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The changing Democratic electorate could upend Iowa’s role in 2020

The pilgrimage of all the leading 2020 Democratic contenders to Des Moines this Friday for a state party dinner testifies to the outsized influence Iowa continues to wield in the presidential nominating process. The paradox is that the candidates’ focus on Iowa is increasing even as the state’s odds of predicting the nomination’s winner may be shrinking.

In every contested Democratic nomination race in this century, the winner of the Iowa caucuses has eventually won the nomination. That’s a measure of how much momentum candidates can earn, especially in this era of pervasive news coverage, from winning that kickoff contest. Conscious of that history, the leading 2020 candidates have courted Iowa more aggressively than any other state on the primary calendar, whether measured by time, money or staff.

But the increasing diversity of the Democratic electorate — compounded by the unique racial dynamics of this race — raises the prospect that the 2020 contest could end Iowa’s winning streak in predicting the eventual nominee. The reason is that while it’s eminently possible to win Iowa, a virtually all-white state, without appealing to black or other minority voters, it’s almost impossible to win the nomination without cross-racial appeal.

For that reason, some Democrats are looking to South Carolina, a heavily African American state that votes fourth on the primary calendar, as a better gauge of how the race will ultimately unfold than either Iowa, which votes February 3, or New Hampshire, which follows with the first primary eight days later.

“While I think Iowa is a good place to get your feet wet, New Hampshire is a good place to get your feet wet, South Carolina is a place where you dive in the political pool and really start to swim,” says Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who is uncommitted in the race. “It is the state that will ultimately decide who the next nominee will be.”

The predominant role that Iowa and New Hampshire play in the nomination process has generated internal party tension for years because the Democratic electorate in each state remains about 90% white, in a party where as much as 40% of the primary voters across all the states may be nonwhite.

But the impact of that racial contrast has been muted in the party’s four contested nomination races since 2000 for one big reason: The winners of the Iowa caucuses all performed well with black voters in subsequent states, particularly Al Gore in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. (John Kerry, the 2004 Iowa winner, ran well, but not as dominantly, among African American voters.)

This year, though, polls point toward a heightened possibility of a divergence between the mostly white Iowa electorate and the more diverse states that follow.

Support among African Americans

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has established a significant advantage in almost all state and national polls among white voters with college degrees, and in some surveys she’s turned in very competitive showings among white voters without college degrees as well. That pattern of support has pushed her into the lead in some recent Iowa surveys. Given the strength of the organization she’s built in the state, some local observers now consider her a clear favorite.

“Today I would say it is going to be really hard to displace Elizabeth Warren,” says Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic consultant who is unaffiliated in the race. “She has not had a meteoric rise, she has had a slow and steady rise. She’s got a big organization and they are smart and they are doing stuff all over.”

But Warren has seen little support in polls among black voters, who cast about one-fourth of all the 2016 Democratic primary votes, according to a cumulative CNN analysis. That’s not a problem for her in Iowa — or New Hampshire — but it looms as a critical hurdle in the more diverse states that vote later, starting with Nevada and especially South Carolina. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who appear positioned along with Warren to perform well in Iowa, also have registered little support with black voters — in Buttigieg’s case virtually none). Among the top tier of current Iowa contenders only former Vice President Joe Biden has displayed a consistent appeal for African American voters in polls.

That pattern heightens the possibility that Iowa’s streak of picking the party winners might end next year. The biggest question remaining in the 2020 race, in fact, may be whether a disappointing showing for Biden in Iowa — and possibly New Hampshire, too — will cause large numbers of black voters in later states, especially South Carolina, to move away from him.

“I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on the decisive vote in South Carolina, which is African American voters,” says Seawright. Iowa’s ultimate effect on the nomination fight could turn on whether he’s right.

Iowa and New Hampshire’s impact only grew in 21st century

Historically, the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire over the Democratic nomination process can hardly be overstated. Since the modern primary process began in 1972, Democrats have picked only two presidential nominees who had not carried one of the two states: George McGovern in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Even the Clinton example comes with an asterisk: The Democratic contenders that year conceded Iowa to home state candidate Sen. Tom Harkin, and Clinton staged a dramatic revival in New Hampshire, successfully anointing himself as “the comeback kid,” after recovering from scandal to finish second to another regional favorite, Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.

If anything, the two states’ influence appears to have deepened in this century. Not only have they picked the ultimate winner each time, but candidates who did not break through in one of them have been almost completely shut out everywhere else.

Democrats have had four contested 21st-century nomination fights: in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016. Over those four races, with about 200 total state contests among them, the number of primaries and caucuses won by a candidate who did not first win Iowa or New Hampshire is just five. All of those exceptions came in 2004, when John Kerry won both of the first two states and captured the nomination convincingly, but lost five contests along the way to his rivals, Howard Dean, John Edwards and Wesley Clark.

Iowa has seemed to eclipse even New Hampshire in the most recent Democratic contests: When the two states diverged in their choices in 2008 and 2016, the Iowa winner (Obama and then Hillary Clinton) beat the New Hampshire victor (Clinton and then Sanders) both times. And certainly in 2020, every tangible measure of campaign commitment signals that the candidates are prioritizing Iowa over New Hampshire and the other earliest states on the calendar Nevada and South Carolina.

Iowa is getting campaign cash and face time

Data collected by the CNN political unit from Kantar/CMAG, an ad-monitoring firm, shows that Iowa is receiving far more spending on television advertising than any other state.

