In this edition: Warren and Klobuchar confront the gender question, closing ads hit the air in Iowa, and Democrats dream big about a Texas race they are expected to lose.
Starting today, and running through the New Hampshire primary, this newsletter will come out every day. I do get to sleep sometimes, thank you for asking, and this is The Trailer.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On the final stop of her weekend swing through Iowa, one of the last visits that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would get to make before the Feb. 3 caucuses, she got the question again: Could she really win?
“Let's be clear: This is not 2016,” Warren said. “When Donald Trump got inaugurated, the world changed. The very next day, it changed again, with the largest protest in American history. And guess what: Women have been outperforming men in competitive elections ever since.”
In the not-so-distant past, Warren would respond to electability questions another way, talking about the popularity of her wealth tax, or about the grass-roots coalition she wanted to build.
Just days before Democrats begin winnowing down their field, Warren has been more explicit about women and “electability.” So has Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, her partner in this month's tag-team debate in Iowa, in which the two women still contesting this state attacked the idea that female candidates would face disadvantages in a general election. (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has stopped campaigning in Iowa to focus on the New Hampshire primary.)
“I'm looking only at women for president,” said Nancy Abram, a 60-year-old marketing professor at the University of Iowa who came to see Warren on Sunday. “I like Klobuchar, because she's more of a moderate, but I like Warren, too. I'm with the New York Times, which makes no sense, but I'm right there.”
Four years after nominating the first female candidate for president, and two years after flipping two of Iowa's congressional districts with female candidates, Iowa Democrats are still nervous about sending a woman into the presidential election. Women made up 57 percent of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers in 2016, according to that year's entrance poll, and are likely to make up a majority again this year.
Yet less than a week before the caucuses, the female candidates are still being asked whether they can win a general election. The question has become unstuck from polling, which has found Warren and Klobuchar to be about as competitive as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Both candidates get asked whether they would accept the vice presidency, a question rarely posed to male candidates.
Both of the Democratic women elected to the House from Iowa in 2018, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, have endorsed Joe Biden. And even the supporters of 2020s female candidates, who had woken up on Election Day 2016 ready to elect a female president, have girded themselves for disappointment.
“Kamala was first, and Elizabeth is second,” said Sheila Burrage, 72, after seeing Warren in Davenport on Sunday. “But that's my gender side. On my other side is Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Look, society has positioned women at certain levels, saying we can do certain things. I know what we're up against.”
Women do not vote in blocs, as Hillary Clinton discovered in 2016. But at the start of this cycle, when women briefly made up most of the Democrats' declared candidates, there was some giddy optimism about female front-runners, or all-female tickets. Emily's List, a PAC that supports pro-abortion-rights female candidates in Democratic primaries, had endorsed Clinton early in 2016 but held its powder in this race, as multiple women seemed to be pushing to the front.
“We've got six women, five of which Emily's List has supported in the past,” the group's president, Stephanie Schriock, told The Post in July. Speaking after Harris and Warren had jumped in the polls, Schriock said that she did not “want to be in the position of having to choose between one of those two extraordinary women.”
There has been no Emily's List endorsement, but Harris has disappeared, and Warren's rivals have gotten more confident about pushing her into third or fourth place in Iowa — most likely behind Sanders, a democratic socialist who most Democrats did not consider “electable” four years ago. The Iowa entrance poll then found that voters who prioritized a candidate who can “win in November” backed Hillary Clinton by 60 points. No female candidate for president has led on the “electability” question since then.
Christina Reynolds, the communications director at Emily's List, said that the conversation about “electability” had become overly selective. Voters remained particularly nervous about a female candidate, even as polling found candidates who were over 70 years old, who identified as “democratic socialists,” or who were openly gay faced stiffer resistance from voters.
That hung over Warren and Klobuchar even before their current setback, the impeachment trial that has kept them (and Sanders) in Washington as Biden, Buttigieg and some candidates with less support roam around Iowa. Klobuchar, looking for a breakout with moderate voters, will zip into the state tonight for an event, and Warren will hold a tele-town hall, but neither is making the sustained case, on the ground, that they had planned for.
Their last in-person appearances here showed the strain, and highlighted their differences. Klobuchar has talked relentlessly about electability, reminding audiences that she carried every one of Minnesota's congressional districts in her three Senate races, “even Michele Bachmann's district.” (The Iowa-born Bachmann left Congress six years ago after a presidential bid fell flat.)
