Last night was a disaster for Iowa Democrats up and down the ballot, an across-the-board loss that will impact state government and elections for cycles to come.
There are many, many reasons for last night’s red wave in Iowa — if anyone tries to explain it all with one cause (likely matching the view they already held before election night), you should probably ignore them.
The same happened in 2016 — it wasn’t just that base Democratic turnout was down, or just rural GOP turnout, or just disappointing suburban results, nor was it just racism, or just trade, or just sexism (though it was certainly a lot of those things).
And if Democrats want to avoid another horrific night like last’s or stop the terrible real-life consequences it’s about to bring, they need to do an honest reflection on what keeps going so wrong. And actually commit to doing something different next time. Seems obvious, but it hasn’t happened. And that goes for all of the party, from leadership on down to activists on Twitter, as well as people all along the ideological spectrum.
It is way too easy for upset activists to yell “fire everyone!” in the aftermath than it is to examine the broken structure that good, hard-working people are doing their best in. Just as it’s too easy for those in charge of the Democratic infrastructure to shrug their shoulders and say, hey, we executed correctly, and make no major changes.
Also important: everyone needs to give folks the space to have that discussion instead of tearing into each other on social media for internet points or because they have a slightly different take.
Frankly, I suspect people do not want to have that conversation. They didn’t after 2016 and I don’t see any reason they will now. So, I’m going to start to share some takeaways I have from this election, including some observations people in Iowa politics from all backgrounds may not want to hear.
We’ll see how long that lasts. I certainly don’t have the energy at this point to put up with people’s hate and nastiness, nor am I sure if I really care enough anymore to do so.
That being said, here’s some initial thoughts on another red wave in Iowa and what it means for Democrats. I’ll try to expand on these in longer stories, but wanted to get a few markers out there now:
Democratic Campaign Strategy Is Broken
Theresa Greenfield ran exactly the kind of campaign that national Democrats believe you should run (and many Iowa Democrats believe too).
She had a compelling personal narrative. She stuck to key issues of health care, social security, and agriculture policy. She projected a moderate, bipartisan image. She raised an astonishing amount of money and outspent Joni Ernst. She didn’t commit any big gaffes and stuck to concise talking points. Her ads did a much better job of establishing her as a relatable Iowan than some past Democratic candidates.
And Ernst still won handily, holding about a seven-point victory right now.
Democrats need to accept that what they’re doing in these high-profile, high-spending races just isn’t working. If everything goes according to plan, it should show up at least some in the results in the form of over-performing the presidential or where the party’s at naturally in the state. Currently, Ernst is leading by 6.6% while Trump is ahead by 8.2%. That’s something (and better than Democratic Senate candidates’ bad under-performances elsewhere), but if Iowa Democrats want to win a major statewide race in a lean-Republican state, they have to find a way to get better than that.
They’ll need to be more creative, more willing to take risks in Iowa, and get out beyond just the poll-tested messages. They have to actively build a coalition of voters on their own.
The best way to actually do that is going to be the subject of a lot of debate over the next two years — but to fix it you first have to admit there’s a problem.
Progressive Alternative Isn’t Perfect Either
The first obvious alternative some people are going to offer up is pushing Democratic candidates to campaign more as bold progressives, to take up the Bernie Sanders/AOC torch.
For those folks, they need to first explain what happened with Kara Eastman in the Omaha congressional district.
A Bernie Sanders-backed, Medicare for all-supporting progressive, Eastman this cycle actually got the financial backing from the party and ran a highly competitive race. She lost by five points… in a district Biden carried by six… in the Omaha metro, which should be good for Democrats.
If a real progressive candidate can’t carry a district that’s more favorable than the Des Moines metro, how exactly is that going to work statewide in Iowa?
Look, that may still be the way to go, but if progressives are going to rightly demand the Democratic establishment rethink their approach, so too should progressives consider if they could be framing their own messages and policies better to voters. Because a test case of a well-funded progressive Democrat running in a good Midwestern district did not work out.
Democrats Are Targeting The Wrong Rural Voters
So much of Democrats’ post-2016 rural re-engagement strategy was farmers and talking nonstop about farming issues. Ethanol, ethanol, ethanol. And some rural hospitals. Both important topics, but clearly it didn’t move the needle in rural counties, where Trump both improved on his 2016 margins and saw his raw vote total increase.
