Iowa’s clout ebbs as candidates vie to go viral
Sunday marks exactly eight months until the Iowa caucuses, but only a single, long-shot Democratic candidate in the party’s sprawling field, Rep. Tim Ryan, spent the weekend campaigning there.
Instead, 14 White House hopefuls eschewed Iowa’s cozy church basements and VFW posts to gather at a hangar-size convention center in this liberal hub, where they jostled for attention at the California Democratic Convention. And the party’s frontrunner, Joe Biden, was speaking to LGBT activists in Ohio, a state better known as a general election battleground than a primary proving ground.
This weekend was no aberration: Democratic presidential contenders have already combined to visit more than 30 states and territories for public events, far more than in any past nominating contest when candidates would spend the vast majority of their time in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The explosive growth of social media, the increasing diversity of the Democratic electorate and changes to the party’s electoral calendar and debate format have created more of a national primary than ever before.
The shift reflects the new imperatives driving campaign strategy. With voters increasingly consuming news online, candidates are eager to go viral, which helps build their grass-roots and small-donor networks. This has made the feedback loop between the internet and television news the most powerful tidal force in politics, prompting campaigns to approach states as wouldbe sound stages for specific messages they are trying to deliver and constituencies they are hoping to reach.
One sign of a successful event, according to campaign aides working in this primary: Did cable news stations televise live from the venue?
“You don’t have to be in Des Moines or Manchester to have a viral moment and if that happens you’re in front of millions of people and can raise potentially millions of dollars,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist.
This focus on breaking through online will only intensify this summer as the candidates strain to accumulate the 130,000 donors required for participation in the fall debates – a threshold that puts a higher premium on news media penetration than grass-roots organization.
“In the past, candidates chased big donors and endorsements,” said Donna Brazile, the former Democratic chairwoman. “Now they’re chasing individual donors and trying to make sure they can get on the stage where it all matters,” she added, referring to the televised debates.
The traditional early nominating states are hardly being ignored by the two-dozen candidates, and are still poised to play their usual role of winnowing the field. But they no longer have what was effectively a stranglehold on the time, money and attention of the White House aspirants in the year leading up to the primaries. And states like California that were once mere ATMs for presidential hopefuls – who would fly in, raise money and leave – are welcoming candidates for traditional campaign events.
That is in part because of the increased importance of Super Tuesday, which has moved up on the calendar. That one day alone may offer more than 35% of all delegates and could include such large, racially diverse states as California and Texas. Early voting will take place in both states in the weeks usually dominated by the whiter states of Iowa and New Hampshire. This new focus on places whose demographics reflect the Democratic coalition, the party’s drift left and President Donald Trump’s stunning election and divisive presidency have also elevated a different set of priorities in the campaign.
“If you’re looking at that calendar, and you know you can’t just win this with white voters, then you have to go to other states,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist, referring to the states with significant Hispanic and African-American populations that will cast ballots on Super Tuesday, which is taking place three days after heavily black South Carolina.
No candidate better illustrates how different this race is than Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor who at the start of the year was known to only the most dedicated political junkies. But a strong turn at a CNN town hall in March, a willingness to sit for just about any news media interview and an ability to get off pithy one-liners quickly endeared him to some Democrats – particularly upscale white voters taken with his literary references and multilingualism.
Biden, whom the president has elevated with near-daily attacks, is the most obvious beneficiary of the outsize role Trump is playing in this race. But another candidate has also been helped, though less noticeably, by taking on the president: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
While she has won plaudits on the left for her raft of ambitious policy proposals, an analysis of Warren’s recent improvement in the polls indicates that her growth coincides with an uptick in mentions on cable news – a jump that began after she called for Trump’s impeachment and then had an impressive showing on a CNN town hall last month.
‘‘ YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE IN DES MOINES OR MANCHESTER TO HAVE A VIRAL MOMENT AND IF THAT HAPPENS YOU’RE IN FRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AND CAN RAISE POTENTIALLY MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. Tad Devine, Democratic strategist