2016 Blues

Iowa Has a Phantom Democratic Presidential Candidates Problem

Heard about all the 2016 Democratic hopefuls flocking to the Hawkeye State? No? That’s because no one is visiting. It’s all due to Hillary—and it could drag down candidates down-ballot.

07.08.14 9:45 AM ET

With 18 months to go until the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential hopefuls are nowhere to be found in the Hawkeye State.

At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, John Edwards had visited Iowa nine times; Evan Bayh four times; Mark Warner, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry three times; Wes Clark twice; and Bill Richardson, Russ Feingold, and Mike Gravel once. This time around, the state with the first caucus in the nation has hosted precisely two visits from Democratic hopefuls—one each from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a 2013 event for Sen. Tom Harkin, as well.) And the dearth of top Democratic visitors could have a real impact on down-ballot Democrats.

The problem, of course, is Hillary Clinton, whose potential Democratic candidacy in 2016 has frozen the field. In an editorial this week, the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s editorial board urged Clinton to visit the Hawkeye State “sooner rather than later this time,” alluding to her 2008 caucuses loss. So far, the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary has held volunteer events in Iowa and its spokesman, Seth Bringman, insisted to The Daily Beast that the group is active in the state. “We are proud to have supported the Iowa Democratic Party financially and by sponsoring the meals at the party’s district conventions,” he said. “We will continue to support efforts to elect Democrats up and down the ballot in the Hawkeye State, deploying our grassroots army of Hillary supporters and channeling their enthusiasm into this year’s critical elections.”

But while Democratic hopefuls haven’t been showing up, Republican contenders have seemingly become as standard a fixture on the Iowa landscape as cornfields. The result is a gap in staffing, funding, and overall support of local candidates. One Democratic insider told The Daily Beast that the absence of potential presidential candidates in the state is “a bit disconcerting because of the money that used to come into Iowa and organization stuff that used to be helpful.” In 2002, for example, Edwards bought new computers for the Iowa Democratic Party, and in 2006, hopefuls such as Warner and Bayh raised money for local candidates. That year, Bayh’s PAC also had about 10 staffers on the ground in the Hawkeye State working for legislative candidates, and Feingold had political staffers working for local Democrats, as well. The lack of activity this cycle, the Democratic insider estimated to The Daily Beast, is probably depriving candidates up and down the ballot in Iowa of at least several hundred thousand dollars in direct aid.

Mark Langgin, a prominent Democratic consultant based in Iowa, echoed those concerns. The Democratic candidates’ absence could alter the results in close state legislative seats, he suggested, though it won’t have much of an impact on the state’s gubernatorial or Senate election this fall.

“Surrogates, whether it’s presidential candidates or surrogates speaking to their potentially chosen candidate’s strength, can really do a lot to help local candidates raise money and generate interest,” he said. “Off-year elections are all about base turnout. A hundred votes can mean a lot, and we regularly have races determined by 10 to 20 votes, and those presidential candidates might motivate those typical presidential-year voters to pay attention.” Langgin noted that visiting Iowa has significant benefits for candidates, too, and helps them “understand the small pockets of Iowa and the differences between them,” as well as make important connections with local activists.

However, other prominent Democrats don’t think the lack of visitors matters. Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, told The Daily Beast that surrogates are not a key factor in his race. “When I ran in 2006, there were a lot of people out here on both sides being involved,” said the four-term congressman. “But at the end of the day, it’s not the presidential hopeful who decides who Iowa’s senator is going to be. It’s going to be the candidate that works the hardest to connect with Iowa voters on a personal level, who has a great ground operation to get those voters out to vote on November 4, and gives people a reason to hope that things are going to be better in their lives in the future.”

Braley was echoed by Scott Brennan, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “I don’t perceive [the lack of Democratic candidates coming to the state] as any sort of problem,” he said. Brennan added that he’s “not sure why the GOP cast of characters is in such a blasted hurry.” He said he was confident in his party’s resources, noting that the Iowa Democratic Party was running “the largest non-presidential coordinated campaign in history.” But while he said the party had “a lot of resources” for its ground game and was still “continuing to staff up all the time,” he added: “We could always use more resources and more bodies...and if you think of someone who wants to send us some more bodies, we’ll take them.”