Under banners of “Fighting for Us” and “Hillary for America,” hundreds of students waited outside the University of Iowa’s Memorial Union. Inside, others hung over balconies and craned their necks for a glimpse of the evening’s luminary. She did not disappoint: In her red and white dress, with that signature part in her perfectly coiffed hair, she looked positively presidential. When she stepped onto the stage, the crowd erupted.
And then she — the pop star Demi Lovato, that is — began to sing.
Yes, Hillary Clinton did eventually show, but after laughing off her second-fiddle status, she took the mic for only about six minutes — fleeting, compared with the four-song set delivered by the former X Factor judge. And, according to upcoming event schedules, Clinton is not even slated to appear at certain rallies in Iowa this week. Instead, she’s deployed envoys who will descend upon the Hawkeye State’s frozen plains on her behalf. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, Sen. Cory Booker and even a sitting president, of sorts — Tony Goldwyn, aka President Fitzgerald Grant on the prime-time soap Scandal — are all scheduled to lend their star power ahead of the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1, which could help decide whether or not Clinton grabs her party’s nomination.
Clinton’s lead is vanishing faster this time around than when she lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama in Iowa in ’08.
It’s unclear what positive effect, if any, this supporting cast of celebrity campaigners will have in a state that’s better known for cornfields than red carpets. Surrogate strategies — sending prominent supporters to campaign in your stead— can be hugely successful: Think Oprah for Obama in ’08, or, hey, Ashton Kutcher, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native, stumping for the now-president. Then again, Iowa’s residents are well aware of their state’s status as flyover land, forgotten except in campaign years, and certain types can come off as a condescending gimmick. Why, the thinking goes, should Iowans care about the opinion of some B-list coastal elite when, by rights, they should be doing the buttonholing, grilling and vetting themselves?
Of late, Clinton’s lead in Iowa has shrunk, perhaps to the point of evaporation. Mere months ago, the Democratic front-runner was as popular as a homecoming queen. October found her locking hands with pop-tart crooner Katy Perry at a rally in Des Moines; they raised their arms aloft, like a firework. By month’s end, Clinton had already racked up more than 450 endorsements from lawmakers, one of the best predictors for electoral success, and a Monmouth University poll found she was up 41 percentage points in Iowa. But that lead proved as ephemeral as a Hollywood set on Girls; as actress Lena Dunham stumped in Iowa City earlier this month while wearing a screen-printed “Hillary” dress, Clinton trailed in two polls and led by only six in another. And by the time Curtis arrives in Ames on Sunday, Clinton will have trailed in three of the last eight polls, including one from CNN/ORC that has Bernie Sanders up by eight percentage points. Clinton’s lead is vanishing faster this time around than in 2008 when she lost in Iowa to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The problem, political observers say, is that Clinton simply doesn’t seem to relate well to Democrats in Iowa. The buzz is that she comes across as untrustworthy, and that the last time she campaigned here, appeared entitled. “There are still a lot of people who are just not comfortable with her,” says Dennis Goldford, co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses. Sure, with pressure mounting, Clinton has tossed off the gloves and is painting Sanders as unfit to lead: “ ‘In theory’ isn’t enough,” she said during a recent speech at Simpson College, referring to the Vermont senator’s plans for universal health care and tuition-free education. “A president has to deliver in reality.” And some of Clinton’s mannerisms on the trail — like her confident nod during raucous applause — suggest she’s trying to convey strength in the face of crucial issues, says Kedron Bardwell, political science chair at Simpson College.
Yet Clinton has been slow in showing how serious she is about addressing the issues of Iowans. “She let this uprising go too long, and can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” says University of Northern Iowa political scientist Justin Whitely Holmes. He argues that Clinton’s surrogate picks, like Curtis and Booker, lack homegrown appeal and “aren’t particularly good ones.”
To be sure, Clinton’s proxy strategy is just part of a broader effort to convince Iowans to head to caucus with her name in mind. Last time she stumped here, her on-the-ground game wasn’t as strong. These days, her team has organized smaller, more intimate gatherings where she tends to stay late and answer questions, and where dozens of volunteers greet attendees, asking them to pull out their cellphones and sign up for online reminders.
But the smallest of things matter, and when Clinton’s had the opportunity to show off her support from the younger crowd without a celebrity, she hasn’t always taken advantage. Hundreds of millennials who had braved the cold and long lines to hear her speak after Lovato’s mini-concert, for instance, were left unimpressed by her brief speech. And, as of last week, Clinton had held fewer events in Iowa than she had eight years ago, when she famously fell to third place. So it remains to be seen whether courting surrogates to help carry her torch will give her the boost she needs to shine in the days ahead.
Why you should care
Because what if this was your only chance to shake hands with — and grill — presidential candidates?