Guest Columnist

Iowa Democrats must build bridges to the other 93 counties

A political party that relies on the east coast for money and the left coast for votes is not a national party

An American flag is displayed near Central City on Sunday, July 30, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
An American flag is displayed near Central City on Sunday, July 30, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller recently said, “to run for statewide office may be a bridge too far if the Democratic Party cannot broaden their appeal in rural Iowa.”

He’s an optimist. The reality is worse.

Color Iowa’s 99 counties red and blue. Six went for Joe Biden (the three with state universities, plus Linn, Polk and Scott); 93 for the former president — 94 percent.

That’s even worse than the national map: 83 percent of the nation’s counties are red; 17 percent are blue.

Yes, I know. We don’t vote by county. Besides, a half of the country’s population lives in only 143 of those counties (5 percent) — enough to make Joe Biden president.

But a political party that relies on the east coast for money and the left coast for votes is not a national party. Democrats shouldn’t be surprised to discover they’ve alienated voters in that 83 percent of U.S. counties who feel ignored and have understandably turned anti-establishment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There was a time when it wasn’t.

An oft-told story bears repeating.

As Ken Burns tells it, “When FDR’s funeral procession went by, a man collapsed; he was so overcome. A neighbor picked him up and said, ‘Did you know the president?’ And he responded, ‘No, but he knew me.’”

Few presidents since have made that connection. President Joe Biden has a chance.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was a Democratic Party tent sheltering those in abject poverty, the working poor, union members, small farmers and lower middle class. Had the party nurtured that coalition instead of Wall Street, knocked on their doors and listened, it would today control most city councils and state legislatures — plus the U.S. House, Senate and White House.

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Two Texas Democratic Party officials asked me, a college student, to run for the legislature. Stunned, I explained I was an Iowa boy, with two part time jobs, a heavy course load and knew few Austin voters.

They responded with a story of another recruit. He mumbled while talking to his shoes and asking voters, “You wouldn’t vote for me would you?”

Now understanding their standards, and decidedly less flattered, I asked, “How’d he do?”

“He won,” one replied. “He knocked on every door in Travis County — and won.” I took a pass on that opportunity.

But I remembered the lesson during the 1962 Pat Brown-Richard Nixon gubernatorial race, door knocking in an unorganized county where I knew fewer voters than I’d known in Travis County, Texas. If they were willing to door-knock I’d assign them an area and move on.

Could the Democratic National Committee find at least one experienced campaign organizer to work each of the 25,00 counties now painted red? Of course. And it must if it is to be a national party representing more than 5 percent of America’s counties and 50 percent of its people, building bridges well within Joel Miller’s reach.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City held three presidential appointments and is the author of Columns of Democracy. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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