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Joe Biden is the grinch of Iowa Denied their own jamboree, Democrats may turn Republican for a laugh

'Folks: Joe Biden has murdered Iowa.' Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

'Folks: Joe Biden has murdered Iowa.' Jim Vondruska/Getty Images


December 5, 2023   5 mins

In 1988, Dick Gephardt’s mother moved to Iowa. He was running for the Democratic nomination for president and Loreen Gephardt, at the age of 79, wanted to make sure he ate properly in the run up to the Iowa caucuses. She did his laundry too. After he won the contest, he joked that mum —a widow — might stay: “She may never leave Des Moines. There are several gentlemen who have taken a fancy to her. One man asked us if he could please take her to church.”

Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states: that vision. The glory of American small-town quirkiness. Amid the vastness of the United States — sea to shining sea and all that — Iowa and New Hampshire have been, since 1972 when the caucuses became the kick-off event for the presidential race, a tether, a tent peg holding the whole political structure to firm ground, to a place, where people actually live, and think, and talk to each other.

So when you hear that Donald Trump is ahead in the national Republican polls, with all the other Republican hopefuls competing merely for second place in the race for the nomination, remember that not a single vote has yet been cast. And when they start the process on January 15 and 23, Iowa and New Hampshire will make up their own minds, thank you very much. In their own way.

This means talking to the candidates, often with no cameras present. Actually meeting them face to face. It means discovering that Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, may well have fulfilled his promise to visit all 99 counties in the whole of the largely empty state of Iowa — but that, in all of them, he seemed to those who met him, a bit weird. That Vivek Ramaswamy, the libertarian tech bro who has been living full time (without mum) in the capital Des Moines, is hugely polished but maybe too polished to be true. And weird to boot. It means that the black Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina was a nice fellow but little more (he’s dropped out now) And that Doug Burgum, the Governor of North Dakota, might make a passable Agriculture Secretary (though he has also now dropped out).

Alright, I know what you’re thinking: Donald Trump is way ahead in the Iowa polls as well as the nationals. And let’s be clear: ahead in a way that is unprecedented in recent Iowa history. Trump is averaging just under 50% support among Iowa Republicans, with DeSantis and Nikki Haley tied at second but with less that 20% support each. It’s a slam-dunk, isn’t it? As Trump himself is beginning to ask, isn’t it time to end this meaningless process, appoint the big man, and get to work on Biden?

Not so fast. Remember it’s “Iowa and New Hampshire” they are a double act, these reality checks in the snow. Trump will (almost certainly) win Iowa. He would be finished if he did not, given his current poll lead. But even though the Democrat Dick Gephardt — to his mum’s joy — won in 1988, along with Bob Dole for the Republicans. Neither got the final nod: in the end, it was George H. W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis. In more recent times, we did not get president Ted Cruz (who beat Trump in Iowa in 2016) or Mike Huckabee as the final candidate (although he won there in 2008).

Winning is not the thing. These contests — taken together — are about momentum, direction of travel.  The appeal in each state has to be different. You can triumph in one and collapse in the next. Here’s why: just because they are cold and their inhabitants overwhelmingly white, and there aren’t any big cities, doesn’t mean their populations think the same. They are diverse.

New Hampshire is a tougher place than placid, midwestern, God-fearing Iowa. Its population is mobile and transient. A survey for the University of New Hampshire found that only a third of state residents aged 25 and older were born there. It’s a high-income state too (hence the immigration) and one of the least religious in the whole USA. Look at its cross-party support for abortion rights: with 69% saying abortion should be allowed in some circumstances, it’s among the highest state percentages in the nation.

That’s why second place in Iowa this time round matters hugely — if Nikki Haley can beat Ron DeSantis, she is suddenly the huge story, the coming woman. In New Hampshire, she already appears to be in second place. Yes, alright: still 27 points or so behind Trump but stuff happens. Trump has largely ignored all the traditions of campaigning in both states — the town hall meetings, the cosy chats in over-heated diners, and we don’t yet know if this will have an impact. If she were to overtake a faltering Trump in New Hampshire, the next big contest is her home state of South Carolina. She would be motoring: very much in the race and ready to pounce just as Trump begins his most serious court appearances.

