What Trump could do to the Iowa caucus

As America prepares to make its choice in the 2020 elections, CNN ventured into the lives of voters around the country who are often overlooked in the traditional political narratives. We start this series with a look at black voters in the early caucus state of Iowa.

When Iowans caucus Monday night, Americans will have the first results of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. And, in the long primary campaign, no state has been more central to the leading candidates’ strategies or commanded more intense media interest than Iowa.

But will it really matter?

Recent history says it should. In 2004, Iowa vaulted John Kerry into front-runner status. As recently as just a few weeks before those caucuses, Kerry was languishing in single digits in the polls and had to lend himself millions of dollars to provide a shot in the arm. But he poured those resources into Iowa, won and pretty quickly had the nomination sewn up.

In 2008, Iowa proved Barack Obama could win. Trailing Hillary Clinton for much of the primary, Obama ran an Iowa-or-bust campaign with a historic investment in organizing. When he won, the national media gave his audacious candidacy the spotlight of a frontrunner, just like it had Kerry four years earlier.

Iowa has the power to set the narrative. By going first, it tends to dictate who the perceived front-runner is — and the media, after months of analyzing and parsing the primary campaigns, finally has a result to hype. So, the result is usually a round-the-clock media narrative that can give the winner a springboard into New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.

But this time, it’s hard to see that happening. And there are two reasons why.

First, 2020 brings new Iowa caucus rules under which state Democrats will release three results: the raw vote totals from the first round of caucusing; the final raw vote totals after realignment within the caucuses; and the projected estimate of total delegates awarded to each candidate.

It is entirely plausible that these results will be “won” by different candidates. That would give several campaigns the opportunity to spin a result in their favor, muddying the waters of who really won.

Second, for a front-runner narrative to truly take hold and affect voters in later states, the media has to give the Iowa result serious oxygen. But this year’s caucus could occur smack dab in the middle of the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, which is being broadcast largely uninterrupted for hours each day and consuming the political world’s entire attention span.

Making matters worse for Iowa, Trump is scheduled to trek to Capitol Hill — the very venue of his trial — the day after the caucus to deliver his State of the Union address. In normal years, the State of the Union is itself a bona fide media spectacle, with the broadcast networks, cable outlets, print journalists and social media companies dedicating significant resources to live coverage and analysis.

We know Trump relishes the spotlight of this massive event. With impeachment as the backdrop, this year’s State of the Union could be a heightened reality-television drama. The safest bet in politics is that major media outlets — and Trump himself — will give it that kind of billing.

The outcome? Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle dictated and dominated by the near-planetary mass of Trump coverage, by Wednesday morning, any attention for Monday’s Iowa caucuses may be eclipsed.

Many who have worked on campaigns this cycle like me have dubbed this Democratic contest a “cable news primary,” as voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond have so intensely followed news developments, interviews and the horse-race polling coverage throughout 2019 and into 2020.

It’s not that different from how Trump was able to galvanize support in 2016 by commanding the media ecosystem with his omnipresence. The importance of media coverage has probably never been greater for shaping and affecting voter behavior in America than it is today.

Though Iowa’s vote is important, of course, this unique media environment could dampen its historic effect of crowning a front-runner and make later contests even more influential for how voters perceive the candidates and the race.

Buckle up. We could be in for a long ride.

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