Someone may be encroaching on Iowa’s cherished role as a quadrennial winnower of presidential candidates.
And it’s not voters in some other state.
Some White House hopefuls and political observers believe national leaders in the Democratic Party have made qualifying for the nationally televised primary debates more consequential than what the candidates do on the ground in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
“I won’t say (the debates) have displaced Iowa, but it’s certainly running parallel and sometimes in dominant fashion,” said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University and author of a book on the history of the Iowa caucuses.
Faced with an unwieldy field of presidential candidates — 26 entered the race and actively campaigned, and the field now sits at 18 — the Democratic National Committee instituted qualifying measures for candidates to participate in the debates. The candidates have been required to meet polling and fundraising thresholds that have increased with each debate.
Those criteria, some candidates and experts say, have made qualifying for the debates critical to staying in the race and thus made debate participation more essential than the caucus input of Iowa Democrats, who have been entertaining the candidates for roughly a year.
A dozen of the 18 active candidates qualified for the most recent debate; nine so far have qualified for the next debate, Nov. 20 in Georgia.
The donor and polling thresholds will increase again for the Dec. 19 debate in Los Angeles, and as few as five candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris — may qualify, according to Politico, one of the debate’s host media outlets.
That’s roughly six weeks before Iowans go to the Feb. 3 caucuses.
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Candidate Marianne Williamson, pressed by reporters at a recent campaign event, summed up her view of the 2020 race in three words: “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.”
“Everybody knows how important Iowa is,” Williamson said. “It’s the first caucus state so anybody running for president is pretty Iowa-focused. Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. I’m sure that Iowans are exhausted after we all leave here and need another four years before you have to think about it again.”
That’s the view from the ground, where candidates are honing their messages and meeting face to face with voters.
However, lower-polling candidates like former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — three candidates who have spent considerable time and money in Iowa — say they are fighting a strong headwind from top Democratic national officials and their arbitrary debate qualification rules that tamp down the influence of early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
“The DNC has worked really hard to make sure that the early states are less relevant this time,” Delaney said at an Iowa Caucus Consortium event earlier this month.
“They’ve tried to nationalize the election in every way they could to take away the power that Iowa and New Hampshire have because there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party that don’t like the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire go first,” he contended. “There’s a concerted effort going on to basically gut the early-state process in this country.”
Likewise, Bennet campaign adviser Craig Hughes recently wrote DNC Chairman Tom Perez requesting he clarify how the national party leaders developed the “arbitrary debate criteria” and certainty on how the process will proceed going forward.
“It is not the DNC’s job to winnow the field. It is the job of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada,” he said. “Why does Tom Perez believe he should have a greater say than Iowans? If he wants to narrow the field, he can move to Iowa.”
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National and Iowa party leaders dismissed the criticism that 2020 candidates aren’t playing on a level field or that somehow the role of the early nominating states is being diminished.
“The DNC recognizes the critical role the early states play in the primary nominating process,” DNC spokesman David Bergstein said.
“That’s why early state polls have been used in our debate qualifying criteria since the beginning of this process — and been given equal weight to national polls — and why we’ve announced we’re holding debates in early states,” Bergstein said. “There is now an additional pathway for candidates to qualify for debates through strong performances in fewer early state polls, which also recognizes the importance of the first four states in the nominating process.”
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he does not think Iowa’s influential role has been reduced by the debates. He noted candidates who have not qualified in recent debates continue to campaign in Iowa, including at next weekend’s annual fall fundraiser that has served as a launchpad for presidential candidates in the past.
“That’s the thing that makes Iowa great, is that it doesn’t matter how much name ID you have, it doesn’t matter how popular you are the day this process begins. What matters is you can come here and if you can get people to show up and stand in a room, you can win Iowa. That’s the unique nature of this,” Price said.
“Listen, I understand the concerns that some of the lower-polling candidates — people that haven’t made the debate stage. I understand their concerns but I still say Iowa is ... still a state that you can come in, organize, and if you do well here you can win the White House,” he said.
Sue Dvorsky, a Coralville activist who formerly served as chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, was even more emphatic in rejecting the suggestion that Iowa’s role as the leadoff caucus state is being minimized or that candidates are being denied a fair shot.
“It is remarkable to me that any candidate at any level of this race … thinks that they can make a cogent argument that the DNC weighed in on this somehow,” Dvorsky said. “If the DNC had weighed in on this somehow, we probably still wouldn’t have 18 candidates in flippin’ Halloween week.
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“Every single one of these men and women have had an opportunity to make their case, to make it personally to activists and listeners in the four early states, which means they had the possibility to make their case on a more national stage if that message had caught on.”
Dvorsky said the Iowa party has some issues with how the virtual caucus concept — an ill-fated move to allow Iowa Democrats to participate in the caucuses remotely — was handled at the national level. But otherwise she said the debate and process rules were set well in advance and known to everyone. End even so, the caucus run-up has produced a “wide-open, fluid race” with five to seven candidates vying for a strong finish.
”The notion that this is on the DNC is the ‘dog ate my homework,’” said the former junior high school teacher.
Goldford, however, said he agrees that the debate criteria is having an influential impact on the winnowing process. The political science professor noted the nationally televised primary debates are the most public events in which the candidates can participate, and that candidates who fail to qualify for them are put “in a hole.”
“It’s still the case that everybody will try to do better than expected and try to avoid underperforming expectations (in the Iowa caucuses),” Goldford said. “But I think the debates and the criteria for determining who’s in and who’s out is helping shape the field before we get to (the caucuses).”