And yes, Iowa and New Hampshire are small scale and hokey but they are also tricky to manage. This year, trickier than ever. Because this year a terrible crime has been committed by Joe Biden — or so his many Iowa and New Hampshire critics aver. Something which could blow apart the Republican race.

Folks: Joe Biden has murdered Iowa and New Hampshire. He always hated them; never did well in them during his multiple presidential runs. And now there is blood in the snow. Iowa succumbed to the slaughter without much of a fight as Biden decreed that the caucus will become a write-in for the Dems (literally on postcards), whose results will be revealed in March. It is no longer the kick-off event. It no longer affords the victor momentum. It is no longer a contest worth thinking about.

In New Hampshire though, Biden went for the kill and missed. He attempted to demote it, while taking his name off the ballot. But New Hampshire is still alive: and the tradition that it holds the first primary is so important to local Democrats (it’s actually a state law) that they are now locked in an ill-tempered struggle with the White House which looks likely to cause Biden significant grief at a potentially crucial moment.

New Hampshire Democrats are holding a primary in the teeth of his opposition. And there is a candidate, a congressman called Dean Phillips, who has paid $1,000 dollars to put his name on the ballot. But can Phillips be allowed to win? Should Biden supporters ignore it, write in the president’s name, organise for Mr Phillips to be offered the ambassadorship to Tahiti?

Politico’s Jonathan Martin, a veteran commentator, has a message from history: “Other incumbent presidents have won New Hampshire but still been bruised by the stronger-than-expected showing of their opponents. That list includes, perhaps most famously, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 …. and Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, who both had to fend off opponents to their right. None of them survived to win another term.”

President Phillips? Probably not. No: certainly not. But he could still have a real impact: a troubled re-election campaign could yet be made more troubled still. And here is why the Democrats’ difficulties matter in the Republican race: there is not much to do in Iowa; it gets dark early in the winter. If you are an Iowan Democrat, you really do look forward to the jamboree coming to town every four years. So if this time, you know your opinion doesn’t count. So how about… whisper it… becoming a Republican for a night? You can: Iowa has same-day registration rights. Your nice neighbours are already voting for Trump: maybe go with them to the church hall and pay a small dollar sum and take part. Cast a ballot. And remember these are Midwesterners with no sense of wickedness or irony: they will take it seriously and vote not for Trump (who, if they are Democrats they will think is evil), but for someone they can approve of, probably Haley, even if she might go on to win the nomination and beat their man Biden next November.

Might the result of the Iowa Republican caucus be significantly affected by disaffected Dems? It’s not beyond the realms of the possible. Trump in Trouble would be the headline. New Hampshire is suddenly in play. With two fingers raised to New York and LA and indeed to Washington DC: snow-bound, small-town Iowa and New Hampshire gloriously reminding the world, and the Donald, that place matters, and these places live on to fight another day.


Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer

JustinOnWeb

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AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

If this, and this, and this then Trump is toast. Or not.
I love the smell of desperation in the morning.

T Bone
T Bone
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I love how a guy from the BBC is trying to influence American elections by telling Democrats to vote in Republican primaries so the Global Establishment can get its preferred candidates in the General. They care so much about “Saving Democracy” that they have to manipulate it to preserve it.

You could never organize enough Conservative Republicans to affect a Democrat Primary. For Democrats, there is no such moral dilemma.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

You can smell the fear, can’t you? Brace yourselves for an entire year of Orange Man worse than Bad on the Today programme.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Justin’s actually quite a realist on these things. If you listen to Americast he often does present a sympathetic right wing point of view.
The people who criticise the “orange man bad” media line are just as bad as those in the media. They are the “orange man good” group who are incapable of seeing the man’s flaws.
Webb no doubt sees that Trump is far from perfect but he also sees why so many would support him.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I don’t think anyone is ‘incapable of seeing the man’s flaws’. But put yourself in the position of any US voter who is not a war-mongering Clintonian neo-liberal: what other choice do you have?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Let’s see. I could take your word on it or I could just go by the sheer amount of articles he has wrote here and other places suggesting otherwise.

Chipoko
Chipoko
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

 he often does present a sympathetic right wing point of view.
Hmmm. Not in his BBC Radio 4 Today broadcasts!

