Why White Iowans Want a Nominee Who Can Appeal to Nonwhite Voters

WASHINGTON, Iowa — They share awkward glances at events where nearly everyone looks like them. They take comfort in reminding one another that they propelled Barack Obama to the White House. They swear that their values and priorities are representative of more than a Corn Belt farm state.

With less than two months until the Iowa caucuses begin the presidential nominating process, the sense of duty among white Iowans has never been greater — or more complex. Already confronting questions about whether their overwhelmingly white state should retain its pre-eminent position in the primary process, many Iowa Democrats are consumed by a desire to select a coalition-building Democrat who can beat President Trump. So they are fixated more than ever on backing a candidate they believe can win in more diverse states than their own.

“I think ‘responsible’ is a good word,” said Lisa Yoder, 56, a retired teacher from Kalona, who came to an event in Washington recently to see Pete Buttigieg speak. “We want someone who the nation will get behind and support — everyone, not just the white Iowans.”

It is a preoccupation that is bedeviling liberal white voters across the country. It has also paralyzed voters, racking them with indecision as they try to identify a candidate who can prevail across a range of voting blocs, including minority communities as well as suburban and working-class voters.

Compounding the challenge for Iowans is the Democratic Party’s new emphasis on diversity, which has meant not only elevating more people of color to leadership positions but also ensuring that the issues important to nonwhite voters are addressed. Not since 1988 has the winner of a contested Democratic Iowa caucus not become the eventual nominee, but perhaps never has there been such a focus on race and gender in the Democratic Party.

The departure of Senator Kamala Harris of California earlier this month — from a field that started as the most diverse ever for a primary — has only intensified the disquiet among Democrats that they may be prematurely eliminating candidates.

The dynamics pose particular problems for Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and to some extent Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts: Though both candidates are in the top tier in Iowa, they are struggling to connect with black voters, the most critical voting bloc for Democrats, fueling the perception that they appeal mainly to liberal white elites.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Mr. Buttigieg with less than 1 percent support among black Democrats in South Carolina; Ms. Warren had 8 percent. Another Quinnipiac poll, released last week, had Mr. Buttigieg with 2 percent support nationally among black voters and Ms. Warren with 12 percent. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 13 percent.

Those weaknesses are now giving some Iowans pause.

“That matters to people in Iowa because they think about things strategically,” said Douglas Burns, an owner of the Carroll Times Herald in northwestern Iowa. “We view ourselves as representatives or ambassadors for the rest of the country — we represent ourselves but we’re also proxies for other people.”

Peter Leo, the Democratic chair in rural Carroll County, said Iowans also internalize the national news, basing their decisions on the issues they see in articles or on television.

“They consider more than just our own personal or provincial interests when they make their choice,” he said.

With that in mind, candidates have been making overt gestures to persuade white Iowans that they are able to attract a broader swath of Americans.

During a series of recent campaign stops in eastern Iowa, for instance, Mr. Buttigieg repeatedly referred to his relationship with African-Americans in ways that seemed especially designed to appeal to white Iowans.

“We can’t wait to do something about racial disparities in this country that are pulling down the entire American project, that harm everybody,” he told an almost exclusively white audience in Washington last Sunday. “Which is why I’m going to talk about them in a majority-white room just as I will when we’re sitting down with African-American leaders.”

And earlier this month, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president who has a significant lead in polling among African-American voters, held a potluck in Waterloo — one of the most diverse cities in Iowa — that featured young members of the Union Baptist Crusaders’ drum line. Though he addressed a largely white audience, Mr. Biden spoke about civil rights and segregation and called Martin Luther King Jr. one of his “political heroes.”

Several candidates, including Mr. Buttigieg; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; Julián Castro, the former housing secretary; and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota attended a presidential forum in Waterloo in early December. Mr. Sanders held events last month across Iowa with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to help counter the critique that his campaign appeals only to young white men.

Those efforts have not stopped Iowans from fretting, however. When Mr. Buttigieg took the stage at a packed event in Coralville last week, protesters unfurled signs that criticized him for his paltry support among black people in South Carolina and his plan to combat climate change, which they viewed as insufficient. “We need more than Pete,” another sign said.

Quentin Hart, the mayor of Waterloo, who is black, said some candidates at this point in the race clearly have more diverse bases than others. But he theorized that Democrats would all coalesce behind the eventual nominee.

“Once a nominee is given the go-ahead, I believe that all of our communities are going to come together to support that particular nominee,” he said.

In speaking about their state’s role as a gatekeeper for presidential candidates, many Iowans cite above all an obligation to offer the rest of the country someone who can defeat Mr. Trump.

“I think there are a lot of really good candidates but I really want to pick one that will win,” said Richard Siglin, 60, of Creston. “I think the one that appears to me to be the most viable candidate, that’s who I’m going to try to go for.”

Given the feverish desire to defeat Mr. Trump, some Democrats said they felt Iowans could give even more thought to how candidates would be received outside of the state.

“Some of the blame goes to the post-2016 narrative that the white working class decided the election,’’ said Zach Simonson, the Democratic chair in blue-collar Wapello County. “Some goes to a tendency for Democrats to take black and Latino support for granted, and some goes to the difficulty white folks have imagining what makes a candidate appealing to nonwhite voters.”

He added: “It’s really hard if not impossible to have early states consider the diverse needs of the entire Democratic Party unless those early states are, you know, diverse.”

As if to reassure themselves, many Iowans bring up Mr. Obama’s victory in the caucuses in 2008 as proof that the state can elevate candidates who previously seemed unelectable.

Kevin Carpenter, 59, a fabric store owner from Mount Vernon, Iowa, who supports Mr. Buttigieg, said he was not so concerned at this point that candidates like Mr. Buttigieg did not have wider support outside of Iowa.

“I’m aware of why that’s important but at the same time, if you look at where President Obama was in 2008, he didn’t have a lot of support in the black community in 2008 until he won Iowa,” he said. “I think African-American voters might be more aware of Pete when he wins Iowa.”

It is a sentiment that some nonwhite Iowans express, too.

“I didn’t think Obama had a chance,” said Abu Timbo, a 73-year-old from Cedar Falls who is African-American. “But just the fact that they were open-minded to give it to him says we may not be diverse in terms of color but we’re diverse in terms of the way we think.”

Yet there is also a pervading anxiety among Iowans that they will inadvertently select a candidate who appeals just to white Iowans.

Before an event for Ms. Klobuchar in Des Moines recently, Kathy Christensen, 69, a retired educator from Ankeny, lamented the power Iowa had over the primary process.

“Being the first here in Iowa — you feel the responsibility of that, that’s for sure,” she said. “I think that we have also eliminated some really good folks because of our white, middle-class population here.”

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