No campaign from Hillary Clinton until July? That’s what a Politico report suggested late last week, setting off a fierce discussion among Democratic activists. Iowa Democrats, in particular, worried she may be taking her early lead for granted, and voiced concern over what it meant for the Iowa Caucus.
In fact, if you only read the Politico and Des Moines Register‘s take on the situation, you might think a full-blown revolt among Iowa Democrats is brewing. However, in multiple phone and email interviews with Iowa activists, leaders, and former campaign staff, Starting Line found a different story. A late start is certainly not without its risks – nor its detractors – but many activists and Clinton supporters are willing to give her time.
A Willingness to Wait – For Now
“I hope she waits as long as she needs to,” said Joy Newcom, a Winnebago County coordinator for Clinton in 2008. “All she does by getting in early is make the target easier to see. Democrats like me … we’re going to get behind her no matter what time she gets in the race.” Still, Newcom noted she’s heard some concern from other local activists about Clinton not taking Iowa seriously enough.
Some of Clinton’s biggest backers in Iowa aren’t concerned yet either, at least not with how the Democratic race is shaping up so far. “Delaying makes sense to me,” prominent Clinton supporter Bonnie Campbell said about an early start, though she offered some caveats. “How much – I don’t know. 24 hours is a long time in politics, so I could give you a really different answer tomorrow.”
For Campbell, the current state of the race doesn’t require Clinton to jump in right away. With so few other Democrats making serious moves, she feels Clinton still has time. That could still change, though, as she notes the activity of other likely candidates is “always a concern – it’s a thing you have to keep your eye on.” She also feels taking time to prepare is important, especially to reflect on why the 2014 elections went so badly for Democrats. “You can’t just say ‘I have three talking points, I’m ready to announce for president.'”
Many activists and supporters also pointed out just how long presidential campaigns have become. “Longer campaigns wear people out – candidates, staff, volunteers and all of us!” said Linn County activist Libby Slappey in explaining why she doesn’t mind if Clinton waits. “Political campaigns have gotten much longer and I don’t think that is good for anyone,” argued Jerry Crawford, another top Clinton backer. “Not one Iowan has said to me ‘the problem in our country is that our campaigns are not long enough!'” Campbell also added, “A presidential campaign shouldn’t take two years.” And former state representative Nate Willems of Linn County offered, “If she feels she can wait until July, more power to her. We will still be here.”
Not all agree. When asked if Clinton should wait until the summer, Union County Democrat Monica McCarthy responded, “She should not.” McCarthy, a former Democratic county chair, framed the need in terms of strategy. “It she doesn’t actually announce soon, the other side is going to suck up all the publicity … I think she’s going to be the Democrats’ candidate. She’s got to get out there and get started, get some feet on the ground. She’s going to have to participate in Iowa.”
Others hoped Clinton and more would announce, but aren’t too nervous about timing yet. “There will be candidates, and I’m sure some of them will be declaring in the next couple of months,” said John Stone, Democratic county chair of Cerro Gordo County. “I think they can wait, but they should want to get started. Early on you can’t always tell what is going to happen.”
Starting in a Stronger Position
There’s no doubt that Clinton enters the 2016 cycle in a much stronger position than she did in 2008. Her tenure as Secretary of State boosted her foreign policy credentials, and distanced herself from past 90’s-era controversies. She holds larger leads in the polls and likely won’t have to face a once-in-a-generation dynamic opponent like Barack Obama. Many Democrats noted the change in atmosphere for Clinton.
At last fall’s Harkin Steakfry, where Clinton spoke at, Newcom recalls she was amazed at the support Clinton garnered among the younger crowd. “The Hillary Clinton they know is the Hillary of the Secretary of State era,” Newcom said, pointing particularly to young men’s support for her. “All this other stuff is ancient history to them. I find that incredibly exciting.” Crawford backed up the sense of broader support by pointing out, “With Hillary polling in the 60’s (as compared with the 30’s in 2008) she is in strong position.”
