DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa Democrats are recovering from a number of disappointments after Monday's Iowa caucuses, though one has received less attention than the others.
About 176,000 Iowans attended their precinct caucuses, a slight uptick from 2016 but fewer than expected.
The number is certain to rattle Democrats who are banking on high turnout in battlegrounds across the country to win in November. And it raises doubts about whether Iowa is winnable by Democrats, after a recent shift toward Republicans.
The number was perhaps most disappointing to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose strategy in the primary and the general election hinges on bringing out young and infrequent voters. Asked about the turnout at a debate Friday night, Sanders acknowledged it was off the mark.
“That's a disappointment and I think all of us probably could have done a better job of bringing out our supporters,” he said.
The parade of candidates, a Democratic base seething to unseat President Donald Trump and high participation in 2018 midterms had party insiders braced for a turnout could match or top the contest's high-water mark.
But Monday came nowhere near the 2008 caucuses, when roughly 238,000 Iowans participated in the kickoff clash among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, onetime Iowa favorite John Edwards and a handful of others. The 2020 caucuses did draw 5,000 more than 2016, when Clinton very narrowly beat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but went on to lose to Donald Trump.
“It was lower than I expected,” said former Iowa Democratic Party executive director Norm Sterzenbach, who has been advising Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign. “It was definitely lower than what the conventional wisdom was.”
Democrats in Iowa are fighting to overcome a decadelong slide that has shrunk their ranks in rural areas and once reliably Democratic-voting manufacturing towns along the Mississippi River.
It's part of a shift from the party's 50-year high point in 2008, when it controlled not just the governorship and both houses of the Legislature but three of five U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate seat.
Since 2010, Democrats have struggled in rural areas while the party has grown in Iowa's burgeoning suburbs around Des Moines and the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor in eastern Iowa.
Today, Republicans control the statehouse and both U.S. Senate seats in Iowa, where Trump won by 9.5 percentage points over Clinton in 2016. But Democrats made statehouse gains and took two of four U.S. House seats — which include Iowa's fastest-growing suburbs — out of Republican hands in 2018.
On Monday, Democratic caucus participation was down across the board in rural areas, and in those formerly union-heavy counties, but up in suburban counties around Des Moines — especially Dallas County, the state's fastest growing Democratic county.
“I think it represents a change in where our Democratic base is in Iowa, a shift in who is getting involved in the party and what our base is becoming,” Sterzenbach said.