'Nationalized': Why this Democratic primary is not like all the rest

A changed media environment and new primary rules have made the Democratic primary contest so much bigger than the traditional early states.
Image: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks during a campaign event at Exeter Town Hall in Exeter, N.H.,
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at Exeter Town Hall in New Hampshire, on May 24. Elizabeth Frantz / The New York Times via Redux

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — John Delaney has put more time into the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire than any other of the many presidential candidates, but he's got virtually nothing to show for it.

The former Democratic congressman has been running for nearly two years and held more events in Iowa than the six leading candidates combined, according to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker. However, he was stuck at 1 percent support in the paper's latest poll.

The 2020 Democratic primary is taking place online and in the national media as much as it is on the ground, leaving some candidates behind while others thrive in the new paradigm.

"Iowa used to go first, New Hampshire went second, but we're basically deciding this thing is going to be fought on social media before the Iowa caucus," Delaney said in an interview, referring to new Democratic National Committee rules that incentivize online fundraising. "Suddenly everyone is spending all the money on Facebook and not as much money on organizing in Iowa."

Old-school face-to-face politicking is central to the mythology of Iowa and New Hampshire's status as first-in-the-nation presidential pickers. But Donald Trump in 2016 proved that even a candidate who finds handshaking "barbaric" can win New Hampshire and place second in Iowa with mega-rallies, tweets and cable news appearances.

Trump's attention-grabbing presidency has only further nationalized the political conversation, while a changing media environment, the new debate rules and a revamped primary calendar have expanded the playing field into a national primary alongside the on-the-ground one.

"The race has definitely become more nationalized," said Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist who founded the group ACRONYM, which helps Democrats run digital media campaigns.

"The loss of a lot of local news publishers has pushed voters to cable news to get their information and analysis of the candidates," McGowan added. "Meanwhile, candidates are spending more on online fundraising than ever and there's always going to be a benefit in going really broad in your targeting for online fundraising purposes."

Beto O'Rourke focused on one-to-one contact with Iowans while initially eschewing the national media circus. But despite campaigning hard in the state, his star has fallen and been replaced by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has held half as many events in Iowa while assiduously courting the national press.

In fact, trackers of the candidates' movements in Iowa, kept by The Des Moines Register, and in New Hampshire, kept by NECN, show no correlation between the number of events contenders have held and their standing in the polls.

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If anything, the correlation is loosely negative. The eight most active candidates in Iowa are all polling at 1 or 2 percent, while the frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, has held the second-fewest number of events. In New Hampshire, of the 10 busiest candidates, only one — Sen. Elizabeth Warren from neighboring Massachusetts — has shown any strength in polls.

Self-help author Marianne Williamson is the only candidate to actually move to Iowa, but even she downplayed the significance of being there. "My apartment lease was over in New York," she said. "In a presidential campaign, you live out of a suitcase, so where your bedroom furniture is isn't all that relevant."

Of course, no candidate would be wise to ignore entirely the ground game.

There's broad agreement from candidates and consultants it will matter on the margins when voters actually start heading to the caucuses and the polls early next year. In a crowded field, the early-state primaries and caucuses could be won or lost on the margins.

"It could be only 300,000 people (who turn out for the Iowa caucuses) who decide what happens for this whole country, in effect," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also running for president. "So every single one of them matters."

But a viral moment can be worth millions in online donations and a strong town hall appearance can catapult an unknown like Buttigieg out of the pack and into the top tier almost literally overnight.

Studies have found a link between news coverage of the 2020 candidates and their standing in the polls, and strategists involved in several campaigns told NBC News that national media coverage is crucial to their fundraising, social media engagement and more.

It now sometimes feels like candidates are using Iowa only as a backdrop to get their message into the national media bloodstream, which is then beamed back down into Iowa and repackaged on social media.

Buttigieg appeared on three Sunday morning political national TV shows this weekend.

Last weekend, his campaign organized a picnic where he spent just 13 minutes walking around the event after his speech.

That was not nearly enough time to make many personal connections with voters, but plenty to create a series of Instagram-friendly visuals: He tossed bean bags, chatted with a Navy buddy, ordered an ice cream cone from a truck painted like a cow (he then handed off the cone to a staffer, half-eaten), and hopped on stage to play piano with a live jazz band.

"There's a way to sort of show versus tell how you practice politics," Buttigieg told reporters.

This year, thanks to a rejiggered primary calendar, more states will vote earlier, including ones far too large to organize on the ground, like California, making force multipliers like social media and press coverage all the more important.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who is struggling to gain attention in the crowded field, said the new DNC debate rules that require candidates to build a large base of online donors are "distorting what people would ordinarily do to run their campaigns."

“So much of it has become about the exercise of raising money online across the country," he said.

Debates, of course, have always been crucial, but they've only come under the strict control of the national parties more recently. Local newspapers and TV stations used to host their own debates, in which the rules were less uniform — and some would say less fair — but they would often focus candidates' attention on more local issues.

Still, many presidential hopefuls have an unshakeable faith in on-the-ground organizing.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has earned plaudits from Iowa Democrats for building a large grassroots operation in the state, said he's largely stopped watching cable news because he thinks it's "inconsequential to the path we have."

“We believe in winning the Iowa way,” Booker, who is at 1 percent in the polls but listed by many more as an attractive second choice. "On the ground, connecting the voters, letting them not just hear you but feel you."