Gail Collins: Again, the nation turns its eyes to Iowa

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center, hugs Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., after Sanders walked up to the podium to speak during a campaign event Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, in Marshalltown, Iowa. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

And now, all eyes turn to Iowa.

OK, we don’t really need to say that. Feels as if all eyes have been on Iowa forever. Right now, the little state in the middle of the country has more political punch than the U.S. Senate. Plus no Mitch McConnell. What more can you ask?

The quadrennial ritual known as the Iowa caucuses is here. On Monday, Democratic voters will march off to a local gym or school auditorium or hotel ballroom and do their thing. When the results are announced, one or two candidates will be propelled into semiofficial front-runner status. One or two others will survive to trudge again through New Hampshire.

Eight or nine will be gone for good. They won’t all admit it, of course. But we’ll know.

We’ve now gotten to the point, which comes in almost every story about the Iowa caucuses, when it’s time to complain about the system that gives one smallish, rather homogeneous state so much political clout. Most of us live in non-first places where the candidates are spotted mainly at fundraising events. But you get the impression a lot of people in Cedar Rapids not only get to shake hands with all their favorites; they expect a positive response when they invite them over for dinner.

How did Iowa get all this power? It started back in the 1970s, when the Democratic candidate-picking system moved from the party leaders to the regular voters. Iowa wound up going first and really enjoyed the attention. It’s going to keep that spot even if it has to start holding the caucuses in August. “We take this very seriously,” said Troy Price, the state Democratic Party chairman, in a phone interview.

For sure. You’d think some Iowans would get a little weary of being ambushed by candidates every time they go to the store and spending their evenings being barraged with political ads on TV and the web. But if they are, they don’t tend to admit it.

“Who doesn’t want a front-row seat? My mother is going to be 94 in two months, and she’s going to her first caucus Monday night,” Al Setka, the communications manager for the city of Des Moines, told me.

“Amy Klobuchar announced this afternoon she’d be doing an event in Council Bluffs. Five hours later, she filled the room,” Price reported. He had just looked at the schedule for the final Saturday of the campaign and discovered candidates appearing in at least 17 different events. (“Plus you have surrogates, and some candidates haven’t even announced their schedules yet.”)

The biggest question Iowans are going to answer is whether the Bernie boom is real. Lately all around the country, Democrats have been wandering around looking at polls and muttering: “Wow, it looks like our nominee is maybe going to be — Sanders. Um, gee.” Unless, of course, they are part of the extremely large Bernie fan club, in which case they’re just bouncing up and down, waiting for their big moment.

“Bernie Sanders could be the nominee,” warned Pete Buttigieg in a fundraising message to his supporters that made it clear he did not regard this as a good plan. Joe Biden, whom some polls place as the front-runner by an itty-bitty margin, claimed the Sanders camp was trying to hurt him by releasing a video distorting his position on Social Security.

(Memo to Iowans: Don’t worry about Social Security. Really, no Democrat’s gonna touch it.)

What’s the secret of the Bernie bounce? Well, these days voters seem to be looking for candidates who are — real. And whatever you think of Sanders, it’s hard to imagine that a politician who cared only about his image would decide to become a cranky-looking white-haired guy who shouts a lot.

Donald Trump seems to have noticed the Sanders surge. The senator from Vermont was the first candidate Trump insulted during his standard-issue rally this past week in New Jersey (“crazy Bernie Sanders”) and the only one who came up more than once. Elizabeth Warren got a single “Pocahontas” and “Sleepy Joe” Biden didn’t rate a mention.

Sanders, 78, has been finding support in lots of unexpected places — at least unexpected if you presume voters are drawn to candidates who are like them. He came in first in a Forbes-Zogby poll of voters under 30.

Meanwhile, things have been looking not-great for Warren, whose poll numbers keep slipping while people keep grumbling that she’s unelectable since voters — not them of course! Other voters! — just aren’t going to pick a woman.

Warren herself recently claimed that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump. This was allegedly during a conversation in 2018 and it was sort of strange she hadn’t mentioned it earlier in the campaign. The two of them had an impressive live-on-TV fight about the matter after the last debate.

Doubts about whether a woman can win the presidency aren’t confined to one sex. A CNN survey found about 20% of women were dubious, compared with 9% of men. (It’s possible, of course, that men are more reluctant to be negative on the subject when they’re talking to a stranger doing a telephone survey.)

