Democratic Hopefuls Push Past Iowa With Early Primaries in Mind

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential contenders are already making strategic decisions about where to dedicate campaign resources, putting heavy focus on select states because of a compressed primary calendar and an unusually crowded field.

A cross-country sprint through 14 states -- from the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to Super Tuesday on March 3 -- promises to sort out winners and losers earlier than in past years. Democrats are making the first four states their top priority and also pouring resources into the 10 Super Tuesday states, including delegate-rich California and Texas.

While the new calendar is leading some of the 15-plus candidates to spend more time early in places like Texas and California, most see strong performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as essential to their bids for the nomination to oppose President Donald Trump in 2020.

Senator Kamala Harris of California has made two trips each to Iowa and South Carolina, but she’s also visiting Texas and Georgia next week. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has gone four times to New Hampshire, home of the first primary on Feb. 11, and will have visited five other early primary states by Tuesday. Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator from New York, has campaigned in Texas and on Tuesday will be in Michigan, which votes a week after Super Tuesday.

Despite hand-wringing in Iowa and New Hampshire about their possibly diminished stature because of the compressed calendar, campaigns are still investing time and money in the earliest states. Nearly every major candidate has made Iowa the first stop after a campaign launch, in an acknowledgment that performance there could make or break any candidate.

“I have no reason to think that Iowa and New Hampshire will be any less influential than they’ve been,” said John Norris, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “Whoever gets to be that first candidate with a win, they are going to raise a bunch of money online and create a wave of support.”

‘Stop a Freight Train’

“How do you stop a freight train, if you aren’t driving it after Iowa and New Hampshire?” Norris said.

With voting still 11 months away, some candidates may drop out before then and the front-runners may change many times over. The leaders in polls heading into February 2020 will feel pressure to deliver, while weaker candidates will need early victories to reshape their narratives and stay alive.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s likely to declare his candidacy next month, would probably have the advantages and burdens of being a front-runner. His candidacy would be framed around his broad-based popularity and electability, and any early stumbles could be fatal.

The top finishers in the early states will almost certainly see a jump in their online fundraising and that will make it harder for the other candidates to keep pace, Norris said.

Veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi agreed. “The earlier states are now more important than they’ve been in the past few cycles,” he said. Some campaigns may underestimate how important the first two states will be in whittling down the field, he said.

Trippi said then-Tennessee Senator Al Gore hobbled his 1988 campaign by skipping Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on southern Super Tuesday states. In New Hampshire, Democrats point to Republican Rudy Giuliani as a cautionary tale for deciding in 2008 to skip that state and campaign in Florida.

Winnowing the Field

After Iowa and New Hampshire, votes are planned Feb. 22 in Nevada and Feb. 29 in South Carolina. Three days later will be Super Tuesday, which also includes Massachusetts, Virginia and North Carolina. Big delegate jackpots there may keep some candidates hanging on -- if they have the money. Yet by the end of the night, the field probably will be substantially smaller.

While Harris has the advantage of being from California, her performance in the South Carolina primary will be closely watched as a sign of her appeal to African-American voters three days before Super Tuesday. She made Iowa her first campaign stop after a launch rally in her homeland of Oakland. A strong showing in California could make up for shortcomings in other early states.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign says it is focusing on the four earliest states and California. After opening his campaign with rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago, Sanders went to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he plans to head to Nevada and California. In 2016, Sanders nearly tied with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and won in New Hampshire. If he doesn’t perform similarly in 2020, his grassroots support could begin to wither.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas was already in Iowa Thursday, hours after he announced via web video that he was entering the race. His team also plans a March 30 rally in his hometown of El Paso, which happens to be in a key Super Tuesday state.

Polling Third

Warren’s path will be shaped in large part by her performance in New Hampshire, where she’s currently polling third behind Sanders and Biden. But she’s also looking ahead to Super Tuesday, making stops in California and Texas. This week, she’ll be among the first of the 2020 hopefuls to stop in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi -- the first two of which will vote on Super Tuesday.

“Super Tuesday, it can either settle it and provide us with absolute clarity, or it can really muddy the waters to the extent that this thing can go all the way to the convention,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Texas Democratic strategist.

The sheer size of Texas and California, and the cost of TV advertising there, will also test campaigns.

So far, candidates appear to be focused on fundraising and media attention, not building up staffs and organizations, Strother said. “Anyone with $300 and access to Southwest Airlines can do a fly-through in Texas,” he said.

Though the Wisconsin primary won’t be until April 7, some Democratic hopefuls are adding it to their early itineraries in a nod to its importance as a battleground -- and Clinton’s failure to campaign there before losing the state to Trump in the 2016 general election.

O’Rourke will be there Sunday, after spending three days in Iowa.

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