Opinion: In presidential contest, Iowa is for upsets

David Shribman

It’s less than 10 days before Iowans, possibly braving bitter cold and perhaps enduring blowing snow, head to school libraries, church basements, community centers and veterans’ halls to begin the formal process of choosing the Democratic presidential nominee. The outcome is as uncertain as the weather.

Iowans are accustomed to making daring decisions. They chose a former director of central intelligence, George H.W. Bush, over a conservative icon who had been a two-term governor of California, Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Some 28 years later they chose an unknown senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, over a onetime vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, and a first lady turned senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Iowa Central Community College, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Almost three-quarters of the winners of contested races since 1972 have won their party’s nomination, but just two (Jimmy Carter and Obama) won the White House. So Iowa sets the table but doesn’t necessarily serve up the meal.

Even so, no one doubts the importance of the caucuses and no one, except former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, is willing to bypass them. And this time the struggle to win Iowa is more obscured than usual.

“This contest is far more unsettled than most,” says veteran caucus observer Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Des Moines’ Drake University. “There is nobody running away with this. Iowa caucuses bring surprises, and right now there is no clear front runner. Huge numbers are undecided or subject to change their minds. Anyone who would predict the winner would be foolish.”

That’s because no one knows whether Amy Klobuchar is surging. Her poll numbers are low, but she has visited all 99 counties and is airing ads like mad. She’s the senator from Minnesota, which shares a long border at 43º 30′ N, roughly near the divide between the watersheds of the Des Moines, Iowa and Blue Earth Rivers. Geography matters. For one thing, it makes it easy for her supporters to flood across the border to assist her candidacy.

The 1988 caucuses are illustrative. They were won by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, which borders Iowa at the south, with Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, which borders Iowa to the east, coming in second. (Geography is not infallible. Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota finished sixth in a field of seven in 2012, with barely over 6,000 votes.) 

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Iowa State Education Association Candidate Forum, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in West Des Moines, Iowa.

No one knows for sure whether former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend., Ind., has peaked. He led the polls in the state from mid November through the end of December but may have faded since then. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden has been leading in recent days, but his fortunes have risen and fallen like the levels of the Mississippi River, where the Iowa cities of Burlington, Bettendorf, Davenport, Dubuque and Marquette sit.

Those are only two of the moving parts bearing on the caucuses. Indeed, there have been several changes in the structure of the contest in recent days, and the most significant have come from the East, which has shaped Iowa since the Black Hawk Treaty of 1833 opened most of the state to white settlement. The 2020 influences come from New York and Washington.

From New York comes the New York Times double endorsement of Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Though candidates actively seek the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, newspaper endorsements ordinarily do not provide substantial boosts to candidates. (Best example: In 1972, the Manchester Union Leader supported Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles in the Democratic race. Yorty won 6% of the vote that year.) Endorsements from far away — especially from New York, especially from the Times, especially at a time of press distrust — have little possibility of possessing much weight.

But this one might. The twin endorsement elevated Klobuchar, whose campaign has suffered from political acrophobia, to the height of that of Warren. No one will vote for the Minnesotan on the basis of the Times recommendation. But the endorsement has the potential of elevating Klobuchar into the top tier. Then anything can happen.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The second factor is in Washington, where anything can happen except perhaps a Senate vote removing President Donald J. Trump from office.

But the Senate trial now underway requires all sitting senators to do exactly that — sit. And by sitting in the Senate chamber, Klobuchar, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont aren’t running in Iowa. They are hostages to the Senate trial, leaving Biden and Buttigieg with all the air time and attention. The three senators at the top of the race are sidelined. So is Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who is struggling for air in the presidential race and now is essentially out of breath.

The Times editorial does in some way reshape the race, which once had a progressive lane (Sanders, Edwards, perhaps others now departed), a moderate lane (Buttigieg, Klobuchar) and an outsider lane (Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang).

But now it is possible to see the Democratic race differently, and to discern a new architecture to the contest.

By pairing Warren and Klobuchar, the race now has an entirely different shape. It now has a female lane, pitting the two endorsed candidates against each other, and a blue-collar-appeal lane, pitting Sanders, who speaks of workers’ rights and excoriates the wealthy, against Biden, who has blue-collar appeal. Why else would a fight break out between the two men over Social Security, a vital retirement income supplement for working Americans?

Now add another new development.

A study conducted by the Yale and George Mason centers on climate change communication separates Americans into categories depending on their views on climate change. For the first time the segment “alarmed” about climate change has reached 31%, nearly triple its size five years ago, while those who were dismissive or doubtful of the effect of climate change have decreased.

Does that mean anything politically? Almost certainly it does, in the long run. In the short run it may be a boost to Steyer, who relentlessly has trumpeted the cause of climate change. Iowa is for upsets. That would be the biggest one of all time. It’s unlikely, almost out of the question. But a month ago most of this column would have been considered just that way. 

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.