Julian Castro took his new campaign message of ending Iowa and New Hampshire’s status as the first presidential nominating states directly to Iowa caucus-goers last night.
It did not go very well.
Castro wanted to focus in on racial diversity and access problems with Iowa, and why that should end Iowa’s run as the first state. But what Castro’s forum at Drake University really did was highlight how the issue of the early nominating calendar is far more complex than what can fit into a simple tweet.
This reporter has seen more than his fair share of arguments of why Iowa shouldn’t go first during his 16 years of living here. Having a presidential candidate strongly make that point in the midst of a campaign, including in Iowa, seemed like a new escalation of the pressure to mix up the nominating calendar. But frankly, Castro turned out to be a so-so messenger of that cause at best, and he undermined his argument multiple times over the course of the evening.
The discussion, moderated by Bleeding Heartland’s Laura Belin, got off to a dubious start when Castro, in his first answer, made a wildly disingenuous statement about the cost of advertising in Iowa versus larger states.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of Iowa (but also in favor of some other small states) is that the nominating process should begin in states with smaller population. That way, candidates who build grassroots campaigns and meet voters often in person can still compete with candidates with the most money. If you start in a large state, the advantage goes to who can buy the most TV ads since it’s simply numerically more difficult to get in front of tens of millions of voters.
“Some of those advantages, for instance, the media markets, they get washed out because everybody raises their rates for advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire, and so it becomes almost as expensive to campaign in these states as it would in a bigger state, simply because of the economics of advertising,” Castro said.
That is an utterly absurd statement.
Iowa TV rates increase so much that it’s akin to advertising in the Chicago media market? Or New York City? Or Los Angeles? And if it was in any other state, rates wouldn’t raise with the increased demand?
This week, Bernie Sanders is spending $49,850 for 78 TV spots on KCCI, the most-watched network TV station in the Des Moines media market, the state’s largest. Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg is dropping $592,150 over two weeks on Los Angeles’ KABC for 177 spots. And he’s got $490,950 on KHOU, a Houston TV station, for 163 spots over about a two-week span. How could any candidate, other than the absolute best-funded ones, compete with that? (This is also ignoring digital advertising.)
Fortunately, Castro largely stuck to more realistic and largely fair critiques after that.
His biggest, of course, was the racial makeup.
“I don’t believe that the two states that begin the process – Iowa and New Hampshire – are reflective of the diversity of our country or of our party,” Castro said. “Now, the Iowa Caucus has existed as the first chance for people to vote since 1972. Our country has changed a lot since 1972.”
That, obviously, is the most problematic concern for Iowa’s role, even with the state’s quickly-growing Latino population, and one difficult to disagree with (though several people of color from Iowa did speak up in favor of Iowa’s place). The Democratic Party is fueled by people of color, but the first two states have disproportionately lower numbers of those voters.
But here’s a major question: should that be the only determination of which state goes first?
Castro said no, there should be multiple factors, which undercut the strongest of his points on Iowa.
“What I believe should happen is we should go forward with the DNC putting together a task force of people from around the country … people from different backgrounds, different experiences, and they should get together and create a system of ranked ordering states,” Castro said. “Some of the things I believe should go into that are how reflective a state is of the diversity of the party, the country; the size of the state and how easy or expensive it is to campaign in that state; also … how easy do those states make it for people to vote.”
Other attendees brought up valid points of what else should be included. Dave Redlawsk, a professor who wrote a book about the Iowa Caucus, noted that Iowa Democratic voters are ideologically more reflective of the national party, with a sizable contingent of more progressive voters, than many other states.
And then Castro added one of his own that perfectly demonstrated why this whole discussion is so much more complicated than he’s made it seem.
“We’re having our very first presidential voting opportunities in two places that tend to have bad weather during that time,” Castro said, though he noted that’s not the biggest factor that should be considered.
Well, now we’re at a point where we’re crossing half the states off the map for a primary process that starts early in the year in winter.
And that’s exactly the kind of reason why the early states have stayed where they have for so long: it’s so difficult to decide on which state should go first instead. You can make valid arguments against nearly every state when you really get down to it, whether it be size, ideological makeup, rural/urban divides, racial composition, voting access or even weather. It’s not only Iowa and New Hampshire that have drawbacks in some way.
But Castro has made it clear that his stance is that Iowa should not be first. He’s already prejudged the process before one has even started. Last night, however, he offered up other considerations that may favor Iowa.
Again, when you get past the tweets and the soundbites, things get more complicated.
There were many other important discussion topics from the evening.
Castro made the very valid argument about the barriers to voting that the caucus, which is held at one singular time and can take hours to participate in, causes. He also noted the drawbacks of not having a secret ballot, which could be particularly troublesome to Latino voters. That’s certainly correct, though Iowa Democrats did try very hard this year to create a non-present participation model, and there’s a good chance they’ll come up with one that doesn’t get struck down by the DNC in future years.
That prompted a discussion of what voting rights laws could increase access in any state.
