Presidential candidates wooing women in Iowa

Iowa Democrats have a choice among women running for president

CEDAR RAPIDS — On the menu for a women’s coffee with Kamala Harris earlier this week were bite-size treats and big ideas about tackling student debt, wage inequality and lack of affordable housing.

“We are gathered as women to talk about women’s issues,” Harris told about 50 people, mostly women, wedged into a living room in a northeast side Cedar Rapids home.

Harris, the first woman to be elected attorney general of California and first South Asian-American to serve as a U.S. senator, poked fun at the idea that women care only about certain issues, but said she knew the mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers in the room had unique experiences and priorities.

Iowa women are in uncharted territory with five female Democrats still in the 2020 presidential race — Sens. Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and author and lecturer Marianne Williamson. For the first time, women who want to support a female presidential candidate from a major political party have choices.

Because women make up about 58 percent of registered Democrats in Iowa, winning over women is important to candidates of both genders.

So how big of a role does gender identity play into the political decisions of Eastern Iowa women? Here is what some have to say.

Women for women

“I’ve always been a Democrat, but she’s my first woman,” Hope Ormiston, 61, of Cedar Rapids, said about Harris.


Ormiston thinks Harris could stand up to President Donald Trump in a debate and fix Medicare, on which Ormiston relies for weekly infusions to treat Alpha 1, a genetic lung disease.

Ormiston has signed on to caucus for Harris. So has Alaina Mason, 17, a Kennedy High School senior who will be 18 by the 2020 general election. Mason, one of the youngest people at the Harris event last Tuesday, was working at Starbucks when a Harris staffer came in, ordered coffee and asked Mason about her politics.

Mason’s mom is a Democrat and her father is a Republican, she said.

“It’s such a fragile topic in our household,” Mason said. But when she learned about Harris’s plans, which include providing zero-interest college loans and forgiving college debt for people who go into public service jobs, Mason decided to join up.

“Now I’m knocking on doors and sometimes I go to the office and help,” she said.

Betty Daniels, 68, of Cedar Rapids, hasn’t chosen a candidate yet but does plan to caucus for a woman.

“This is a real pivotal time now,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve always been encouraged to support women. Our daughters, our sisters have suffered. Trying to break that ceiling is so necessary.”

Whether Iowa women feel pressure to caucus for a female candidate may depend on their age, said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

“If you look to women who were really products of the 1970s, the second wave of American feminists, they are sensitized to sexism, they are going to want to caucus for a woman,” she said. But Gen Xers, millennials and Generation Z women don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency.

Gender gap

Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is leading the Democratic field, according to recent polls. An ISU/Civiqs poll released Thursday put Warren at 28 percent support among likely caucusgoers, followed by Pete Buttigieg, South Bend, Ind., mayor, at 20 percent.

A Real Clear Politics average of polls from Oct. 3-22 shows Warren with 22.5 percent support in Iowa.

“Both Warren and Buttigieg are doing better with women,” said Dave Peterson, a professor and Whitaker Lindgren faculty fellow in political science who organized the ISU poll, which surveyed 598 likely caucusgoers.

Warren was the top pick for 30 percent of female and 25 percent of male respondents in the ISU poll. Buttigieg also scored about 5 points higher with women than with men. Both differences are within the margin of error for the online survey.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came in third in the ISU poll with 18 percent, was the top choice for 23 percent of male respondents, but only 15 percent of female respondents. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s support — 12 percent of all poll respondents — is equally split between the genders, Peterson said.

The ISU poll reported Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator, at 4 percent, Harris at 3 percent and Gabbard, a Hawaii representative, at 2 percent.

Buttigieg gains

Buttigieg’s bump may be due to new initiatives aimed at women.

Late last month, a group of female political activists launched the Women for Pete group and earlier this week, Buttigieg announced a women’s policy agenda that includes protecting abortion rights, ensuring equal pay for equal work and investing in ending workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.

Libby Slappey, a longtime Democratic activist in Cedar Rapids, is leading Women for Pete efforts in the Corridor.


“I truly want a candidate who is competent, thoughtful, reasoned in what he says and I’m someone who is a practicing Christian and I wanted someone who I knew to have a faith life,” she said.

Slappey said she doesn’t feel obligated to vote for a woman.

“If all things were equal and I had to choose between a male candidate and a female candidate with exactly the same plan, welp, maybe I would choose the woman,” she said. “There are things about Pete I have not heard from female candidates.”

Does Experience Count?

The Catt Center’s Kedrowski sees some buried sexism in the popularity of candidates like Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, a New York tech entrepreneur.

In past elections, women didn’t get much traction because they were told the traditional path to a presidential bid was serving as vice president, governor or U.S. senator.

“The justification was women are not qualified because they haven’t come through that pipeline,” she said.

But now that the majority of female candidates running in 2020 have served in the U.S. Senate, “we’re being told none of those things matter anymore.”

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