Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Women Not Winning In Iowa: Part 2

Women Not Winning In Iowa: Part 2

Roxanne Conlin wrote in the Register yesterday, noting some objection to David Yepsen's column about women not winning in Iowa and reminding me that I'm about aa week behind in following up on my first installment on the subject.

Bonnie Campbell and the Nightmare of Ninety-Four

In June 1994, Terry Branstad survived the mother of all primaries with Gopher Grandy by two points, only to find himself trailing Democratic nominee Bonnie Campbell by nearly 20 percent. Five months later "Governor Braindead" rolled to a 20 point win. The sexism of Iowa voters strikes again? Or was it something else?

Bonnie Campbell's loss is a poor test case because of the national political watershed of 1994. It was just a rotten year to be a Democrat. 1994 was enough to doom Elaine Baxter in her rematch with Jim Ross Lightfoot. But unlike the contests of 1992 and the 2002 races I'll visit in part three, a big share of this loss goes to the candidate herself.

Iowa Democrats win at the grass roots with labor intensive campaigns driven by field staff and volunteers. Toms Vilsack and Harkin have followed in the footsteps of Neal Smith, Harold Hughes, John Culver and Dick Clark winning a door at a time.

Bonnie Campbell was not a big believer in the grass roots. Her general election campaign started with a direct slap in the face of the grass roots: a formal denunciation of the state party platform because it endorsed - ten years ago! - gay marriage. Let me repeat: TEN YEARS AGO. I've never been especially interested or involved in the platform process. I suppose it matters, but electing people matters more. I'm cynical enough to half-expect candidates to ignore the activists' platform. But it's really rare for someone to go out of her or his way to actively attack it.

So there's the symbolism of the grassroots. As for substance, Campbell devoted less of her resources to field and get out the vote efforts than any major Iowa candidate I've observed in my 15 years here. What kind of campaign strategy DID Bonnie Campbell believe in? TV. Lots and lots and lots of TV.

There's a school of thought for lots and lots and lots of TV, and it can work - IF it's GOOD. Campbell's TV was bad, because her message was bad. If she had simply repeated something to the effect of "After 12 years of Terry Branstad it's time for a change" for five months, she might have made it. But instead, she chose to fight the election on Republican turf.

I'm reminded so much of the Campbell race this week because of tragedy in the news: the abduction and murder of a child in eastern Iowa. A similar case dominated state headlines throughout the summer of `94. Calls for Iowa to adopt the death penalty were part of the political climate that year.

It was certainly a tough issue to face - it was one I faced on hostile terms in my own campaign. And I concluded that all you can really do is take a stand on conscience. But Campbell tried to argue that her experience in law enforcement made her tougher on crime than Branstad. And she pushed and pushed and pushed that point. Now, one could make an argument that enforcement of stalker and domestic violence laws truly IS tougher on crime than the execution of one murderer. But in 1994 in Iowa, "tougher on crime" meant fry `em, lock `em up, throw away the key. And Campbell as tougher on crime than Branstad didn't sell. (Brilliant legislative work in 1995 stopped the death penalty in Iowa by a handful of votes, and just this week the House speaker said it won't come up again this session. Knock wood.)

The personal, intangible factors make me wonder about the role of sexism in Campbell's defeat. Bonnie Campbell, to be blunt, didn't seem like the most folksy character. Yet the same criticism was also made of the last two (male) Democratic presidential candidates. There was some criticism of Campbell's husband's role in the campaign - a charge aimed four years later at Jim Ross Lightfoot's spouse. Was Campbell's out-of-state birth, and move to the state after marrying an Iowan, an issue? Ask Tom Vilsack of Pittsburgh and Christie Bell of Mt. Pleasant. Do things like this hurt female candidates more than male candidates?

There's no way to really know but I strongly suspect:
1) The dynamic in the national electorate shifted dramatically between June and November. This is the only time in my adult life that I have seen an offyear election truly nationalized, and that made this race unwinnable for any Democrat, man or woman.

2) A poor campaign and message turned what might have been a narrow loss and a try-again mood into a loss that was big enough to knock Campbell out of a future in electoral politics.

3) Sexism probably made the bad loss a little worse.

Bonnie Campbell went on to do good work in the Clinton Justice Department, and the filibuster politics of choice cost her a judgeship. Funny how people's thoughts on the principle of unlimited debate change.

When next I get around to it (no deadlines), I'll look at the 2002 congressional campaigns of Julie Thomas and Ann Hutchinson.


No comments: