Iowa ’16: Keeping HRC Engaged

So now that Brian Schweitzer’s gone to Iowa and created the theoretical possibility of a Democratic challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016, CNN’s Peter Hamby follows with a full-scale survey of the Democratic landscape in the First-in-the-Nation Caucus State.

What you need to understand to parse the words of the Iowa Democratic activists Hamby quotes is that they need a competitive Caucus to maintain their clout in the national Democratic Party, and to harvest the material benefits thereof, including the vast contributions of putative candidates and their backers which makes Iowa politics a state-of-the-art endeavor. This is particularly important right now, since Iowa Democrats are facing a difficult midterm election in which they’re struggling to field a competitive gubernatorial candidate and are in some danger of giving Republicans complete control of the state legislature (things are looking better for Senate candidate Bruce Braley, but he’s hardly home free if turnout patterns create a GOP wave). There are two immediate threats to a sense that Iowa ’16 will matter: a clearing of the field for Hillary Clinton, or barring that, a decision by HRC to skip Iowa as an unnecessary risk and a money pit, which it proved to be in 2008.

So Iowans have a big stake in talking up rivals to HRC, but also convincing her she can squelch them preemptively by coming into Iowa in a big way. You can read that in the ambivalent statements about her that Hamby secured.

Objectively speaking, the idea that Iowa could again derail a front-running HRC candidacy is a bit dubious. In the 2008 cycle, John Edwards barely stopped campaigning after his nearly-successful 2004 Caucus effort. Barack Obama was a historic candidate with special appeal to young people and independents, and with a base in next-door Illinois. Meanwhile, HRC had few connections to the state, her husband having never competed in the Caucuses, and she got a bit of a late start. And her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War was a lot more proximate.

She won’t face any of these problems in 2016. But then again, she could skip the state without enormous risk other than the possibility an Iowa win would give a rival a fundraising and publicity credential (or reduce the field of rivals to one, in the unlikely event there are multiple challengers).

From a purely Iowa-centric point-of-view, the best scenario would probably be for HRC’s backers to pour a lot of early preemptive money into the state–and then for Clinton herself to decide against running, creating a wide-open nomination fight. In any event, keeping HRC engaged is presently a categorical imperative. Keep that in mind when you read this or any other early talk from or about Iowa.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.