Low voter turnout in Iowa should concern Democrats

Picture it: Iowa, 2008. On a cold winter’s night 240,000 cornfed Midwesterners descended on precincts across the state to caucus for their preferred Democratic candidate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were both locked in a ferocious political war for the nomination, and this was the opening skirmish. After eight long years of an unpopular Republican president, Democrats were energized and turned out in record numbers to support their favored candidate.

2020 couldn’t be more different. Turnout has dwindled to 170,000 and we don’t yet have a winner. While much of the Democratic establishment and mainstream media is handwringing over the fact we don’t yet know the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses, we’re ignoring the elephant in the room. In the end, the only result that may matter is that voters didn’t show up like Democrats hoped and needed.

Historically, the Iowa caucuses have a low turnout. There are reasons for this, including issues of accessibility and the fact that American elections generally have low rates of participation. It’s also true that the turnout is predicted to be roughly on par with 2016.

Democrats lost in 2016, though, making the lack of enthusiasm a possible harbinger of doom for our party come November. Bernie Sanders has promised to inspire a new generation of Americans, Pete Buttigieg promised to bring in “future former Republicans,” and nearly every candidate tried to reach out to people who feel left behind. Yet exit polls suggest a dip in first-time voters, indicating that candidates have failed to bring new recruits into the Democratic fold.

That’s a problem. Democrats need to attract disaffected Republicans, remorseful Trump voters, young people (whom election after election shows are apathetic about voting) and energize Democratic voters to actually show up at the polls. Iowa isn’t a perfect mirror of Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—but it’s close enough that the lack of enthusiasm from the Hawkeye State is troubling. We need to win these states if we hope to defeat Donald Trump, but we can’t win them unless we have a broad coalition of new and returning Democratic voters—people who sat out the 2016 election and people who voted for Trump but regret it.

All of this is compounded, of course, by the fact that we don’t know who won Iowa. Both Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg last night gave speeches which sounded like victory speeches but weren’t really victory speeches. That’s all they were, though—speeches. We have a crowded field of candidates, so perhaps the enthusiasm gap between 2008 and 2020 is simply that voters are spoiled for choice and opted to let others winnow the field. Maybe, as the field narrows, enthusiasm and momentum will shift to one candidate and we’ll see the excitement and passion we saw the last time we elected a first-term Democrat to the White House.

I’m not holding my breath, though, because I remember the 2016 primary. Not the Democratic one—though I remember that, too—but the Republican primary. Some 16 candidates fought out a bitter contest for the GOP nomination, yet there was one—a spray-tanned former reality tv star—who consistently led the polls. He didn’t win Iowa, but the enthusiasm around him was palpable, and it carried him to the White House.

I’m not saying Democrats need our own Donald Trump—no one needs another Donald Trump, or for that matter, the original. But we need someone who excites people like Donald Trump excites people—except, you know, excites them for good reasons and not for racist reasons. We need someone who makes the farmer in Iowa or the autoworker in Michigan or the waitress in Wisconsin say “she says what I’m thinking” or “he tells it like it is.” I’m not talking just about attracting Trump voters here, but about energizing Democrats in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and Dayton who stayed home in 2016. We need someone who makes them believe their lives can be better, who makes them feel like their voices are not only heard but are important.

We don’t yet have that candidate.

We can’t win with 2016 levels of enthusiasm, and we can’t win with 2016 turnout. While candidates and party officials lament the shitshow that was the Iowa Caucuses, they ought to be less concerned with who won than who didn’t show up. If we can’t attract new and returning voters to our party, we’ve already lost.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

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