With a presidential field that now numbers 23, Democratic candidates need every tiny advantage they can find in Iowa to deliver them delegates on caucus night. For a lucky few contenders, they come to the state with a special connection in their pocket thanks to long-established friendships, past organizational building, or a family bond. And, as we all know, relationships are everything in the Iowa Caucus.
Now, okay, most of what we’re listing aren’t exactly “secret” weapons, but they are important advantages that seven candidates have over the rest of the field. Of course, just about every candidate has some staff with great Iowa activist connections, or a certain constituency in Iowa they’re well-suited to appeal to. However, what we’re looking at here is specific connections to Iowa from a Democrat’s personal life or past campaigns here.
Steve Bullock: The Attorney General’s Network
Earlier today, Steve Bullock landed the biggest Iowa endorsement to date: Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. The two go back a long way. Bullock and Miller got to know each other when Bullock served as Montana’s attorney general; Bullock was first elected to the spot in 2008. Miller is the only statewide official to endorse so far in the Iowa Caucus, and he was one of the first backers of Barack Obama in 2007, lending credibility to Obama early on in the race.
Miller was already quite helpful for Bullock, traveling with the governor on most of Bullock’s testing-the-waters trips to Iowa in 2018 and earlier this year. Most useful to Bullock is Miller’s significant political network in the state, one that isn’t often in the public spotlight, but is still rather influential behind the scenes in the party. That network kept Bullock connected with key Iowa activists and potential staff as the governor waited for his state’s legislative session to finish. As one of the last entrants into the 2020 field, Bullock could have started too far behind on the relationship front in Iowa, but instead enters the race with one of the better political operations in Iowa.
Bernie Sanders: A Pre-Built Infrastructure (By Him)
For most candidates, building up the kind of Iowa Caucus ground game needed to win is a time-intensive effort for both the candidate and staff. Bernie Sanders arrived back in Iowa this year with essentially a turnkey operation, one built by his insurgent 2016 caucus campaign. Volunteers flooded Sanders’ initial events in Iowa, who in turn signed up new attendees. Sanders already claims 24,000 sign-ups for their Iowa campaign, and they should start packing their field offices as they open them across the state. A recent national organizing launch from the campaign saw over 60 volunteer-led events in Iowa alone.
There may be other candidates this year that surge in the Iowa polls closer to caucus night. But each one of those will have precious little time to take advantage of that momentum and use it to lock in precinct captains and volunteers. Sanders already has that infrastructure built, which gives him a big advantage over the rest of the field that is hard to overstate.
Amy Klobuchar: Next-Door Neighbor For Real
The title of Amy Klobuchar’s book takes on a literal meaning for Iowa, and Iowa’s northern neighbor was a well-known, frequent visitor in the state long before the early stages of the 2020 primary. Since 2013, Klobuchar headlined or organized 20 events for Iowa Democrats, including headlining the 2014 IDP Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and hosting canvass launches for Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer, J.D. Scholten, and Bruce Braley back in 2014. After Democrats lost Tom Harkin’s senate seat in 2014, Klobuchar essentially became Iowa’s surrogate senator to some Democrats here.
It’s also been an easy drive down I-35 for Klobuchar volunteers and guest speakers. Obama sent in waves of volunteers from his home state over Iowa’s eastern border in 2008; expect the same from Minnesota during this caucus.
Although we haven’t seen a public Iowa poll broken down by media markets yet, one would think Klobuchar’s name ID and possibly support is higher up in the seven Iowa counties that are a part of the Rochester/Mason City media market. Those places make up less than 4% of the total Iowa population, but it’s still one clear foothold in the state that other candidates don’t start with.
Cory Booker: Family Home
Many candidates in past cycles have some story of an aunt from Cedar Rapids or a grandparent from Council Bluffs. Much of Booker’s family is all still here, and some of his visits to Iowa have essentially become family reunions. The Booker family’s roots lay in Buxton, Iowa, the former town where southern blacks and white European immigrants moved to work together in a coal mine. Booker’s grandmother was born and raised in Des Moines, and much of that side of Booker’s extended family still lives there. His Aunt Alma, who recently turned 100, is the family matriarch in Iowa, and has already gotten a fair share of attention on social media.
While it gives Booker a perfect story to tell on the trail, it’s also providing his campaign with an important early base of support. Close to 80 Booker family members live in Iowa – that alone is enough to swing a few precincts in his favor on caucus night. The campaign has also signed up several already to serve as precinct captains, and the family members, of which at least one is at every local Booker event, already take to calling the Iowa staffers “cousins.”
Joe Biden: Decades-Long Friends
It’s Joe Biden’s third time campaigning for the Iowa Caucus, and he’s got friends here dating back to the 1980s. Already in his initial visit to the state since announcing, activists and elected officials who Biden has kept in touch with for decades gave him warm introductions and a few endorsements. Biden only received 1% of the delegates in the 2008 Iowa Caucus, but that significantly under-represented his real size of support. A young member of his 2008 team was now-Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer. There’s a sense of loyalty among many longtime activists to the former vice president, and with a fractured field this year with no break-out new star, watch for Biden to land the endorsements and support of many key caucus leaders.
Eric Swalwell: The Iowa Native
He may represent a Bay Area congressional district in California now, but Eric Swalwell’s journey in life began in Iowa. Born in Sac City, his father later served as the police chief in Algona (before the powers-to-be ran him out of town for ticketing influential locals). Swalwell leads with his Iowa connection often on the trail, and Starting Line has seen him at several events where someone attends because they knew Swalwell’s father. Iowa roots haven’t always favored other candidates enough in the past, but with a field this large, those connections can help a lesser-known contender like Swalwell stand out. It also may help that his family is known in Western Iowa, where candidates like Swalwell may target for their smaller-population, easier-to-organize precincts.
John Hickenlooper: An Old Familiar Name
“Hey, are you related to Bourke Hickenlooper?” is a question you’ll hear at almost every John Hickenlooper event in Iowa. And the former Colorado governor is related – Bourke is John’s great uncle, and served as Iowa governor in the 1940s and in the U.S. Senate from the 1940s to 1960s. He was Iowa’s longest-serving senator until Senator Chuck Grassley broke the record. This Hickenlooper was a Republican, though his impressive electoral success is something the Democratic Hickenlooper would now like to see here.
Bourke Hikenlooper passed away in 1971, so the Iowans who are still familiar with that name are certainly more of the older crowd. Still, those older Democrats are often who make up a majority of the caucus-going electorate, and a familiar name can go a long way in this state.
by Pat Rynard