Clinton also enjoys a supporting role from Ready for Hillary. “The organizing work still goes on,” Campbell said. “Ready for Hillary is a vibrant operation that has demonstrated it knows how to organize … It’s not a substitute [for Clinton], but it’s a nice layer of organizing work.”
Other activists saw advantages Clinton would bring to the table this time. McCarthy, who caucused for Joe Biden in 2008, said, “No one on this earth can beat Hillary Clinton because of her experience and background.” Up in northern Iowa, activists see her backers holding steady. “Hillary Clinton’s got a lot for support here, though not everyone’s for her,” commented Stone on his own Cerro Gordo County, a place Clinton won in 2008. “That’s always the way it is.”
Risks to Waiting: the Iowa Perspective
There are certainly risks to a later start for Clinton. The major ones are obvious: attacks from Republicans and the media could be trickier to respond to if she’s not on the campaign trail with national media each day. But a more Iowa-specific problem presents itself: can she build an effective caucus campaign without an official presence until the summer?
Clinton dominates the early polls in Iowa, but a victory here is no sure bet. Take Iowa too lightly and she risks letting another candidate consolidate the anti-Clinton vote into a large enough bloc to make the primary an actual contest. An old network of volunteers and precinct captains from 2008 remain in the state, more than enough to form the base of a successful caucus campaign. But who will activate them?
Tons of factors go into an Iowa Caucus win, but having good, qualified staff with Iowa experience is particularly useful in the grass-roots, neighbor-to-neighbor organizing required for caucus night. But who would fill the top spots in another Iowa Caucus effort for Clinton? Grant Woodard and Brenda Kole are among the very few seasoned Iowa operatives still active in the state from her 2008 caucus campaign. The old leadership of Clinton’s 2008 run could use updating too. Of 21 state legislators who endorsed Clinton in 2008, only nine still remain in office.
The longer Clinton waits, the harder it will be to recruit staff with invaluable long-standing connections with Iowa activists – both in top positions and the many field roles essential to turning out supporters. Starting Line spoke with a number of low- and mid-level campaign staffers with Iowa experience about how long they could potentially wait. Many preferred their names not be used in discussing their thinking.
“I love Hillary and have been rooting for her since ’08, but if a better opportunity with another candidate presented itself at a time that suited me well, I would probably take that,” said one former field organizer who is now clerking at the Statehouse. “Waiting until July for any income to come in would be very tough.”
Other well-qualified Iowa staff say they are beginning to look at opportunities in the two competitive Iowa Congressional races in the 1st and 3rd districts, rather than a caucus campaign. Some of them plan on supporting Clinton in the primary, but simply can’t wait that long for a caucus campaign to begin hiring.
However, others said they can hold out. “For presidential, especially if it’s Hillary, I can wait that long,” claimed another former 2014 Iowa coordinated campaign worker. “Professionally, I could wait. Personally though, I want to get involved and on the campaign trail as soon as possible to start that exciting work again.”
“It would be an incredible opportunity to work for someone who has been a leader in Democratic politics for such a long time,” said Julianne Klampe, a former staffer for Staci Appel and the coordinated campaign. “Hillary will announce when she is ready, and there are plenty of jobs for potential staff in the meantime. I am currently a senior at Drake University and will graduate in May, so my situation is a little different than those of my coworkers.”
Still, everyone mentioned they knew many fellow campaigners struggling with unemployment. In the past, earlier caucus campaigning provided those people with quick relief. This cycle, the candidates who start up first, like Martin O’Malley, may snatch up many experienced Iowa hands before Clinton has a chance.
Avoiding the Arrogance Factor
Fair or not, a common complaint from Iowa activists of Clinton’s 2008 campaign was that Clinton seemed aloof at times in a state known for close interactions with candidates. Postponing a campaign because she easily outpaces her competition could play into that narrative once again. Many of the Iowans quoted in the Politico and Des Moines Register pieces seemed most turned off by the idea that Clinton may not campaign as hard as others for their vote.