Apart from billionaire investor Tom Steyer, a long-shot candidate who has spent enormous sums in all four of the early states, the candidate ad buys are heavily tilted toward Iowa. Biden, for instance, has already spent about $700,000 in Iowa, compared with about $5,000 combined in the other three states. Buttigieg has spent almost $2 million in Iowa television without spending anything in the other three states.

Three other candidates are devoting almost all of their television spending so far to Iowa: Sanders ($1.7 million in Iowa, about $1,000 in South Carolina) and Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado (about $1.1 million in Iowa, nothing anywhere else) and Kamala Harris of California (nearly $600,000 in Iowa, nothing anywhere else). Though Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is pitching herself in Iowa as a neighboring Midwesterner, she may be the biggest exception to this pattern so far: She’s spent roughly even sums in Iowa and New Hampshire, nearly $500,000 in each case.

Warren hasn’t yet aired any television ads, but the Kantar/CMAG data show that she’s booked more television advertising in Iowa than anywhere else. Warren, however, has also booked million-dollar-plus commitments in the other three states; apart from Steyer, only Biden — in South Carolina — has made bookings in a future state anywhere near that large.

Campaign visits tell the same story. A tracker of campaign appearances maintained by the Ballotpedia website show that through October 1, almost all of the major Democratic candidates — including Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Harris and Klobuchar — had made about twice as many trips to Iowa as New Hampshire; only Warren has kept a closer balance between them. Harris has virtually moved to Iowa, and Buttigieg, who is launching another bus tour there this weekend after the Friday event, is close behind. The leading contenders have also blanketed the state with campaign offices and organizing staff.

“I think there are 650 campaign staffers currently in Iowa for presidential candidates,” says Link, the Democratic consultant. “That’s got to be close to a high-water mark” in the state’s history, he adds.

In New Hampshire, ‘a slow fall’

It’s all been enough to leave New Hampshire feeling more than a little neglected. “It’s been a slow fall,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Stormy Weather,” a history of the New Hampshire primary. Scala says New Hampshire is receiving the least attention from the Democratic candidates probably since the 2004 race, when most of the field also burrowed into Iowa and largely ceded the first-in-the-nation primary to the two regional candidates, Kerry and Dean.

This year several factors appear to driving the campaigns to prioritize Iowa over the other early states even more than usual.

The first is the sheer size of the field. In polling this year, Democratic voters have already shown a clear reluctance to seriously focus on more than a few candidates, and the campaigns believe that narrowing tendency will significantly intensify once states begin voting.

The historic axiom has been that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning that only the top three finishers there remain viable in later states. Given the amount of money and media attention candidates can now command, few campaign strategists are sure that rule still applies, but no one wants to be the fourth- or fifth-place finisher who proves it does. Scala, in a view echoed by many campaign insiders, says the candidates seem to have concluded the race “is like a 100-yard dash but there’s not enough place on the track for everybody. If you lose that first step you might be done, and Iowa is that first step.”

Another factor tilting the candidates toward Iowa, especially relative to New Hampshire, is the belief that it will be very difficult for anyone — even Biden — to dislodge one of the two senators from neighboring states, Warren and Sanders. When New Hampshire voters have had the opportunity to pick a New England candidate, such as Tsongas, Kerry or Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, they have almost always done so. The high cost of competing in New Hampshire –because of the need to buy expensive television in Boston that reaches the Granite State — adds to the reluctance of most candidates to launch full-scale New Hampshire efforts. For everyone except Biden, Warren and Sanders, the dominant assumption may be that the best way to run competitively in New Hampshire is to ride the momentum from a good showing in Iowa.

The concern about the cost of Boston television points toward the third reason Iowa has emerged as first among equals. With so many candidates running, the Democratic fundraising base has splintered to a point where no one commands the level of financial resources that say, Obama and Hillary Clinton did in 2008. Compared with the past few races, that means candidates can’t afford to blanket all of the early states with resources.

The new dynamic

Yet despite all these factors steering the candidates toward Iowa, the prominent racial divergence emerging in the Democratic race increases the possibility that Iowa this year could send out a false positive, picking a favorite who does not ultimately win.

Even Biden’s own advisers privately acknowledge that failing to win Iowa or New Hampshire would threaten his campaign. But whatever happens in Iowa, New Hampshire and even Nevada, the campaign believes that if Biden can retain enough support from black voters to win South Carolina, he could restore his viability. The calendar at that point would benefit him because so many of the states that vote in the next few weeks after South Carolina — beginning with the Super Tuesday cluster of primaries just three days later — have large populations of African Americans, Hispanics or both. That means it will be harder for Warren or any other remaining contender to win most of those states — from Alabama and Arizona to Florida, Texas and California — while depending primarily on white voters, especially those with college degrees.

Seawright, in fact, says it will be “mathematically impossible” for any candidate to run strongly on Super Tuesday without first receiving, in effect, a stamp of approval from African American voters in South Carolina. Biden “can use South Carolina as a place of political rehabilitation and come out well,” he says. Although it now looks less likely, South Carolina could also serve as a springboard for either of the two African American candidates in the race — Harris or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — if they first demonstrate strength in one of the three states that vote before it. Obama followed that model to eclipse Clinton in 2008.

Despite its public bravado, Biden’s camp doesn’t want to find out whether it’s possible to win the nomination without carrying either of the first two, or even any of the first three, states that vote before South Carolina. But until one of Biden’s rivals shows more appeal for African American voters, it’s not unreasonable for his advisers to hope that it’s South Carolina this year that will predict the nominee — no matter how much time and money the field is lavishing on Iowa.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that George McGovern was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.

CNN