Will Anyone Challenge HRC in Iowa?

CNN’s Peter Hamby has a piece today on the possibility that Hillary Clinton “could end up alone in Iowa” in 2016. And for the most part it’s another survey of the landscape to weigh the possibility of anyone taking on the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But Hamby does take an Iowa-centric approach to the question, which means that while he adjudges Elizabeth Warren as far and away the most formidable (if still unlikely) challenger to Clinton, he notes Martin O’Malley is the only one taking the kind of preliminary steps necessary to setting up an organization in the First-in-the-Nation Caucus State. And that’s no small matter:

“We have this mythology that you can go to Iowa and New Hampshire and knock a few doors and ultimate you too can be a serious presidential candidate,” [Iowa Democratic activist Kurt] Meyer said. “Maybe Eugene McCarthy could do that. I think that the schedule and political life has gotten to the point today where you aren’t a serious candidate unless you go through the hoops of raising money and creating an organization. I think O’Malley probably comes the closest to it, but I don’t see who else.”

Even O’Malley has just scratched the surface, since the kind of dues-paying he’s done–fundraising and staff help for local Iowa candidates–is just the ante for a very long game.

What Hamby doesn’t explicitly ask but you have to wonder about is whether a candidate who does decide to challenge HRC–or at least prepare for a challenge–would be wise to skip Iowa. Yes, it defies the stereotype of the lonely, unnoticed underdog trudging from potluck to firehouse chili cookoff across Iowa and gradually building a viable campaign that would be impossible in media-intensive states. But the truth is Iowa is expensive–in every kind of resource. Lest we forget, the state nearly bankrupted HRC in 2008, and she ran third.

Now nobody in Iowa is going to publicly entertain that strategy as making any sense, because presidential nomination contests are major economic development projects for the state, and particularly important to the state parties and the armies of activists who drift towards Iowa for employment and experience. What O’Malley’s been doing makes a lot of sense as a hedge tactic in case HRC doesn’t run at all; he’d have a big head start in Iowa if that happened. But if, say, you’re Bernie Sanders, saving the money and time for next-door New Hampshire is the obvious thing to do. So it’s entirely possible Clinton will have Iowa to herself–but will still have to win the nomination later.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.