Front-runners and surprises



Former Vice President Joe Biden returned to familiar turf in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque last week, fresh off his presidential announcement in Pittsburgh and enjoying a nice bump in some national polls. He scored 35-40% support of Democrats just after jumping in, up 10 points from March. Bernie Sanders is maybe 10-15 points behind him. Truth be told, in Iowa half the likely caucus-goers eight months hence remain undecided. Many of Biden’s supporters in Iowa remain persuadable. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll hasn’t weighed in since March.

People get serious right around the Iowa State Fair in early August, which is just after the first two big TV debates.

Remember that Joe Lieberman was once a front-runner. Rick Santorum was living in a camper and nowhere in the polls, but he won the Iowa GOP caucus in a four-day final surge. John Delaney, take hope.

Fact is, nobody knows where this race is heading. Not in Iowa, at least, where the first caucuses are held next February, eight days before the New Hampshire primary and just as California starts online primary balloting. Iowa is about demonstrating organizational strength, which polls do not track. Also, the caucuses winnow the field. They used to say there are three tickets out of Iowa. This year, twice that many could live to fight another day in South Carolina and Nevada.

Polls are important as a flash card of a given point in time. They are not predictive. They suggest it might be Biden’s to lose, but he could lose it. He has the money and network. Biden, 76, has been running in Iowa since 1988. He and Bob Dole of Kansas were our ex-officio senators. Most believe that Biden could rebrick the blue wall in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and, yes, Iowa. That might be the most important factor. And Lunch Bucket Joe laid it on thick in Dubuque, a John Deere tractor-making Mississippi River town, where he declared himself a union man with firefighters in tow.

But there are 19 others trying to make hay, and they are. They are crawling all over the state, into towns as small as 600.

Pete Buttigieg surges, then gets whacked by the Bernie Sanders crowd for inferring that they are extreme. Biden is reminded, and reminded, of Anita Hill. Elizabeth Warren took after Biden on a bankruptcy bill. Cory Booker took after Delaney a little bit over self-funding. Delaney sent out a fundraising email. The elbowing has begun, even if one hasn’t hit John Hickenlooper of Colorado yet.

The polls will bounce around. Beto O’Rourke of Texas just announced a $5 trillion-dollar climate-change plan, figuring talk of the economy doesn’t mean much if the planet burns up. Climate change is ranked as the second-most important issue for likely caucus-goers in the Iowa Poll, close behind health care.

Most people support the candidate who rolled through town last week and hunkered down for a discussion of Medicare and prescription drug prices at a downtown cafe. Storm Lake City Councilman Jose Ibarra is backing Julián Castro of Texas, who has stumped here four times since last summer, but Ibarra hosted a house party for Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. Storm Lake hasn’t even seen half the candidates.

Most of the country believes Trump is a liar and scoundrel. They say they would prefer honest. That’s what they said after Richard Nixon — Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer and little-known governor from Georgia who promised not to lie and embraced ethanol. Iowans at least want forthright (a trait many mistakenly assigned to Trump).

And they want somebody who will rig the game for them, for once. The polls also tell us that voters think that politics is set up for politicians, and that the money game is set up for the money men. Emphasis on men. Note who won seats in the House last November — those women in white jackets.

Sanders or Warren might sound radical. Yet the public sets a furrowed brow to more same-old-same-old. They will tell you they don’t like Trump, but … Obama promised us a different game and we still have the same bent rules.

The voters are weary. They are anxious. Dubuque went for Trump bigly. They want a message of hope but don’t want to get snookered. A dose of earnest with a good hearty laugh, is that it? Or maybe a college-debt forgiveness plan by taxing the filthy rich, like Warren wants? That caught the attention of a friend of who sees no way of paying off those college loans in her lifetime. She wonders how her children will get through. Days earlier, she had said she liked Beto. She thinks Warren might have the gumption it takes. Gumption. Maybe that’s it.

The state was flooded by the snowmelt this spring and washed by torrential rains after planting last spring. The Mississippi laps into downtown Davenport, visited on Tuesday by Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, with a levee breaching against Nature’s rage. Farmers are deluged by tanking soybean prices wrought by unresolved trade wars with Canada, Mexico and China. Congress can’t pass a flood disaster aid package because Trump won’t cut Puerto Rico some slack. So it goes. Sitting out here, you could think none of them care. But they are here in the thick of it campaigning. They can see it, how the Missouri bucked against engineering and scoured tens of thousands of acres, too sandy and barren to be planted to corn again this decade. The black gold is sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by now.

Those are the sorts of things likely caucus goers are thinking about. How to keep the banker at bay one more planting season. Why the local nursing home closed under tight Medicaid reimbursement. Why we need a wall at the border when we can’t afford to build a new early childhood school in Storm Lake for the children of immigrant families who all have jobs in the meatpacking plant. Why would we want to run these families off when we can’t find decent help as it is? And will Social Security be there for me? We hear it’s broke in 2025. Ours is the most elderly state. And its rural areas are bleeding people as prospects dry up.

The talk is not so much of who is up or who is down, but who seems to genuinely understand what we’re up against. To say that we are battling for the soul of America seems a given, when the borders are locking down, children are in cages, people are banned by religion and the President consorts with the Russians. The folks around here would like to know: Who’s in this thing for us? They thought Trump was last time around.

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