NEARLY TWO dozen presidential candidates descended on Iowa’s State Fair, which began on August 8th, each with a different style and number of supporters. Elizabeth Warren’s were young, loud and pre-loaded with chants. Kamala Harris’s formed a yellow-shirted, fresh-faced, hyper-enthusiastic wave that left stickered, dazed-looking Iowans in its wake. Jay Inslee’s fan club comprised Channing Dutton, an amiable personal-injury lawyer from Des Moines, who held up a home-made sign that read, “Talk Climate!”—referring to Mr Inslee’s signature issue.
Mr Inslee served eight terms in Congress and is in his second as Washington’s governor, where he has enacted a Democratic wish-list of policies, including a moratorium on capital punishment, expanded parental leave and an impressively detailed path to clean energy by 2045. He is tall, square-jawed, handsome and married to his high-school sweetheart. Yet he has struggled in a crowded field, and is polling below 1%, both nationally and in Iowa.
In fact, just three candidates—Ms Warren, Ms Harris and Joe Biden—are polling in double digits in the state. Nationally, Ms Harris drops to 9% in The Economist’s average of polls, while Bernie Sanders is at 14% (a bit lower in Iowa). Sixteen candidates are bumbling along at 1%. Thus there were two contests playing out at the fair: four or five front-runners fought to be top dog, while the rest fought for a bit of attention.
For some that was hard to come by. Mike Schweiger, a lean, white-haired electrician wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his union, said he supports Ms Warren, because “she talks about the need for a union resurgence, and that’s my issue. It’s not abortion, not the influx of aliens. That will bring back the middle class.” As he was explaining himself, Tim Ryan, a congressman from Youngstown, Ohio and a fervent union advocate, was on stage just a few feet away. Mr Schweiger said he had never heard of Mr Ryan; his wife asked if he was the one who ran with Hillary Clinton (that was Tim Kaine).
“Every time a poll comes out and I’m at 2%, I think, ‘Oh my God, in the next one am I going to be at 4%?,” says John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, who is stuck on 1%. Mr Hickenlooper touts his record of bipartisan achievement. “I’m the only candidate who does what everyone talks about,” he tells reporters after his speech, his omnipresent smile hardening into a rictus. “If I keep saying it often enough, it’ll get through their heads.”
There is still time to say it often enough. Iowa’s caucuses in February are the primary season’s first contest. Winners do not always capture their party’s nomination, as Tom Harkin (1992), Mike Huckabee (2008) and Ted Cruz (2016) can attest, but a poor performance can end a campaign. Some Democrats grumble about the size of the field, but—short of running out of money—no candidate yet has a strong enough incentive to drop out.
The field is more open than it seems. Mr Biden holds a comfortable lead but he is gaffe-prone and would take office at 78, which would make him the oldest man to do so. His performances on the trail have been meandering and unimpressive; he seems to inspire more affection than genuine enthusiasm. If he begins leaking support, every other candidate wants to be there with a bucket.
Still, short of an incredible run of luck, none of the stragglers seems likely to break through as long as the field remains so crowded. Mr Dutton believes that Mr Inslee is “a wildfire just waiting for a spark”. But asked what that spark might be, he is circumspect. “If I knew, I’d light it myself.”■