The Hangover, Part III: Iowa Thoughts
Being an Iowa Democrat means constantly defending Democrats to Iowans and then defending Iowans to Democrats.— C.J. Petersen (@cjforiowa) November 14, 2020
If Democrats nationally were disappointed with the Blue Tsunami and it's failure to appear, Iowa Democrats were downright gloomy. and for good reason. Things didn't get better for Iowa Democrats- they got worse. Losing one (and what looks to be two) Congressional seats. They didn't claw back anything in the State House races and in fact their problems in the Senate got worse-- in the meantime, Kimmie is presiding over on an ongoing trainwreck of this state's COVID response and her approval rating is in the basement. And Iowa Democrats didn't even walk away with a glimmer of hope anywhere that I can see.
I suppose this post-mortem is going to be focused more on Democrats, but I think it's important to note that while I'm still technically a registered Democrat, that's because I haven't gotten around to changing my voter affiliation back to Independent. (Or "No Party" *grumblegrumblestupidtechnicaldefinition*) There are people who have been working in the State Democratic Party for decades and have been bled blue for it and probably have a lot more insight and knowledge than I do when approaching a post-mortem like this. So, take me with a grain of salt. I'm just an Independent minded voter who believes that if I have to be stuck with these two parties, they should be at their fighting weight and slugging it out with each other for power. It's obvious that right now, Iowa Democrats are not. But, I think they could be.
First of all, take the words, "Iowa is a Red State" out of your vocabulary. You lose part of the argument right off the bat. It's not irretrievable unless you make it so and as of this past September the split was 34.1% of registered voters as Republican, 33.7% as Democrats and 31.5% as Independent. Nothing is written- though admittedly in the wake of this election, it may look that way. (While it was something of a surprise to learn that a lot of rural Iowans get their news from Facebook- a problem, to be sure- I'm less a fan of takes that blame talk radio. Reddit seems to be rife with variations on a "well, the population is getting less educated, so obviously, they're voting Republican." A phrase which also needs to be expunged from your vocabulary. Can't reach voters or get them to vote for you if you call 'em stupid.)
Second of all, take a look at the 1st and 2nd Districts, because I think the data there may point to a path forward. When Miller-Meeks ran a couple of a cycles back, I figured that if she genuinely had a shot, she was going to have to run up the score down district and be competitve in places like Johnson County and Scott County- against Loebsack (and I wish I could remember which race this was exactly) she didn't do that. Loebsack ran up the score in Scott and Johnson County- but also picked up a lot of the river towns- like Muscatine, Burlington, Keokuk area. To me, it breaks down like this:
1. Cities: advantage Democrats (mostly)
2. Towns: Up for Grabs (but only if you show up.)
3. Rural Areas: advantage Republicans (but not necessarily)
For Democrats to claw anything back, they've got to be competitive in all the cities. You've got to be pushing cities like Dubuque closer to 60/40 territory than 50/50. You've got to be making places like Marshalltown and Tama closer to 50/50 and even winning some of those. There's this weird focus on farmers and rural Iowans and while those voters are important, you're realistically probably looking at taking Demographics that run closer to 70/30 and even 80/20 Republicans and making them more 60/40- which would be a good thing to do. Some of these towns, however, you can straight up win. If you show up.
Investing in organizing and candidate recruitment and even down ballot races in some of these towns are how you make them the real battlegrounds for control of the state. More importantly, it's how you bridge the urban-rural divide which is growing and for sure hurting Democratic prospects going forward.
Third, you cannot have party leadership that just doesn't give a shit about half of the state. I know politics is a cold, hard dirty business, but you've got to fight for all 99 counties. You can't dismiss who swathes of the state-- this commentary from the chair of the Dickinson County Democrats is absolutely damning. (This separate commentary from him again represents a decent path forward as well.) You have got to do something about Western Iowa. And no, "give it to Nebraska" is not an acceptable answer-- when you have candidates like J.D. Scholten who work their butts off and prove that you can competitve and even win in the 4th District, there's no excuse anymore. There's even less excuse for not even calling the dude to find out just how he did it-- and if the fact that no one even called him in for a conversation isn't evidence enough that the State Democrats need a massive clean out of what apparently seems to be a lot of dead weight consultant types, then I don't know what would be.
Democrats can win in Pottawattamie and Woodbury County. But you've got to show up.
