Presidential candidates absent in Iowa during 2020 campaign

DES MOINES – Iowa looked different this summer, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Something was missing.

There were no presidential candidates holding campaign events here.

Iowa is a competitive state in the presidential election between Republican incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Even though Trump won the state by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, Iowa could go either way this year.

Recent polling confirmed as much this past week, when three reputable pollsters published survey results showing the candidates within three percentage points of each other. The gold standard Iowa Poll by Selzer and Co. and the Des Moines Register showed Trump and Biden tied.

Despite that, Iowa does not appear to be a critical swing state in the election, at least judging by the campaigns’ actions, especially compared to previous, recent campaigns.

Neither Trump nor Biden has campaigned in Iowa since the general election campaign began. Trump visited Iowa once, in mid-August, for an official office visit to learn about derecho damage.

And while campaign ads for the presidential race have been airing on Iowa TV stations, the spending in Iowa has been a drop in the bucket compared to other states.

It’s all unfamiliar territory for Iowans, who have grown accustomed to plenty of presidential attention while the state has in the recent past played an important role — despite its relatively small haul of six electoral votes — in the outcome of presidential campaigns.

That has not been the case thus far this year.

“Iowa hasn’t quite bust through as a first-tier battleground state,” said John Stineman, a Republican political consultant who ran Steve Forbes’ 2000 presidential campaign in Iowa. “(The campaigns) don’t seem to be treating it that way, and that’s interesting.”

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential precinct caucuses draw presidential campaigns here every four years. The trail would go quiet after the late-winter caucuses, then heat up again over the summer as the party’s nominees returned to Iowa for the general election campaign.

During the 2008 general election campaign, Democrat Barack Obama made three trips to Iowa for a total of five events, and Republican John McCain made seven trips here for a total of 10 events, according to the campaign tracking website Democracy in Action.

Iowa was even more of a hot spot in 2012: Obama came back nine times and held 18 events, while Republican Mitt Romney made 12 Iowa trips and held 14 events.

Four years ago, Trump made seven Iowa trips and held nine events, while Democrat Hillary Clinton made just three trips here for a total of five events.

Thus far in 2020: goose egg.

“Both campaigns are directing significant attention to a handful of other toss-up states, and Iowa, although statistically a toss-up at the moment, is not a particular focus,” said Bradley Best, a political science professor at Buena Vista University.

And while it may be shocking to Iowans who watch TV or videos on streaming sites, the truth is the presidential campaigns are not spending very much on campaign ads in Iowa, especially compared to what they are spending in other states.

According to an analysis published earlier this month by NPR, the Trump and Biden campaigns, and their allies, had spent a combined $12 million on campaign ads in Iowa. That’s the 11th-highest total among states, a fraction of the combined $166 million spent in Florida and $124 million in Pennsylvania.

The ad spending in Iowa also lags well behind neighboring battleground states like Wisconsin ($76 million) and Minnesota ($26 million).

“It’s particularly surprising to me because these last few election cycles, we are getting down to just a handful of states that really matter in a presidential election,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “From a campaign perspective, it seems silly to me that you would not be focusing on one of those handful of states like Iowa.”

The attention is going instead to Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, or Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Each of those states has more Electoral College votes to offer than Iowa’s six, particularly Florida with 29 and North Carolina with 15.

“With both of those states in toss-up status, neither campaign can afford to lose any ground with their base or miss an opportunity to speak to persuadable voters in either North Carolina or Florida,” Best said. “I think they are acting very strategically and very wisely in focusing on those swing states, those toss-up states for which there are a large number of electoral votes in play. …

“The candidates know that every dollar of expenditure in Iowa is a dollar that is not available to spend in North Carolina. They are ruthlessly strategic in their allocation of resources.”

Even Texas, with its whopping 38 electoral votes, may very well be in play this year.

None of this is to say the campaigns are completely inactive in Iowa. Far from it. Donald Trump and Joe Biden aren’t coming here, but their fleets of grassroots campaign staff are here.

The Trump campaign and the national Republican Party have collaborated on their ground game, which is now called the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative. The program in recent years has become a permanent fixture — instead of swooping in for a campaign and leaving after Election Day. Republicans feel that collaboration and consistency give them a well-oiled machine that will help in states across the country, including Iowa.

“We are leaving no stone unturned as we look to keep Iowa red and re-elect President Trump for four more years in office, as well as Republicans up and down the ballot,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement. “Trump Victory has worked to build the strongest data-driven ground game in the history of politics over multiple cycles and we will continue to work to earn the votes of every Iowan through Election Day.”

And while Trump himself has not yet campaigned in Iowa, Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned here twice this summer (plus a May visit that was an official office visit, not a campaign event), and he is scheduled to return for a campaign event early next month.

And the Trump campaign has been sending to Iowa a consistent stream of surrogates, including Trump family members.

The Biden campaign also has its ground game working in Iowa. During a recent weekend of action, more than 1,100 campaign volunteers in Iowa made roughly 110,000 calls and sent 53,000 text messages, the campaign said.

The Biden campaign has held mostly online events in Iowa, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials and infectious disease experts caution that the virus, which has caused the death of more than 200,000 Americans, can spread between people who are gathered close together, especially indoors.

And even those online events have featured mostly surrogates like former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, spoke — virtually — to the Polk County Democrats’ annual fundraiser earlier this month.

That approach evolved this weekend, when the Democratic ticket’s spouses, Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff, visited Iowa for a pair of campaign events Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

Matt Paul, who ran Clinton’s victorious 2016 Iowa caucus campaign, said Iowa may been as a pickup opportunity but not a necessary “get” for the Biden campaign.

“This is a unique election in a number of different ways. The Biden campaign is in the catbird seat because they’ve got a number of paths to 270 (electoral votes and a victory). Iowa can be a part of that, and I think they view Iowa as a pickup possibility, as part of their multiple-path strategy to get to 270,” Paul said. “It’s remarkable that (Biden) is in the position he is here, considering this was a state that Trump won by (nearly 10) points.”

It certainly has been a unique election in Iowa, which has very much the look of a toss-up state, but not the look of a critical swing state. The road to 270, it appears, does not necessarily travel through Iowa.


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