DES MOINES, Iowa — If you’re a die-hard Democrat in New York hoping to overcome the disappointment that was Nov. 4, you’re worried.
But here in Iowa, where the first-in-the-nation caucuses are a mere 14 months away, some are breaking into a cold sweat.
Most party leaders here will assure you all conversations about the 2016 presidential nomination still begin and end with Hillary Clinton.
The former first lady and secretary of state is a sentimental favorite. Though she has not formally announced her candidacy, her well-oiled super PAC may be the most deeply rooted ever at this stage in the Hawkeye state.
“I don’t know of any party regulars or activists who are really pushing anyone else,” says Jerry Crawford, who co-chaired Clinton’s 2008 campaign in Iowa and helps lead Ready for Hillary in the state.
Who will challenge Clinton? Vice President Joe Biden, 71, is playing coy about whether he’s running, though insiders insist he’s laying the groundwork. But would Biden run on Obama’s record or try to stress their differences? And can he go an entire week without saying something ridiculous?Photo: AP
But that may be the problem. Familiarity breeds if not contempt, then frustration.
Crawford, who has led presidential campaigns in Iowa for almost three decades, acknowledges Clinton could easily stumble out of the gate if sometimes contrarian Iowans believe they are being force-fed a unlikeable candidate.
And Crawford, principal in Donegal Racing, a thoroughbred partnership, knows a lot about front-runners and dark horses.
Iowa’s caucus season is a personality contest, and the constant challenge of both Democrats and Republicans here every four years is to find new blood. The heavy bruising Democrats took in the midterms cinched the need for a deep bench.
“Democrats are worried,” said Jack Hatch, the veteran Democratic state senator from Des Moines who sputtered in his bid to take on four-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. “I’m very worried.” Hatch says most Democrats in Iowa want an experienced leader who “unlike Obama is not afraid to make a decision.”
But in Mrs. Clinton’s case, he said, she’s still a Clinton. “She triangulates and Iowans don’t like that.”
There’s a slice of the state that considers her too calculating, says J. Ann Selzer, whose firm conducts polls for The Des Moines Register in partnership with Bloomberg News.
“Her negatives aren’t all that high, but the people who don’t like her really don’t like her,” Selzer says.
Clinton knows from her drawn-out race in 2008 against John Edwards and Obama that Iowa a second time would be no cakewalk, Selzer said.
Still, the last Bloomberg/Iowa Poll taken in October by Selzer & Co. showed Clinton enjoys high favorability ratings with 76% of likely caucus-going Democrats. She was followed by Vice President Joe Biden and current Secretary of State John Kerry, both at 60%.
But it’s early. And at this stage of the picking process, no one knew who Jimmy Carter or Rick Santorum were, Selzer points out.
The 73-year-old Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has visited Iowa numerous times to rally party faithful for the midterms. The self-described “democratic socialist” would be a challenger to Clinton from the left, with his main issue being income inequality.Photo: AP
She and a mix of other party leaders say outliers could easily inject much-needed excitement to a race and upend a front-runner.
Most mentioned: Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Biden has said he won’t decide until next year whether to run. Warren has said she is not running now, but some Iowans like her energy and wish she’d change her mind.
O’Malley, a down-to-earth leader who finishes his second term in January, gained a lot of respect this year in Iowa among the party faithful because he had boots on the ground.
Not only did he visit a half-dozen times during 2014, he sent staffers (paid for by his PAC) and raised money for Iowa candidates.
Sanders, meanwhile, has spent more time in Iowa this year than almost anyone else with White House aspirations, excluding Clinton and Biden.
A democratic socialist, he zeroes in on a minimum-wage hike, boosting taxes on the wealthy and targeting big money in politics — all big “yes” topics for Democrats. He also has the charisma to reignite young activists disappointed in Obama, politicos here say.
Who some Democrats want, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren: Progressives and the “Occupy” faithful really, really hope the 65-year-old will run, making Wall Street and the 1% the topic of the election. But Warren so far says she’s not a candidate and hasn’t built an Iowa machine.Photo: WireImage
But Hatch, a state senator for 22 years who is expected to retire after his term ends in January, says the Democratic Party in Iowa also has considerable work to do to help any candidate beat the field of Republicans expected to flood the state in the next year.
“In this election cycle, we were more coordinated than at any other time in terms of people, money and technology,” he said. “In the end, there was a void of leadership.”
Mike Gronstal, leader of Democrats in the state Senate, says right now, candidates with the least name recognition are trying to figure out which big names will really enter the race.
“The question is, ‘How much oxygen will there be left in a lake full of fish?’ ” Gronstal said. “If both Joe and Hillary run, maybe not much.”
Lee Rood is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.