Sen. Kamala Harris’s three-day trip to Iowa, which starts July 3, would have been just another 2020 campaign story only a week ago.
But after the first-term senator’s Miami debate takedown of former Vice President Joe Biden, Harris will arrive in Des Moines this afternoon under a far greater microscope now that she is surging in national and Iowa polls and is suddenly seen as a potential frontrunner rival to Biden.
One question will follow Harris as she visits a series of July 4 barbecues: Is she running to win the Iowa caucuses? History suggests those who don’t focus on the state risk putting their chance at the presidential nomination in peril.
The conventional wisdom before Miami was that Harris would do her best in Iowa on Feb. 3, with her eye on the fourth primary contest in South Carolina on Feb. 29. A strong showing in the Palmetto State would set her up for a potentially huge win March 3 in her home state of California, and in a number of Super Tuesday states across the South, where African-American women are a key constituency: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia among them.
The New Yorker wrote as recently as June 26 that there was “no other path to the nomination” than this South Carolina and California one-two punch.
Yet since the Iowa caucuses were first held in 1972, the eventual nominee in both parties has finished in the top two in Iowa in all but four contests. Historically, Iowa has not just been important to a candidate’s chances of being the nominee, it’s been vital.
Harris spokesman Ian Sams told Yahoo News that Harris is “100 percent playing in Iowa.” And the Harris campaign announced Tuesday that it had hired 30 new field organizers in the Hawkeye State, along with a trio of statewide operatives, quieting talk from just a month ago that she was shortchanging an aggressive organizing push ahead of the caucuses.
But the senator has so far spent more time in South Carolina. She will be making her fifth trip to Iowa this week but will then head to South Carolina on Sunday and Monday for her ninth visit as a presidential candidate.
The Harris campaign thinks the eventual nominee could finish as low as fourth or fifth in Iowa and still have a chance to win nationally, a campaign official told Yahoo News. “There could be as many as four or five tickets out of Iowa,” the aide said.
The Harris campaign’s thinking is that this election might buck the long-term Iowa trend because of “the historically large and diverse field, as well as proportional delegate allocation rules that could extend the primary by creating no clear runaway frontrunner.”
By this logic, Harris is preparing for a long primary, and that may be a good bet. But a long primary and a decisive Iowa result are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, highly compatible.
The primary could very well extend to the Democratic National Convention next July. But that doesn’t change the fact that the morning after the Iowa caucuses, “the top two finishers are going to be on fire ... and that’s going to define the race,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who has worked on presidential campaigns going back to 1980.
The past is littered with the carcasses of candidates who overlooked Iowa, Trippi said. One of the most recent examples is Rudy Giuliani in 2008, who waited for the Florida primary but found out he was dead in the water by that point.
“Momentum is a helluva thing,” said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in South Carolina who has endorsed Harris. Nonetheless, he too, like Harris’s aide, said “there are going to be four or five tickets out of Iowa.”
Trippi, however, said that finishing in the top two in Iowa is not just about creating or preserving momentum for your own candidacy; it’s also about preventing another candidate from getting it.
For example, he said, in 1988 the eventual winner of the Democratic primary was Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who finished third in Iowa. But that year’s caucus is a cautionary tale nonetheless, because Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee thought he could let Dukakis win Iowa on Feb. 8 and wait for a mammoth Super Tuesday on March 8, when his home state would be one of nearly a dozen Southern states holding a primary vote.
But Gore didn’t anticipate that Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri would come from single-digit poll numbers and within three weeks surge to first in Iowa, which dramatically changed the math of the race. Now, instead of a one-on-one face-off with Dukakis for the mainstream wing of the party, with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson taking a lion’s share of the African-American vote, Gore was fighting a two-front battle.
“Dukakis wins New Hampshire, we’re all going south, and guess who’s pulling enough centrist white voters off of Gore? The guy he let get in the middle of him and Dukakis,” Trippi said.
Historical anomalies like George H.W. Bush in 1988 and John McCain in 2008 do exist, Trippi said. Bush finished third among five candidates and McCain finished fourth among seven candidates, and both became the nominee.
However, the list of candidates who have finished first or second in Iowa and gone on to win their party’s nomination is much longer: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter (twice), Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Al Gore (in 2000), George W. Bush, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.
That’s a final tally of 12 contests where Iowa punched only two tickets, and only three where the eventual nominee finished lower than first or second. And so the law of averages says candidates should go all-out in Iowa.
Trippi cautioned strongly against assuming Iowa would play any less of a role in 2020.
“Until someone proves to me that the world really is upside down, the laws of gravity really don’t exist, I’m going to believe it’s a really big mistake until someone proves that it’s not,” he said. “But I wouldn’t risk it.”
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