Around the Des Moines metro, over tallboys at Carl’s and coffee mugs at Scenic Route, in the hallways of East Village consulting firms and in nonprofit board rooms, the Democratic gubernatorial race is the talk of the town. Outside of there? Eh, not so much.
It’s been nearly nine months since the first Democratic candidate jumped in the race (Rich Leopold, who, along with several others, have since jumped out), with countless announcements, speeches and candidate cattle-calls since. We’re at seven candidates now, five of which are running full campaigns with staff and infrastructure and backing. They’ve filled Facebook feeds with video ads, called activists and donors to make their pitch and jostled for early endorsements.
But despite all the early activity, much of the active Democratic base in Iowa remains unaware of their gubernatorial choices. That includes even many of the county party volunteers and Democrats who vote in every single primary. And the further you get outside Des Moines, the opinions on the field are typically less formed so far (having five of the candidates from Des Moines probably impacts that some).
“I haven’t followed it real closely,” said Ron of Tipton at a Cedar County Democrats picnic, noting the only place he’s seen much about it is on TV. “I know Andy and all them are who’s running, but I haven’t paid much attention to who it is … [My opinion] will start forming today when they speak.”
About half of the people Starting Line spoke with at last weekend’s Dave Loebsack fundraiser and Cedar County Democrats event knew very little about the gubernatorial primary – either they didn’t know who was running or had heard nothing of any candidate’s message. And these were Democrats involved enough to turn out to county party gatherings or donate money to their congressman.
Most others will still in the very early stages of researching the candidates.
“I’m not sure who I support,” said Alice Karen of West Branch who has gotten most of her information online and agreed with the four candidates that CCI chose to interview. “I think Nate Boulton has a lot of energy, and that impresses people. And I like what he stood for in the Legislature … There’s a lot I like about Cathy Glasson, but I don’t know enough about her yet.”
While those in Des Moines and elsewhere who run in very politically-engaged circles have seen their friends and acquaintances pick sides already in the primary, the big picture of the race looks much different.
The number to remember at the end of the day is this: 148,000. That’s about how many people voted in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary, the party’s last majorly-contested race. The most-read post on Starting Line about the 2018 Democratic primary so far got just over 11,000 views. Not bad, but a small fraction of the likely eventual vote. Boulton has the most-liked Facebook page with about 7,500 people. With no TV ads or direct mail being sent out yet, you’d probably only come upon the candidates if you were actively seeking out information.
And the reality is that even among Democratic activists and donors, including even many of those who show up to county party events and candidate fundraisers, simply aren’t plugged in yet. Some have been focused on other fights, like the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act and DACA. But for others, the issue is where to find the information.
“I don’t watch the Iowa TV stations or get the Des Moines Register. We haven’t gotten anything in the mail,” explained Charmaine Kliber of Iowa City. She didn’t know a single name of a Democrat running for governor.
And it can be a difficult race to follow with seven Democrats in the race (and even more earlier on). By the time you list out each person and the most basic of background on them, you’ve already eaten up all of a two-minute TV new segment.
The one place where there has been a lot of discussion is online and on social media, Facebook in particular. Most of the people Starting Line spoke with that did know a lot about the primary mentioned that they were active online.
Boulton has benefited in particular from drawing support from many of the most keyed-in Democrats who follow Iowa politics. Union members, incensed by Republicans’ actions at the Legislature this year, are more engaged than ever – and near-uniformly behind Boulton. Younger Democrats and involved activists who use social media a lot watched Boulton in viral videos from the Statehouse’s collective bargaining rallies and hearings. And his campaign posted and promoted many videos from the trail as his campaign got underway.
“I’ve seen him run across my Facebook feed every day,” one activist in Western Iowa told me earlier this summer.
In the midst of the Women’s March, Indivisible and town hall rallies – all of which were organized organically through social media – Boulton was hitting his stride. The other candidates have engaged more heavily in social media videos and ads, with many of their efforts most effective when linked to whatever issue people are talking about the most that week. And eventually the rest of the electorate will engage – much of that crowd is up for grabs.
Meanwhile, all the campaigns are playing for the long game. Early support from key activists, elected officials, unions and issue groups are certainly helpful to provide support throughout the race. But much of the outcome will depend on how those 148,000 or more Democratic voters react to TV ads and radio ads and mailers in the final three or four months of the campaign, and which candidate builds momentum in the final stretch.
So, outside of the county party picnics and speech-a-thons, candidates are sitting in rooms dialing for dollars so they can actually afford an all-out ad blitz to reach the tens of thousands of voters who won’t start paying attention until over half a year from now. And then whoever wins will immediately work on refilling that campaign war chest – because everyone knows Kim Reynolds will have all the money she needs for next November.
Until then, it’s still a fun and engaging primary for activists to watch and get involved with early on, and who builds up an early head of steam can make a big difference down the road. But there’s still an awfully long way to go until June 5, 2018.
by Pat Rynard