Frustration is brewing among some liberal Iowa activists
Iowa liberals are getting restless waiting for Hillary Clinton to kick off her campaign.
While Republican presidential hopefuls are already holding town hall meetings and rallies in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner hasn’t visited since October, though she’s expected to announce by the middle of this month.
For many Democrats in Iowa, the quiet brings back bad memories of 2007, when Clinton ran a tepid operation and ended up losing to Barack Obama.
“There’s still some frustration that Hillary Clinton didn’t really have an Iowa strategy back in 2007, and we don’t quite understand that,” says Gerene Denning, Democratic fundraising chair for Johnson County, the bluest county in Iowa.
Some Iowa Democrats are bewildered by Clinton’s absence in the state so far this year. “The question is, do we not matter to her?” Denning says. “Is Clinton’s strategy, ‘Never mind Iowa’?”
In 2007, Clinton’s difficulty connecting with Iowa voters and reaching out with the same tenacity as then-Sen. Obama ended up spelling defeat, as she came in third, behind Obama and former Sen. John Edwards. The loss ended up setting in motion a slugfest that ultimately cost her the nomination.
The emerging Clinton campaign is determined not to repeat that mistake. Last week, Clinton staffers Robby Mook and Marlon Marshall went to Iowa on a listening tour, speaking with top Democrats and organizers in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Clinton has also tapped Matt Paul, a top Democratic advisor with close ties to the Hawkeye state, as the manager of her likely Iowa campaign. She is expected to visit Iowa shortly after she launches her campaign—likely by April 15—and has laid out plans for a competitive ground operation.
Still there are signs that some Iowa activists are annoyed with Clinton’s approach so far.
“She needs to get out here and set up shop, now. If the Democrats’ plan is, ‘Hey, Hillary, here’s the stage,’ they’re going to fail,” says Hugh Espey, executive director of the progressive Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has around 3,300 dues-paying members. “It’s time to suit up and get in the game.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has been in the state extensively over the last few weeks and campaigned for Iowa Democrats in the 2014 midterms. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited the state in February, while former Sen. Jim Webb is touring restaurants, museums and local community centers in Des Moines and other towns in Iowa later this week.
Clinton visited Iowa in September for the steak fry hosted by former Sen. Tom Harkin, and then later in October to campaign for Rep. Bruce Braley. But progressives in Iowa who are considering supporting Clinton are noting her absence this year.
“Since she hasn’t declared, and we don’t know her stance, it’s hard to say if she’s got support,” said Sue Dinsdale, executive director of Iowa Citizen Action Network. “Here we are in April and we have no declared candidates on the Democratic side.”
Since the current primary system began in 1972, Iowa voters have gotten used to a quadrennial parade of presidential candidates, who spend months buttering up Iowa caucus-goers in their dining rooms and coffee shops. Clinton’s appeal among Iowa caucus voters depends in large part on the enthusiasm she can muster among Hawkeye activists, who will arrange living room meetings, diner visits, and informal get-togethers with state residents. If she can win their support, she will gain a big advantage in Iowa.
Activists also hope to push Clinton to the left and aren’t afraid to flex their political muscles. “We need to hear Hillary speaking on how she’s going to stand up to Wall Street and the big banks,” says Larry Hodgden, Democratic chair in Cedar County, a rural area between Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. “If she doesn’t move to the left and really convince us she’s going to be a little more progressive, she cannot win the caucus in Iowa.”
Obama was a tenacious Iowa campaigner eight years ago, engaging in the retail politics and living room pitches that won him the state. Neila Seaman, of the Sierra Club in Iowa, says an Obama campaign staffer asked her daughter what he could do to win her support. Seaman’s daughter jokingly requested that he do a cartwheel in the middle of the street. The Obama staffer did it, Seaman says.
Presidential candidates who don’t participate in the cyclical Iowa courtship are taking a serious risk.
“The people in Iowa expect to see the candidates on the ground in Iowa, driving through cornfields. They expect a personal interaction,” says David Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University. “You cannot as candidate sit back and wait until two months before campaign to begin. You have to be on the ground early.”
Still, 2016 isn’t 2008, and Clinton is in a much stronger position now than she was eight years ago. The most recent poll, taken at the end of February, shows Clinton far ahead of the field with support from 61% of likely Iowa Democratic Caucus participants. Thus far, she has no strong challengers, despite the visits by O’Malley and Sanders. Activists say they see her as sharp, capable and experienced. They want to see her answer tough questions about her views and compete in a tough Iowa contest. “Iowa Democrats are ready to see the same activity that the Republicans are seeing,” says Ben Foecke, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. “They want to see a robust primary season, beginning with our caucuses in February.”
This year, Clinton will reportedly focus on the intimate events Iowans want after she launches her campaign, rather than big speeches and large rallies, intending to put her in close contact with voters in states. Clinton aides have said the campaign will focus much more on listening to voters and involving caucus-goers, instead of the narrative of experience and inevitability touted in the last cycle. It’s a strategy partially aimed at winning over voters in early caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Dale Todd, a local activist, met with Mook, Marshall and other Clinton supporters in Bruegger’s, a bagel shop in Coralville last week during their tour of the state. Todd says he was an Obama supporter in 2008 and is approaching 2015 with an open mind.
“The campaign that is going to be the most successful is the one interested in developing authentic relationship with Iowans,” says Todd. “The Clinton campaign is serious, and my gut tells me they are trying to do it the right way.”
“But if they come in thinking they know everything, Iowans will smack them down,” he said.