In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, a number of leading presidential candidates won’t be meeting voters or giving speeches. Instead, they will be forced to sit quietly, without any electronic devices or distractions, and listen to Alan Dershowitz speak.
The impeachment trial of Donald Trump has disrupted American politics but perhaps its biggest impact could be on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The four senators who are still running for president will be required to spend a crucial stretch of the campaign in Washington, D.C.
For Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the three senators vying to win in Iowa, it comes at the most inconvenient time possible. The first day of arguments, scheduled for Tuesday, will be less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. It is a time when senators would normally skip votes to campaign. Instead, they will be legally compelled to be back in D.C.
An aide from a rival campaign not affected by impeachment noted that in addition to the obvious downside that candidates would not be able to campaign in the state, it would also make it more difficult for them to get local news coverage. The aide argued that “it gets a lot more important to be on local news in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids rather than being on CNN or MSNBC” in the weeks before the caucus.
Candidates who can afford private jets can still zoom in and out of the state for some evening events in Iowa. For example, Sanders is now scheduled to hold a rally on Wednesday evening in Cedar Falls, Iowa. However even with private jets, the trial schedule limits the amount of retail politicking any candidate can do in a state where caucusgoers notoriously like to interact with candidates.
All of the campaigns will be using surrogates, tele-town halls, and Skype events to reach out to prospective voters. The bench of surrogates varies from candidate to candidate. Klobuchar’s underdog campaign will bring out Minnesota politicians like Tim Walz, the state’s governor, and the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, to stump in Iowa. Warren will be able to use former presidential hopeful Julian Castro and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, among others, as substitutes.
There is less of a burden for Michael Bennet of Colorado, who is focused on New Hampshire and can at least hop short flights to the Granite State every evening. There are direct flights to National Airport from Manchester every morning although the Colorado senator may be forced to endure Logan Airport to hold weeknight events in the state.
Former Senator Rick Santorum, who sat through the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999 and won the Iowa Caucuses in 2012, told Intelligencer that “it would be a really stressful time” if he was in the same position as the presidential hopefuls in the Senate.
In his view, every senator has “already made up their mind on how they going to vote” on impeachment and won’t need to study the evidence. Santorum said that if he were in their place, “I would be doing thank you notes” and “working as much as I could during that time.” He nonetheless conceded though that spending the trial writing notes to political supporters did “sound horrible.”
Senators are allowed to take notes during the trial but they are supposed to be related to the case. However, the former Pennsylvania senator noted, “no one is watching the notes so you can probably write what you want.”
Santorum also remembered that “the rules are that you have to pay attention,” but “as time went on they were less and less enforced.”
While the impeachment schedule is inconvenient, it is unlikely to be “a nail in anyone’s coffin,” according to Lara Henderson, a veteran Iowa operative who ran Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign in the Hawkeye State. But that’s not to say it won’t be a drag on the senators’ campaigns. “It hurts,” she said. “It would be better for [the impeachment trial] not to happen.” Henderson did note that both Sanders and Warren have strong operations in the state, while Klobuchar has spent far more time in Iowa than any other major candidate and has visited all 99 counties.
In a caucus with four candidates all within the margin of error of first place, it merely adds another layer of uncertainty in an already volatile race. As the aide for the rival campaign pointed out, “there is no precedent for this.”