NEWTON, Iowa — In many ways, this small town in a rural stretch of Iowa mirrors the places that helped decide the 2016 presidential race in Pennsylvania.
Newton is the seat of Jasper County, one of 31 Iowa counties that voted twice for Barack Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016, much like in many post-industrial Pennsylvania regions.
On Monday night, 161 Democrats caucused here to play a small role in picking a candidate they hoped could win back places like Newton — and the White House.
The gathering reflected the wide-ranging fissures in the party over whether to unite behind an exciting liberal voice, or choose a moderate who can appeal to swing voters. In the end, two moderates won in this precinct, one of 1,678 statewide. As of 11:30 p.m., overall results for the Iowa caucuses — the first votes in the 2020 Democratic nominating contest after more than a year of campaigning — were still suffering from significant delays. Trump easily won the Republican caucuses.
At Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Newton, 45 people voted for former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., standing in the corner of the school gym designated for his supporters. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota finished second with 32 voters in her group, while the liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont came in third, with 29. Former Vice President Joe Biden finished fourth, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts fifth.
The precinct was one of nine located all or in part in Newton. Attendees took seats on folding chairs. Basketball hoops hung overhead along with signs promoting good character, and a hand-drawn poster that read “Do it for Kobe. Be Kind.” As supporters trickled in they taped signs for their candidates onto the walls, as if preparing for a pep rally.
One sign overhead, presumably there for students, seemed appropriate to Democrats split over their direction: “Tolerance," it read, “respecting our differences, sharing our goals.”
Newton, a town of about 15,000 roughly 50 miles west of Des Moines, was long home to Maytag’s world headquarters and a manufacturing facility where locals built washers and dryers. But the company pulled out in 2007, taking well-paying jobs with it. The Great Recession followed.
The area bled jobs. It now struggles with opioid addiction, according to one person at the caucus. Without enough patrons, the local country club closed.
“A lot of people thought they were going to have pensions that don’t,” said Elaine Mattingly, a longtime resident who was here as a precinct leader for Warren.
The county narrowly supported Republican George W. Bush in 2000 before going for the Democratic nominees in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Trump won it back.
Many Democrats have emphasized the importance of winning in similar places in Pennsylvania, especially given the dramatic swings to Trump in such counties, and their importance in his narrow 44,000-vote victory. Just three hard-hit industrial counties in Pennsylvania — Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Erie — accounted for a 76,000 vote shift in Trump’s favor.
Even winning back a small fraction of those votes could tip the state back into the Democratic column in 2020.
So the caucuses in Newton on Monday provided one small test of what type of candidate such battleground Democrats favor.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters both stressed the importance of attracting swing voters who had turned Jasper County from blue to red.
“My mother’s a lifelong Republican, and for the first time in her life she’s looking to vote for someone other than a Republican,” said Jane Johnson, 67, who was leading the charge for Buttigieg. But her mother, Johnson said, wouldn’t contemplate someone as liberal as Sanders or Warren. If the party nominates one of them, she said, “I’m afraid we’ll be stuck with Trump for another four years.”
Johnson wasn’t sure Buttigieg could actually win the White House, but said she wanted to help produce a strong showing in Iowa to make the country take notice of his ability.
Buttigieg’s appeal resonated with Jodi Morgan-Peters, 51, who showed up as the local captain for wealthy businessman Tom Steyer, but moved to Buttigieg when Steyer fell short of the required 15% support to contend for delegates.
She, too, mentioned a former Republican mother.
“He’s not so far to the left that there are moderates who could support him," said Morgan-Peters, who also cited Buttigieg’s military background and measured demeanor.
Sanders supporters countered that people will back his bold platform once they hear more about it, especially his plan to expand Medicare to cover all Americans.
“Once it reaches people, I think it’ll appeal to people on the right and the left,” said Alec Meehan, 25. “This is what America needs.”
The Sanders health-care plan was a key to swaying Barry Hurto, 68, one of the Democrats in Jasper County who voted for Trump in 2016. Hurto, who said he cast that vote as a protest against Hillary Clinton, said he’s now embarrassed by that decision. He had just assumed Clinton was going to win.
Now, he is desperate to see Trump removed, horrified by the president’s behavior, particularly on the world stage.
“We need to have somebody who will lend credibility to the position and command the respect we deserve,” Hurto said.
He wanted to support Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado or Steyer, but neither had a strong enough showing to win delegates in this precinct. So in the second round of voting, he moved to the Sanders camp, drawing a “whoop” from that crowd.
Klobuchar did the best when it came to winning other people’s supporters, growing her caucus total from 27 to 32 between the first and second rounds. (Most people arrived with their minds made up.)
The caucuses across the state Monday were the first official contest of the Democratic campaign, offering the first true measuring stick. The outcome will shape the race as the candidates begin a February sprint that will take them through contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina by month’s end.
The scene that played out in the Newton gym was a small slice of a process unfolding throughout Iowa.
The success of the two centrists in this precinct reflected the thinking of local party leaders. For Democrats to win this kind of place back, they’ll need a moderate candidate in November, not a far-left liberal, said Michelle Smith, the county’s Democratic chair.
“If you put up someone the opposite of Donald Trump, people will stay with the crazy they know,” Smith said days ahead of the caucuses. So while Smith supported Sanders in 2016 and personally said she is progressive, she planned to caucus for Biden. She believed Biden has a better chance to win.
“When I was in elementary school, I don’t care who you put up on the Democratic ticket, as long as you didn’t murder somebody or was a child molester, they’re going to win,” said Smith. Now, she said, it’s a swing county trending Republican. “So in 35 years, that’s the difference.”
While the nomination was never going to be decided in Iowa on Monday, the caucuses had the potential to establish a clear front-runner, to cull some candidates or to vault a dark horse forward. Or, with polls suggesting a tight four-way race at the top, it also could reinforce the jumble, and boost the prospects of a long primary fight.
Across Iowa, Democrats gathered in schools, community centers and fire stations to make their choices. Iowans living out of state met at satellite caucuses.
After the first round of voting, anyone supporting a “non-viable” candidate, one with less than 15% support, was able to move to a second choice. People supporting “viable” candidates were locked in.
After the second “alignment,” the results were tallied, and “state delegate equivalents” apportioned to each candidate. The equivalents are roughly proportional to the amount of delegates each contender will carry from Iowa to the Democratic National Convention.