Staff Columnist

Iowa Democrats somehow surprised that young voters didn't like their uninspiring candidate

I offer the same advice I gave Republicans worried about third-party spoilers: Run better candidates.

Rita Hart answers a question during a debate with  Mariannette Miller-Meeks moderated by The Gazette's James Q. Lynch an
Rita Hart answers a question during a debate with Mariannette Miller-Meeks moderated by The Gazette's James Q. Lynch and KCRG's Chris Earl at KCRG studios in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District sent two people to new member orientation in Washington, D.C., last week. The race in southeast Iowa is too close to call, the narrowest U.S. House contest in the nation, with just 47 votes separating the candidates in unofficial results. An impending recount could swing the district either way.

In such a close election, every factor is the deciding factor. It’s the kind of result that keeps campaign managers up at night. Democrats in this case are zeroing in on the undervote — voters who supported Joe Biden for president, but left down-ballot races blank.

To Democrats concerned about the undervote, I offer the same advice I gave Republicans worried about third-party spoilers: Run better candidates.

Johnson County is the bluest in Iowa, and one of vanishingly few safe territories for Democrats in what is now a red state. That’s where Democrats need to run up the score if they hope to win the 2nd Congressional District.

While Democratic candidate Rita Hart easily carried Johnson County, she lagged behind Biden’s performance, especially in precincts with many University of Iowa students. Local political analyst John Deeth counted nearly 4,000 Johnson County undervotes in the U.S. House race, which he called “haunting numbers” for Democrats.

Some older Democrats assume most young Biden voters naturally would be Hart voters if the party had just reached them with the right text message, YouTube ad or mail piece. I’m not so sure.

The chaos of 2020 has been radicalizing for many young people. The pandemic upended their social lives and educations, the election deepened existing political divides, and the racial justice protest movement captured the attention of millions of Americans for the first time.

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In Iowa City, thousands of people repeatedly took to the streets to demand law enforcement accountability measures following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people. I attended a few of those protests and saw the vast majority were not trained antifa operatives — they were regular college kids, a lot of whom were attending demonstrations for the very first time.

Many young Americans engaged in the racial justice and police reform movement do not think of themselves as Democrats. It’s easy to imagine a budding leftist who begrudgingly voted for Biden (really, a vote against President Donald Trump) but just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a moderate for U.S. House.

“We don’t see anyone on the ballot in 2020 that makes us excited to vote at all,” Jaylen Cavil, a Black Lives Matter organizer who ran a write-in campaign for Polk County sheriff, told me before the election. “None of us are saying, ‘I can’t wait to vote for Theresa Greenfield and Cindy Axne and Joe Biden.’ That doesn’t excite any of us.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans ages 18 to 29 think the government should do more to reduce systemic racism, according to Harvard Youth Poll results published last month.

Yet Hart hardly mentioned racial justice in her campaign materials and offered no meaningful plans for federal police reform. Her campaign platform platitudes might as well have been from 2014.

Iowa Democrats did not rise to this historic moment.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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