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Cover Story

Could the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee once again stumble in Iowa?


The seemingly inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee could, much like the 2008 election, take a sharp detour at the Iowa caucus. Widely considered the presumptive nominee following her successful term as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton appears all but certain to make a run for the White House.

She has support from the national Democratic Party establishment, is attempting to clear the field of other candidates and leads in every public opinion poll.

But that is nearly the identical storyline from the 2008 presidential contest, when her campaign arrived in Iowa leading all contenders but ended with a dismal third-place finish. The defeat relinquished her front-runner status to U.S. Senate newcomer Barack Obama, and she never fully recovered.

A 2016 Clinton campaign will face several challenges in Iowa, including historic support for vice presidents winning their party’s nomination, the high expectations of being the front runner, her difficulty appealing to liberal activists and her lack of an organizational ground game in the state.


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Don’t tell Joe no

No one has told Joe Biden he can’t run and, if he does, history indicates he could defeat Clinton. Every modern-day sitting vice president has won his party’s nomination.

Al Gore won the Democratic nomination in 2000 following President Bill Clinton’s two terms. George H.W. Bush did the same in 1988 after President Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey took up his party’s mantle after President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, and Richard Nixon won the GOP nomination in 1960 after two terms of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While not a sitting vice president at the time, Walter Mondale won the Democratic nod in 1984 following President Jimmy Carter’s defeat to Reagan in 1980. If vice presidents historically win their party’s nomination, why should Biden be any different?


Democratic vice presidents have had a seemingly easy time winning the Iowa caucus. In 2000, Gore breezed to a 63-37 percent thumping of New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, and Mondale dismantled a loaded field in 1984, getting 49 percent of the vote to 17 percent for Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

Biden has sent signals that he may run, including meetings with key Democrats during Obama’s second inauguration last year and a visit this past August to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s popular steak fry.

Biden also understands the importance of activists in a presidential primary and has been out front on key liberal issues, including gun control following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary last year, and gay rights, beating both President Obama and a Hillary-come-lately to the issue. Biden supporters can remind caucus voters that the Clintons were the architects of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which was just recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

CVA_07PAGE 152Hillary’s recent dig at Biden about his initial lack of support for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden may be a sign she is concerned about a Biden challenge — but liberal Democrats may be less enamored with the military raid and have not forgotten her support for the war in Iraq — the signature vote that then-Senator Obama used to drive a wedge between her and liberal activists in 2008.

Iowan Democrats are both familiar and comfortable with Biden. He has run two presidential races from the state and has been an able surrogate for Obama. Although Democrats have never given him much support in the caucuses, he is well liked.

His promising 1988 campaign for the White House drew early interest but flamed out after the Neil Kinnock plagiarist controversy. In the 2008 race, Biden never really got off the ground, despite a busy schedule, and finished in fifth place with just 1 percent of the vote. He dropped out on caucus night. The star power of Obama and Clinton left him a bit of a fading star at the edge of the political galaxy.

Yet Biden supporters have been fiercely loyal over the years, with several still holding various public offices around the state. And Biden may have considerable support from the Obama network, something that should concern the Clinton camp. If Biden runs, history indicates he could upend Clinton. If he doesn’t, it opens an opportunity for others who could still spell trouble for the Clinton machine.


Inevitability and the front-runner blues

An October 2013 Quinnipiac University poll had Clinton crushing a possible Democratic field with 61 percent support against only 11 percent for Biden, with scant support for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has also registered in early polls.

The Quinnipiac poll also has Clinton as the only Democrat beating the three top Republicans: Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Earlier polls also had her defeating Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.

However, the 2008 election polling data presented a similar promise of inevitability for Clinton. In January 2007, a year before the Iowa caucus, Clinton held a 34-17 national polling edge over Obama, with the rest of the field trailing far behind. That number shot up to 48-21 by October of 2007 and, the night before the Iowa caucus, Clinton still had a 44-25 advantage, which all but disappeared after Obama’s big caucus-night victory.

It is quite possible that 2016 could be another campaign beginning with Clinton as the acknowledged front-runner who suffers a challenge from several upstart Democrats, who didn’t get the message they were not suppose to run and who stumble early and can’t regain momentum.

