Iowa Democrats start to feel fatigue from 23-candidate field

But state's political reputation may keep large field around

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks to fairgoers from the Des Moines Register's Soapbox on the opening day, Aug. 8, of
Former Vice President Joe Biden talks to fairgoers from the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox on the opening day, Aug. 8, of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Biden is one of only six Democratic presidential candidates polling at above an average of 2 percent in national polls. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CLEAR LAKE — Caucus fatigue has not yet hit Iowa Democrats.

But it may be just around the corner if the unwieldy field of presidential candidates does not start shrinking.

Iowa Democrats are not yet worn out by the field of 23 candidates vying to be their party’s nominee for president. That much was apparent by the robust attendance and bombastic enthusiasm on display recently at the Wing Ding fundraiser in Clear Lake and at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair.

But those same Iowa Democrats say they’re having a difficult time picking a favorite candidate, and having to choose from such a large field isn’t helping.

“It needs to be cut down,” said Sharon Hall, a lawyer from Ankeny who works in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, while she waited to watch one of the candidates on the soapbox. “There’s some people on the debate stage where it’s like, ‘Why are you wasting our time? Go away.’”

And said Diane Glynn of Clear Lake at the Wing Ding fundraiser: “I would like it to be narrowed down a bit more, then I could make a decision. I’m ready for it to start narrowing down.”

Technically, the field has contracted ever so slightly. After a peak of 26 Democratic candidates, three in recent weeks have ended their campaigns: California Rep. Eric Swalwell and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, plus former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who never really was a serious candidate and ran only with the hopes of qualifying for one of the debates.

But 23 Democratic candidates remain. One even jumped into the race recently: California businessman Tom Steyer, who just this past month announced his campaign after originally announcing — in Iowa, of all places — that he would not run.


Whether, when and to what extent the field winnows remains unknown. In the run-up to the 2016 caucuses, 17 Republicans candidates actively campaigned for president in Iowa. By caucus night, 12 were still in the race.

One Democratic operative said he thinks the field of Democrats will shrink to roughly 15 candidates by caucus night.

And the most powerful winnowing force will be money — or lack of it, campaign veterans said.

“There are reasons why campaigns winnow. They’re generally related to money,” David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant and chief strategist for Barack Obama’s victorious presidential campaigns, said while in Clear Lake to take in the Wing Ding. “It’s early for the people in the top tier who are well-resourced. It’s getting late for the people who aren’t to make some sort of move.”

Patty Judge, a former state agriculture secretary, lieutenant governor and candidate for U.S. Senate, said at the Wing Ding that she herself has had to make the decision.

“What will winnow the field is the lack of money. I’ve been down this road myself, so I can speak to this with some firsthand knowledge,” Judge said. “When you’re not polling very high as several of these candidates are not — they’re not up to 2 percent — it becomes very difficult to raise money. The time (is coming) when it is just too expensive for several of them to go on. I am surprised at how long they’ve stayed in. I would have anticipated that moment of truth coming before now.”

Only six of the candidates are polling above an average of 2 percent, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of national polling on the primary race. They are, in order of their national polling average: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

This cycle, one of the Iowa caucuses’ strengths actually may be playing against Democrats who want the field to shrink.

Statewide campaigns can be relatively inexpensive in Iowa. Media purchasing for campaign advertising is not as expensive as in other states and candidates can travel across the state to meet voters without having to break the bank.

Those reasons are often listed when Iowans defend their first-in-the-nation spot in the country’s presidential selection process. A candidate does not have to be rich or extremely well-funded to succeed in Iowa, the argument goes. Any candidate can come to Iowa, run a grass roots campaign and catch the attention of voters.

But that same thing could be part of the reason why so few have gotten out despite their poor polling to date.

There are examples from both major political parties of a low-polling, scantly resourced candidate catching fire and doing well in the caucuses. So hope springs eternal among them, and the crowded field remains.

Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the state Republican Party, said candidates from both parties who may be financially challenged or low in name recognition have managed to stay viable and even do well by landing the backing of key Iowa constituency groups and linking into their existing networks.

Republicans Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 are examples of that on the Republican side, while little-known Jimmy Carter turned a third-place 1976 finish in Iowa into a four-year term as president and John Kerry bolted past Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt on the Democratic side in 2004 with the help of endorsements from first lady Christie Vilsack, firefighters and insurance interests.

“This isn’t an official term but I call it the Jimmy Carter effect. It’s real and it’s a good thing,” Kaufmann said.

While the Democratic field may not significantly shrink before the February caucuses, Kaufmann said he expects it will in the caucuses’ immediate wake.

And that is precisely the role Iowa plays in the nominating process, Kaufmann said.

“I don’t see anything different in this group than I did the previous group in terms of the fact that there will probably be some of these candidates that will choose not to continue after the Iowa caucuses,” Kaufmann said. “The Iowa caucuses, we have never touted ourselves as choosing the next president; we have never touted ourselves as being fortunetellers. What we’ve touted ourselves as is being a situation where anyone regardless of their funding, regardless of their name recognition, can go out and meet real people and make their case.


“So I would fully expect in this Democratic group, I would fully expect there will be some that will probably crash and burn in Iowa and that essentially will end their campaign.”

While that may be true, some Iowa Democrats want the winnowing process to start sooner. They don’t want to go into the caucuses with upward of 20 candidates still in the field.

The next round of national debates may help, campaign veterans said.

While 20 candidates qualified for and appeared in each of the first two debates, the national Democratic Party’s qualifying standards for the next rounds are more stringent. So far, nine candidates have qualified for the third debate in Texas in mid-September, and three or four still have a chance.

Candidates who do not make it to the debate stage may find it difficult to convince donors their campaign is still viable, which could lead to a fundraising dip and difficulty paying staff.

“This debate draw is going to be a tough thing because these debates have taken on an outsized importance,” Axelrod said. “When you’re eliminated from the debate stage, there’s a message associated with that. That may not discourage everyone, but I have to believe that in the fall, in September, after the draw for the debate, people are going to begin re-evaluating. ...

“I think they’ve done the right thing. The field is too hard to digest.”

Many Iowa Democrats agree, including the ones who have so far been forgiving of the flooded field of candidates.

“I think it’s valuable from the sense that there’s a lot of ideas coming out. If the eventual candidate takes some of these ideas from everybody, then it will be worthwhile,” Tom Kaspar, of Ames, said at the Wing Ding. Asked if that means he is fine with the large field, he grinned.

“For a while,” he said.

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