Staff Columnist

Iowa voters say we're independent-minded, but are we really?

Iowa's no-party U.S. Senate candidate getting snubbed by pollsters and debate hosts

A polling place at the Kirkwood Recreation Center on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosia
A polling place at the Kirkwood Recreation Center on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

Suzanne Herzog admits she may have been naive about her independent campaign for U.S. Senate in Iowa.

She’s a born-and-raised Iowan, a longtime nurse and a trained economist. She has visited voters in all 99 counties (before the pandemic) and she’s publishing lengthy policy proposals on her website. She thought that would be enough to be treated like a serious candidate.

“I really thought, you know, I’m not going for a fringe group of voters, I’m not a Libertarian, I report to the FEC, I submitted a personal financial disclosure to the ethics committee. I have the level of transparency a federal candidate should have. Surely, when I send news releases, I’m going to be on,” Herzog, one of four candidates in Iowa’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, told me in a recent phone interview.

A voter is smart. A voter is reasonable, independent-minded and in search of solutions to problems. Collectively, though, voters are illogical, factional and hellbent on being mad.

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However, with only about two weeks until early voting starts in Iowa, Herzog has not been included in the polls or invited to televised debates, or received much significant mainstream news coverage, not even from the public media organizations she has proudly donated to for many years.

Herzog is knowledgeable about policy and civics, but what she didn’t account for is it’s actually fringe to be detailed, thoughtful and non-partisan in 2020.

Voters like the idea of independent and nonbinary choices on the ballot. A recurring Gallup poll has found Americans who favor a third major party have outnumbered those who don’t since 2006.

Voters say that, but they don’t vote like it. Among 535 members of the 116th Congress, only three are outside the two-party system, and only barely — two independent senators who take committee assignments from the Democrats, and a converted Libertarian representative who was elected as a Republican.

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It’s like Agent K said in 1997’s “Men in Black”: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

A voter is smart. A voter is reasonable, independent-minded and in search of solutions to problems. Collectively, though, voters are illogical, factional and hellbent on being mad.

“The majority of Iowans are somewhere in the middle between these party extremists getting all the attention. We wanted to offer the people of Iowa something really different, so that was the main objective — to represent the majority of people. I think there’s a middle ground on almost every issue there is, and I think a majority of Iowans would be for that,” Herzog said.

Herzog’s positions are pragmatic and left-of-center with a nod to market-based solutions that might appeal to moderate conservatives. She mentioned Rob Sand, the Democratic Iowa state auditor who unseated an incumbent in 2018 and built a peculiarly strong following for a state auditor, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, the left-leaning independent from Maine, as politicians she borrows strategy from.

Health care is the centerpiece of Herzog’s policy agenda. She favors preserving private insurance, but eliminating the employer-sponsored system by taking tax incentives away from employers and giving them to individuals instead. She supports consumer protections in the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, but notes that it did nothing to contain costs.

“Republicans think health care right now is a free market system. Well, it’s not a free market system because there’s so many market failures,” Herzog said in an endorsement interview with The Gazette editorial board.

She added, “Democrats are wrong, you can’t throw a public option in there and think it’s going to fix it.”

In November’s U.S. Senate race, Herzog the independent and Libertarian candidate Rick Stewart face implausible odds against a pro-Trump Republican incumbent and milquetoast Democratic challenger whose supporters are prepared to spend more than $50 million on their behalf.

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As if all that cash weren’t enough, the establishment candidates also enjoy lavish unpaid exposure from the media. Herzog was especially disappointed when she was snubbed by Iowa PBS for a televised candidate debate scheduled for Sept. 28 between Sen. Joni Ernst and candidate Theresa Greenfield.

To be included in debates on “Iowa Press,” candidates must meet at least four of five criteria — be nominated by a major political party, publish position statements, accept at least $50,000 in contributions, receive at least five “more than incidental” news media appearances, and earn at least 5 percent support in an independent poll.

If you’re a Republican or Democrat, you get to check one of those boxes for free, while the media mentions and poll placement will come almost automatically. Then all you have to do is publish three policy positions, no matter how ill-informed, and you’re a welcome guest on Iowa’s premier public affairs television program.

In a written statement, Iowa PBS general manager Molly Phillips said, “As we have for decades, we created our 2020 election cycle criteria thoughtfully and with intentionally low thresholds to be as inclusive as possible without surrendering objectivity or newsworthiness.”

If you’re not already seen as a serious candidate, you won’t get in the debates, the polls or the news. But it’s almost impossible to earn status as a serious candidate without that exposure, or heaps of cash. The easiest solution is to put one of those stupid R’s or D’s behind your name.

Herzog, who was a bodybuilder in the late 1990s, recalls the media was more interested in her muscles back then than in her policy ideas now.

“I got tons of ridiculous attention — in the newspaper, on TV, on the radio — and it’s the most worthless, meaningless thing you can imagine. And here I’m running for federal office, and public media is ignoring my press releases,” Herzog said.

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

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