By Lisa Lerer and Astead W Herndon
In her retirement, Gayle Esterly is doing her best to fight the good fight for the Democratic Party.
She participates in the Women’s March annually and has protested for science-related causes. She’s written postcards to Congress and traveled to the New Hampshire Statehouse to push for gun control legislation.
She bakes cookies for those volunteering for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, her preferred Democratic presidential candidate.
But, as she waited to hear Warren address supporters Thursday evening, Esterly, 69, offered a frank admission: The constant battles with Washington were wearing her down.
“It’s been three years,” she said. “I’m trying to motivate and not to throw up my hands. But I’m emotionally exhausted.”
Her weariness is a disturbing sign for Democrats hoping that sustained grassroots activism can lead to the ouster of President Donald Trump in November. And after the first test of the 2020 presidential nominating season, the Iowa caucuses, Democrats are awakening to a troubling possibility: Their #Resistance energy may be flickering.
Turnout for the Iowa caucuses fell far short of expectations. The leading campaigns were prepared for as many as 300,000 people to show up — 60,000 more than the record set in 2008. Instead just 176,000 showed up, less than 3% more than in 2016.
While that’s higher than 2016, it’s a striking change from just a few years ago, when turnout in the midterm elections reached the highest level in a century and Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Last November, Democrats gloated about their success winning governors’ seats in two red states — Kentucky and Louisiana — with help from a historic surge of voters.
Now, at the moment when they need their ground troops the most, there are signs that the past three years may have depleted some of their reserves for organizing, activism and fundraising.
It’s still very early in the primary process, and New Hampshire officials cited the potential for a record turnout for their primary this week. But the lagging results in Iowa have raised concerns about Democrats’ ability to marshal their force in November, particularly against an incumbent president likely to spur a groundswell of support within his own party.
“I’m a bit nervous, to be honest,” said Dan Sena, the Democratic strategist who helped oversee the party’s campaign to take control of the House in 2018. “This is a very different pattern than we’ve seen. The candidates have to be part of the concern.”
Republicans were quick to seize on the Iowa turnout, claiming it reflected a “significant lack of enthusiasm among Democrat voters.” More than 30,000 Republicans turned out for the Iowa caucuses, despite the fact that Trump was running largely unopposed. And last week, Gallup reported that Trump’s approval rating had climbed to 49%, its highest in that survey since his presidency began.
At the same time, Democrats are fractured, with the continued uncertainty over the results of the caucuses deepening divisions in the party between the campaigns, the national party and state officials.
“We’re in a place where we don’t think we can just take high turnout for granted,” said Josh Schwerin, senior strategist at Priorities USA, one of the biggest Democratic super PACs. “We can’t just go into this thinking we have extremely high turnout in 2018 so we don’t have to do anything to repeat it.”
At events for the Democratic candidates in New Hampshire last week, some voters expressed frustration with what they see as Trump’s hold on national politics.
“A lot of people feel defeated,” said Danny Villazon, 54, a lawyer. “Trump always wins. The Mueller report and then impeachment. It seems like nothing can stop him.”
Some Democratic officials and strategists argue that it’s far too early to panic, citing the quirky caucus process, which requires Iowans to spend hours on a cold winter evening publicly expressing their preferences.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said the lower-than-expected turnout in Iowa came as a surprise, after the kind of voting surges he’s seen in his home state. Last year, the highest number of voters in a generation for an “off-off year” election gave Democrats control of the House and Senate in Virginia for the first time in a generation.
“It’s hard one to figure because turnout everywhere else has been so high,” he said. “I’m going to lay it at the feet of this arcane caucus process. People just don’t have the time to do what needs to be done.”
Others cited the large number of undecided voters in Iowa, saying that as the race narrowed, larger numbers of Democrats would get engaged. In the run-up to the caucuses, polling showed that as many as 40% of voters said they had not made a final decision on a candidate. At primary events, voters frequently say they would support any of the candidates over Trump, underscoring that their attention is far more focused on the president than on their own options for a nominee.
Tyler Jones, a South Carolina Democratic strategist who helped flip a Charleston district held by Republicans for nearly four decades, said he expected turnout to skyrocket once the contest moved to his state. By then, he predicts, the field will have narrowed to a clearer choice between Sen. Bernie Sanders and a more moderate opponent.
“We are very top-heavy,” said Jones, who is unaffiliated in the race. “We have very similar candidates, and you have to be deliberatively picky.”
New Hampshire officials say they expect independents, who can participate in party primaries, to join Democrats and come out in high numbers: Secretary of State Bill Gardner is predicting more than 500,000 residents will vote in the primary, a turnout of more than 50% of the state’s registered voters.
“I’m not worried about it,” said former Gov. John Lynch, who is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden. “The turnout will be high, and it will be fueled by the number of independents.”
Yet, those predictions may ignore other, worrying signs for Democrats. Viewership for the Democratic debates has fallen since September, with the December face-off in Iowa attracting about 7.3 million people, according to Nielsen.
In less educated and rural areas in Iowa, caucus turnout fell below 2016 levels. In Clarke county, a rural area near the Missouri border, Trump received more than twice as many caucus votes as each of the Democrats running this time. Just eight years ago, President Barack Obama carried the county by two points over Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
For Sanders and the progressive groups backing his bid, the turnout could hint at some worrying signs. His team saw the first-in-the-nation caucus state as a template for its larger strategy, staking its candidacy on an audacious bet that Sanders could expand and change the Democratic electorate.
In his final events before the caucuses, Sanders pivoted his message from one of policy change to turnout, arguing that he could win the caucuses and the general election by motivating a new movement fueled by millions of Americans.
During a stop in Cedar Rapids, he made his goal for Iowa clear: “Let us go forward — today, tomorrow — and create the largest voter turnout in the history of the Iowa caucus,” he said.
Yet, while Sanders’ campaign was counting on a surge in turnout among young voters, turnout did not increase in precincts with large numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Sanders himself expressed some disappointment with preliminary turnout signs. Aboard his charter plane the morning after the caucuses, he told reporters that he had heard the numbers were “somewhat higher than they were in 2016 — not as high frankly as I would’ve liked to have seen.”
Adam Mason, who leads a liberal Iowa grassroots group called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement that organized for Sanders in the state, worried that low engagement signaled potentially bad news for Democrats and progressives across the country.
“My concern, if New Hampshire doesn’t reach projection totals, is that in our hyper-polarized environment we see today, between Trump and Democrats, it shows we need to reach out to independent and swing voters,” Mason said. “Our movement is going to have to dig in and double down on direct voter contact on moving that middle.”
Others, however, found some bright spots in the turnout numbers. Evan Weber, political director for Sunrise Movement, pointed to the success of Sanders’ campaign at satellite caucuses of Latino and Muslim voters.
Sunrise Movement signed up 7,000 students and young people to caucus for Sanders, which could have helped him in a tight race.
However, he said progressives need to see more results in upcoming primaries before identifying any kind of trend. He also said the organizers suspected that the “vote blue no matter who” mindset stopped some Iowans from caring about the caucus.
“It’s fair to say this year is a testing ground for the progressive movement’s power and electoral strength,” Weber said. “To see if we can turn out and motivate.”
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