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Stirewaltisms: Iowa Down, But Not Out
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Stirewaltisms: Iowa Down, But Not Out

Three years ago today the political world watched in horror as the Iowa Democratic Caucuses turned into a high-tech wreck.

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg prepare to caucus for him in a school gymnasium on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Hawkeye State had long been viewed suspiciously as a first presidential nominating contest by elites in both parties. For Republicans, it has always been too church-y, and for Democrats it has always been too white

For Republicans, the criticism has been more fair than for Democrats. GOP caucus-goers picked three clunkers in a row, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz, all of whom predicated their campaigns on outreach to Evangelical voters.  The Dems, though, are being more than a little unfair. Iowa, which is something like 90 percent white, had more to do than any single state in making Barack Obama the first African-American major party nominee.

But the actual problem that political professionals both red and blue have with Iowa is that it’s too hard to win and too politically weird. The caucus system rewards enthusiasm and organization over broad support, so it’s even less representative than the primary system. Since its arrival as a significant contest 48 years ago, Iowa’s caucus-goers have been stubborn, demanding, and fickle in ways that other states have never had the luxury to attempt. Getting to paint the first stroke does things to voters, and that would be true whichever state went first.

Then there’s the abstrusion of the process. State delegate equivalents? Second round popular vote? Eligibility thresholds? Are those people in someone’s living room? And then it turns out that it doesn’t really matter because they can always throw the results out at the state convention in the summer. 

In 2020, all eyes were on Democrats since Republican incumbent Donald Trump faced only nominal opposition to his re-election bid. Joe Biden was the barely-there Democratic frontrunner, and his Iowa track record was already pretty dismal. Iowa Democrats have a soft spot for progressives and outsiders, and Biden was running as neither of those. Bracing for a loss, Biden got a very strange kind of reprieve.

The actual winner, Pete Buttigieg, couldn’t get a clean momentum boost like Obama or Jimmy Carter because the party massively, irretrievably screwed up the process. The DNC was so worried about the complaints of Bernie Sanders’ campaign about the tabulation of the 2016 results, that in order to keep the approval of the national party, Iowa Democrats built a double-barreled disaster—a glitchy app that couldn’t work with new software. 

In Des Moines three years ago, every Democrat I talked to was convinced that the scope of the disaster, coming after years of complaints about the unbearable whiteness of the state, was a terminal failure and the end of the caucuses as the Democratic kickoff contest. And it looks like they were right. 

As the members of the DNC gather in Philadelphia this weekend, they are preparing to ratify a plan that would kick Iowa out of its top spot in a bid to protect Biden from a lefty challenger like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, is also seen as too white and too progressive and would go after South Carolina, which saved Biden’s bacon in 2020. 

It’s not clear how Democrats in those states will handle their demotion at Biden’s behest. I suspect they would rather risk punishment from the DNC than give up their prized positions. One could certainly see how if Biden really does face a serious challenge from Warren or someone else, he could end up like Hillary Clinton in 2008—fighting to keep Florida and Michigan’s delegates from being counted. 

Republicans, though, will show up in force. If Biden is spared a real challenge, we can expect at about this time next year to be treated to/have inflicted on us a particularly wild Iowa caucus fight in the GOP. Trump will have to compete if he wants to be seen as a credible frontrunner, but could very easily lose again. 

Mike Pence looks like he has the inside track with values voters, but the state and its GOP are changing. You could definitely see Iowa as a place where a Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, or another firebrand nationalist could win on a “cultural marxism” platform combined with some prairie populist economic progressivism. But it’s easy also to imagine that with help from in-state powerhouses like Sen. Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds, a mainstream conservative could find his or her way through a crowded field.    

The New Hampshire joke on Iowa is that their state picks presidents and Iowa picks corn. First, sick burn, guys. Second, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Iowa doesn’t face the pressure that other states do, and gets to be a little more creative and maybe even thoughtful in its selections.

