Do you wish you were an Iowa voter? Imagine how exciting life would be right now. Each morning when you left the house, you’d have no idea how many Democratic candidates for president would try to shake your hand before sunset.
Everybody wants to woo Iowans because they vote first. On Tuesday Joe Biden was in Ottumwa, calling Donald Trump “an existential threat to America.” Existential means, well, about existence. Lately people have tended to use it a lot when they mean really, really serious. In 2020 there’ll probably be TV ads: “Vote Tuesday. This time it’s existential.”
Trump himself was in Council Bluffs, trying to make sure nobody could forget about his existence for a single second, bragging about his devotion to farmers and calling Biden “Sleepy Joe.” Nicknames have worked very well for Trump, but this one has some perils. Americans may start asking themselves whether they’d rather have a president who sleeps through the night or one who’s up at 5 a.m. sending out tweets with a lot of misspelled words.
Biden, meanwhile, was assuring his crowd that Iowa was the existential state: “If you can’t cross the line in Iowa, you don’t win the marathon.” He even apologized for having missed an Iowa Democratic dinner so he could attend his granddaughter’s graduation.
It’s O.K., Joe. Really.
Last weekend, by my count, there were 40 different Democratic events in Iowa, from modest back-porch meet-and-greets to that political dinner, which attracted 19 presidential hopefuls.
Are you jealous, people? Perhaps your idea of fun does not include listening to 19 five-minute speeches after dessert. Or coming out of the grocery store and being forced to interact with Bill de Blasio. But you’d have to love the power. There was a huge buzz last week when a poll by Iowa’s leading newspaper found Democratic voters seemed to be cooling on Biden, who was down to 24 percent while Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were moving up.
The race at the bottom was so intense that Amy Klobuchar was able to happily announce her 2 percent showing was better than 16 of her competitors. The poll involved 600 active Democrats. Her 2 percent boils down to about 12 people. See what I mean?
There’s already speculation about how many of the candidates will manage to visit all 99 Iowa counties as a show of devotion. Former Congressman John Delaney had already hit the mark in 2018. Given that he registered 1 percent in that Iowa poll, I’ll hazard a guess that this is not a winning strategy. Nor is unknown-candidate Marianne Williamson’s tactic of simply moving in. She’s a spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey and new resident of a Des Moines condo. Chris Dodd tried the same thing in 2007. He even took his daughter out of kindergarten in order to enroll her in a Hawkeye State school. He still came in seventh, and he was a United States senator.
Most of us never get to know what this kind of voter clout feels like. Back in 1992 — the last year that the Iowa winner didn’t grab the Democratic nomination — competition ran on for so long that New York’s primary actually made a difference. I cannot tell you how exciting it was hearing presidential candidates vying to sound the most passionate about mass transportation.
Pandering is so cool when you’re the one being pandered to.
In Iowa, ethanol is the primo pander topic. You probably know that the government allows gasoline to be mixed with some kind of biofuel like corn. That can cut down on prices, but it can have a significant downside when it comes to the environment, particularly air pollution in the summer.
Still, it does sell a lot of corn, and Trump was in Iowa to brag that he’d opened the door to still more ethanol at the pump.
Very hard to find many anti-ethanol politicians. Bernie Sanders discovered in the last primary season that a program he once disliked is actually “an economic lifeline to rural and farm communities.” His Democratic opponents tend to keep their heads down, nodding and mumbling something about electric cars.
Corn obsessions aside, the people of Iowa are extremely conscientious about their being-first responsibilities. But don’t you think other states should get a chance?
What about Nebraska? It’s like Iowa in many ways, but at least there’d be a change of scene. Right now all the candidates are prepping to go to the Iowa State Fair, where they will marvel at exhibits — who can ever forget the Last Supper carved out of butter? But if the first vote shifted to Nebraska, we’d get to watch the pols trying to look excited at a festival called Kool-Aid Days, celebrating the invention of Kool-Aid, which happens to be the official state soft drink.
We would learn way more interesting facts like this if Nebraska got a turn.
Or Rhode Island. It’d be very easy for candidates to meet the voters in Rhode Island, since most of them are kind of squished together. And instead of ethanol, the contenders would have to pander to a product Rhode Islanders make. Such as — silverware! If Rhode Island was the first state to vote, I bet in no time at all we’d have a law abolishing plastic forks.
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