The Iowa Caucuses are Monday, and I’ve been feeling a little neglected.
Four years ago, I was an Iowa voter, highly sought-after by presidential candidates. On Caucus night, I was roaming the halls of a junior high school in Iowa City with more than 850 friends and neighbors. As a journalist, I couldn’t participate, but as an Iowan I wouldn’t miss it. Here in Washington, the presidential nominating process seems far away — because it is.
Only three of the dozen Democrats still vying for their party’s presidential nomination have hired staff in the Evergreen State, according to Times’ reporter Jim Brunner. Meanwhile in Iowa, presidential hopefuls have made more than 300 public appearances since February, 2017, when California Rep. Eric Swalwell launched his listening tour, by The Des Moines Register’s count.
It’s the kind of attention Washington voters could only dream of, even as we prepare to vote in the state’s first meaningful presidential primary with an earlier date that gives the Washington vote some heft.
In Iowa, presidential candidates are everywhere. They show up at soup suppers, fundraisers and forums. They sit for interviews with local journalists and editorial boards (hint, hint). They haunt coffee shops, grocery stores, universities, public libraries — anyplace they might run into voters. Of course much of it is performance, a handshake and smile for the cameras, but between bites of corn dog and bits of banter, Iowans get to know candidates differently than most Americans do. They see them when they’re tired and shaky, when they ramble or stick mechanically to the script.
My old neighbor Mike Knock, who lives in Dubuque, was drinking a pint at a local brewpub last fall when he looked out the window to see U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii cruising the midweek farmers market. Reading a book in a favorite coffee shop, he spotted Maryland’s Rep. John Delaney at a nearby table. Same shop, different day, Swalwell breezed in to work the room.
Knock, a history professor, was on a five-hour car trip from Eastern Iowa to Orange City when I called him. He wanted to see how South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s message landed in a conservative community. He’s seen nearly every candidate this cycle, some of them more than once. I asked him to name the candidates he’s seen in the past year.
“It’s easier to say who I missed,” he said.
He missed former Gov. John Hickenlooper and his fellow Coloradan Sen. Michael Bennet — the latter because he just couldn’t drag himself to another Sunday afternoon candidate appearance. “Michael Bennet, I’m sorry,” he said. “It can be exhausting to be an Iowan at this time of year.”
In Iowa, you don’t need political connections to get face-time with candidates, if you get started early enough. Last spring, Elizabeth Warren was holding tiny gatherings in coffee shops.
Just ask Matt Russell, a fifth-generation farmer and executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light.
Russell has been urging candidates to develop plans enlisting farmers’ help to reduce and sequester carbon. Because of the Caucuses, he’s managed to pitch the idea directly to nearly every Democratic candidate. At last month’s CNN/Des Moines Register debate, three contenders mentioned the idea from the stage.
It’s a long way from campaign promises to public policy, but imagine if Washington, the most trade-dependent state in the nation, were home to the first-in-the-nation primary. Would Sen. Bernie Sanders still have voted against the bipartisan United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement? Maybe so, but you can bet he’d also know that Washington’s export markets flourished under NAFTA, the pact USMCA replaced. Pre-NAFTA, Washington exports to Mexico were $300 million annually, at best. Now they’re $2 billion. Exports to Canada skyrocketed — from $2 billion to $9 billion over the same span.
Maybe things will change after candidates shift their attention from early states and consider that this year — with a still wide-open field and ballots due on March 10 — Washington’s Democratic primary could influence the nomination. And, actually, ballots will be mailed out Feb. 21, allowing our voters to make their choice even before Super Tuesday. In 2016, the Washington primary wasn’t until May — after the die was largely cast in both parties. And the state Democrats didn’t even use it to allocate delegates.
Imagine presidential hopefuls tossing salmon at Pike Place Market, glad-handing at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe and working the Seahawks game park. Voters could test them on trade, tech and aerospace, housing affordability and homelessness, forest management and public lands — take your pick of things Washingtonians care most about. Imagine candidates who understood that agriculture was not just corn and soybeans, but also wheat, potatoes, hops and apples. Surely, our country’s future chief executive could pick up some good ideas from the folks who’ve built and nurtured the nation’s fastest-growing economy.
There’s no question, a well-versed and well-traveled president would be in a much better position to govern these United States.