DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) — In Iowa, the state that pulled the first block out of her wobbly Jenga-game of a presidential campaign six years ago, Hillary Clinton enjoys stratospheric approval ratings, well-heeled outside groups toiling on her behalf, and important political connections that date back decades.
From a distance, she appears invincible once again, far outpacing her rivals in the polls and primed to redeem herself in the caucus state that has never been especially friendly to the Clintons, or to female candidates.
Iowa has not elected a female governor, senator or member of Congress. In 2016, Clinton could finally put those demons to rest.
But beneath the surface here, familiar pitfalls might await Clinton should she decide to run: A restive and emboldened progressive base long suspicious of Clintonian moderation, a hunger for fresh Democratic voices, and a caucus electorate that boasts a cherished tradition of voting with its heart rather than its head.
“One of the great things about our party is that we are always looking for new leadership and new faces to represent the changing face of the Democratic Party,” said Kimberley Boggus, a 34-year-old Democratic organizer from Beaverdale. “We are looking for new leadership because that’s what’s needed right now.”
Boggus, who was named the Iowa Democratic Party’s “Activist of the Year” in 2012 for her work on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, did not rule out supporting Clinton if she chooses to run for president, a decision the former secretary of state says she will make sometime later this year. Boggus praised Clinton’s rich experience at the highest levels of government and a lifetime of work on behalf of women and children.
But like many Democrats in Iowa, Boggus said she is eager to hear more from other leaders, pointing to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, two names that have surfaced in early discussions about the next presidential race.
Passion remains wanting
A common theme emerged in conversations about Clinton with more than two dozen Democratic activists, strategists and elected officials during a recent winter week in Iowa: Respect for her within the party runs deep, burnished since 2008 by her tour of duty at the State Department, but widespread passion for Clinton remains wanting.
At the same time, no one could muster the name of a Democrat with the combination of charisma, ideological bona fides and financial firepower who could topple the Clinton juggernaut a second time.
“Who has the kind of pulling power that they can go on the Internet, or go to D.C. and New York and raise the kind of money you need to raise? Who is out there?” said Tom Whitney, a former Democratic Party chairman and gubernatorial candidate who caucused for Obama in 2008. “I would say that the top-tier candidates for Democrats are all women, two or three of them in the U.S. Senate. Hillary stands in the way of all of them.”
Despite characterizing Clinton as the most formidable Iowa front-runner the Democratic Party has witnessed since hometown boy Tom Harkin sought the presidency in 1992, Whitney still said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to the campaign.
“Right now, my inclination would be to support her,” he said. “But if it’s Hillary and somebody else, I don’t know. I’m to the left of her, personally.”
Clinton’s lead over her potential rivals in polls is startling. In hypothetical matchups, she thumps her next closest opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, by margins that Peyton Manning would envy, winning by 40 or 50 points.
Others on the Democratic bench, like O’Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, register in low single digits, if not asterisk territory. The same goes for two ambitious female senators, Gillibrand and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the left who says she’s not running, scores a few points higher.
The only famous name among no-names
Clinton’s robust 2016 lead is built, in part, on her status as the only famous person in a field of relative no-names. A Des Moines Register poll released in December found Clinton’s favorability rating among Democrats at a jarring 89%, while just 7% had an unfavorable view.
The pollster Ann Selzer, who crunched the numbers for the Register survey, said the paucity of top-tier Democrats made it difficult just to conduct the poll.
“It was hard to come up with a list,” Selzer said in an interview on the newspaper’s website. “Part of that was we just haven’t had candidates coming to Iowa, and not many Democrats strongly indicating they want to run for president.”
The lack of presidential bustle in Democratic circles is indeed glaring, especially compared to the swirl of activity on the Republican side of the ticket, where likely candidates are already making trips to Iowa and aides are peddling negative research on their potential rivals.
The energies of Iowa’s Democratic activists are focused not on 2016, but 2014 — a busy midterm election cycle featuring a rare open Senate seat and two House seats up for grabs.
Would-be Clinton rivals have only tiptoed into Iowa. Biden, no stranger to the state after two ill-fated presidential runs, spoke at Harkin’s annual steak fry fundraiser last fall, a rite of passage for any Democratic hopeful. O’Malley spoke at the same event in 2012, at the height of that year’s presidential campaign.
