The Iowa caucuses are less than six months away. But before caucus day officially kicks off the voting in the 2020 Democratic primary season, there’s a very active campaign in the election calendar’s earliest states. Over the next few months, The Washington Post will run first-person notes from influential Democratic activists and party fixtures in early primary and caucus states, checking in with them frequently on how the campaign is unfolding on the ground and what they think of developments in politics.

For the first installment, we asked how they’d pick the best candidate to beat President Trump.

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, Iowa

A social-justice activist in Bondurant and a former executive director of One Iowa, a statewide LGBT advocacy group.

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I’m looking for a candidate who can provide hope for the future. So many people are under attack by this administration — from transgender individuals, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees to women, Muslims or soybean farmers. It might seem odd to include soybean farmers in this list, but our candidate must be able to grasp — and show — how Trump’s decisions have hurt them, too. Voters must feel heard and seen, and we have to offer plans that will provide them security and economic improvements in the future.

I’m also looking for a true leader who can positively and authentically represent our country. This person must be someone everyone, and especially young people, can look to as a role model. And they must be willing to show up both for marginalized communities and for rural Americans.

Lucas Meyer, N.H.

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President of the New Hampshire Young Democrats.

I want to see which campaigns work not only to lift themselves up, but also boost the existing progressive and local organizations already doing the hard work it takes to advance good policies and elect Democrats. We will be watching this especially closely on college campuses to see how much of a priority the youth vote plays in their plans. In a crowded field, the ability by some of these campaigns to reach beyond their own goals to help build stronger progressive infrastructure in a small state like New Hampshire can demonstrate a candidate’s style of leadership and indicate the kind of general-election campaign they would run. Bringing together a winning coalition to defeat Trump will require an unprecedented level of coordination and collaboration.

Linda Nelson, Iowa

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Former chairwoman of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party.

I need to personally attend events to hear firsthand and see the candidates “think on their feet”; I like to observe my fellow Iowans, too, as their faces and applause show how much support candidates really have. I’m looking at candidates with a record of accomplishments, whether their service was in local government, state government or Congress. I’m watching to see whose policy ideas have been influenced by what they hear from voters and who can reach across the aisle to partners who can help make good public policy. Winning in Trump precincts and counties will make a difference, too, because we need to bring former Trump supporters along to win. I also want to see who’s getting lots of financial support and big crowds, which are useful proxies for depth and breadth of commitment from voters. Are the people showing up at events experienced caucusgoers? Or are the candidates bringing new people (from either party) into the process?

I will, at some point, commit to caucus for a candidate, but I also want to keep my choices open. On caucus night, only five or six names will rise to the top and come out with delegates. If my first choice isn’t viable, I will be ready to move on and pick someone else who can be.

Kurt Meyer, Iowa

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Chairman of the Tri-County Democrats of Iowa.

Candidates with ideas are good; candidates with plans are better; candidates who have implemented a successful program are the best of all. A successful candidate will have a demonstrated ability to connect with voters and the ability to bring electricity to a gathering. The best candidates have a rare ability to stand for something without driving away those who may disagree. These good qualities often reinforce themselves in successful campaigns. Living in Iowa, we’re lucky to have multiple chances to interact with candidates and their staffs, and attend, observe and participate in campaign events. It’s a rare and rich opportunity, and it’ll make the next five and a half months memorable and important. I can’t wait!

Gilda Cobb-Hunter, S.C.
South Carolina House of Representatives member from
Orangeburg.

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I will decide based on the candidate’s demonstrated ability to fight for the long haul and stand up to Trump and all the nastiness he represents. The candidate has to have the intestinal fortitude to speak out on issues of race, gun violence, and social and economic justice. As important as the ability to fight is the capacity to step in and clean up the mess this president has made. The candidate has to understand the importance of building a team knowledgeable about governing and to grasp that the damage to our democracy and way of life needs to be repaired immediately.

I want to vote for a candidate who recognizes that winning the White House is not enough; keeping control of the House and taking the Senate is critical, too. For that to happen, the candidate has to be able to energize voters, be focused on adding to the registration rolls and create long-enough coattails to help elect down-ballot candidates, as well. The candidate’s message must be one which connects with voters, and it can’t just be anti-Trump.

Terie Norelli, N.H.

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Former speaker of the New Hampshire
House of Representatives.

In 2008, I often heard that the country would not elect a black man, and yet Barack Obama served as our distinguished president for eight years. In 2016, people said the country would not elect a woman, and yet Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by millions. And conventional wisdom certainly held that Donald Trump could not be elected, and yet he sits in the White House today.

So as I think about which candidate to support, I do not presume to know who is electable. Instead, I’m looking for someone who shares my values, someone who can speak to those values — and someone who can be heard by people who don’t necessarily have the same political bent as I do. I’m looking for someone who can bring together people of different ideas and from different parts of the political spectrum, someone who can connect with all kinds of Americans in all regions. I want a candidate with these skills because I think we are desperate for that as a nation.

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I do believe that, to be successful, a candidate must have the ability to deal with the media, which seems to love to draw candidates into conflict. A strong candidate cannot be successful on Trump’s terms — lying, bullying, name-calling. That doesn’t mean ignoring the harm that his administration has done. But it means highlighting the harm and then moving on to how we can do better and how the average American would benefit from a change.

With so many strong Democratic candidates, finding the best may take awhile.

Deborah Bacon Nelson, N.H.

Chairwoman of the Hanover/Lyme Democratic Party.

In previous elections, I’ve committed early and excitedly to one candidate, and I’ve shared my perspective at every opportunity when asked who I backed. This time, I’m doing a whole lot of listening and watching. What matters to people beyond the liberal Northeastern college town where I live? Who is connecting with voters in rural and urban areas? Who seems genuine with voters of color and is attracting their support? Which candidate will work for other Democrats on the ticket? As a recently retired high school teacher, I am also paying attention to who my students are enthusiastic about. In short, I’m looking for evidence of a candidate who is broadly supported by people regardless of age, ethnicity, geography and wealth.

My candidate will be someone who’s good on her or his feet, is spontaneous as well as thoughtful, has energy and a sense of humor. And finally — but most important to me, after teaching English and U.S. history — my candidate will be someone who clearly reads. Fortunately, I don’t think that rules out any of the Democrats.

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