For Republicans this cycle, those are needful things.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 44.8%
Average disapproval: 51.4%
Net score: -6.6 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 3.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 3.0 points

[Average includes: Fox News: 45% approve-54% disapprove; Monmouth: 44% approve-49% disapprove; CBS News: 44% approve-56% disapprove; Marist: 45% approve-48% disapprove; NBC News: 46% approve-50% disapprove] 

Polling Roulette


The Atlantic: “When it comes to treating disease with food, the quackery stretches back far. Through the centuries, raw garlic has been touted as a home treatment for everything from chlamydia to the common cold; Renaissance remedies for the plague included figs soaked in hyssop oil. During the 1918 flu pandemic, Americans wolfed down onions or chugged ‘fluid beef’ gravy to keep the deadly virus at bay. … In recent years, though, plenty of legit studies have confirmed that our diets really can affect our ability to fight off invaders—down to the fine-scale functioning of individual immune cells. … For example, low-carbohydrate, high-fat ketogenic diets seem to enhance the protective powers of certain types of immune cells in mice, making it tougher for particular pathogens to infiltrate airway tissue. … But the rules of these food-illness interactions, to the extent that anyone understands them, are devilishly complex. …”


The Atlantic: “Aside from his most blinkered loyalists, virtually everyone in the party agrees: It’s time to move on from Trump. But ask them how they plan to do that, and the discussion quickly veers into the realm of hopeful hypotheticals. … Faced with the prospect of another election cycle dominated by Trump and uncertain that he can actually be beaten in the primaries, many Republicans are quietly rooting for something to happen that will make him go away. And they would strongly prefer not to make it happen themselves. … Some Republicans are clinging to the hope that Trump might finally be undone by his legal troubles. … Others imagine a coordinated donor revolt that sidelines Trump for good. … ‘There is an old quote that has been attributed to Lee Atwater: “When your enemy is in the process of drowning, throw him a brick,”’ Sullivan told me. ‘None of Donald Trump’s opponents ever have the balls to throw him the damn brick. They just hope someone else will. Hope isn’t a winning strategy.’”

Hoping for polling boost, Haley plans early 2024 announcement: [Charleston, S.C] Post and Courier:  “Cementing what has been in the works for months, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will formally announce she is running for president and will seek the Republican nomination for her party’s 2024 ticket… According to an invitation soon going out to her backers, Haley’s advertised ‘special announcement’ will come Feb. 15. … Haley famously said earlier she would not seek to challenge Trump if he ran again, but her message has since shifted to say the country needs to look toward a different path.”

Hogan ‘seriously considering’ 2024 bid, won’t commit to backing Trump: The Hill: “Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the leading moderate Republican voices, clarified that he would not commit to supporting former President Trump if he were the presidential nominee for Republicans in 2024. … ‘To be clear, my position on Trump hasn’t changed. Trump won’t commit to supporting the Republican nominee, and I won’t commit to supporting him,’ Hogan tweeted. … Hogan has said he is ‘seriously considering’ a run in 2024 and expects to make a decision soon.”

DeSantis centers education as shadow campaign heats up: New York Times: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, as he positions himself for a run for president next year, has become an increasingly vocal culture warrior, vowing to take on liberal orthodoxy and its champions… But his crusade has perhaps played out most dramatically in classrooms and on university campuses. … On Tuesday, Governor DeSantis, a Republican, took his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment, announcing a proposed overhaul of the state’s higher education system. … Not since George W. Bush ran in 2000 to be ‘the education president’ has a Republican seeking the Oval Office made school reform a central agenda item. … But since the pandemic started in 2020, when many Democratic-led states kept schools closed longer than Republican states did, often under pressure from teachers’ unions, some polling has suggested education now plays better for Republicans.”

Facing a 2024 decision, Cruz coy: Politico: “Asked about his considerations, [Ted Cruz] described the Senate as ‘the battlefield right now,’ with his seat up next year and a closer margin in his last reelection bid than is typical for the red state. … Potential presidential candidates are also watching what other prominent GOP figures like Ron DeSantis will do, letting the Florida governor absorb Trump’s early attacks. … Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently endorsed Trump … suggested that Cruz may be among the crew of potential candidates who will make a call after more deeply assessing the former president’s strength, especially among the party base.”

