'The issues that we think are important here in the Beltway don't actually make it to the kitchen table as issues that voters are talking about.'
Donald Trump has an impeachment trial looming, and rising tensions with Iran have captured headlines. But standing in the back of a New Hampshire brewery with three varieties of IPA on tap, Janie Shaklee said the political basics are much more likely to decide her vote.
"The economy is much realer to me," said the 69-year-old retired professor who was attending a campaign event for businessman Andrew Yang ahead of her state's Feb. 11 primary. "The world can blow apart at any point, no matter what. It's always been that way ... anything can happen."
Less than two weeks old, 2020 has been characterized by a striking amount of political turmoil at home and abroad. But for many in the states that will soon begin choosing the Democratic presidential nominee, the same bread-and-butter issues that have long dominated the primary — health care, higher wages, student debt, climate change — remain top of mind.
"Many Americans, for their own mental health, have taken Trump and his presidency and put it into a box and are doing their best to believe that it's some sort of aberration that's happening during our time and still staying focused on their own family," said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "The unpredictability of Trump, his unhinged decision-making, he's made it very difficult and a challenge to the average voter that overwhelms them."
That sentiment is also playing out in Iowa, home to the Feb. 3 caucuses that usher in the Democratic contest. Farah Jorgensen, a nurse from Waukee, said she doesn't see Iran remaining an issue over the long term.
"I think it’s just going to fade off," said Jorgensen, who was planning to back New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker before he dropped out of the race on Monday. "I don’t think the world is ready for another war."
Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington, agreed that Iran in recent days, just like impeachment in recent weeks, is "still not the main focus of voters."
"They may have an opinion on it, they may know about it, but it doesn’t one-up the challenges they're having with health care, the challenges they're having with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt," Feldman said of voters. "The issues that we think are important here in the Beltway don’t actually make it to the kitchen table as issues that voters are talking about."
The war in Iraq and other major foreign policy issues cast long shadows over past Democratic primaries, including in 2004 and 2008. But domestic policy has dominated the 2020 contest for more than a year, as the candidates spent large chunks of their first debates arguing over whether the country was ready to fully scrap private insurance for a universal, government-run health care system under a "Medicare for All" program.
Foreign policy came up in a more substantial way during the December debate, but many Democratic voters say that the situation in Iran and impeachment have just increased their dislike for Trump.
"All this does is make it that much more important to get him out of there," said Michael Ginsberg, a 68-year-old New Hampshire resident who identified himself as an independent voter. "I'm still not 100% convinced about who is the most likely person to do that."
Polls in the early states, as well as nationally, show no clear front-runner emerging between Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Biden has lately talked up his foreign policy experience, while Sanders is reminding voters that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq at a time when few others, including Biden, did. Buttigieg is a combat veteran who has subtly questioned Biden's judgment on the Iraq War, telling a recent New Hampshire crowd, "As a military intelligence officer on the ground in Afghanistan, I was trained to ask these questions before a decision was made."
Warren spent the summer rising in the polls on the strength of her sweeping plans to tackle top domestic issues, including imposing a wealth tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million, creating universal child and health care systems, and wiping out student debt. She hasn't focused as much on impeachment or Iran while facing campaign audiences — but was forced to do so by a protester last week, during a stop in the riverside town of Dover, New Hampshire.
"Why are you siding with Iran?" a man yelled, calling Warren a fraud. After he'd been escorted out, the senator questioned the timing of Trump increasing tensions with Iran.
"Does this have anything to do with the fact that Donald Trump is right on the eve of an impeachment hearing?" she asked. "This man is an embarrassment. He is now clearly a danger to the United States and the world. We need to get him out."
But then Warren pivoted back to her usual, heavily biographical stump speech. And when a voter asked if her litany of domestic plans was "a blueprint for the American dream," Warren exclaimed: "Oh, yes!"
"Let's make this a country with long-term vision," she added. "Not just short-term vision."