For 2020 Democrats, the ‘Trump effect’ looms large

Why We Wrote This

President Trump’s unparalleled ability to command the spotlight is starving Democratic candidates of media attention on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, and causing a kind of “existential crisis” for Democratic voters. 

John Locher/AP
People cheer as presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a campaign rally Jan. 26, 2020, in Sioux City, Iowa.

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Since the day Donald Trump announced his first presidential campaign in June 2015, he has transfixed supporters and critics alike. In that nomination race, the other candidates in the historically large Republican field struggled for media attention, the lifeblood of a campaign. 

Now, it can be argued, an even larger Democratic field is suffering from a similar challenge: President Trump is casting a gigantic shadow over the Democratic contest, with his ongoing impeachment trial only exacerbating the eclipse. 

It’s no accident that the president is holding a rally tonight in Des Moines, Iowa, just days before next Monday’s Democratic caucuses, and another in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 10, the night before that state’s primary. Both events threaten to suck local media oxygen away from Democrats trying to break through right as undecided voters are making choices. 

One result of the “Trump effect” can be seen in Iowa, where polling – which often makes big swings in the closing days of the campaign – has been relatively stable. Media mentions of “Iowa caucuses” are way down compared with previous cycles, as are Google searches.

“Donald Trump is making it difficult for any candidate to monopolize the various media platforms,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Vermont’s Middlebury College.

Since the day Donald Trump announced his first presidential campaign in June 2015, he has transfixed the nation – supporters and critics alike. In that nomination race, the other candidates in the historically large Republican field struggled for media attention, the lifeblood of a campaign. 

In the 2020 race, it can be argued, the even larger Democratic field is suffering from a similar challenge: Now-President Trump, unparalleled in the art of grabbing and holding the spotlight, has cast a gigantic shadow over the Democratic nomination contest. And his ongoing impeachment trial has only exacerbated the eclipse. 

It’s no accident that the president is holding a rally Thursday night (Jan. 30)  in Des Moines, Iowa, just days before next Monday’s Democratic caucuses, and another in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 10, the night before that state’s primary. Both events threaten to suck local media oxygen away from Democrats trying to break through right as undecided voters are making choices. 

One result of the “Trump effect” can be seen in Iowa, where polling – which often makes big swings in the closing days of the campaign – has been relatively stable. Media mentions of “Iowa caucuses” are way down compared with previous cycles, as are Google searches.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Nancy Bowden (center) stands with some friends at presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg's town hall in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Jan. 25, 2020.

“Although I disagree with [Mr. Trump] on everything, he does know how to manipulate the media and get attention,” says Nancy Bowden of Humboldt, Iowa. She’s speaking in Fort Dodge, Iowa, as voters line up to see Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. 

“It’s like a train wreck. If you provide something terrible for people to look at, they’re going to focus on that,” says Ms. Bowden, a precinct captain for Mr. Buttigieg, referring to Mr. Trump’s time in office. 

The “Trump effect” is multilayered. Democrats’ fervent desire to defeat Mr. Trump, and the lack of an “establishment favorite,” led to a historically large field – at one point topping 20 candidates, now at 12. And with Mr. Trump looming over the race, many Democrats have emphasized that, above all else, they are looking for a candidate who can beat him. For some voters, a kind of mental gridlock has set in as they consider the array of choices. 

“For Democrats, there’s really a sense of existential crisis that Donald Trump must be beaten at all costs,” says David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who has attended some 125 candidate events in Iowa while on a six-month sabbatical. “But there’s little agreement on what it will take to beat Trump.” 

In his latest academic survey of likely Iowa caucusgoers, taken in late December and early January, Mr. Redlawsk found that only 16% were considering just one candidate. Many voters, he says, are torn between “head and heart” – who they’d like to see go up against Mr. Trump versus who they think can actually beat him.

The Democratic candidate who has perhaps suffered the most from the Trump-induced media eclipse is moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Recent Iowa polling has shown a bit of movement for Senator Klobuchar – the kind of momentum that, in previous cycles, has often presaged a surprise showing. But for the past week, the Trump impeachment trial has mostly trapped her in Washington. (Ms. Klobuchar grabbed a last-minute flight to Iowa Wednesday evening after the impeachment trial had finished for the day, just to spend precious minutes with voters, then flew back to Washington the next morning.)

Other Senate Democrats running for president – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren – are stuck in Washington, too, but for Ms. Klobuchar, the Iowa caucuses could be do-or-die. She’s in fifth place at 9.6% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. To be “viable” for convention delegates, a candidate must garner at least 15% of caucusgoers. 

Whether the senators running for president are harmed by having to attend the impeachment trial, rather than spending those days campaigning, remains to be seen. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia suggests they won’t be. 

“I don’t think voters are going to hold it against people that they were here doing the most important thing the Constitution asks them to do,” he says. 

Not all Iowa political experts see a Trump effect diverting attention from the caucuses – at least, among likely caucusgoers. Dianne Bystrom, a professor emeritus of political science at Iowa State University, points to studies that show political advertising in Iowa doesn’t have as big an impact on voters as it does in other states. 

“Iowans can go to rallies and see candidates in person,” she says.

The caucuses, which require being at a designated place at a designated time, favor committed voters, not casual observers who are easily swayed by media hype. 

Scott Morgan/Reuters
Sign-up sheets for caucusgoers are displayed at an event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 11, 2020.

But in New Hampshire, where the Iowa results often significantly affect how the primary goes, political scientist Matthew Dickinson sees a Trump effect at work. 

“Donald Trump is making it difficult for any candidate to monopolize the various media platforms,” says Mr. Dickinson, a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College who travels frequently to campaign events in neighboring New Hampshire. 

The Democrats themselves have compounded that problem “with a second factor,” he adds. “There are just so many Democrats occupying these [ideological] lanes, that all seem to a certain extent plausible and all of them seem flawed.” 

More often than not, the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses wins the nomination. But given the unusual nature of the 2020 cycle, there are no guarantees.

Some Iowans are frustrated by the media’s penchant for conflict in its campaign coverage. 

At an event for Democratic candidate Andrew Yang on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, several supporters partially attribute Mr. Yang’s lagging media coverage to the way the entrepreneur has chosen to run his campaign.

“Most of the media’s current airtime is given to the Warren-Sanders he-said-she-said debate, and Yang is not a drama candidate,” says Alexandra Petrucci, a neuroscience Ph.D. student who plans to caucus for Mr. Yang. “We’re told by the campaign to talk about Yang to other people, rather than bringing down other candidates.” 

Another Democratic candidate who emphasized the positive, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, dropped out Jan. 13 amid lackluster fundraising. 

Some Iowa Democrats see an upside to having Mr. Trump as the Republican standard-bearer. 

“Trump’s galvanizing people to get involved who wouldn’t normally. It’s the whole reason I’m caucusing,” says Connie Twining, a small-business owner in Dubuque, who just registered as a Democrat so she can caucus for Mr. Buttigieg. She was an independent for years. 

But she also bemoans the lack of attention to major issues, amid all the Trump drama. 

“The climate isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” Ms. Twining says. “There are a million things right now that aren’t getting the attention they deserve.” 

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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