That too, though, opens up some complexities. Iowa has same-day registration, something only about 20 other states have. That’s incredibly helpful for voters who aren’t planning out their vote weeks or months in advance (remember that New York had a ridiculous restriction on how many months prior to the primary you had to register as a party member).
So, while Iowa does make it harder to participate in some very important ways, it is also true that it is easier than other states in other manners. Is there a state that has a perfect voting system that also fits many other needs of the Democratic Party?
One intriguing discussion centered around whether a state like Iowa should get credit for putting Barack Obama on the path to becoming the first black president. The idea being that even though Iowa is largely white, it hasn’t had an impact on the diversity of which candidates they support.
Castro dismissed that in one of his weaker arguments.
“One time, one exception does not prove the rule on anything,” Castro said. “I’m surprised at how many people throw away their logic when they argue this, right? Sure, Barack Obama won here, but I think it’s also true that neither New Hampshire or Iowa have ever sent a person of color to represent them in the United States Senate.”
You know what other state hasn’t sent a person of color to the U.S. Senate? New York. And many, many others, including those with much more diverse populations.
It’s also noteworthy that after helping nominate the first black nominee, Iowa Democrats then helped nominate the first woman. The way the polls look right now, it’s quite possible the caucus backs its first LGBTQ nominee. That’s not nothing.
And just exactly when else was Iowa supposed to help nominate a person of color in the presidential primary? Castro should go back and talk to some people on the Obama campaign and see if they would so dismissively discount the importance of Iowa caucus-goers’ support of diverse candidates.
The polls this time around also do not bear out an idea that white voters won’t give more diverse candidates a chance while voters of color do. Castro is averaging all of 1% in Nevada. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris aren’t and weren’t doing more than just a few points better in South Carolina than they are/were in Iowa and New Hampshire. And they were both spending a lot of time there, too.
The much more valid point is simply that voters of color should have a larger say in the first two states regardless of what they say, simply because it’s what right. The first four states do a pretty decent job taken as a whole of representing diverse populations and regional differences, the problem is simply that the front-loaded calendar supercharges the choices made in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In one interesting moment of the evening, State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad made the point to Castro that focusing on the caucus itself was the wrong priority when it came to racial justice.
“I’m not sure the caucus is the problem. The problem is the ills that we refuse to deal with,” he said. “The racism, the phobias … What’s stopping the blacks and the Latinos from voting isn’t the caucus, it’s racism. And so you have other cities, other states that are predominantly people of color that can’t elect officials of color because of those issues. So changing the caucus isn’t going to resolve the issue. Dealing with the ills resolves the issues.”
Abdul-Samad also noted that Iowa has led the way on civil rights on things like school desegregation.
That could be another factor: should a state get credit if they’ve been particularly progressive on certain social justice issues? Castro said states should get rewarded for their voting access moves. What about their history on social progress, regardless of the makeup of their state? Iowa would certainly get favorable marks for leading the way on gay marriage, even if the LGBTQ community has been oddly absent from many people’s discussion in this presidential election on what constitutes diverse communities.
Castro’s best moment of the night, though, came right at the end when pressed on whether he thought Harris would have dropped out had South Carolina went first. Castro responded with noting the racial makeup still matters.
“I take your argument, but I think if we accept that argument, which is basically that the diversity of a state doesn’t make a difference, does the diversity of a company make a difference?” Castro replied.
Overall, though, the evening proved that the early state situation is significantly more complex than simply stating that Iowa shouldn’t be first because it’s too white, even if all these other factors do end up convincing people that a different state should lead off the process. And given those complexities, it makes it rather interesting that Castro is centering his presidential campaign around this argument as we head into the closing months of the campaign.
Finally, one other point should be made.
Castro began his event by explaining that this stance was consistent with his campaign of “telling the truth at a time when we have a a president who won’t.” His campaign has touted this position as an incredibly brave act, doubly so to pitch it in front of Iowans.
Yes, Castro has told the party tough truths about its lack of focus on the poor. He has highlighted many important issues affecting people of color and the poor that other candidates have not, which Starting Line has covered more than most other news outlets.
But on this topic, Castro gets absolutely no points for bravery from this reporter.
Castro has been campaigning in Iowa for the better part of a year.
He didn’t say Iowa shouldn’t be first during his initial Iowa trips after announcing his run.
He didn’t say Iowa shouldn’t be first at the Hall of Fame Dinner in June.
He didn’t say Iowa shouldn’t be first at the Iowa State Fair in August.
He didn’t say Iowa shouldn’t be first at the Steak Fry in September.
No, he only recently took up this banner, notably right around when it was clear he wouldn’t be qualifying for the debates anymore.
So, if that’s what Castro wants to close out his run on, that’s fine. If he wants to travel around Iowa telling Iowa Democrats to their face that he wants to end a process that helps build the grassroots here that keeps Democrats competitive in Iowa, that’s fine.
But the timing of his new public stance on ending Iowa’s role may have more to do with staying in the news than it does with personal bravery.
by Pat Rynard