It’s officially February, and as the Iowa caucuses roll into view, it’s essential to understand what exactly the voters on the ground are most motivated by in order to gain further insight into the 2020 race. Iowa is the first state to weigh in on the presidential election. On the Democratic side, there are so many candidates in the race, representing so many different approaches and shades of progressive politics, that for many voters, their choice might hinge on a particular candidate’s specific approach to the issue that matters most to them. This holds especially true considering that Iowa is a caucus state, which rewards candidates whose supporters are most enthusiastic. We’ve taken a look at the four of the most important issues to Democratic primary voters, per a FiveThirtyEight study, and explored how leading Democratic candidates have made their pitch on those topics to Iowa voters.
The ability to beat President Trump in the general election is by far the most dominant issue for Democratic primary voters, according to the FiveThirtyEight survey, which found that 40% of voters listed that as their highest priority. This marks a shift from earlier in the election, when concerns about health care coverage dominated the Democratic field. Over the weekend, rousing quotes about how to beat Trump peppered Democrats’ campaign appearances in the Hawkeye State. “We will, we must, come together as a party and beat Donald Trump,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at a rally in Urbandale, according to The New York Times. “And I’ve got a plan for that.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden has made his electability the key selling point of his campaign, elevating the idea that he’s best positioned to beat Trump above any specific policy proposal. In one Biden campaign ad in Iowa, a narrator declares, “He beats Trump by the most nationally, and in the states we have to win.”
Bernie Sanders, the self-avowed socialist senator who’s currently leading in some Iowa polls, has faced extensive attacks from people concerned about his viability in a general election. A pro-Israel group is currently running hundreds of thousands of dollars’s worth of ads against him, while other fear his unabashedly left-wing politics will alienate the middle-ground voters typically needed to prevail in the fall.
Sanders has responded by attacking Biden over the former vice president’s past support for cutting social security benefits, framing the issue as one of electability. He has also used Iowa as a testing ground for his strategy of a grassroots-fueled campaign, arguing that his major get-out-the-vote operation can scale to the national level. “We are going to knock on 500,000 doors in the month of January and the first two days of February,” Sanders said in Indianola, Iowa, according to the Times, continuing, “That is what we need to do in order to win against Trump.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, running in the moderate lane, has also made electability a key part of her appeal, telling Iowans that she’s been able to win every election she’s faced in competitive Minnesota. T-shirts her campaign hands out read, “Amy Klobuchar Will Beat Donald Trump.”
Health care has been a dominant issue in the Democratic primary thus far, including in Iowa. Brianne Pfannenstiel, the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register, described to Mic the issues that have been motivating voters in the Hawkeye State: “In our reporting,” she says, “we’ve found Iowa Democrats to be focused on issues like health care and climate change. Though Medicare-for-All is a major driver of the conversation on health care, Iowans are also interested in things like access to mental health care, addiction treatment, and maternal health care at rural hospitals.”
While the candidates have focused largely on promoting their own health plans — from Biden’s public option to Sanders’ and Warren’s focus on Medicare-for-All, as well as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s split-the-difference strategy of Medicare For All Who Want It — they have also tailored their messages to address the specific concerns of Iowa voters, some of whom live in quite rural areas.
Voters have asked the candidates tough questions about their health care plans. In Clinton, Iowa, Warren was asked by a voter how Medicare-for-All would address rising suicide rates among rural farmers, per the Des Moines Register. And at a town hall last year, an Iowa doctor named Cindy Hanawalt questioned Sanders over how exactly Medicare-for-All would affect the way money is distributed to rural hospitals in the state. “What does Medicare-for-All really mean when it comes down to the nuts and bolts?” she asked. Sanders responded that his system would provide doctors with "the freedom to practice medicine and not have to argue with the insurance companies about what type of therapy your patient needs."
In Iowa, climate change is an especially crucial issue for younger voters. This can prove especially important in the state because of a recent law allowing 17-year-olds to caucus on Monday if they will be 18 by the time of the general election this fall. According to Teen Vogue, over 5,000 17-year-olds have registered to vote so far.
“Younger voters are especially concerned about climate change, and we see the candidates respond and address the issue more forcefully at appearances on college campuses,” Pfannenstiel says. At a recent campaign rally, Biden took questions from young activists about climate change. “It’s the single biggest issue facing humanity,” he said, before outlining his plan for the U.S. to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement. He did note his disagreement with other candidates on a nationwide fracking ban, which Sanders and Warren support — a possibly attempt by the former veep to maintain support in the industrial Midwest states where fracking remains popular.
At a rally in January, Sanders too addressed concerns about climate change, saying, “If we do not get our act together with a fierce sense of urgency, we will see in coming years more floods, more drought, more devastating wildfires, more famine, more rising sea levels, more ocean acidification, more extreme weather disturbances, more disease and more human suffering.” He also found a local angle, describing how Midwest farmers have lost profit and crops over the repeating flooding in the region.