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The Head vs. the Heart in Iowa

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January 31, 2020

In politics, as in real life, we are often confronted with this conundrum: do I make the logical, practical choice, or do I go for the more inspired and emotional one?

In Iowa, that dynamic is playing out in stark relief. Should voters go with the candidate that looks best positioned to beat President Trump in November? Or, do they go with the candidate that appeals to ideology and idealism? 

Former Vice President Biden is presenting himself as the practical choice. He's not pretending to be something he's not, which is new or fresh or flashy. What he is selling: polling that shows he'd beat Trump. "This isn't the election to take a risk," intones his latest ad. "Vote Biden-Beat Trump." 

The in-person sales pitch for Biden is just as business-like. I attended a Biden event last week in Ames, Iowa. There, after Biden made some remarks and took a handful of questions, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack took to the stage. "I am urging you to be practical Iowans," she said. "I want to make sure that people I know who aren't Democrats, I can give them a choice that isn't Donald Trump." This isn't exactly pulling heartstrings stuff. It's more of an "eat your spinach, it'll make you strong" kind of message. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders goes right for the heart. His ads feature him addressing large crowds of sign-waving, energetic supporters, where he argues that now is the time to "do big things, even when it's hard." He travels the state with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a name synonymous with disruption and political upheaval. And energy. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are trying to straddle the two worlds. Buttigieg leans into his generational argument: "It's time to turn the page from a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking polarized by the same old fights to a bold vision for the next generation," he says in his latest ad.

In the closing days of the campaign, Warren is leaning into the fact that she is the only woman in the top tier of Democratic hopefuls. As the New York Times' Shane Goldmacher and Astead Herndon write, Warren's "campaign has supplemented, if not supplanted, its policy-driven messaging of 2019 with explicit talk about Ms. Warren's identity as a female politician and her path to beating President Trump." 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has been moving up in Iowa polling, is closing out with a pragmatic pitch to voters: "Klobuchar can unite our party and perhaps our nation...She knows how to get things done."

Primary voters, however, rarely reward the 'practical' choice. What gets someone to the polls — especially to a caucus on a Monday night in the dead of winter — is passion. But, we also know that Democratic primary voters have been telling us for months that their number one priority is beating Trump. Iowa has always prided itself on its sophisticated voting electorate. Woe to the candidate who thinks he or she can drop into Iowa unprepared for serious discussions about ethanol or the cost of soybeans. But, go there today, and you'll hear voters discussing which Democrat is best positioned to win Pennsylvania or Michigan more than you will overhear talk about which one best understands Iowa issues. We will learn on Monday night if Trump — and the prospect of beating him — will supply the energy and passion that biography or policy once did.

When I was out in Iowa the other week, I stopped by to talk with J. Ann Selzer, the president of Selzer & Company. To every political junkie in America, she's best known as the pollster for the Des Moines Register. She stressed that the last few days before the caucus have long been volatile and unpredictable. In other words, the large number of undecided (or marginally decided) voters — many of whom are trying to make a "head versus heart" decision — isn't that unique.

Selzer pulled out a handful of charts from past Des Moines Register polls. My favorite was titled "Register Graph Of Doom for Howard Dean." It showed how quickly and dramatically Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the undisputed frontrunner in Iowa for months, collapsed in the last four days of the final 2004 Des Moines Register Democratic caucus poll. 

On the first day the poll was in the field (Tuesday) Senator John Kerry, Dean and Sen. John Edwards were all bunched in the 20s; Kerry at 24 percent, Dean at 23 percent and Edwards at 22 percent. By Wednesday and Thursday, Dean dropped 4 points to 19 percent, while Kerry moved up to 26 percent. By Thursday and Friday, Kerry was up to 29 percent, Edwards was at 25 percent while Dean dropped another three points to 16 percent. The final vote: Kerry 38, Edwards 32, and Dean 18 percent. In just four days, Dean went from tied for first to third place. 

If you are Sen. Amy Klobuchar, you can take some inspiration from Selzer's final 2012 Iowa GOP caucus poll that showed former Sen. Rick Santorum moving from 10 percent (and a distant third place) on Tuesday to 22 percent by the time the poll was out of the field on Friday. He came within a whisker of beating Romney on election night. 

There's a lot of speculation that the new Iowa Democratic caucus rules, in which raw vote totals will be recorded along with the delegate equivalents, could produce 'multiple' winners on election night. Think of it like the Electoral College vs. the popular vote. One candidate can get the most raw votes, but lose the delegate vote because his/her voters weren't well-distributed across the almost 1,700 precinct sites. 

Spinning the results of election night, of course, is nothing new. In 1992, Bill Clinton turned a third-place showing in New Hampshire into a media win by declaring himself the "Comeback Kid." In 2012, Mitt Romney eked out a narrow victory in a messy and chaotic Iowa caucus. Almost three weeks later, after a recount, the Iowa GOP declared Santorum the winner by 34-votes. By then, however, the narrative had already been set. It was too late for an early loss to take a toll on the then-frontrunning Romney. 

This year, we should expect to see an even more aggressive attempt by the candidates to drive the post-Iowa narrative. Lily Adams, the communications director for Kamala Harris's presidential campaign and Iowa communications director for Hillary Clinton in 2016, wrote something of an advice column to the 2020 candidates recently. Her take: "Don't wait. Take the reins and bypass the AP and the networks. If you're confident you've won Iowa, call the results yourself." She goes on to note that in 2016 the Clinton campaign, confident of the numbers they were getting from their precinct captains, decided to declare victory before the AP called the race. "When every campaign needs momentum out of Iowa to slingshot them through the rest of the month," Adams writes, "the campaigns can't afford to play it safe." Perhaps. But, for the first time, the public — and the press — will have actual precinct by precinct numbers showing who voted and how. There's only so much spin one can do against real data. Moreover, multiple candidate victory declarations could make the Iowa caucus results so muddled, that instead of serving as a "slingshot" to the next set of contests, Iowa loses its relevance.