DES MOINES, Iowa – The romance of Barack Obama’s surprise victory in Iowa hangs like a championship banner in the minds of Democrats in the state more than a decade after they set him on the road to being the nation’s first African- American president.
But as they begin to think about Iowa’s 2020 presidential caucuses – in which as many as two dozen Democratic candidates may seek their support – the wistfulness is fading fast. The same early Obama supporters who admit to being swept off their feet by the then-Illinois senator are now looking steely-eyed for someone who can simply seize the presidency from Donald Trump.
“We’ve got to go for the greater good of winning this election, no matter what,” said Nancy Bobo, an early Iowa Obama backer who attended a 10-year commemoration of the 2008
campaign at a Des Moines bar this year. “We need to learn to compromise in a way that moves us ahead, and not keep looking back.”
More than a year away, the 2020 caucuses are already shaping up for many of Obama’s earliest supporters to be more about their heads than their hearts.
“The innocence in us wants to fall in love,” said Niki Neems, an Iowa City Democratic activist who pledged herself to Obama before he even announced his candidacy. “But whoever we all think stands the best chance, then let’s get out there and start door-knocking. So, for me, it’s OK to just fall in like.”
The shift among Obama’s devout supporters reflects the baggage many of them are carrying into the next caucus campaign. For one, Iowa Democrats uniformly criticize Trump as uniquely harmful to U.S. institutions and the nation’s international standing. But there’s also a sense that Hillary Clinton’s doomed bid for the presidency began in Iowa, where Democrats didn’t warm to her in the same way they did to Obama.
Neems and others said that lack of an emotional connection contributed to Clinton only narrowly beating Bernie Sanders in Iowa in 2016, foreshadowing the trouble she’d face in taking on Trump.
Now, some Democrats say they want to pay less attention to their feelings and focus more on a candidate with a serious plan to reverse Trump’s actions.
“People can connect with someone as long as they have a vision, have big ideas, and can express them,” said Tricia Zebrowski, a retired University of Iowa professor who was among the first to pledge her support for Obama. “That’s the kind of person who can wrest the presidency from Trump.”
In fact, she speaks highly of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, hardly a dynamic speaker on par with Obama. But Zebrowski said Klobuchar has impressed her as embodying common sense and projecting little of the ego that Trump exudes.
More than a dozen Democrats weighing 2020 presidential campaigns have already begun testing their ability to connect with Iowans. Notably, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker paced the stage at an Iowa Democratic Party fall banquet, repeatedly quoting Martin Luther King in a sermon-like speech to 1,200 of the state’s most influential party activists, officials and donors in October.
There’s a recognition among many of Obama’s early supporters that his rise in Iowa was a unique moment in American politics, attributable in part to his own personal strengths at retail politics, his soaring oratory and his familiarity with street-level political organizing, which is key to delivering support for the caucuses.
The combination elevated the African American in the vastly white state over not just the establishment favorite, Clinton, but also former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who had spent nearly six years building goodwill, especially among rural Iowa Democrats.
Obama seemed right for the times, offering hope first during the divisive Iraq war and then a devastating financial collapse. In 2020, Democrats will look to someone matched specifically to contrast with Trump, said Dale Todd, one of Obama’s earliest activists in the Cedar Rapids area.
“If you try to replicate it, it ends up being false,” said Todd, who also attended the commemoration this year. “The intangible was Obama.”
And while they are older and wiser, some of Obama’s first devotees say change, as it was in 2008, will again be the winning message.
“We’d be kidding ourselves if we kept looking for Obama in every single presidential hopeful,” said Deidre DeJear, Iowa Democrats’ 2018 candidate for Iowa secretary of state who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign as a college student.
“But people are ready for change. They don’t know what change looks like. But when it shows up, they know what it feels like.”