Trump’s fundraising droopy: New York Times: “in the first weeks of his third presidential campaign, he notched a less-than-stellar fund-raising haul, yet another signal that his hold on some conservatives may be loosening. Mr. Trump’s campaign said Tuesday that he had raised $9.5 million from Nov. 15, when he announced he was running again for the White House, through the end of 2022. That amounted to an average of $201,600 a day, a fraction of the sums that established front-runners from past elections — in both parties — have collected in their opening weeks”

High-quality polls show a weaker Trump: New York Times: “At the onset of the Republican campaign, the polls are exceptionally divided on Mr. Trump’s support among Republican primary voters. … Whether Mr. Trump is at 25 percent or 55 percent is no small matter. Believe it or not, early polling is fairly predictive of the eventual outcome in presidential primaries. … While the exact reason for the vast spread in survey results is hard to ascertain, the likeliest explanation is that many well-known pollsters are collecting profoundly unrepresentative data. … Higher-quality surveys have tended to show far less support for Mr. Trump. If that’s confirmed by additional higher-quality polling as primary season gets underway, Mr. Trump is no front-runner. … In the interim, the assessment that Mr. Trump is stuck in the low-to-mid 30s nationwide represents a best guess.”


Washington Post: “[C]oncerns about Harris’s political strength were repeated often by more than a dozen Democratic leaders in key states interviewed for this story, some speaking on the condition of anonymity to convey candid thoughts. Harris’s tenure has been underwhelming, they said, marked by struggles as a communicator and at times near-invisibility, leaving many rank-and-file Democrats unpersuaded that she has the force, charisma and skill to mount a winning presidential campaign. … Broader doubts about Harris, Democrats say, largely fall into two categories. Some party members fear that Americans are simply not willing to elect a woman of color as president, especially given the racism and sexism they see emerging in recent years. Others worry that Harris herself lacks the political skills to win a national race.”

Biden primary plan may not actually boost black Dems: FiveThirtyEight: “Despite objections from leaders and state party officials in Georgia and New Hampshire, a Democratic National Committee panel voted on Wednesday to move forward with President Biden’s plan to drastically revamp the party’s 2024 presidential primary process. … The reason for the changes seem straightforward — and practical: Biden and other Democrats say they want a calendar that accurately reflects the party’s diverse slate of voters. … Would Black candidates benefit, though? Maybe not… [I]t’s unlikely that a change to the order would have helped the Black candidates in the Democratic primary in 2020. … It’s also not clear that moving South Carolina to the front of the queue would disenfranchise candidates without significant Black support. … All that’s to say that going first could lead to mixed results — both for South Carolina and Black voters.”

Three cities scrap over hosting 2024 Dem convention: New York Times: “The battle over where Democrats should host their presidential convention in 2024 has been unfolding for months in some of the country’s largest Democratic-run cities. It is at once an opaque insider’s game and a spirited debate over Democratic messaging and symbolism, shaped by regional rivalries, whispered disparagement of competitors and high-powered public jockeying. … Atlanta, Chicago and New York remain in contention and have advanced toward the endgame of the process, hashing out potential nuts-and-bolts terms with the D.N.C … Houston, which also submitted a bid, is no longer being considered, a D.N.C. official confirmed. … For the 2020 Democratic convention, the host city was announced in March 2019, and Democrats involved expect a similar spring time frame this year, but caution the process is unpredictable.”


New York Dems fume as Hochul flails—Politico

House GOP investigations could fuel Stefanik’s continued rise—Axios

Mitch Daniels passes on Senate bid—Politico


“You’ll be hearing soon. In the spring sometime. Not in the winter. I don’t announce in the winter.”—Senator Dianne Feinstein, soon to be 90 years old, tells Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan that she will not announce her re-election plans until spring.


