IOWA CITY, Iowa — Deep in the historical archives of the state that Monday held the first contest in the 2020 presidential election is the farm diary of Ellen Mowrer Miller, who, more than a century and a half ago, expressed the optimism that a dozen Democratic candidates are struggling to summon right now: “I see all things that is good, holy & lovely.”
Now, only one of those candidates sees “things that is good,” though three, maybe four, others, seeking to put a “lovely” face on an Iowa caucus loss, will claim to have such a vision. Ronald Reagan did so after losing here in 1980, and so did George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Donald Trump in 2016. All three lost here, then triumphed eight days later in New Hampshire — and won the White House in November.
No Democrat has lost a contested Iowa caucus and won the presidency. That is one reason why Monday’s contests mean so much. But while, as financial advisers argue, past performance is no guarantee of future results, the large Democratic field screamed out for winnowing, a peculiarly Iowa kind of practice. It is the process of blowing wind through grain to remove the chaff, a process people here have mastered since Ellen Mowrer Miller scratched her thoughts into her diary in 1868, the year Andrew Johnson was impeached.
All this is conducted without rancor or recrimination, of course. I remember a conversation two decades ago with Jane Smiley, the author of “A Thousand Acres” who earned an MFA and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and who taught at Iowa State University, in Ames, for 15 years. She pointed out that there are wild parts of other Midwestern states, but virtually none in Iowa. “So,” she said, “people there act civilized.”
It has been civilized. This is a state that clings to what David Richards described in a biography of the actress Jean Seberg, of Marshalltown, as “a corn-fed innocence that is as much a part of that landscape as the sunflowers.”
The state has welcomed former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland to nearly 275 events in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, perhaps a record, and certainly one for a candidate finishing ninth in a poll the week before the caucuses with the support of 1%. Iowa has been a hospitable second home to Sen. Amy Klobuchar of neighboring Minnesota, who was expected to exceed 175 events in the state before caucusing began Monday night. She was deep into double digits here, and was someone to watch.
But as the caucuses drew near, all eyes were on Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was surging in Iowa, where he lost four years ago to Hillary Rodham Clinton by two-tenths of a percentage point.
Last week’s Los Angeles Times poll of Democrats in California, which votes in a month, underlined how Sanders’ support is by far dominated by liberals — at once a confirmation of the party’s evolution in the past four years and an alarming phenomenon in the eyes of conventional Democrats, who worry that a left-leaning nominee would only work to the advantage of President Donald J. Trump by harvesting moderate voters who otherwise would be congenial to a Democratic challenger.
It is a long-standing nostrum of politics that Iowa’s Democrats are more liberal than Democrats nationwide. But Iowa’s choices have important implications for the nation’s choices, especially in the Midwest. Trump campaign officials are circulating reports arguing that increasing numbers of Democrats and independents are attending the president’s rallies — as many as about three in five in a recent Wisconsin crowd in an urban congressional district.
Fear of alienating potential anti-Trump voters is what is fueling the efforts of Klobuchar, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., all of whom are arguing — some more subtly than others — that the Democrats must reject the politics of the left (and in so doing, reject Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts).
Add up the composite poll results as reported by the FiveThirtyEight website for Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden, and they exceed the composites for Sanders and Warren by about 10 percentage points. But caucus results aren’t reported that way. If Sanders won in Iowa, and then prevails in New Hampshire, where in 2016 he defeated Clinton by a margin of 22 percentage points, he would become a formidable force.
What happens then? He could cruise to the nomination. He could stumble in South Carolina, be brought back to Earth, and then the Democrats would engage in trench warfare leading to Super Tuesday, where 14 states hold contests exactly a month after Iowa’s caucuses. Then again, the emergence of Sanders could create an “ABS” movement — “Anybody But Sanders,” an echo of the “ABM” (Anybody But McGovern) movement that surfaced after Sen. George McGovern streaked toward the party’s 1972 nomination. Early signs emerged last month when Third Way, a centrist group, warned that Sanders possessed a “politically toxic background.”
Meanwhile, in Iowa, second choices matter.
In Monday’s caucuses, supporters of candidates who didn’t attract 15% of the people in the room had to abandon their candidate and affiliate with another. Second choices, however, do not mean second chances.
Any number of permutations are possible. New Hampshire’s primary is like checkers; Iowa’s caucuses are like three-dimensional Chinese checkers. Campaign managers have been fired for poor performances in Iowa, and campaigns themselves have shut down for poor performances in Iowa.
Critics of Iowa — especially because its demographic profile is so one-dimensional, with a population about 91% white — forget that it is also something of a bellwether state. Only four times since 1948 has Iowa voted for the loser in the general election. Democrats insist they have a chance in Iowa in November. Though Clinton lost by about 10 percentage points in 2016, the state has been hit hard by Trump trade policies. Monday’s balloting is only a prelude to a bigger contest.