The 2020 Dem race is about Iowa — and increasingly only about Iowa

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren campaigned Thursday in Iowa City.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren campaigned Thursday in Iowa City.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press/Associated Press

As Senator Kamala Harris put it to a colleague this week, she will employ a new strategy to try to jump start her stalling Democratic presidential campaign.

“I’m f---ing moving to Iowa,” the campaign confirmed she said before noticing a reporter.

Harris was joking, but author Marianne Williamson moved into a Des Moines condo nearly six months ago.

There are fewer than five months before the state-by-state presidential primary process gets underway in February. However, increasingly it appears the Democratic presidential campaign will begin and essentially end in just one state: Iowa.

On Friday, nearly every candidate in the historically large field will descend on the state. Four are currently airing television ads. And, so far this year, candidates have been to Iowa, home of the first caucuses, nearly twice as often as they have been to New Hampshire, home of the first primary. No other state comes close.

“Iowa has always played an important role in the process and is clearly playing an important role again this year,” said Jerry Crawford, who chaired the Iowa efforts for Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, and this time is backing Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. “There are only going to be about three people coming out of Iowa with momentum and what you are seeing are a lot of people competing for those three spots.”


This weekend, the Democratic hopefuls will attend a whopping 90 Iowa events.

If a person in Eastern Iowa had Friday off, they could easily meet up with Senator Amy Klobuchar at 9:30 a.m. in Burlington, head to see former vice president Joe Biden in Cedar Rapids at noon, catch Harris in Warterloo at 2 p.m., walk with Senator Elizabeth Warren in a trailer park in North Liberty in the afternoon, and take a late afternoon river cruise with Montana Governor Steve Bullock in Dubuque. Then they could spend the evening sizing up former housing secretary Julian Castro at Coe College, and Senator Cory Booker and Representative Tulsi Gabbard at an event back in Cedar Rapids.


It’s not a one-off. Candidates have collectively spent 405 days in Iowa versus 225 days in New Hampshire this year, according to visits tracked by both the Des Moines Register and New England Cable News.

Indeed while Iowa is a hub of activity, a sole Gabbard event was the only candidate activity in New Hampshire during a 15-day period this month.

Then there is the air war.

Four candidates are airing television ads in Iowa: Biden, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and billionaire Tom Steyer, media buying firms say. And that doesn’t include Harris, who just finished a round of advertising there.

But Steyer is the only candidate advertising on the air in New Hampshire and the other early states of Nevada and South Carolina.

For perspective, the political advertising firm Medium Buying found the Biden campaign spent $35,000 for just one ad before halftime of the Iowa versus Iowa State football game last weekend.

The amount Steyer spent on advertising in New Hampshire this entire week? $44,424.

One event attracting 18 candidates to Iowa this week is the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines on Saturday.

Polk County Democrats chairman Sean Bagniewski, the organizer of the steak fry, said that 11,400 tickets have been sold to people from 48 states.


“Our steak order was for 10,500 people, so that’s a couple farms worth,” said Bagniewski. He also noted that for the first time, there will be a vegan option at the dinner to accommodate Booker, Williamson, and Gabbard, who don’t eat meat.

But other than the steak and speeches, the reason for the almost single-focus on Iowa: winning there is a big deal.

Since 1988, every winner of a competitive Democratic Iowa Caucus has gone on to be the nominee. (In 1992, the Democratic field conceded the state to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.)

But beyond history, the first caucus state could settle the most important arguments of the sprawling primary field, analysts say.

Is Biden really so electable if he starts the campaign with a loss? What happens to the Midwestern candidates like Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Bullock, and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio who argue they can win in the heartland if they aren’t successful, you know, in the heartland?

Plus, there is even an increasing belief in the Granite State, that the expected New Hampshire battle royale between Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders on Feb. 11 will largely be settled by which one fares better eight days earlier in Iowa.

“Iowa is always important, but this year particularly so because it can begin to answer some of these big questions,” said Amy Walter, of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Democrats are intensely focused on electability and who is best set up to beat Trump and Iowa is the first time to test that thesis.”


Now, this week, even Harris seemed to reexamine her less-than-robust Iowa strategy as donors worry whether her campaign will have any staying power. After making just seven trips to Iowa all year (and not being there in over a month), her campaign announced on Thursday that Harris will spend half of October in the state, and that they will open 10 new offices and doubling the size of her current 65-person campaign team.

Harris campaign manager Juan Rodriguez told reporters on a conference call that the goal is at least third place in the state so she could be “competitive heading into super Tuesday calendar states.”

But while every Democrat like Harris is essentially all in on Iowa, President Trump’s 2020 Republican opponents apparently have a lot to learn.

In late August, ahead of his first visit to the state as a Republican presidential candidate, former governor Mark Sanford called Iowa, the Hawkeye State, the Buckeye State, Ohio’s moniker. Then on Monday, former representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, said he was kicking off his Iowa Caucus campaign in Des Moines in the “the Granite State.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com.