“Here’s an idea: Get Bill Self and Bob Huggins together and let them pick a better candidate for each side. Who would you put on a committee to pick better candidates?  Or do you see some dark horses with a chance?”—Mary Stine, Prairie Village, Kansas

Could they pull a Dick Cheney and nominate themselves? I would definitely like to see a Huggs presidential press conference. We could all think of people in our lives who would make great presidents. I wrote in my sister, Genny McIntyre, in 2020, but she ultimately came up short for the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes. But she would be a great president. She’s patriotic, smart, principled, tough, loving, and a great leader. And so are hundreds of thousands of Americans. The problem is a system that has evolved to punish people with those attributes and reward pandering, facile, unethical, people-pleasing, cruel behavior. Ben Sasse is in Gainesville and Mitch Daniels is in Indianapolis for reasons of their own, but the fact that they are not among the ones getting a serious look for the Republican nomination is great evidence of the disconnect between candidate quality and market demand. The Democrats have a different situation with an incumbent president, but we can easily imagine a similar situation if the roles were reversed. The way to repair the problem is to change the inputs and make the parties’ candidate selection less democratic and more strategic. We already have a version of the committees you suggested: the members of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee and the hundreds of elected delegates who will attend the parties’ conventions next year. It’s long past time to let serious partisans do their work instead of letting 15 percent of the electorate make choices that are democratic but not nearly representative of the wishes of the members of the parties themselves.

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the writerly Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on November 18, 2022. (Photo by Wade Vandervort/AFP/Getty Images.)
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on November 18, 2022. (Photo by Wade Vandervort/AFP/Getty Images.)

So many great entries this week for our first week of the February Cutline Contest. The photo of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mid-guffaw while speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition evoked a plethora of kinds of humor, but our winner managed to a) be on the news, b) match the photo, and c) think of a real joke. Congrats and read on for January’s winner!


“What do you get when you put John Bolton and John Lennon in the same room? Two guys singing ‘I am the Walrus!’”—Bill Bodie, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Winner, ISWYDT Division:

 “And after New Hampshire, I’ll be flying out to Mount St. Helens to meet Steven Spielberg. Something about remaking The Last Days of Pompeo.”—Michael Smith, Georgetown, Kentucky

Winner, Stirewaltisms Inside Jokes Division:

“I just love eating a liverwurst sandwich and listening to good ol’ bluegrass music, especially if there’s a washboard.”—Bob Goldman, Gilroy, California

Winner, Santos Says Division:

“Absolutely George!  When elected I will immediately start sending the urgently needed Jew-ish space lasers to the Ukraine.”—Kathy Wright, Arnoldsville, Georgia

Our January winner is actually from December, but rolled over to the New Year because of our holiday break. For a photo of TV host Tucker Carlson talking to former President Donald Trump at a country club, our winner Michael Johnson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina not only reached for Caddyshack, but the perfect scene, the christening of the Flying Wasp, and wrote a pithy bit of doggerel. “The man worthwhile is the man who steals files and can still smile ’cause Cheney lost the fight for her seat.” Please send us an email with your address, Mr. Johnson, so we can send you your prize, a set of promotional golf tees for what I assume was Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election campaign, “We’re ‘fore’ Ike.” 

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


CBS News: “A former official in a school district in the Chicago suburb of Harvey is accused in a bizarre scheme involving more than $1 million worth of stolen chicken wings … The alleged scheme began during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were closed on state order and replaced by virtual learning. Despite the fact that children were learning remotely, the school district was still providing meals for pickup … From July 2020 until February 2022, Vera Liddell placed hundreds of unauthorized orders for food items – including 11,000 cases of chicken wings for which the district was billed more than $1.5 million. … Surveillance video showed that Liddell showed up at Gordon Food Service to pick up the food orders and would leave with them in a district cargo van. … Prosecutors said it wasn’t clear what she did with the chicken wings. The school district doesn’t even serve chicken wings to students because they contain bones, prosecutors said.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.