Missing in Iowa: presidential candidates

Political parties focusing on bigger tossup states

Vice President Mike Pence waves with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, during the Aug. 13 launch of Farmers & Ranchers for T
Vice President Mike Pence waves with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, during the Aug. 13 launch of Farmers & Ranchers for Trump Coalition in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

DES MOINES — For a major election year, Iowa looked different this summer — and not just because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Something was missing: No presidential candidates came here to campaign.

Iowa is a competitive state in the presidential election between Republican incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Even though Trump won the state by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, Iowa could go either way this year. Recent polling confirmed as much this past week, when three reputable pollsters published results showing the candidates within 3 points of each other. The gold-standard Iowa Poll by Selzer and Co. and the Des Moines Register showed Trump and Biden tied.

Despite that, Iowa does not appear to be a critical swing state in the presidential election — at least judging by the campaigns’ actions, especially compared with recent campaigns.

Neither Trump nor Biden has campaigned in Iowa since the general election campaign began. Trump visited Iowa once, in mid-August, for an official visit to The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids to learn about derecho damage.

While campaign ads for the presidential race have been airing on Iowa TV stations, the spending in Iowa has been a drop in the bucket compared with other states.

It’s all unfamiliar territory for Iowans, who have grown accustomed to plenty of presidential attention while the state has in the recent past played an important role — despite its relatively small haul of six electoral votes — in the outcome of presidential campaigns.


That has not been the case so far this year, with only about five weeks left until the Nov. 3 election.

“Iowa hasn’t quite bust through as a first-tier battleground state,” said John Stineman, a Republican political consultant who ran Steve Forbes’ 2000 presidential campaign in Iowa. “(The campaigns) don’t seem to be treating it that way, and that’s interesting.”

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential precinct caucuses draw presidential hopefuls here every four years. The trail typically goes quiet after the late-winter caucuses, then heat up again over the summer as the nominees return for the general election campaign.

During the 2008 general election campaign, Democrat Barack Obama made three trips to Iowa for a total of five events, and Republican John McCain made seven trips here for a total of 10 events, according to the campaign tracking website Democracy in Action. Iowa was even more of a hot spot in 2012: Obama came back nine times and held 18 events, while Republican Mitt Romney made 12 Iowa trips and held 14 events.

Four years ago, Trump made seven Iowa trips and held nine events, while Democrat Hillary Clinton made three trips here for a total of five events.

So far in 2020: goose egg.

“Both campaigns are directing significant attention to a handful of other tossup states, and Iowa, although statistically a tossup at the moment, is not a particular focus,” said Bradley Best, a political-science professor at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake.

And while it may be shocking to Iowans who watch TV or videos on streaming sites, the truth is the presidential campaigns are not spending very much on campaign ads in Iowa, especially compared with what they are spending in some other states.

According to an analysis published earlier this month by NPR, the Trump and Biden campaigns, and their allies, had spent a combined $12 million on campaign ads in Iowa, the 11th-highest total among states. While it’s cheaper to advertise in Iowa television markets than in some larger states, that total is only a fraction of the combined $166 million spent in Florida and $124 million in Pennsylvania.


The ad spending in Iowa also lags well behind neighboring battleground states like Wisconsin ($76 million) and Minnesota ($26 million).

“It’s particularly surprising to me because these last few election cycles, we are getting down to just a handful of states that really matter in a presidential election,” said Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. “From a campaign perspective, it seems silly to me that you would not be focusing on one of those handful of states like Iowa.”

The attention is going instead to Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, or to bigger scores like Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Each of those states has more Electoral College votes to offer than Iowa’s six, particularly Florida with 29 and North Carolina with 15.

“With both of those states in tossup status, neither campaign can afford to lose any ground with their base or miss an opportunity to speak to persuadable voters in either North Carolina or Florida,” Best said. “I think they are acting very strategically and very wisely in focusing on those swing states, those tossup states for which there are a large number of electoral votes in play. …

“The candidates know that every dollar of expenditure in Iowa is a dollar that is not available to spend in North Carolina. They are ruthlessly strategic in their allocation of resources.”

Even Texas, with its whopping 38 electoral votes, may very well be in play this year.

None of this is to say the campaigns are completely inactive in Iowa. Far from it. Trump and Biden may not be coming here, but their fleets of grassroots campaign staff are here.

The Trump campaign and the national Republican Party have collaborated on their ground game, which is now called the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative. The program in recent years has become a permanent fixture, instead of swooping in for a campaign and leaving after Election Day. Republicans feel that collaboration and consistency give them a well-oiled machine that will help in states across the country, including Iowa.

“We are leaving no stone unturned as we look to keep Iowa red and re-elect President Trump for four more years in office, as well as Republicans up and down the ballot,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement. “Trump Victory has worked to build the strongest data-driven ground game in the history of politics over multiple cycles and we will continue to work to earn the votes of every Iowan through Election Day.”


And while Trump himself has not yet campaigned in Iowa, Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned here twice this summer (plus a May visit that was an official visit, not a campaign event), and he is scheduled to return for a campaign event early next month.

And the Trump campaign has been sending to Iowa a consistent stream of surrogates, including family members.

The Biden campaign also has its ground game working in Iowa. During a recent weekend of action, more than 1,100 campaign volunteers in Iowa made roughly 110,000 calls and sent 53,000 text messages, the campaign said.

The Biden campaign has held mostly online events in Iowa, in large part due to the pandemic. Public health officials and infectious disease experts caution that the virus, which has caused the death of more than 200,000 Americans, can spread between people gathered close together, especially indoors.

And even those online events have featured mostly surrogates like former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, spoke — virtually — to the Polk County Democrats’ annual fundraiser earlier this month.

That approach evolved this weekend, when the Democratic ticket’s spouses, Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff, visited Iowa for campaign events in Cedar Rapids.

Matt Paul, who ran Clinton’s 2016 Iowa caucus campaign, said Iowa may been as a pickup opportunity but not a necessary “get” for the Biden campaign.

“This is a unique election in a number of different ways. The Biden campaign is in the catbird seat because they’ve got a number of paths to 270 (electoral votes and a victory). Iowa can be a part of that, and I think they view Iowa as a pickup possibility, as part of their multiple-path strategy to get to 270,” Paul said. “It’s remarkable that (Biden) is in the position he is here, considering this was a state that Trump won” by nearly 10) points.


Iowa very much has the look of a presidential tossup state, but not the look of a critical swing state. The road to 270, it appears, does not necessarily cut through Iowa.

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