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago

I didn’t come here for the game-show/horse-race view of politics – I can get those on the Today programme should I ever bother to start listening to it again. 

I suppose It’s moderately interesting to learn that some of the contestants are, in your expert opinion, too ‘weird’ or too ‘nice’.  Likewise the shuffling of the Primaries & voting rules and all that. But it might have been interesting to include some of the policies on offer from either side or commentary on the lack of them. Perhaps something on such trivialities as the follow-through on promises made in 2020 or the actual standard of living of Iowans or any other Americans since the last election. 

Note to Unherd – how can the views of a prominent BBC Journalist from their ‘flagship’ be considered as anything other than mainstream? Webb is the very personification of Establishment views – he has a massive platform to express them every day with his (tiresome) huffs, hums and performative incredulity in his interviews. At least that’s how I remember his MO from a couple of years ago when I stopped listening – apologies if he’s altered his game much since then.

Chipoko
Chipoko
7 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Spot on! Continue not to listen!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
7 months ago

New England Democrats make me tired. Democrats are a strange breed, but the New England type just annoy me.

Last edited 7 months ago by Samuel Ross
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
7 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

I personally have contempt for the gun-loving, Catholic, mom and apple pie democrats, who decry high taxes, crime and insane foreign entanglements, yet vote D.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
7 months ago

Do I sense a lot of wishful thinking on the part of Mr. Webb? The problem is not that if Haley or DeSantis are really lucky they might win Iowa. The problem is that it will barely put a dent in the Donald with how overwhelming he is everywhere else. DeSantis could not find his footing (or where he stood on the divides in the party) and Haley is pretty much only popular in GOP megadonor imaginations while extolling the virtues of letting big business set immigration numbers and talking about destroying the First Amendment (I am absolutely serious). They need to find something to get their campaigns going again and I doubt more campaign funds will be it.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt Hindman
Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
7 months ago

I can’t stand Trump. He’s a boor, a bully, and he wouldn’t have got anywhere in life without his dad’s money.

That being said, I would bet my house on him getting the nomination, and if Biden is the democrat he has to beat, he will beat him, and comfortably.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Agreed on all points. And it’s hard to know what will be more of a mess: 4 more years of Trump or whatever happens if he misses out in a close election again.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

I totally agree. He is a slob who ‘doesn’t know how to behave’ and worse, a disgusting ‘draft dodger’ BUT he’s still better than anyone else.

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago

Horsefeathers. In the view of the author, it would take about three improbable events for Trump not to win in Iowa, from which he extrapolates to saying that a freak loss in Iowa based on a fundamentally local fit of pique might then ripple out across the nation to affect the national poll.
Well, don’t forget to buy a lottery ticket…
First if Iowa mattered as much as the author says, then Joe Biden wouldn’t be president today – we’d have either President Buttigieg, Sanders or Warren – all of whom beat Biden handily in Iowa.
But we don’t because it isn’t. 538 ran a piece back in August which tried to make a similar case. They argued that, although Trump was miles ahead and most candidates who had been that far ahead in previous elections had generally won, Ted Kennedy had lost when he was polling at 66%. So, you know, everything to play for.
And yet, in the entire article, there was no mention of Chappaquiddick – perhaps the most extraordinary presidential scandal of all time. So, a more sensible take on that article and this would be that, to derail Trump at this point would require a Chappaquiddick-scale event.
However, even that probably wouldn’t be enough. Kennedy was, at that point, posing as an all American hero, a white knight with no blot on his escutcheon. When he drove a woman he was not married to off a bridge in the middle of the night and then failed to fetch help until the following morning resulting in her slow death by suffocation, it dramatically changed what people thought of him. Trump, by contrast, comes pre-tarnished and blotted in every conceivable way and he is still polling light years ahead of everyone else. It is hard to imagine any scandal which would substantially alter his supporters’ image of him – short of removing his mask mid-rally to reveal that he’d been Jeffrey Epstein all along.
And finally, if holding the first primaries in the nation were even half as consequential as all that then it would be profoundly undemocratic for it to be held in the same two states each year.
This is a sentimental political fantasy

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago

The bookmaker odds suggest there is a 30% chance Biden won’t be the Democratic candidate. My hunch is this is too low and that – one way or another – they will end up with someone else.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Any contenders you can think of to replace “the living corpse “?

