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.
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 HarkinFCC needs to help services for the deaf catch up to videoconferencing tech Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa 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 GoreMan seen with Pelosi lectern on Jan. 6 pleads guilty Judge says Gore, unlike Trump, 'was a man' and accepted election loss Meet the red-state governor Democrats should nominate in 2024 instead of Biden or Harris MORE (D-Tenn.) focused on Super Tuesday during his first run, in 1988, and failed.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiFormer NYC police commissioner to testify before Jan. 6 committee, demands apology Midterms are coming: Will we get answers on Jan. 6 before it's too late? Subpoenas show Jan. 6 panel's focus on Trump's plans 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."
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 ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble 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 WarrenPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Biden eyes new path for Fed despite Powell pick Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Storms a growing danger for East Coast 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 HarrisPoll: Biden's job approval gains two points Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegAdvocates see pilot program to address inequalities from highways as crucial first step Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season 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 BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyMaryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy 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 BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D) will start his day with a 5K race in Cedar Rapids. Biden and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke seizes on Texas power grid in bid against Abbott McConaughey on Texas run: 'I will let you know shortly' O'Rourke raises M in first 24 hours of Texas governor campaign MORE (D-Texas) will parade through Independence, Iowa.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions BBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children 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."