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Whether they're considered traditions or tropes, the events leading up to this week's Iowa caucus optics were recognizable, and even reassuring, amid turmoil in the Mideast, Eastern Europe, the southern border and the Beltway. Candidates hustling the hustings, from the sweltering Iowa State Fair to the brutal cold of caucus night.

And it wasn't just Mother Nature taking her cue in the quadrennial democracy drama. Other actors included reporters in parkas and candidates in informal and formal political garb as they displayed retail political skills in retail establishments like Pizza Ranch and a Casey's convenience store (where former President Donald Trump bought pizzas for local firefighters).

Tuesday's New Hampshire primary will bring its own rituals, including flinty Granite Staters gathering at midnight in tiny Dixville Notch to notch their ballots before others trudge to vote amid the January landscape, as they faithfully have for decades.

Indeed, every early election element looks and sounds familiar — except that, oh yeah, the party and the president presiding over the White House are missing. After finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire in 2020, President Joe Biden finished off their first-in-the-nation role, bestowing that influence- (and income-) generating status to South Carolina, the state that rescued Biden's bid for the nomination four years ago.

Yes, technically, it was the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that did so. But backed by Biden, who like any incumbent is the de facto leader of his party — a party that when the 2024 campaign curtain raised exited, stage left, leaving right-wing candidates and aligned media to malign Biden and Democrats with scant on-the-ground response.

Sure, surrogates tried to return the punches from Republicans trying to wrestle away the presidency and Senate. But most, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who was dispatched the Iowa State Fair, and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, who was in Iowa this week, were hard to hear above the caucus cacophony. So even though he's the presumptive presidential nominee, Biden missed an opportunity to defend Democrats in general and his administration in particular. Yes, he'll have the stage at the State of the Union address, Democratic National Convention and debates (assuming likely GOP nominee Trump doesn't skip them). But the national narrative is being framed now, and polling indicates that Biden and Democrats are underdogs.

In fact, a new Gallup poll shows Democrats and Republicans tied in party identification at 27% — a record low for Democrats, while a record-tying high of 43% identify as independents. Democratic identification dropped one point in each of the last three years, "likely tied to President Joe Biden's unpopularity," Gallup reported. And factoring in independents leaning toward a party, Gallup states that "a combined 45% of adults identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP, while 43% are Democrats or Democratic leaners."

"It's kind of a wake-up call for both parties, but particularly for the Democrats," Jeffrey Jones, senior editor of the Gallup Poll, said in an interview. In recent elections, Democrats had around a plus-five percentage point advantage, Jones said, and now they're negative two percentage points, so "they've got some ground to make up heading into this election year."

If that ground is farmed, it's not been a fertile place for Democrats in recent years. Data from the Pew Research Center reflects a 40-percentage-point advantage for Republicans in rural areas in the 2022 midterms and a 31% gap (a gulf, really) in the 2020 presidential-year election. While some of the key constituencies for Republicans are shrinking in population, they're increasing in intensity of identification. "We definitely see that in rural areas," Jones said, adding that "Democrats have really lost their appeal to those type of voters."

Including, increasingly, here in Minnesota, where the "F" in DFL seems faded from eras when farmers elected Democrats to represent rural areas. As they did in similar states, as recently as 2008, when Iowa and Indiana went for Barack Obama. By Biden's election, however, both had swung decisively toward Trump, along with most every other Midwestern and southern rural states.

Here in Minnesota, the urban/rural divisions were apparent in the last statewide election: DFL Gov. Tim Walz won re-election with a statewide margin of more than 192,000 votes. But outside the seven-county metro area, GOP nominee Scott Jensen beat Walz by a margin of more than 138,000 votes

"The disconnect by place and party has grown since Trump ran for office in 2016," said Tim Lindberg, a University of Minnesota Morris associate professor of political science. "It was already evident before that, but that really drove the wedge." And this wedge, continued Lindberg, "has pushed rural areas more toward the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party since then has done a really poor job in figuring out what it wants to do to counter that."

Breaking tradition, and trust, with Iowa and New Hampshire won't counter it, and in fact may be counterproductive in narrowing the geography gap.

In a letter last year to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, Biden bluntly wrote: "We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window."

Focusing on such voters is in fact important, indeed imperative, especially considering their longtime leadership of and loyalty to the Democratic Party. But Iowa and New Hampshire have voters of color, too. And even if Iowa doesn't match the mosaic of some other states, it was instrumental in propelling Obama to the White House. And Biden's current residency there is proof that South Carolina already plays a significant — indeed, determinative in 2020 — role in the nominating process.

Biden and Democrats' prioritization of and progress on racial issues is not a moot point. But their points were muted — on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, no less — when they went missing in media coverage of the caucus. And the subsequent signal sent in down-ballot races is significant, if not decisive, at a time when congressional control can comes down to just a few seats. Like several other mostly rural states, Iowa has no Democratic senators or representatives in Washington.

"It implies that the Republicans are right about the Democrats, that they don't care about the whiter, more rural states, and that they're waiting for South Carolina, they're waiting for the states that have more diverse populations," Lindberg said. "Republicans don't even need to connect the dots because people are already doing it. And the impact may reverberate beyond Iowa."

Just as the Democrats and Biden have much to tout regarding racial issues, they have accomplishments regarding rural issues, too, including encouraging infrastructure investment and manufacturing in the Midwest and beyond. They missed an opportunity to promote that progress in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In the same way, Republicans should reach out much more consistently and comprehensively to urban America, where they underperform at nearly the same rate Democrats do in rural areas.

Presidential politics should be about aggregating voters, not cleaving them by geography, gender, age, education, race, religion or other demographic distinctions that divide the country. Candidates, after all, are asking for the highest honor: to be president of the United States of America. And that means being president for everyone.