Longtime Iowa activists may be forgiven if they’re feeling a little anxious. It’s important to remember that Democrats in the state waited four presidential cycles after 1988 before they got another truly competitive caucus in 2004. Many Democrats see all the activity on the Republican side in Iowa going on right now and are eager to share in some of that excitement.
However, if you look closely at those quoted in the recent press articles on Iowa, you’ll notice many of those criticizing Clinton are ones who were never big fans. There’s a certain set inside the Democratic Party who will never caucus for Clinton, even if they may support her in a general election. Should Clinton worry that much about what message they think her lack of campaigning says? Perhaps not, but delaying also sends an important message to her supporters, and that one should most definitely concern her.
During the 2008 campaign, Clinton supporters didn’t completely recognize the need to get involved until it was nearly too late. A pivotal moment in Clinton enthusiasm came when she loaned her campaign $5 million two days after a disappointing Super Tuesday performance. After that, Clinton’s campaign got a surge in small donor contributions. And from this former field organizer’s memory, it was considerably easier recruiting volunteers in the later states like Indiana than it ever was in Iowa.
Clinton’s Iowa supporters caution others from reading too much into early reports from the still-to-develop Democratic primary. “If she announces, she’ll make a strong commitment to Iowa,” Campbell reassured. “She’ll do what everyone else is doing in Iowa.” Many activists – supporters or not – certainly hope so.
Risks of a late launch certainly exist. However, as long as Clinton’s advisers actually recognize what they are, there should be ways to limit any damage among early state activists and supporters. Her supporters seem fine with waiting for a little while. But Clinton would be wise to throw them a bone from time to time.
So What Happens Next?
The biggest point not mentioned about the first Politico article claiming she could wait until July is that her advisers were “considering delaying the formal launch” (emphasis mine) of her campaign. All they may have meant is that an official presidential campaign may not be formed until the summer. They didn’t say anything about the possibility of an exploratory committee or other potential speeches or campaign-like activity by Clinton. Before Iowa Democrats have a freak-out about Hillary Clinton snubbing her nose at them, they may want to watch what she – and other Democratic candidates – are doing a little more carefully.
Earlier this week she waded into the news-of-the-day topic of vaccinations, sending out a message on Twitter promoting her support of vaccines. Sure, it was just a tweet, but it showed a willingness to inject herself into the latest presidential campaign controversy.
The White House yesterday announced that Jennifer Palmieri will soon be leaving the President’s staff, expected to join Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting, possibly as its communications director. She’ll join John Podesta, also leaving the White House for Clinton’s operation. Those are some big names. It’s not like Palmieri and Podesta are going to be sitting around, playing cards in the break room for the next six months.
One other thing to consider: even if Hillary Clinton announced tomorrow, does anyone really believe she would start barnstorming Iowa in March, hitting five towns a day? Would the outrage among Iowa activists be worse if she was actively running, but only did one event a month in Des Moines? A later start may temper expectations.
The 2016 Iowa Caucus is going to be a different affair than the 2004 and 2008 caucus campaigns, that much is for sure. The Democratic field will likely be smaller, and less competitive. Clinton starts with a considerable advantage, but by no means is she a shoe-in. She’ll need to campaign hard across the state. None of that means it will be a boring caucus, or that Iowa Democrats won’t get their chance to ask their candidates the tough questions.
Indeed, if there’s one thing everyone agreed upon, it was the need for competition. “More than anything else, Hillary needs a primary opponent,” the Linn County activist Slappey said. “At a minimum, an opponent would certainly help her refine her messaging.” Crawford concurred, saying, “I have always assumed other candidates will run. That is a good thing.” The question now is how seriously – and how soon – Clinton will take on that competition. Democrats will have to stay tuned.
by Pat Rynard
Featured photo by Greg Hauenstein. See more of his work here: greghauenstein.com.