Klobuchar traveled south of her state’s border to address the North Iowa Wing Ding Fundraiser last August, and chased her appearance with a series of nice-to-meet-you phone calls to some of the Democrats who attended.
The Wing Ding dinner, held at the historic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, encapsulated the paralytic early state of the Democratic campaign.
Klobuchar’s punchy speech before the chicken wing-munching audience earned her rave reviews from local Democrats, who said she would make an intriguing presidential candidate, but Clinton loomed over the event in absentia. Organizers bestowed a lifetime achievement award on Clinton, and reporters pressed Klobuchar on the former first lady’s 2016 chances after the event.
Iowa Democrats’ curious paradox
The state’s Democratic operatives reveal a curious paradox when handicapping the 2016 race. They note a lack of pervasive grass-roots enthusiasm for Clinton, while at the same time waving off the suggestion that she could lose to another Democrat.
“Hillary does not have the same connection with grass-roots activists that President Obama had,” said Sam Reno, a top Obama organizer in Des Moines. “But if Hillary decides to run, I believe Democrats are going to line up behind her lockstep.”
Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who was John Edwards’ Iowa state director in 2008 and later held senior roles in Obama’s political operation, recalled that six years ago, both Obama and Edwards poured an enormous amount of money and manpower into Iowa to build volunteer-based organizations in the state’s 99 counties and compete for endorsements from party leaders.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone building the same kind of institutional support to compete with Clinton in 2016, she said.
“There is still a desire for other party leaders to come visit the state and get to know Iowans,” O’Malley Dillon said. “There is opportunity for that over the course of the 2014 cycle. But if Secretary Clinton runs, it will be much harder for any candidate to build the type of organization needed to win Iowa, because it’s so intensive.”
While Clinton-world has kept its distance from Iowa and other early voting states — she has no leftover campaign structure on the ground here — her allies have worked to whip up an air of inevitability that threatens to prevent others from joining the race.
Ready for Hillary, an independent group with tacit support from the Clintons, is dispatching a team of organizers to Iowa next week to meet with labor leaders and party activists. “An agenda is in formation,” said Ready for Hillary spokesman Seth Bringman when asked about the trip.
Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs Democratic women running for office, hosted a “Madam President” event in Des Moines last summer to help generate excitement for the prospect of a female president.
Long-running and important connections
Clinton also has important connections in the state dating back to her husband’s presidency, including Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general who served in Bill Clinton’s administration and co-founded a blue-chip consulting firm in the trendy East Village district of Des Moines.
Campbell said she has had no conversations with the former first lady about a possible campaign. But if Clinton does choose to seek the Democratic nomination, Campbell predicted she will have broad and enthusiastic support among women, union members and rank-and-file Democrats. The possibility of another insurgent Democrat defeating her the second time around seems dim, Campbell said.
“She knows Iowa now,” Campbell said. “Yes, it’s possible some very compelling person could come along and strike a chord. That has happened. I just think it’s harder this time. There is a sentiment among men and women that it’s time to have a woman president. And who would be more capable and more experienced than Hillary Clinton?”
Yet despite having the Democratic establishment at her back, there remains a palpable sense of unease with Clinton in grass-roots corners of the party, even as those very same activists promise to support her if no one else runs.
Part of that restraint is ideological. Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers remain as dovish as they were in 2008, when Clinton’s support for the Iraq war badly damaged her standing on the left. Clinton helped wind down that same war as Obama’s secretary of state, but she is now linked to his national security apparatus, which has expanded drone attacks overseas and broadened intelligence gathering with controversial surveillance and data collection techniques.
And at a time when progressives feel emboldened to confront issues like income inequality and wage stagnation, Clinton, who delivered paid speeches last year to two prominent private equity firms as well as a group that actively lobbied against the Affordable Care Act, is perceived by some as too close to the deficit-obsessed worlds of Wall Street and official Washington.
“She needs to become more populist,” said state Rep. Brian Meyer, a Democrat from Des Moines. “If somebody comes to Iowa and has that populist message it’s going to be well received. People are looking for an alternative. Hillary is the front-runner for a reason. A lot of people support her. But there is a group of progressives in Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere who want to see what the field is like and who gets in.”