Fourth, strategy and issues:
Democrats didn't door knock, while Republicans did. Points to Democrats for being responsible during a pandemic, but minus points for not playing by the rules of the game. You don't get extra credit for the moral high ground in elections- I get why they didn't door knock, I just think the strategy proved to be mildly disastrous. You've also got to re-frame the COVID thing a little bit-- if you're running a business or working in a non-essential job, you've had one- count it one, round of help from the government. A lot of people are hanging on by their teeth out there and it's not that they don't want to get rid of the virus, it's that this damn thing comes in waves and just when they're looking like they're going to get their feet back under them, they're told they've got to shut down again and there's still no help from the government.
Similarly with the school thing: it's not that people don't care about teachers- it's just that if you're hanging on by your teeth and genuinely worried about keeping a roof over your head and food on your table and you've had one round of help from the government, there's no way you're going to be able to not work and there's even less of a way you're going to be able to afford childcare.
Fight for affordable child care. Fight to use some of our rainy day fund to help people. (Thankfully, Iowa Democrats are pushing for this as of this week. Keep it up!) Not agribusiness, not gigantic corporations but actual honest-to-goodness taxpayers. Kimmie's COVID response has been abysmal- I will 100% agree with that and I'm married to a nurse, so believe me, I get the absolute frustration people have over just not doing what needs to be done so we can get back to normal-- but not everyone has the socio-economic wherewithall to do that. And a lot of that is on our government on multiple levels being stingy. So understand that yes, people are being muleheaded shitheads about this. But a lot of people don't have a choice: they gotta work to feed themselves and their families. So frame the criticism to where it needs to be levelled at: the governments response.
I know I keep coming back to this-- but Defund The Police and the protests hurt. You've got to repackage these issues and make them economic ones- Rod Sullivan has a good list of things for Iowa Democrats to do, but number three on his list is weed. Iowa's got an abysmal record on marijuana arrests and South Dakota (goddamnit, this will make me rage for days again) SOUTH DAKOTA just legalized weed for recreational use. How much is it costing taxpayers to arrest people for weed in this state? Why don't Republicans want farmers to be part of a multi-billion dollar industry? You could have less people in our prisons, take a gigantic step forward for racial and economic justice in this state and help farmers all in one go. And no one has said a damn thing about defunding the police.
(Hell, you could even make it purely about the money. You don't even have to talk about the racial justice aspect of this at all. There's a solid economic argument in favor of legalization now. Go get it.)
Another issue that should be at the top of the list of racial and economic justice issues: this horrifying practice- which Matt Taibbi posted on his substack. Holy hell, Iowa. Fix this shit. Also, I think last I heard we had 64 beds for mental health in the entire state. Another issue that has a direct impact on policing of marginalized populations that you can champion without using the words: "DEFUND THE POLICE." (Because really, it's not like Iowa's got a robust set of social services going on to begin with- hard to argue that the police are taking their funds away when they're not being funded properly to begin with- but again, I am not an either/or person on this issue. You've got to build the services, keep them funded and change the focus of your police and over time, I think you'll see less need for police. Either/or on this issue has the potential to be an absolute disaster- because big ass policy changes like this are never, ever done correctly.)
There is a way to advocate for multiple things at one time while advancing the cause of racial and economic justice and to do so in a way that doesn't make voters think you're fucking nuts. (And again: don't at me with the, "well, once you explain it to voters..." bullshit. If you have to explain it to them, you've already lost the argument and it's not about the policy itself- it's about people thinking that they might call 9-1-1 and nobody will be at the other end. And you ain't never gonna get voters to rally behind that.)
Honestly, part of me thinks that the best thing for Iowa Democrats might be just to lose the caucuses. It would end the gravy train that I'm sure keeps a lot of consultant types in and around the state party- but it'll be a cold day in hell before either party in Iowa lets that happen so:
It's pretty much ranked choice voting. But in person. I would take your delegates and split them say, 60/40 and allocate 40 percent of your delegates by people who vote via RCV ballot and 60 percent by people who show up and do it in person. Obviously, you run the risk of more people just wanting to do a ballot and leave- but it also sounds more feasible than futzing around with online voting or whatever they wanted to do before the DNC nixed it. I think it's simple, it's the hot new thing and it would probably increase participation by quite a bit if done right.
In short: I think there's a way forward here-- and props to Bleeding Heartland for opening their blog up to so many different voices to share their thoughts. The commentary and the willingness of Democrats to roll up their sleeves and get down to it is heartening and it may take a few cycles to build something, but if they can get to work in all 99 counties in Iowa, I have no doubt they will be successful.