Klobuchar's remarks tend to run longer than Warren's, sometimes up to 35 minutes. While the senator from Massachusetts has cracked her stump speech in half, with a shorter introduction and closing remarks bracketing 30-odd minutes of questions, Klobuchar walks through as many of her policies as possible, peppered with jokes. Warren goes for applause; Klobuchar goes for comfortable laughter. Sometimes she gets there by describing her success passing bills and her ability to stand up next to men, like she did on a trip she took to Ukraine with Republican senators.
“The Ukrainian president handed John McCain a live machine gun,” Klobuchar recalled at a Saturday event in Muscatine, where voters packed a bar and turned down the football game to listen. “Then, he handed Lindsey Graham a live pistol. So I thought, 'What am I going to get?' They gave me two daggers. I thought that was a little bit sexist.”
Warren, the highest-polling female candidate in Iowa and elsewhere, had not talked as much about gender in the context of electability. And there is no evidence, from public or campaign polling, that Warren benefited from this month's messy argument over whether Sanders doubted that a woman could win in 2020. Warren thrilled her Sunday crowd with two words — “women win” — while saying it was voters who really needed to hear it.
“If they ask about it, I'm glad to talk about it,” Warren said after the Cedar Rapids rally, when reporters asked about gender.
Even in a crowd that had come to see Warren, parking and trudging through snow, opinions on electability were mixed. Tom Pardonek, 68, a retired middle school principal, had come to rally with a wife and daughter who supported Warren. But he intended to support Buttigieg. When he thought about Warren as a nominee, he said, he imagined her onstage, “as slightly built as she is, compared to a 245-pound Donald Trump,” and wondered how it would go.
“Intellectually, she'll be able to handle him,” Pardonek said. “But Pete would do a good job, too.” Sexism and racism, he said, were simply factors that any nominee would have to deal with. “Unless we get a series of women presidents, that might change.”
But Misha Matchette, 19, said that it was extraordinary that people still doubted that women could win.
“You would think that by now there'd be greater gender diversity, greater racial diversity,” Matchette said. “If we're not accurately represented in politics, than we're not really being represented.”
“Elizabeth Warren bet big on Iowa. Will her elaborate organization be enough?” by Annie Linskey and Holly Bailey
A year of planning and strategizing competes with nervous voters.
“In Iowa, the ‘Not Sanders’ Democrats find voters torn,” by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
Why moderates can't settle for one champion.
A pro-Israel speech sets up a fight that has never happened in a primary before.
How an archaic system makes it harder for some Iowans to vote.
“In Iowa, a long and bruising hunt for a candidate to love,” by Jenna Johnson
The stages of grief when your top choice quits the race.
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
- Trump defense team presents third day of arguments as debate rages over calling witnesses
- Who is paying the president’s lawyers?
- Bolton book roils Washington as onetime allies turn on Trump’s former national security adviser
- Lamenting ‘age of impeachment,’ Starr sidesteps his own role in arguing to acquit Trump
Elizabeth Warren, “Why She Will Beat Him.” Warren's rise from academia to the Senate to this race was powered by her biography, a youth on “the ragged edge of the middle class” that separated her from most politicians or academics. That biography has been missing from most Warren spots, which have prioritized her plans, and the fear she sparks in the ultrawealthy. This ad switches things up, with author Roxane Gay contrasting the life stories of Warren (“her father wound up as a janitor”) with the wealthy president. “When somebody tells you who they are, believe them.”
Joe Biden, “Imagine.” The closing spot for Biden's campaign tackles a concern you sometimes hear from Iowans: They hear about the former vice president's electability but are a bit murky on his agenda. This ad runs it down in Biden's own words: tackling health care and climate change, minus the litmus tests that left-wing activists have asked for. “What we imagine today, you can make a reality,” Biden says, an adaptation of his stump speech. “But first, we need to beat Donald Trump. Then there will be no limit for what we can do.”
Tom Steyer, “Fired Up.” Millions of dollars in campaign ads have put Steyer into contention in South Carolina, and he has spent time there while other candidates are focused on Iowa. That has given him time with black voters and leaders who were still shopping for a candidate, including Edith Childs, the woman who coined the “fired up, ready to go” slogan that Barack Obama adopted in 2008. “We need something different to beat Trump,” Childs says. “Tom Steyer can bring it.”
The Club for Growth, “46.” Created to replace moderate Republicans with free-market conservatives, the Club has a side gig in meddling with Democratic primaries. It ran ads against Beto O'Rourke and Joe Biden shortly after they got into the race. Each of those spots unloaded their negatives, from O'Rourke's perceived “white privilege” to Biden's age and gaffes.
