DES MOINES, Iowa — Here in the land of cornstalks and small towns — and the first presidential nominating contest in the nation — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is betting Iowa’s unique Democratic caucus can help propel him from obscurity to relevance in the 2020 presidential race.
Iowa’s party presidential nominating caucus, which is next February, is a process that prizes one-on-one meetings with voters — and local knowledge of how things work, political observers here told MTN News.
“What’s really important in Iowa is on-the-ground organizing,” said Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper. “This is a caucus, it’s not a primary. It’s very different. … So that’s going to be really important for someone like Gov. Bullock.”
“You can’t just put a bunch of money into TV ads, or digital ads,” added Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “You have to come here and you have to talk to people.”
Bullock, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, is doing just that in Iowa this week, embarking on a three-day tour of eight towns and cities in central and eastern Iowa, from the capital of Des Moines to the tiny town of Tama.
He’s had local staff in Iowa for some time and has visited the state several times before now, as he considered whether to jump into a race that how has 23 Democrats vying for the nomination to challenge President Trump in 2020.
Dave Muhlbauer, a farmer and Democratic county official from Manila, Iowa, met Bullock on one of his earlier trips to Iowa. He said Bullock impressed him as someone who can look at the big picture of a problem and find a way to bring people from both sides together to solve it.
Iowa is a place where that message can resonate, he said.
“When he gets out there … and people realize what he has to offer, what his background is, how he’s been able to unite, and not just divide us — I think that message, once it gets out there, will take off like a rocket,” Muhlbauer said.
Jonna Jensen, a Democratic activist from Baldwin, Iowa, and another Bullock supporter said she thinks he can do well here because he comes across as someone who will listen more than he talks.
“He is so impressive to me as a bridge-builder,” she told MTN News Thursday. “We are so divided in this time of name-calling, and polarization. We can’t go on this way.”
Bullock got a not-unexpected boost on Thursday: The endorsement of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the longest-serving Democratic statewide official and a longtime friend of Bullock.
Pfannenstiel, the Register reporter, said Miller’s support is significant.
“Tom Miller was known for endorsing Barack Obama really early (in the 2008 campaign),” she said. “That gave (Obama) a lot of credibility in this state and it gave him a foothold before people really knew who he was. … To have (Miller) being kind of Bullock’s Sherpa across Iowa really matters.”
The on-the-ground organization also is crucial for navigating the arcane caucus process, Pfannenstiel said, when voters go to precinct meetings on caucus day and publicly declare their allegiance to a candidate.
The caucus can feature several rounds of voting, and staying alive through those first rounds can make the difference between getting substantial support or no support, in the final count, she said.
But Bullock is far from alone in trying to get a toehold in Iowa.
“Since the start of 2019, we’ve had more than 400 individual candidate appearances in Iowa,” Pfannenstiel said. “So we’ve got 23, 24 Democrats running in 2020 right now. From the start of the year, it’s just been a flood of people in the state.”