The Caucuses Are a Year and a Half Away. Iowa’s Already Swarmed.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For presidential hopefuls, August in Iowa is the field of dreams, the chance to make a mark and become the next Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama.

That's why Steve Bullock last Thursday is speaking from the Des Moines Register soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, 1,177 miles from his day job as governor of Montana. In jeans and cowboy boots, in his third trip to Iowa this year, he makes a passionate and populist pitch on the corrupting influence of big money in politics and takes questions on his governorship.

Heads nod among an attentive audience of about 60, as he speaks on the evils of money in politics. Some of these Iowans identify with his small-state roots and his record. "Democrats need someone from the central part of the country," says Mark Matlage of St. Marys. Joanna Binzen of Iowa City says she knew nothing about Bullock but came away impressed: "He makes you want to get involved." Wooing Iowa is about picking off one or two at a time.

In a wide-open 2020 Democratic presidential race, the retail-centered politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, the critical initial contests, afford lesser-known aspirants the chance to rise to the top tier. Many try, few succeed.

This summer there have been 10 potential Democratic hopefuls in Iowa; that includes frivolous ones like Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for porn actress and Trump accuser Stormy Daniels. He got a rousing reception in Clear Lake, though a few elected officials stayed away.

The Iowa caucuses achieved renown more than 40 years ago when a little-known Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, spent dozens of days traveling the flat Iowa countryside, overnighting in voters' homes. By caucus night he beat the more established contenders and his campaign took off.

Obama wasn't little known, but when he made a circuit of Iowa 12 years ago he was only mulling whether to run, and no one thought he could knock off Hillary Clinton in Iowa. With a superb organization and sense of the political climate, he blew past her.

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, one back-of-the-pack Democrat, Representative John Delaney of Maryland, already has been to all 99 Iowa counties and has held 170 events.

The politics, dating back to 1976, are clear: You have to win in either Iowa or New Hampshire to make it to the White House. The sole exception was Bill Clinton, who in 1992 finished second in New Hampshire. Iowa held no contest, in deference to the state's favorite-son candidate, Senator Tom Harkin.

The Republican side is more ideologically driven. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas won the Iowa caucuses last time, and the two previous ones were captured by right-wingers Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, now fringe players. And New Hampshire often pays little heed to Iowa voters; in the last 10 election cycles, the only two candidates to win both early contests were Al Gore and John Kerry.

This time every Democrat will run against Trump, a reviled figure among Iowa Democrats who is losing whatever support he once had in Iowa. Some will bring an ideological fervor. But Harkin, the most successful Iowa Democrat in modern history, and a bona fide liberal, cautions: "Red meat may not have all the staying power; you need something else."

One requisite is familiarity. "Iowa is a neighborhood," says Michael Gartner, a renowned newspaper editor and now owner of the Iowa Cubs minor league baseball team.

(Intensive retail politicking is no guarantee; Senator Chis Dodd moved his family to Iowa in 2007 and still got rolled by the Obama tsunami.)

The top issue, ventures Fred Hubbell, the Democratic nominee and likely next governor of Iowa, is "health care accessibility and affordability." Some of the more liberal candidates will push a government-run single-payer plan. There's an assumption these caucuses are dominated by the activist left, which is not the case. Kerry beat back a liberal challenge in 2004; Obama's victory was not ideological; and Hillary edged out a surging Bernie Sanders in 2016.

There's no simple answer of how to capture that elusive political lightning in a bottle. Obama found that sweet spot: "He made Iowans feel good about being Democrats, that you could believe and make government work again," recalls Ann Selzer, the Des Moines-based pollster.

Bullock, 52, stresses he gets things done even with Republicans. He was reelected governor in 2016 while Trump was carrying his state by 20 points, and has major achievements, like Medicaid expansion, even though his state legislature is dominated by Republicans.

He hasn't decided yet to run for president, but it sounds like he wants to, and he has allies in the state like Attorney General Tom Miller. He also sees an appealing calling card for himself in Iowa: "Democrats haven't figured out how to speak to people outside of the coasts."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.