This looks much more like the spots that campaigns run to puff up a weaker challenger, something then-Sen. Claire McCaskill did in her 2012 reelection bid in Missouri. This ad portrays Sanders as “more radical than Obama on health care” and warns that the Green New Deal is “even bigger than the New Deal.” The only true negativity comes when the ad warns that Sanders would be the “oldest president ever,” which could also evoke Biden.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
The new ad from the Club for Growth may be the first in a wave of negative spots in a primary that’s so far lacked them. The Democratic Majority for Israel has reserved $700,000 worth of time for spots targeting Bernie Sanders, as first reported by Politico’s Zack Montellaro.
The ad itself does not mention Israel. In 15 seconds, it features three Iowa voters who worry that Sanders could not win a general election, fretting that the “socialist” label will sink him in the Midwest.
Why would a pro-Israel group go negative on the only Jewish candidate competing for Iowa? Sanders has said he’d tie aid to Israel to its policies toward Palestinians, and DMFI PAC opposes that forcefully. The Sanders campaign quickly capitalized on the ad, with campaign manager Faiz Shakir sending an email to donors that warns of “$700,000 worth of negative ads in Iowa attacking Bernie Sanders.”
But Joe Biden was getting hit too; Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s campaign reserved cable time for a spot narrated by Scott himself, sarcastically thanking Democrats for “badly botching” impeachment and engaging in a “coverup” for Biden. Scott goes on to mislead about the details of Biden’s successful effort to get Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired, suggesting that he did so to end a probe into Burisma, which employed Biden’s son Hunter. In reality, that investigation was over by the time Biden pushed for the firing.
Is this candidate “honest and trustworthy?” (Fox News, 1,005 registered voters)
The decisive voter in the 2016 presidential election was unhappy with both major parties' options. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton entered Election Day with high negatives and a majority of voters saying they were not honest. In key states, those voters broke for Trump by big margins. In Wisconsin, for example, just 36 percent of voters said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” and just 33 percent said the same of Hillary Clinton.
This poll question, which Fox has been asking for a while, demonstrates how Trump has lost that advantage. No Democrat comes close to Trump's negatives on the “honest and trustworthy” question, and the results clash with some popular story lines about them. While Buttigieg has been hammered by his party's left for changing his positions over the course of the race, he has a 29-point “honest and trustworthy” advantage over Trump; while Warren has repeatedly faced questions over whether she has embellished her life story, she holds a 25-point advantage. Sanders fares best, with a 40-point advantage that's at the heart of his candidacy: Some voters may not be on board with his policies, but they admire his bluntness.
IN THE STATES
Democrats have started to dream big dreams about Texas, a state where they made surprising gains in the midterm elections even as Republicans kept control of every statewide office. Beto O'Rourke's party is now focused on wrestling back control of the state House of Representatives, and today's special election in the 28th District is their first test.
They do not expect to pass it. While the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee invested in candidate Eliz Markowitz's race, Republicans hold a clear advantage in the district. While their margin shrank drastically from 2012 to 2018, Republicans running statewide both carried it easily: Donald Trump by 10 points in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz by single digits in 2018. According to the Texas Tribune, Republican Gary Gates saw a clear partisan advantage in early voting, with 53 percent of votes cast by Republicans. And Democrats are already arguing that a reasonably close defeat would give them momentum
“They've been forced to put millions of dollars into a race that's supposed to be a layup,” said Brad Bauman, a consultant working with the DLCC. “Republicans fought really hard to win a race they should have won with no work whatsoever. We have 22 targeted races in Texas, and this is 16th on the list.”
Daniel Squadron, whose Future Now Fund spent over $50,000 to help Markowitz, also argued that a single-digit margin would be a minor coup for Democrats.
“A win is possible, and it would be seismic,” he said. “But there's going to be a lot of focus next week, and a lot of punditry, on a caucus in Iowa, and we think this race will say more.”
The four senators in the Democrats’ race are still tied up with impeachment, though Amy Klobuchar is plotting a breakaway: a 7 p.m. event in Council Bluffs tonight. Across the river from Omaha, it’s one of just two Iowa cities that can be reached from Washington via direct commercial flights, with direct flights back in the morning.
The other senators in the race — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael F. Bennet — are either campaigning via surrogates, holding tele-town halls, or waiting until the weekend and a clearer schedule.
Joe Biden. He’s continuing his Iowa sprint, with town halls in Sioux City and Council Bluffs; he also added his 15th endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina.
Pete Buttigieg. He’ll be in Jefferson and Webster City, continuing his Iowa tour in places that had moved toward Trump in 2016.
Tom Steyer. He’ll hold Iowa town halls in Knoxville, Ottumwa and Fairfield.
Andrew Yang. He’ll hold Iowa town halls in Iowa City, Burlington and Davenport.
