Iowa Democrats high on Hillary but eager for options

Hillary Clinton said earlier this month that she'll make a decision about a presidential bid "sometime next year."
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This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

To suggest that Hillary Clinton would be tough to beat in a 2016 Democratic primary is a vast understatement.

The early polls tell the tale.

Nationally, Clinton’s lead over Vice President Joe Biden -- her closest competitor in a hypothetical Democratic field -- is a gaudy 55.8 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls.

And in the early voting states, Clinton’s advantage appears to be just as formidable.

In Iowa, a Des Moines Register poll released last week found that the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state had an 89 percent favorability rating (vs. 7 percent unfavorable) among statewide Democrats.

Indeed, all of the evidence points to Clinton entering the race, if she chooses to run, as a much stronger frontrunner than she was in 2008.

But in the nation’s first voting state, she will have to avoid some well-concealed tripwires. Conversations with Democratic officials and progressive activists here last week revealed that while just about all of them hope and expect Clinton will take another shot at the White House, they are just as eager to explore whatever other options reveal themselves.

“There’s going to be a lot of excitement for Hillary, and she had a lot of supporters here in 2008, but there’s also the excitement of something new,” said Iowa Democratic activist Nate Boulton. He echoed other Democrats interviewed for this article when he said he’d hate to see any candidate get a “free pass” in the 2016 caucuses: “As Democrats, we’re not a party of supporting the person who ran last time this time. It’s always about what’s next.”

Boulton spoke to RealClearPolitics at a Progress Iowa event Wednesday night in Altoona, which was keynoted by former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- a potential 2016 presidential aspirant -- who used his visit here to take some attention-grabbing and thinly veiled shots at Clinton for her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

Before the event, Schweitzer spent about 10 minutes chatting amiably with Boulton and Andrew Mertens, the communications director for the Iowa Association for Justice, a left-leaning legal advocacy group.

“The buzz of any potential candidate coming into town is exciting,” Mertens said. “It’s such an important process that I think it’s entirely welcomed.”

While the 2016 Democratic campaign has gotten off to a slower start here than on the Republican side, Schweitzer wasn’t the first member of his party with possible aspirations to travel to Iowa this year.

In August, Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, made the short trip across her home state’s southern border to speak at a fundraiser for the North Iowa Democrats. At the time, the ambitious lawmaker downplayed the obvious implications of that political sojourn.

But according to two Democratic sources, the day after her visit, Klobuchar followed up with phone calls to prominent state politicos and queried them in a manner that suggested her seriousness about exploring a run.

“Obviously, she’ll be younger” than Clinton, one Iowa Democrat said when asked how Klobuchar might mount a credible campaign here against the runaway frontrunner. “She’d have to quietly say, ‘I don’t carry the baggage that [Clinton] does. I share your values.’”

Iowa has the dubious distinction of being one of just two states that have never elected a female governor or sent a woman to Congress. This surprising history and Clinton’s painfully underwhelming third-place finish in the 2008 caucuses are two of the factors that lead some political insiders here to wonder whether Clinton’s Iowa chances are less overwhelming than they appear.

James Strohman, who teaches political science at Iowa State University, penned an article in November laying out the case for how she could stumble:

“Despite the national party network promoting her as the heir to the Democratic throne, there is very little, if any, Clinton organization in Iowa, and she has done almost nothing to connect with Iowa Democrats in an effort to build one. Does she really want to slosh through barnyards and backyard barbeques trolling for votes? Can she shift from globetrotting [to] world meetings in 112 countries [and] to high-paying speaking engagements in the corporate arena, to sitting in a church basement in Winnebago County begging support from farmers, schoolteachers and welfare workers?”

If Clinton decides she’s willing to do just that, the evidence remains compelling that she will be rewarded for those efforts. A poll conducted in Iowa earlier this year by EMILY’s List for its Madam President Project -- a national effort to help send a female Democrat to the White House -- is chock-full of positive news for Clinton. The survey found that 95 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers think the country is ready for its first female president and 85 percent believe that the next commander-in-chief will be a woman.

And the group’s particular focus on Clinton was evident at a Des Moines event it held in her honor in August.

But EMILY’s List spokesperson Marcy Stech emphasized that there is a backup plan:“If Hillary decides not to run, no one knows what will happen, but there are many other qualified women that would be ready to serve as president from day one. Women like Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand and Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren should be part of 2016 conversations every bit as much as the Bidens, O’Malleys and Cuomos of the pack are.”

Though Warren has ruled out the possibility of running in 2016 and Gillibrand has not taken steps suggesting any interest, Klobuchar appears poised to start generating more attention if she returns to Iowa in the coming months.

Jerry Crawford, who was Bill Clinton’s state director here in 1992 and 1996 and served as Hillary Clinton’s Midwestern co-chair in 2008, explained why it will be relatively easy for other prospective contenders to garner some interest in Iowa, despite the early enthusiasm for the frontrunner-in-waiting.

“Regardless of whether you’re talking about the Democratic or Republican side, I think voters in Iowa and New Hampshire love the sport of politics,” he said. “It’s part of the fabric of life in both those places. It’s why they’re so good at it -- because it’s such an ingrained part of their life.”

Crawford emphasized that though there is every reason for others to test out the Iowa terrain, the former secretary of state is in a “very, very enviable position.”

Through his volunteer work for the Ready for Hillary super PAC that aims to lay the foundation for a Clinton candidacy, Crawford has focused on solidifying that robust standing.

“One of my goals is to be reaching out to the people who did such a brilliant job of running the Obama campaign in Iowa in 2008 and in getting them on board, and I’ve met with zero resistance,” he said. “If you just think about combining the Obama forces in 2008 in Iowa with the Clinton forces in 2008 in Iowa, you see what kind of a juggernaut we could end up sitting on.”

If she does run, the former senator will have learned from what was perhaps her campaign’s biggest mistake in 2008 -- a failure to recognize the generational shift in the electorate that the Obama campaign seized upon eagerly.

And Clinton backers are confident that whoever runs against her is highly unlikely to replicate what Obama accomplished in expanding the pool of caucus-goers so dramatically.

Though she finished in third place, the unique circumstances of that year mask how well Clinton did in the state from a historical perspective. Mark Daley, who was her 2008 Iowa spokesperson, noted that she received more votes than anyone in the history of the Iowa caucuses -- other than Obama and John Edwards.

“She obviously has tremendous relationships there, and even more so now. There’s just a ton of support for her in Iowa and everywhere,” Daley said. “I don’t think anywhere in our history have we had anyone more qualified.”

In an interview with Barbara Walters last week, Clinton said she would make a decision about running “sometime next year.”

But the other 2016 Democratic hopefuls aren’t likely to sit back and wait for that momentous announcement. In addition to the Iowa visits from Klobuchar and Schweitzer, there have been other behind-the-scenes rumbles on the Democratic side.

On a rainy night last October, state Rep. Brian Meyer was watching the World Series at an Applebee’s when he received a call from a phone number he didn’t recognize but which bore a Washington, D.C., area code. When the person on the other end identified himself as Joe Biden, calling to congratulate him on his recent special election victory, Meyer initially believed it to be a friend playing a joke on him.

“He said, ‘Hey, next time you’re in D.C., look me up,’” Meyer recalled of the conversation. More likely, however, is that the vice president will look up Meyer the next time he is in Iowa.

“If they’re serious about running for president, they can’t wait for Hillary’s decision,” Meyer said of Biden and the other potential candidates. “She’s the clear favorite, but Iowa’s known for upsets.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.