Politics & Policy

Clinton Desperate for Early Edge in Iowa

Clinton greets supporters at an early-vote rally in Des Moines, Iowa, September 29, 2016. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Trying to rally the base in Des Moines

Des Moines – “I, O, W, A! You should go and vote today!”

Such is the battle cry greeting many hundreds of Hillary Clinton supporters as they stream out of her campaign rally here Thursday afternoon, heading east to escape a sun-drenched downtown plaza barricaded by Secret Service fencing. They are cleverly funneled directly into an enthusiastic den of Democratic organizers who point southbound and, in between chants, bellow out instructions: “Follow our signs to the county auditor’s office!”

Welcome to early voting in Iowa.

The state, which Democrats have carried in six of the last seven presidential elections, has among the most relaxed voting regulations in the entire country. There is no “Voter ID” law demanding official documentation upon entering the polling place. There is same-day registration, allowing individuals to cast a ballot mere moments after becoming registered voters. There is postage-paid absentee voting for everyone, no questions asked. There is satellite voting, which entails county auditors’ being petitioned by 100 eligible constituents to erect temporary pop-up booths in a requested location. And most important, Iowa has early, in-person voting — 40 days of it. 

That period began Thursday, which brought a handful of civic devotees to the Polk County auditor’s office as early as eight o’clock in the morning — and drew Clinton here several hours later for a get-out-the-vote event that local Democrats hope will provide a desperately needed spark in their state.

Despite nearly three decades of supremacy in Iowa’s presidential-election cycles, Democrats — and Clinton — appear headed toward defeat this November. She trails Trump by five points in the RealClearPolitics average. Down-ballot Democrats, widely viewed as second-tier recruits, are gaining little traction against GOP incumbents. Election veterans on the ground speak of a Republican organization here that is among the party’s best in any competitive state. And there is clear evidence of a downturn in enthusiasm among Clinton’s base. Four years ago, registered Democrats requested upwards of 119,000 absentee ballots before the early-voting period; this year that number was roughly 67,000, according to Iowa Starting Line, a respected liberal blog on state politics.

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That figure still dwarfs the roughly 26,000 absentee ballots requested by GOP voters. But that’s to be expected: Democrats across the country have in recent years focused on running up the margins early, knowing that Republicans often outvote them on Election Day. That was true in Iowa in 2012 — when Obama won the state by 92,000 votes despite Romney’s winning 45,000 more votes on Election Day — and is expected to be the case again this year. For Clinton to win this state’s six electoral votes, then, the mandate is clear: Bank as many early votes as possible to build a lead before November 8, and then pray it holds up.

Hence her campaign’s impressive organizational effort on Thursday.

Moving southbound at the instruction of the chanting chorus, rally-goers approach another group of some 15 Clinton supporters awaiting them at the corner of Walnut Street and 3rd Street. They shout to turn left, heading east down Walnut toward the county auditor’s office. In case it’s unclear, one man wears a herculean blue sign with the campaign logo’s arrow pointing in that direction. Underneath the arrow is a topical hashtag: #WithHerFirst.

Arriving at the end of the block, another crew of Clinton volunteers — this one smaller, at perhaps half a dozen — steers the crowds rightward down 2nd Avenue, hugging the Neal Smith Federal Office Building. Halfway to the next intersection, two more of them are waiting, handing out campaign signage like fuel for the expedition, urging the caravan to continue to the end of the block.

“You’re almost there!” shouts the woman stationed at the intersection, hoisting a poster that reads, iwillvote.com. “It’s under that green awning!”

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As they cross over Court Avenue — the final geographic barrier between these Iowans and the early exercising of their constitutional rights — the green awning comes into sight. It hangs from a three-story brick building; bold against a white banner reads the green print: “One Hundred Twenty Second Ave.” This is it, the Polk County auditor’s office, where Clinton’s machine has been directing the masses for the better part of two hours. And inside, the line numbers perhaps 20. No more than 30. 

It’s a bit underwhelming. After all, this is Polk County, the Democratic epicenter of Iowa, and the Clinton campaign purposely staged its event just blocks from this location. That said, there’s a steady trickle of voters into the modest lobby, most of them rebuked by an elderly elections official for casually carrying in their newly acquired campaign signage. (They’re well within 300 feet of the building, he says, shaking his head.) They retreat temporarily to drop their accessories outside, then return, typically completing the entire process in less than 10 minutes.

Jamie Fitzgerald, Polk County’s auditor, says there’s been plenty of buildup – “We’re the first purple state that votes, so there’s lots of excitement for Day One” — and estimates that 500 to 600 people will cast votes Thursday. He says 525 ballots were cast in this office on the first day of early voting in 2012, and he expects no significant drop-off.

The mandate is clear: Bank as many early votes as possible to build a lead before November 8.

Fitzgerald, a Democrat, does acknowledge some alarming indicators for his party. He mailed out 20,000 absentee ballots on Wednesday, “and that’s 10,000 fewer than we sent on the eve of early voting in 2012,” he says. Some of this, he believes, owes to both nominees’ waging drawn-out primaries that prevented an earlier head start on organization. But he doesn’t deny that, as of now, one party seems more energized by its nominee than the other. “There’s an enthusiasm gap,” Fitzgerald says. “But you still see people streaming in here, so who knows.”

One of them is Cathy Warner, a retired nurse from West Des Moines. She heard about Clinton’s rally from her health-care union, and once she arrived, learned of Thursday’s early-voting festivities. Warner says she had planned to vote absentee, but at the campaign’s urging, decided to take the short walk to Fitzgerald’s office.

So did her friend, Shelli Off, a 53-year-old nurse who lives in Des Moines. Off says she knew about early voting, but figured it would be a nightmare on the first day. “I thought the lines would be longer, so I just planned to do it another time,” she says. “But the line wasn’t very long.”

#related#At closing time, five o’clock in the afternoon, Fitzgerald had the tally: 526 ballots cast. Exactly one more than on the first day of early voting in 2012.

It’s mixed news for Democrats. On one hand, they’re keeping pace with Obama’s 2012 turnout and avoiding damaging headlines of a sharp decline in early voting in their strongest county. On the other hand, Obama didn’t headline a rally a few blocks from the auditor’s office on the first day of early voting four years ago.

All told, it’s hardly a blazing start for Democrats in a state where consecutive presidential elections have been won by sprinting out of the blocks.

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