnerability: the sense that she says not what she believes, but what she believes to be politically advantageous.
Obama’s rise made it clear that experience alone was too slender a message reed. Advised by her husband, Clinton too shifted, now arguing that her experience demonstrates she can actually bring about change, while others merely hope for it.
Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) also espouses a variant of change, maintaining it can only be achieved by fundamentally altering Washington’s political culture and by focusing the benefits of change on the middle class.
Barack Obama took the lead in Iowa by adopting a superior message and making a more fulsome commitment to the state when doubts were being raised about Sen. Clinton, who in turn allowed herself to be outdone in both quality and quantity of message for many weeks.
Now, however, all three candidates are arguing change, albeit from differing perspectives, and all three are committing heavily to Iowa through Caucus Day.
As at Gettysburg, the armies are massed, and while the outcome will prove decisive, at this point it remains unpredictable.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.