Are Iowa's Democratic days gone for good?

The Simpsons insist that democrats will start winning federal elections again in Dubuque County if they can convince voters that they’re true allies of the working class. They need to “show up at UAW meetings, to be out on the picket lines,” Kelly said. Voters need to know, Greg said, that “we want to fix bridges, and get the roads paved, and make sure kids are in school.” Yes, Democrats want gender-neutral bathrooms, he added, “but it’s not the only thing we care about.” Some of the same volunteers and organizers that the family worked with a decade ago are still active in Dubuque. That fact gives Megan hope. “It’s a long-term game,” she said. “They’re doing the work.”

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Democrats have been trying to send this message through their policies—the American Rescue Plan; the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But changing people’s impressions of a party isn’t as simple as tweaking a platform, because the majority of Americans don’t hold strong policy views. In politics, personality is the product; policies are the fine print that most people don’t have time to read. “Individual people’s politics is so much more about who they think they are in the world as opposed to policy stances,” Kathy Cramer, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me. “It’s about ‘Am I being heard? Am I being respected?’” To have any hope of clawing back their former terrain, Democrats need to make voters feel like the answer is yes.

Yet even local Democrats who have made powerful cultural appeals are in trouble in Dubuque. Abby Finkenauer, the energetic, folksy-sounding daughter of a local-union pipe fitter, who won the county in 2018, couldn’t make her win stick. In 2020, she lost to a Trump-endorsed Republican who campaigned on stopping the radicals and socialists in Congress. “To the extent that folks in Dubuque or anywhere else are getting messages from the [Democrats], they’re not coming from the messaging machine; they’re coming through various intermediaries, like Fox News and social media,” Lee Drutman, a political scientist and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, told me. Finkenauer is now running for U.S. Senate. If she secures the Democratic nomination in tonight’s primary, she will face longtime Republican Senator Chuck Grassley in the general election. She’s not favored to win.

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