Whimsical Democratic impulses
Clinton is also susceptible to some of the same whimsical Democratic impulses that propelled Obama to his stunning Iowa victory in 2008. “Democrats love an underdog and we love a story,” is how Meyer put it. With a gleaming resume and the potential to make history as the country’s first female president, Clinton has a powerful story to tell. But she is hardly an underdog.
Some party leaders warned Clinton against reprising the same kind of heavy-handed front-running behavior that rankled so many Iowa activists — not to mention the media — during her 2008 effort.
“I don’t know if she has learned that lesson,” said Jean Pardee, the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2nd District vice chair. “The problem with so much of her staff was that they were all sort of higher class than the mere peasants that they had to campaign with. Everyone was kept at arm’s length by the staff, although a couple of key ones were pretty good. That’s a lesson that should be hopefully learned. But when it comes to human nature, maybe that’s not possible.”
Clinton must also confront the who’s-on-deck inclinations of the Democratic caucus-goer. Unlike Republicans, who have a habit of nominating loyal soldiers who have waited for their turn, Iowa Democrats have a tendency to search for someone new. The last time the party nominated an obvious heir-apparent was 2000, but Al Gore first had to beat back an unexpectedly fierce primary challenge from Bill Bradley on the left.
George Appleby, an attorney and lobbyist in Des Moines who supported Bradley and copped to a “pristine record of picking the wrong guy” in every caucus since 1976 until he backed Obama in 2008, described Clinton as strong and brilliant.
But he said liberals are suffering from an acute case of “Clinton fatigue.” He named O’Malley, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2004 Iowa caucus winner, as Democrats he’s keeping an eye on.
“Hillary would make a great president,” Appleby said. “She is the odds-on-favorite. But I don’t think she is necessarily going to be the nominee, or going to win Iowa. Sometimes people have been around forever, and there is time for some new blood.”
Difficult to find Democrat critical of Clinton
Even with these simmering concerns, finding a Democrat in Iowa who is outright critical of Clinton, at least on the record, is difficult. Conversations about the putative front-runner, if disparaging, were invariably punctuated with guarded qualifiers. “But I’m not anti-Clinton” is a common refrain. So is “Don’t print that.”
Such caution was on full display in December, when Schweitzer, the former Montana governor, visited the Des Moines suburb of Altoona to headline a holiday gathering hosted by ProgressIowa, a liberal advocacy group.
Hip to the 2016 buzz that surrounded his visit to the caucus state, Schweitzer made headlines when he criticized the Democratic senators who voted to authorize military action in Iraq in 2002. It was an unmistakable jab at Clinton and her support for the war, a vote that haunted her in 2008 and allowed Obama to tap into the anti-war anxieties of Iowa liberals.
Asked over and over by the five reporters in attendance if his comments were aimed specifically at Clinton, the usually blunt Schweitzer hemmed and hawed. “I think 21 Democratic senators got it exactly right and voted against it,” he said, avoiding naming names, and thus any head-on criticism of Clinton.
The Schweitzer event drew a number of Democratic party power-brokers, including gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch, who purchased Schweitzer’s signature bolo tie for $125 in a slapdash auction, and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan, who waved off a reporter’s questions about 2016.
“It’s so damn early,” he said. “It was stupid early in 2008 and it’s stupid early now. No one has done a damn thing.”
And yet, for some reason, nearly 70 activists, labor leaders and party officials showed up to a casino ballroom in the pre-Christmas cold to hear the voluble Montana governor talk about education, the economy and prison reform.
“I’m glad he’s here,” said Meyer, the state legislator, who was nursing a beer in the back of the room. “I don’t think he can wait on Hillary’s decision to come out. People, if they are serious about running, they have to come out before she makes a decision. Clearly she is the front-runner and she is a wonderful candidate. Joe Biden is No. 2. But I would like to see a second tier of candidates come out here, because Iowa is where upsets are made and where people move on.”
Also patrolling the room was Rob Hogg, a bespectacled state senator from Cedar Rapids. After proudly signing a copy of his book on climate change and handing it to a reporter, Hogg was asked which Democratic candidate he supported in the 2008 caucuses.
“I supported Secretary Clinton,” he said.
Pressed twice on whether he would back her once again, Hogg twice replied with the same answer: “It depends on who else is in the field.”