Column: Iowa Democrats still searching for a candidate to beat Trump

Pete Buttigieg and supporters in Iowa
Presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg with supporters in Des Moines on Friday.
(Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

The Democrats of Iowa flooded noisily into Des Moines on Friday night as part of their unique role in choosing America’s presidential nominees.

Most didn’t get what they wanted.

The 13,000 who filled the local Wolves’ basketball arena, and thousands more who marched in freezing rain outside, were yearning for a replay of the 2007 dinner where an upstart young senator named Barack Obama electrified Iowans and jump-started his presidential campaign.

Pete Buttigieg came close, offering an optimistic call for “hope and belonging.” It was easy to see why he has surged in the polls.


Others were eloquent too, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and a folksy Amy Klobuchar — 13 candidates in all.

But lightning didn’t strike despite each campaign’s efforts to summon it with crowd chants and thunder sticks. Three months before the state’s Feb. 3 caucuses, Iowa’s Democrats aren’t ready to give their hearts away yet.

“Most people are undecided,” Jim Eliason, the party chairman in Buena Vista County, told me as he dined on chicken nuggets. “They haven’t settled down.”

Other voters bear him out.


“I’m undecided between Joe Biden and Pete,” said Denise Weiss, a bridal shop owner from Barnum. “Some of the other Democrats are a little bit too progressive for me.”

“Not sure,” said Isaiah Guest, a security guard in Des Moines. “Maybe Warren. Looking at the others.”

Polls bear it out too. A New York Times/Siena College survey last week found a four-way tie, with Warren, Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Biden tightly bunched at the top. And two-thirds of voters said they might change their minds before they caucus in the first major contest of the election season.

Iowa voters glory in this odd pre-primary period and the fact that their state — small, rural and overwhelmingly white — will winnow the field for the bigger contests to follow.


But they’re not sure what they want, beyond a Democrat who can defeat President Trump next November.

Few use the word “electability,” an invention of reporters trying to distill voters’ elusive meditations to a catchphrase.

It seems more accurate to say they’re looking for a moment of illumination that hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s impossible to know who’s electable,” Wendy Ewalt, who is leaning toward Warren, told me. “But who’s got the personality to handle Trump? That’s really important.”


“My vision of this is the debate stage,” said Teresa Hood, a farmer from Clare. “Who’s the best one to get up there and debate Trump? I think it’s Pete — his youth, his vitality, his intelligence.”

“Joe Biden tells the truth. It comes from the heart. That’s why we all love him,” she added. “But I worry about his stamina. I worry about the mistakes.”

Ideology seems less important than attitude. In three days of conversations, I met voters who caucused for Bernie Sanders in 2016 but are now thinking about Warren, Buttigieg or entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Iowa voters are demanding. They want to meet, or at least see, every candidate at least once.


They like to be courted. They relish being undecided.

And they are changeable; they have to be. If a candidate doesn’t reach 15% in a caucus, he or she is eliminated, and voters have half an hour to pick someone else. As a result, most are already thinking about potential second and third choices.

That’s why so many candidates stay in the race if they can raise enough money and voter enthusiasm. Maybe someone will still catch fire.

One of the front runners might falter, as Biden apparently is doing. “The Zombie Campaign,” New York Magazine called his effort last week, unkindly but accurately.


That’s why Harris, whose campaign has flatlined elsewhere, has moved to Des Moines almost full-time. That’s why Klobuchar, a fluent Midwestern-speaker from neighboring Minnesota, is banking on Iowa to activate her moribund bid.

Anything can happen; that part of the caucus mythology is largely true.

Three months before the 2008 Democratic caucuses, Obama was in third place, behind Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama won and proved unstoppable.

It wasn’t unusual. Since 1972, the Democratic winner in Iowa has won the party’s nomination in seven out of nine contested races.


So they marched, Iowa’s Democrats, in Friday’s freezing rain. They filed into their basketball arena for five marathon hours of speeches — not only by the candidates, including some who won’t be long remembered, but also their state party chairman, members of Congress, even the state auditor as he asked for contributions.

They ate Iowa pork chops and drank Iowa beer. They bragged that this was the largest gathering of Democrats anywhere until the party’s national convention in Milwaukee next July.

And if lightning didn’t strike, no matter. There are still three months of town halls and fish fries to hear candidates speak, then a cold February evening when Iowans will trudge through snow and ice to caucus with their neighbors at schools and firehouses.

“We love our caucuses,” retired truck driver Patrick Mitchell told me fervently as he stood with his daughter outside the arena in the rain. His vote would matter, he said, and that would make it all worthwhile.