IOWA CITY, IOWA – For years now there have been calls to change the order of caucuses and primaries, most of it centered around the possibility of stripping from the state of Iowa its mantle of presidential genesis. There are arguments that Iowa doesn’t represent a portrait of the modern political climate and that a backwater state shouldn’t exert such power in shaping a national race.
These complaints are the disputes of people who don’t understand the process and have probably never spent more than an hour here. Iowans, you should know, take this responsibility seriously in a way that few people take anything seriously. They leave their homes and attend rallies, meet and greets, town hall meetings, and they listen to candidates on both sides of the aisle and actually consider what’s being shoveled their way in a manner that most casual and discerning citizens have ceased to do long, long ago. They exert their influence with such earnestness and sincerity that there should never be doubt that these are the people who deserve the mantle of First To Choose.
Today was a wet and miserable day in Iowa City. Showers upon showers, diagonal rains that pelted anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside and on the way to a candidate’s event. And yet, they come. In mass. So much so that the Martin O’Malley event, which was held for a candidate who is polling round-about five percent, and that’s being generous, had to turn people away.
Let it be known: Iowans are up to the challenge and will be forever and ever amen.Sanctuary Pub is the kind of bar that’s springing up all over the country. Craft beers on tap. Dark and polished wood glimmering under the soft lights. Bank teller lamps at every stool and retro bar glass and signs on the wall. A hobby bar that’s succeeding despite birthing after the Great Recession and thriving despite existing during one of the most tumultuous economic periods in our country’s young history.
I ordered a sandwich with an IPA and listened to my neighbor talk about how tired he was of the process already. All the ads, the door-to-door canvassers. He said he’d had enough with politics and then got onto the rumor du jour concerning Lindsay Graham and his perpetual bachelorhood.
“What do you think?” he asked me when his drinking buddy had had his fill.
“I think it’s his business,” I answered.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it probably is.”
You have to know: Iowans are strange folk. They number on both sides of the political spectrum. Some are so far right they border on fascist while others would dismantle the government if only it meant free weed and same-sex marriage. Then there are the libertarians who want to farm and own guns that should be mounted on Humvees and attack-choppers. But they aren’t senseless. In fact, I would say that the chief characteristic of the Iowa citizen is an internal core of common sense which the rest of the country would do well to aspire to.
The O’Malley event was supposed to begin at seven so I closed my tab and got an extra beer around six-thirty, commandeered a plush chair in the restaurant portion and watched the people flood in. There were all the normal constituents: the farmers, the decrepit union wives, the college Democrats, the feminists, the teachers, and the party bosses. Left Wing Iowa is a conglomerate of special interests in a way that serves as a biopsy for the rest of the union, only they dress uniformly to make their ranks well known and instantly recognizable.
The room, no bigger than a standard small-town diner, soon swelled with over a hundred and twenty people, most of them milling about as they sucked down craft beer and speculated when O’Malley would show.
By seven-thirty, there was a sense of discomfort.
“I heard he’s in Davenport,” an electrician union boss said.
“Nah,” someone said, “he’s out making a deal with Hillary. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.”
Not long after he strode into the crowd and there was a hush. When a candidate enters an event there’s either silence or clapping, the former means he’s still got a ways to go and the latter means he’s got a shot at taking the whole damn thing. I watched Howard Dean in 2004 knife into a crowd and start pressing flesh before we were any the wiser to give him applause. Within two weeks he was politically dead and refitting his resume.
I was near the back, toward the restrooms, where I’d been relegated since going for another beer, a drink I’d had to fight to get at a bar that featured a collective of anarchists and old basketball coaches talking the benefits of the 3-2 Zone and the dominance of Ron Dayne in his Heisman Trophy-winning season. Luckily though, O’Malley chose my end of the room for his speech and I was mere feet away from the candidate. When he came, I shook his hand, said, “Governor,” and he gave a boozy smile in return, the kind that told me this wasn’t his first rodeo in a bar. The Irish in my blood perked and I watched him greet one person after another, occasionally taking the names and singing them, dispersing winks, pats on the back. Here was a man who was comfortable with a room.
He’s still wading into his stump speech though, a decent act that got its start with his announcement, a quick tour through the left-wing of the Democratic party, a call for voters to recognize that the current system promotes something so un-American – the idea that each succeeding generation won’t do better than the one that preceded it – that it’s time to crush it and never look back.
The substance of O’Malley’s platform is so progressive in definition that it’s bizarre he’s polling so poorly until you remember, in the middle of his recitation, that he’s facing Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the most inherently powerful and plugged-in candidates we’ve ever had in American history. Where she has bargained off portions of the Left – including a kowtowing to corporate interests and mega-banks – he has made a full-fledged effort to reign it all in and declare them enemies to democracy and the American people.
Student debt: “No other country saddles its young like this.”
Foreign policy: “We need to move past the Cold War.”
He’s asked about the unrest in Baltimore, a city he served as mayor and governor, and he pivots, said it’s not as bad as it could be because his leadership and then, get this, he allows himself to go off script and the entire feeling of the room changes. He’s emotional now, off-message, and he describes what it’s like to be an executive and the weight of trying to prevent the ruination of lives that never stood a chance.
“Tell me how we have five percent of the world’s population,” he says, “and twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population.”
When his aide tells him he has two questions left, O’Malley, standing on top of a chair, speaking without a microphone, says he’ll take more than that, that it’s time to move into lightning round and he’ll answer whatever anyone wants.
He is, when it comes down to it, the ideal Iowan candidate.
Honest to a fault.
And he’s still polling at five percent.
I think, while watching him gesture and sweat and work for every single vote that’s in that room, that Hillary could call an impromptu speech tomorrow in Des Moines and draw near ten thousand people. The content and the character wouldn’t be there, but by god, the mass of people would be. And most of them would be wearing the Clinton World approved T-shirts and wristbands and they’ll all be tweeting with Clinton World approved hashtags.
It is damn near impossible to watch O’Malley and not realize the size of the machine he’s running against.
He is fighting Hillary and Wall Street and corporate interests and, perhaps this is most dangerous, expectations. The feeling is that Hillary wins this in a walk. We’re still six months out, and there are debates between now and then, but the general consensus is that Hillary takes Iowa by thirty, if not forty, points.
O’Malley and Sanders have time to make up that distance, and if experience tells us anything it’s that one of them will be hovering around at least twenty or thirty percent by the time of the caucus. Sanders, we have to admit, is unelectable, but O’Malley could make up space. And Iowa loves handing surprise tickets to New Hampshire. We’ve seen this over and over again.
Out on the sidewalk, waiting for a taxi, I hear a group of ten or so people talking. A couple smoke cigarettes, others hide their beers in their sweaters. They’re discussing O’Malley’s chances. The general consensus is that he’s the Democrat we’ve all been waiting for, the progressive who will actually lead in a progressive way. The group seems to agree with their silent nods.
“But he’s not going to win,” someone eventually says.
“Well,” the originator of the conversation concedes, “there’s that.”