Ernst didn’t know basic farm commodity prices. Farmers have had their livelihoods by this president destroyed and they still stuck with him. Folks, they ain’t switching sides.
But there are a lot more people living in rural Iowa that might be persuadable with a different approach (and who actually outnumber farmers). Think the gas station attendant. Or the restaurant server. J.D. Scholten did a much better job of this in his travels, though he’s only out-performing the top-of-ticket by several points in some of the counties I checked, so who knows.
Understanding Iowa Voters’ Anger
Another important point to that is realizing that many Iowa voters are angry and frustrated with the world and are looking for someone to blame. Unfortunately, far too many reacted positively to Trump’s racism and Republicans’ pushback on racial justice. Others were exhausted and angry that their kids were still home from school due to the pandemic (their votes didn’t really improve the virus situation, of course, but they may get their wish now to ignore it).
Even though they have many policies well-suited for populist candidacies, Democrats just don’t really employ them much in Iowa. I cringed every time I heard a Democratic candidate this year say, “We have to listen to the experts” on the coronavirus. Have you ever met Iowans in small and blue-collar towns? They don’t much care for experts! Not even on this!
They view many institutions in the country as completely broken and rigged — the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing. And, I mean, they’re certainly not wrong, the problem is that Republicans swoop in with easy answers of who to blame, while Democrats get caught too often in high-minded policy speak. It’s disappointing because the Democratic worldview should actually match up well with that frustration, they just don’t connect with it well enough.
Stopping Door-Knocking Was A Mistake
This may have been a one-cycle problem since hopefully the pandemic will be over in a year. But I bring it up because it speaks to a bigger problem with Democrats — being too cautious and thinking they’ll get rewarded for it.
Democrats somehow thought that voters were going to give them a pat on the head for being the good little boy or girl in class that has their hands in their lap. No one cares.
People weren’t going to freak out if someone knocked on their door. If they really felt uncomfortable, they just wouldn’t have answered. And it’s not like people haven’t had delivery drivers come to their door during all this.
And was there really no method that anyone could think of to door-knock safely? Really?
They couldn’t wear a mask and shield, step back ten feet from the door after knocking or even more? Obviously don’t send folks if they don’t personally feel safe, but after all these months, Democrats really couldn’t think up a way to get this done?
There were some staffers who didn’t even live in the state because the party wasn’t requiring people to go to any in-person event or setting. That’s not a “we think doors might be too risky right now” policy, that’s a “we think literally just stepping outside your apartment is too dangerous” policy. I didn’t think most Democratic activists/donors believed that for the pandemic, but maybe I’m wrong.
Door-knocking alone wouldn’t have saved Greenfield, but it certainly may have made the difference in several state legislative districts. Democrats unilaterally disarmed while Republicans forged forward, and we know that calling and texting isn’t enough to replace an in-person chat.
Democrats Have Two Turnout Problems
From what’s reporting now, Joe Biden received 104,000 more votes in Iowa than Hillary Clinton. That should have been great news. It wasn’t, because Trump increased his vote total over 2016 by 96,000. The worst part for Democrats is that it seems the boosted red turnout happened all over the Iowa map, causing those surprise suburban legislative defeats.
We’ll need to dive into precinct results in the coming weeks to figure out just where Biden’s improvement came from. Was it because a lot of voters swung over from Trump or third parties to him, and then Trump just made up all the rest with his new voters? Or did Democrats drive up their base turnout in urban areas (results in other states seem to suggest Biden had problems with that).
There weren’t serious third-party defections this time around. The Libertarian is pulling just over 1%. Kanye West got more votes than the Green Party. That was good for Democrats, but also bad in that it wasn’t enough get Biden closer.
There’s hope and concern in the future. Perhaps with Trump off the ballot, those new Republican voters don’t show up (though you know their party will do everything to get them back). But many of Biden’s vote could also have only come out to oppose Trump. What’s concerning for the future is that Republicans’ ceiling for turnout just seems insurmountable even when the Democratic base is energized.
Anyway, there’s more issues to discuss and solutions to debate, but I am running on a few hours sleep and need a nap. Again, though, the problem last night wasn’t singular, nor will be the fix, if Democrats are even willing to try.
by Pat Rynard
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.