It was the Hawkeye State that scuttled Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions in 2008. Iowa’s energetic caucus-goers were not moved by Clinton’s self-professed qualities of electability and inevitability, and they voted for both Barack Obama and John Edwards over the former first lady. Clinton learned that she would have to earn her party’s nomination that night, and the primary campaign that followed the Iowa caucuses would prove to be an intensely fought one. It was a fight, however, from which she was not fated to emerge victorious.
As Clinton is preparing to mount a new campaign for the presidency, she faces a predicament similar to the one she faced six years ago. In Iowa, all the energy is behind non-establishment ideals (as opposed to flesh and blood candidates), and the caucus system rewards enthusiasm and organization over raw support. While another upset seems unlikely, the ingredients that make for a political surprise are present.
“Interviews with more than half of Democratic chiefs in Iowa’s 99 counties show a state party leadership so far reluctant to coalesce behind Mrs. Clinton. County Democratic officials also voiced qualms about Mrs. Clinton’s ability to win a general election and her fundraising ties to Wall Street firms and corporations, which remain a target of liberal ire,” read a report in Monday’s Wall Street Journal that should concern Team Hillary.
Many county officials said they would like to see senators including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont enter the race, though they were split over whether any could gain traction and overtake Mrs. Clinton.
“My heart wouldn’t be in it for Hillary to the extent that it might be if it was a different candidate,” said Jennifer Herrington, chair of the Page County Democrats in southwest Iowa. “I admire Hillary, she’d be a great president, but you know, she isn’t my first choice I guess.”
In many ways, Iowa’s Democratic electorate mirrors its Republican counterpart. 2012 proved that there are a sizable number of GOP voters in Iowa who are happy to back the contender dubbed most electable in spite of the pejorative label “establishment.” Mitt Romney came in an extraordinarily narrow second place behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and for much of the evening it looked like Romney had shocked the political world by emerging from Iowa victorious. But for all of Romney’s 24.5 percent of the Iowa vote, another three-quarters backed a non-establishment candidate. It was a narrow loss that shattered Romney’s own cultivated sense of inevitability, and one which fueled a fierce opposition to his candidacy that continued until May.
Even a narrow loss for Clinton in Iowa could spell disaster for her second presidential bid, but that prospect seems remote. You can’t lose to nobody, and the Clinton machine has, thus far, been able to fend off top-tier challengers. But how long can Democratic politicians with aspirations for higher office ignore the Siren Song of Iowa’s county-level party chairs crying out for a liberal champion? Discontent with Clinton is palpable, and her support in the polls could be an artificial result of standing alone on the presidential stage.
But Democrats who want to see Clinton challenged in a primary are also smartly laying the foundations to blame her for a 2016 defeat if a challenge does not materialize. According to The Journal, local Democrats note that the energy, donations, and political infrastructure acquired during a contested primary also become critical tools to use in the general election. Without those, the Democratic nominee is likely to be at a disadvantage when the vibrant and ideologically diverse GOP concludes its primary contest. Could appeals like these prompt Clinton to rein in her loyal soldiers? Some of these allies are apparently so trigger happy that, simply for displaying the gall to consider a likely doomed challenge to Clinton, they would seek to impugn one-term Sen. Jim Webb for having penned mildly racy content in his novels.
While the argument that a party that undergoes a contested primary is a stronger party is a valid contention, Clinton is unlikely to welcome a serious challenge. 2008’s memories from Iowa are too fresh. Anti-Clinton forces, too, seem resigned. Those disaffected liberals who are prepared to accept her coronation are also preparing to consign the name Clinton to history’s dishonorable scrap piles should she lose. It would be a bitter irony that the name Clinton, one which for the last 20 years has been associated with reviving the moribund Democratic brand, might soon become synonymous with its destruction.