Potential candidates include O’Malley, Warner, Cuomo, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former presidential candidate Howard Dean. However, a female candidate could pose the biggest threat, as they would immediately diminish any gender advantage Clinton might enjoy. That list includes New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire. But the most feared candidate for Clinton would be a liberal woman, someone like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.


Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, was a legal advisor to liberal icon Walter Mondale. In her first year in the U.S. Senate, she voted against President Bush’s plan to increase Iraqi troop levels. Warren has become a darling of liberals following her confrontation of the Obama Administration for its failure to prosecute Wall Street culprits involved in the financial meltdown. Her performance at a Senate hearing lit up YouTube.

Like others, if she entered the race, she would not possess the Clinton baggage and would offer a fresh face as the new future of the Democratic Party, particularly for a country grown tired of elections headlined by Bushes and Clintons.


Awakening the sleeping Iowa liberal

It is widely recognized that conservative Christians have inordinate control over the Iowa GOP caucus, but liberal Democrats also have tremendous influence, albeit more subtle and unorganized. In 2004, liberal candidates John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean amassed 88 percent of the vote; in 2008 Obama and Edwards captured 68 percent; and if one wants to call Clinton a liberal, the total was nearly universal, at 97 percent of the vote.

Nationally, as the tea party pushes the GOP to the extreme right, many liberals are coming out of a slumber and want their party to take a left turn on economic and military issues, particularly after the disappointment they have experienced with Obama.

Many liberals are frustrated that the president has put the same economic conservatives and de-regulators in charge of the Department of Treasury and Wall Street oversight. His administration has not prosecuted those responsible for the economic collapse, and he has failed to actively regulate big business. Instead, Obama gave his support to off-shore drilling and nuclear power — although his timing was unfortunate, as both the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf and the Fukushima nuclear disaster followed his announcements.

On military affairs, liberals are upset that Obama has kept Guantanamo Bay open, increased the use of drone strikes, has been slow to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has presided over a massive spying operation invading the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.

Obama’s economic and military policies are not exactly the “Hope and Change” that liberals had in mind. As for Clinton, many believe she simply offers more of the same. Consequently, many have also felt betrayed by Obama and may be pining for a genuine liberal, such as Klobuchar or Warren.

Some Democrats are concerned that individuals complacent in bringing about the financial collapse may be the same people who have enriched the Clintons and their Foundation and who have been paying large speaking fees to Hillary. She is reportedly paid $200,000 per event, and recent clients include Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and the private equity firm KKR. The New York Times reported the Clintons have been paid more than $100 million in speaking fees since they left the White House.

It may be hard for Clinton to convince average Democrats — many of whom are looking for work, struggling to pay the mortgage and scratching to save for their kid’s college education — that she is on their side as she approaches Romney-like wealth.


Hillary’s 2008 caucus debacle

A major obstacle for Clinton remains her dismal performance in the 2008 Iowa caucus when she finished with 29 percent of the vote, behind both Obama at 38 percent and Edwards at 30 percent.

She got little lift from her husband’s efforts in two contests in the Hawkeye state and ran a poorly executed campaign that lacked support among women. She also appears to have done little since her defeat that would improve her standing for 2016.

Because Harkin ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton, like all the other candidates, skipped Iowa. The result was that President Clinton never had to create an Iowa precinct organization, which could have been called into play for his wife in 2008 and again in 2016.

In 2008 her national staff was inexperienced in running a caucus, and they kept her aloof and at arm’s length from Democrats, making it difficult for her to connect with voters who are accustomed to personal contact. She did not have the unified support of women, surprisingly even liberal women, as many female state legislators, county and city elected officials and party officials had no qualms about supporting Obama or Edwards rather than her.

By contrast, Obama and his staff worked the locals, and his events went stratus with not hundreds but thousands of people at some venues. His campaign organization slowly and steadily built an unprecedented statewide organization in all of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts that sent him on his way to the White House.

Despite all her perceived advantages — the inevitability, the polls, her husband and his record as President, the donors, the female vote and the like — the fact remains that, in 2008, more than 70 percent of Iowa Democrats voted for someone other than Hillary Clinton. That is a sobering fact for her as she eyes 2016.


The New Era Iowa Caucus

As governor of Georgia in 1976, Carter figured out that, by putting holes in many pairs of shoes, he could meet Iowans in their homes, at main street diners and at grain elevators, and he asked them for their support. Much has changed since the man from Plains traversed the back roads of Iowa.