David Lawrence
David Lawrence
7 months ago

An actual corpse would probably be an improvement

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago
Reply to  David Lawrence

Strap the corpse into the Presidential limousine and drive it around Washington to deter the barbarians at the gate…

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
7 months ago
Reply to  David Lawrence

Which will still be animated by Obama. You wouldn’t know the difference

Chipoko
Chipoko
7 months ago
Reply to  David Lawrence
Chipoko
Chipoko
7 months ago
Reply to  David Lawrence

Ha Ha! Enjoyed that one!

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

I will be very surprised if Joe Biden is the nominee. He’s already sometimes very hard to watch on television. Based on what I’ve seen from the decline of my father and then mother, he won’t get any better and in fact will get worse. Running for president demands more than he will be able to give. You can only hide so much.
It reminds me of the embarrassment of Robert Mueller. Many people thought he was in charge of the investigation being run in his name. When he testified before Congress it was clear that he was not.

Brian Lemon
Brian Lemon
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Father Time is undefeated. Biden is an old man getting older by the day; if he’s elected get ready for President Harris.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago

Strange article. Despite Mr. Webb’s description in his byline, it seems as though his knowledge and experience of America is similar to mine of the UK: I’ve visited a few times but the rest I know about my ancestral homeland is largely gleaned from British publications and entertainment.

Until very recently, I lived in New Hampshire for 30 years. The formerly sane state has gone full Democrat, including its “Republican” nepo baby governor, Chris Sununu. If Biden’s puppeteers were worried about losing NH, it certainly wasn’t because Granite Staters want GOP leadership, and Trump is despised in “hate has no home here” yard sign land.

Last edited 7 months ago by Allison Barrows
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
7 months ago

We should print up new signs that read, “Hate has a home here after all” and place them alongside the “River to the Sea” signs.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
7 months ago

The US is being tested because China, Russia, Iran and their proxies see a senile old man in the White House. They didn’t dare test Trump. Whoever wins in 2024, for the sake of the world let’s hope it is someone without dementia.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

China called him a dotard. Russia didn’t need to test him because he was their man. Iran restarted its nuclear programme after Trump crashed out of the JCPOA.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

“They didn’t dare test Trump.”
This is hilarious! Trump folded in the face of every single bully from overseas. And his butt kissing of Putin was embarrassing.
Remember when he ran away from a summit because Justin Trudeau was mean to him – fantastic!!!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
7 months ago

Too much horse-race nonsense. Unaffiliated voters are a plurality; in other words more voters are not represented in DC than those who are. Many of us are already fed up with this election crap.
Enough already!!

J Bryant
J Bryant
7 months ago

A very enjoyable article, not least for its imaginative take on the Iowa caucus.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

As someone who doesn’t understand the various stages of the US electoral process, the article provided an interesting insight into the seemingly labyrinthine subtleties which would otherwise go unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic.

I’d be amazed if anything like a majority of US voters knew what was happening outside their own state, but happy to be corrected on that point.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It looks exhausting, seemingly drags on for an eternity and at the end is won by whoever has the deepest pockets. Then they have to do it all over again for the proper election. Give me a short sharp general election any day of the week

Last edited 7 months ago by Billy Bob
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And the whole thing is decided by like <100,000 swing voters in a few key states. Still the greatest show on earth.

A D Kent
A D Kent
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

If you’re interested in the horse-race aspects may I recommend http://www.nakedcapitalism.com – especially their ‘2pm Water cooler’ & ‘Links’ posts. There are always fascinating articles to find there – with many from UnHerd in their lists. I’m in Hove, but find their US output very readable and other output fascinating.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

Ignore the biased people in the comments calling this desperation or “cope”. This was an interesting write up and gave food for thought outside of either wing of the mainstream’s coverage.

Vesper Stamper
Vesper Stamper
7 months ago

The typos in this article—omg, where is the editor?!?!?!

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
7 months ago

Justin Webb seems to be channelling Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
7 months ago

It wasn’t the local Democrats who insisted on holding their primary out of turn. The Republicans set the date for both primaries.