Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint

Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint
© Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa — Two back-to-back debates marked a pivot point in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning millions of dollars and tens of thousands of new donors for leading and long-shot candidates alike — and kicking off a new phase that begins this week in cities and towns across Iowa.

Virtually all of the 25 contenders will make swings through the first-in-the-nation caucus state over the Fourth of July week, marching in parades and stumping in town halls and living room house parties.

The swarm descending on Iowa reflects the state's prominent place in the presidential primary field. Though Iowa will allocate less than 1 percent of the delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention, the caucuses bestow something even more crucial than an early lead in the hunt for delegates: momentum.

ADVERTISEMENT

While social media channels and cable news have nationalized what is normally a retail contest, and even as more states set their primaries or caucuses for Super Tuesday, the reality of the media atmosphere today has amplified Iowa's already tremendous influence.

"Everything in presidential politics comes down to momentum. The first two or three states have a supersized and profound influence over the initial trajectory of the race," said David Jacobson, a Democratic strategist in California who is not aligned with any of the presidential candidates. "It's possible Super Tuesday can manipulate and reconfigure that trajectory, but it's more likely than not that March 3 will be a reflection of the accelerating momentum among top tier candidates from the first trio of state contests."

In modern history, only one Democratic candidate has ever won the party's presidential nomination without winning either in Iowa or New Hampshire — and that candidate, former President Clinton, did not contest Iowa because home state Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinDemocrats must question possible political surveillance Wisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint MORE (D) was also in the race. Harkin retired in 2015.

Recent years are riddled with the corpses of campaigns that sought to downplay the importance of the first two early states. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) skipped early primaries in 1976 and 1992, and saw his bids collapse. Then-Sen. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKrystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability Democratic handwringing hits new highs over 2020 2020 general election debates announced MORE (D-Tenn.) focused on Super Tuesday during his first run, in 1988, and failed.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry Giuliani associate Lev Parnas discussed Ukraine with Trump at private dinner: report Democrats face make-or-break moment on impeachment MORE's (R) 2008 campaign abandoned Iowa, then New Hampshire, in hopes of winning the Florida primary; he lost. Then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) skipped Iowa in 2004 to focus on New Hampshire, and finished fifth, which he creatively dubbed a statistical tie for third.

"If you skip or downplay early states, one or more of your opponents will do well in Iowa or New Hampshire," said Bill Carrick, who managed former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's (D) 1988 presidential campaign. "They will then have momentum that gives them an advantage in Super Tuesday states."

ADVERTISEMENT

This election cycle, the temptation to focus on the several massive states like California, Texas and Massachusetts that will allocate their delegates on Super Tuesday is alluring. California voters will receive their ballots the same day Iowa voters caucus, on Feb. 3.

But far from being a late game-changer for a candidate who flops in early states, the massive stakes at play on Super Tuesday will elevate Iowa and New Hampshire even more than usual, Democrats said.

"You can't forgo the early states. The momentum built by finishing strong or beating expectations influences how people will vote on Super Tuesday — especially with a record number of people in the race where the vote is being split," said Stephanie Cutter, a former top official on campaigns for former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE.

Though the 2020 race has dominated cable news and Washington political circles, Iowa Democrats are only now beginning to seriously tune in, spurred in part by the two debates that earned sky-high ratings across the country. The viral moments that capture YouTube clicks and Twitter shares are less valuable than retail political skills in the state.

"Out here in Iowa, we're used to being more one-on-one with a candidate and having a half an hour," said Mark Anderson, a Democrat from Windsor Heights.

Interviews with two dozen caucusgoers this past weekend suggest the race in Iowa is wide open, and strong debate performances earned some candidates the chance to make inroads with those who are suddenly giving them a first or second look.

Most activists said they were impressed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (D-Mass.), whose place at the center of the stage in Wednesday's debate gave her a prominent platform.

"It's nice to see a woman candidate, somebody who's fresh-faced, somebody who handles conflict so well," Katrina Serfling, a mental health counselor in Des Moines, said of Warren. "She handles it with so much grace. It's reminiscent of Obama."

Many spotlighted former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOutsider candidates outpoll insider candidates Poll: Buttigieg leads Democratic field in Iowa Press: Another billionaire need not apply MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Saagar Enjeti rips Buttigieg for praising Obama after misquote Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (D) as the candidates who stood out most on stage.

"I thought Julián Castro came off pretty strong," said Mike Schaeffer, a software developer in Grinnell. Schaeffer is also considering former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report Giuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry MORE and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyBloomberg run should push Warren to the center — but won't The Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment fight enters new stage Biden hits Warren over 'Medicare for All' plan MORE (D-Md.), who has quietly built a huge staff of organizers in Iowa.

Others said the debates left them more open to a broader range of candidates than they had been before.

"It's hard to know what to think at this point," said Rowan Queathen, a graduate student living in Grinnell.

Those voters will have a new opportunity to see the candidates up close this week. In fact, most voters will have trouble avoiding the candidates.

On Independence Day, Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockPress: Another billionaire need not apply Obama's former chief economist advising Buttigieg The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE (D) will start his day with a 5K race in Cedar Rapids. Biden and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' Language is a weapon in political warfare — if the media play along MORE (D-Texas) will parade through Independence, Iowa.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (I-Vt.) will join parades in Ames, Windsor Heights and Pella. Buttigieg will parade through Storm Lake, while Harris starts her day with a house party in Indianola before moving west for a barbecue in Council Bluffs. O'Rourke caps the day at an Iowa Cubs baseball game in Des Moines.

Not every voter is open to supporting every candidate. Several Iowans said they already had the impression that some candidates would be better fits for Cabinet posts than the Oval Office.

"A lot of these people are running for vice president," said Paul Tjossem, a physics professor at Grinnell College. "That's what this is about."