In 2004, Dean became the first major candidate to tap into the new age of campaigning for the Iowa caucus. He focused on young, energetic voters and appealed to them through technology. He used the Internet to raise large amounts of money in small contributions from a great number of people. That translated into the creation of a ready-made grassroots organization, and it nearly worked for him.

In 2008, it was Obama’s people, not Clinton’s, who recognized the change and capitalized upon it as they took that prescription for victory to a new level. Obama’s appeal was wider, his fundraising more sophisticated and his organization vastly superior to anything ever before seen in Iowa.

This new approach Dean and Obama created perfectly taps into the liberal base of the party. Organizing people who are passionate about a candidate and a cause is still the key to winning in Iowa; they just raised the bar to new heights.

Despite the national party network promoting her as the heir to the Democratic throne, there is very little, if any, Clinton organization in Iowa, and she has done almost nothing to connect with Iowa Democrats in an effort to build one.

Clinton has been silent on all things Iowa, and that is precisely the same problem she had in 2008 when her handlers convinced her to avoid the state for fear that stepping foot in Iowa — or making telephone calls or helping with fundraising — would be perceived as a sign she was running. But the news flash for the Clinton campaign is that everyone already believes she is running, so ignoring the state just puts more distance between her and the voters she needs.


What have you done for me lately?

Biden recently held a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Iowa Fourth District Democratic Congressional candidate Jim Mower, who seeks to unseat tea-party Congressman Steve King. Biden is also helping other Congressional Democrats around the country.

Because of the controversial King, the Fourth District represents an easy volley into a political contest for any ambitious national Democrat. The District is also filled with many Democrats who helped Obama in 2008, and these people now have little reason to move away from Biden and assist Clinton.

It is unclear whether Obama’s Iowa supporters have warmed to Clinton, even as she has endeared herself to Democrats nationwide. It is also unclear whether they have completely forgiven her for the testy 2008 primary battle with their popular Obama.

Many Obama supporters openly called her too divisive and unelectable during the 2008 race, and many were offended by her criticism of Obama down the stretch. The Clinton campaign’s “Shame on you, Barack Obama” primary ad was used by the Romney campaign in the 2012 presidential contest.

And some Obama operatives may not wish to have Clinton become president for fear that Democratic-bookend she presidencies may historically leave Obama in the forgotten land of presidential political history.


Bye-bye Hawkeye

It is clear that Hillary Clinton again has her hands full in Iowa, and it is fueling speculation that she might bypass the state — although that would be difficult to justify.

If Biden runs and Clinton skips Iowa, she is ceding the momentum and it would instantly diminish her front-runner status. If Biden doesn’t run, then there is no real rationale for her not competing in Iowa, regardless of who else might oppose her.

Bypassing Iowa is always risky, just ask Wesley Clark, Rudy Giuliani, Al Gore, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman and John McCain, all who skipped over Iowa during one of their unsuccessful runs for the White House.


Hillary’s dilemma

Clinton’s campaign lacked a message in 2008, and it doesn’t appear there is a message thus far in 2016. The Clinton strategy seems to be that the race is all about her inevitability and the fact that it’s her turn, so everyone else should just get out of the way — which they did not do in 2008 and perhaps will not again in 2016.

But Clinton also has the ability to win it all, to hit a walk-off grand slam, and she starts with a big advantage. But she has to do something she may not be willing to do at this juncture of her career.

Winning the Iowa caucus requires a great deal of time, and Iowa Democrats expect to be courted and asked for their support. That has not been Hillary’s style. Does she really want to slosh through barnyards and backyard barbeques trolling for votes? Can she shift from globetrotting world meetings in 112 countries, to high-paying speaking engagements in the corporate arena, to sitting in a church basement in Winnebago County begging support from farmers, schoolteachers and welfare workers?

That may be precisely the quandary for her. How bad does she really want this, and is she really willing, at age 67, to do what is necessary to win? If she isn’t all in for the Iowa caucus, she may be, once again, all out. Despite the national pro-Hillary movement, it seems clear that an opening exists in Iowa for another candidate, and it could, much like in 2008, derail the Hillary Clinton express to the White House. CV

James Strohman teaches political science at Iowa State University and can be reached at

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