“Ah, the drumbeat of the electability question,” sighed Deborah Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Public arguments about whether voters will support a female presidential candidate, Walsh said, “become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Women have, of course, made terrific inroads in American politics. Their representation in Congress keeps climbing. But there are only nine female governors. You have to wonder if voters feel more comfortable putting women in the legislatures (works well with others) than in executive posts (takes command).

We’ll let Iowa have the next word. Seems like a good spot for a 2020 test run, since the state recently elected its first female governor and sent two women to the House for the first time. Iowa also has a female senator, Joni Ernst. Given that Iowa has only four House members (told you it was small), that means half the state’s congressional delegation is female.

So, glad to have you in charge, Iowa. If some smallish, rather homogeneous state had to be given the privilege of starting the Democratic presidential selection process every single time, you seem like an excellent choice.

Democrats who aren’t fans of putting Iowa at the perpetual start often point out that it leads to a whole lot of pandering to the corn lobby. And it’s true that if you’ve listened to campaign speeches in Iowa over the years, you’ve heard a lot about the glories of ethanol. That’s the corn-based biofuel the government requires be laced into gasoline in the name of conservation.

The ethanol endorsement was as much of a ritual of Iowa campaigning as the visit to the butter sculptures at the state fair. Even Bernie Sanders bought into it in 2016, although many environmentalists believe it actually increases global warming. Sanders doesn’t seem to have retracted his stance, although he’s also signed onto the Green New Deal, which is anti-ethanol. And almost nobody is demanding that he straighten his position out. “It’s just not getting much time,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group. Maybe, Faber theorized, farmers are too busy worrying about a trade war to obsess over anything else.

Whatever the subtext, it’s a change. None of the candidates even bothered to attend the Iowa biofuels summit in January. We appear to be living in a post-ethanol-pander world.

While Iowans are very attached to the caucus tradition, most don’t actually show up to vote — only a little over a quarter of the registered Democrats took part in Bernie versus Hillary four years ago. And as of now, even many dedicated caucusgoers haven’t totally decided whom they’ll vote for. That’s partly because there are so many options. “Typically by now we see it whittled down to three folks,” said Price, the party chairman. “This year we still have six or seven or eight active campaigns.”

The caucuses are very, very different from your normal go-into-the-booth-and-vote election. Democrats gather in 1,678 precinct locations, then split into groups for each candidate. If your person doesn’t get 15% on the first round you’re supposed to join another group for the second head count. Besides making international headlines, the final result will tell us how Iowa will be dividing its delegation to the presidential convention, which will be casting approximately 1% of the total votes.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders basically tied — she won with 49.9% of the vote to his 49.6%. Sanders then went on to beat the socks off Clinton in New Hampshire and continue an increasingly hopeless battle right onto the convention floor. The memory of that trauma may have been what inspired Clinton to recently tell a reporter that “nobody likes him.”

On the ground, the candidates have been diligently trying to look as if they’ve been living in Iowa forever, although none has actually gone so far as to buy a house — or transfer kids to Iowa public schools, as one hopeful did in the 2008 cycle. (That was then-Sen. Chris Dodd, and he came in sixth.)

Warren has been holding a mind-boggling number of private meetings, selfie-takings and other one-on-ones. But as much as the meet-in-person mantra rules in Iowa, it’s clearly not all you need to win. The candidate who held the most events in the state this campaign season was ... John Delaney. Followed by Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang.

The impeachment drama has been keeping Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Michael Bennet in Washington when they’d much rather be out at a kaffeeklatsch in Iowa City. And distracting a lot of the national attention that would otherwise have been boring down on the Democrats. Ernst, the Republican senator, tried to mix the two by wondering in an ad how the controversy over Hunter Biden’s big-bucks job in Ukraine would influence the caucusgoers. (“Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?”)

The Biden camp quickly sent out a fundraising email headed, “Hey Senator Joni Ernst, Let Me Answer Your Question Directly.” It got points for speediness, but some of us were disappointed by the failure to mention that this is the woman who got her start bragging about her talent for pig castration.

As strange as the caucus system is, Iowa really does have its pluses as the national starting gun. The voters who take part truly are very diligent. And the experience of walking around some very cold shopping malls in Des Moines gives the candidates excellent preparation for walking around some very cold shopping malls in Manchester, New Hampshire.

On we go until the Democrats nominate someone to run against Donald Trump. Then it’s time for the final election, when we can get back to complaining that nobody visits us — in the general election in 2016, two-thirds of the campaign events were held in six states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan.

We’ll be cranky again soon enough. But we’ll always have Iowa.

Gail Collins | The New York Times (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.