Tulsi Gabbard. She’ll hold a town hall in Rochester, N.H.
Mike Bloomberg. He’ll be back in Texas, with stops in Houston and El Paso, and he picked up endorsements from TV and fashion celebrities Tim Gunn and Isaac Mizrahi.
(This is the first part in a daily series about the history of the Iowa caucuses.)
In the beginning, there was George McGovern. The senator from South Dakota was one of the first Democrats to get into the race for the party's 1972 presidential nomination, announcing a full year before the Iowa caucuses. “I stood almost alone in opposition to the sending of American troops to Southeast Asia,” McGovern said, pitching himself as a prairie liberal who got the biggest issue of his time right.
That wasn't worth much, at first. McGovern spent most of 1971 polling in the single digits, as Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine worked to dominate the field. But McGovern had a unique understanding of the primary process, thanks to his work on a DNC commission created to shift power away from party leaders and toward voters. To prevent another situation like 1968, when the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy led to boss-run state parties handing the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, there would be more delegates bound to early-state primaries and caucuses than ever before. In 1968, just 14 states had picked delegates in primaries; in 1972, there would be 11 caucuses and 22 primaries.
The New Hampshire primary that year would be held March 7. A number of states would hold caucuses before that, and McGovern's campaign focused on Iowa. He made only a few stops, but his rivals made none. There were no camera crews or media vans chasing McGovern, even when he made news. Just weeks before the caucuses, McGovern made a speech in Ames where, for the first time, he suggested a “minimum income grant,” a cash transfer that would replace the welfare system. But there were few reporters on hand to hear it, so the McGovern campaign sent the text to reporters in Washington.
On Jan. 24, McGovern lost the caucuses, as expected. But he won the news cycle. A slight plurality of voters who'd shown up at the caucuses remained “uncommitted,” keeping delegates up for grabs, with some of them supporting a campaign to draft Sen. Ted Kennedy into the race. Muskie was right behind, with 36 percent of the vote. McGovern clocked in at 23 percent.
“For Mr. Muskie,” wrote the New York Times's R.W. Apple, “the victory was big enough to ensure that politicians across the country would not think that he had stumbled in Iowa in the first [contest] of the year between Presidential candidates but not big enough to add much to the bandwagon psychology he has been building.”
Until caucus night, McGovern had no proof that his organizing strategy could work, or that the party's new rules could boost insurgent candidates. But he repeated that strategy until he won the nomination. And that little speech in Ames gave the Nixon campaign a weapon. No other Democratic candidate dared talk about a universal basic income until 2019, when Andrew Yang used it to build his own Iowa insurgency.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has weighed in on the year's first special election, the race to replace former congresswoman Katie Hill in California's 25th District. Christy Smith, a Democratic assemblywoman who has locked up most local endorsements, has been added to the DCCC's “red to blue” program, an official party designation that unlocks help from the party.
This didn't sit easily with Cenk Uygur, the founder of the left-wing Young Turks news network, who is running a populist campaign ahead of the March 3 primary. In an interview, he unloaded on the party for backing a candidate who had voted Republican in the past and who had an “F” rating from the liberal Courage Campaign in California. (Uygur was a Republican before becoming a left-wing Democrat, a conversion story he tells on the trail.) He compared her to Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, a conservative Democrat who flipped a seat in 2018 but switched parties last month, and who will be joined by the president at a rally tonight.
“No one at the DCCC never reached out to me, because apparently progressives are the enemy,” Uygur said. “What happened to not diverting resources from general elections? She’s not an incumbent, and this is not red to blue. They're making it blue to red, because they've decided that there's yet another person of color who must be defeated.”
Smith's campaign did not respond to Uygur, and DCCC spokeswoman Robyn Patterson responded by reiterating the reasons it wanted to hold the seat.
“The DCCC’s job is to protect and expand this House caucus, the only thing standing between Donald Trump and everyday working Americans’ ability to afford their health care. We know what is at stake in this special election and we are proud to support a candidate with deep local roots and the ability to hold this seat.”
Democrats are hoping to win the district outright March 3, when Democratic turnout will probably surge because of attention on the presidential race; if no candidate cracks 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election in May. Uygur has not won the same kind of support as left-wing challengers in other races; Justice Democrats, which he co-founded, has not backed him, and he was briefly endorsed by Bernie Sanders before urging the senator from Vermont to rescind his support. But he invoked Sanders and his growing support in California to criticize the DCCC's decision.
“Genius move, five weeks before we take over the party,” Uygur said.
... six days until the Iowa caucuses
... 10 days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 14 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 25 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 32 days until the South Carolina primary
... 35 days until Super Tuesday