IOWA CITY, Iowa — Deep in the historical archives of the state that today holds the first contest in the 2020 presidential election is the farm diary of Ellen Mowrer Miller, who, more than a century and a half ago, expressed the optimism that a dozen Democratic candidates are struggling to summon right now: “I see all things that is good, holy & lovely.”
By midevening, only one of those candidates will see “things that is good,” though three, maybe four, others, seeking to put a “lovely” face on an Iowa caucus loss, will claim to have such a vision. Ronald Reagan did so after losing here in 1980, and so did George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Donald Trump in 2016. All three lost here, then triumphed eight days later in New Hampshire — and won the White House in November.
No Democrat has lost a contested Iowa caucus and won the presidency. That is one reason why Monday’s contests mean so much. But while, as financial advisers argue, past performance is no guarantee of future results, the large Democratic field screams out for winnowing, a peculiarly Iowa kind of practice. It is the process of blowing wind through grain to remove the chaff, a process people here have mastered since Ellen Mowrer Miller scratched her thoughts into her diary in 1868, the year Andrew Johnson was impeached.
All this will be conducted without rancor or recrimination, of course. I remember a conversation two decades ago with Jane Smiley, the author of “A Thousand Acres,” from the University of Iowa and who taught at Iowa State University, in Ames, for 15 years. She pointed out that there are wild parts of other Midwestern states but virtually none in Iowa. “So,” she said, “people there act civilized.”
It has been civilized. This is a state that clings to what David Richards described in a biography of the actress Jean Seberg, of Marshalltown, as “a corn-fed innocence that is as much a part of that landscape as the sunflowers.”
The state has welcomed former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland to nearly 275 events in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, perhaps a record, and certainly one for a candidate finishing ninth in a poll the week before the caucuses with the support of 1 percent. Iowa has been a hospitable second home to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of neighboring Minnesota, who will likely exceed 175 events in the state. She’s deep into double digits here and is someone to watch.
But as the caucuses draw near, all eyes are on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is surging in Iowa, where he lost four years ago to Hillary Rodham Clinton by two-tenths of a percentage point.
It is a long-standing nostrum of politics that Iowa’s Democrats are more liberal than Democrats nationwide. But Iowa’s choices have important implications for the nation’s choices, especially in the Midwest. Trump campaign officials are circulating reports arguing that increasing numbers of Democrats and independents are attending the president’s rallies — as many as about three in five in a recent Wisconsin crowd in an urban congressional district.
Fear of alienating potential anti-Trump voters is what is fueling the efforts of Klobuchar, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Vice President Joe Biden, all of whom are arguing — some more subtly than others — that the Democrats must reject the politics of the left (and in so doing, reject Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts).
Add up the composite poll results as reported by the FiveThirtyEight website for Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden, and they exceed the composites for Sanders and Warren by about 10 percentage points. But caucus results aren’t reported that way. If Sanders wins in Iowa, and then prevails in New Hampshire, where in 2016 he defeated Clinton by a margin of 22 percentage points, he would become a formidable force.
What happens then? He could cruise to the nomination. He could stumble in South Carolina, be brought back to Earth, and then the Democrats would engage in trench warfare leading to Super Tuesday, where 14 states hold contests exactly a month after Iowa’s caucuses. Then again, the emergence of Sanders could create an “ABS” movement — “Anybody But Sanders.”
Critics of Iowa — especially because its demographic profile is so one-dimensional, with a population about 91 percent white — forget that it is also something of a bellwether state. Only four times since 1948 has Iowa voted for the loser in the general election.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.