David Weigel, in The Trailer newsletter, has written about what we’ve learned from Democratic candidates campaigning in early states. We’ve gathered them together here; their publication dates range from Jan. 6 to April 30, so we’ve noted any updates in italics.
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This edition is from Jan. 6; Weigel caught up with Warren again last week and wrote more on her “plan” campaign.
DES MOINES — By the end of her first full day of campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had spoken to around 2,700 people. She’d taken 30 questions from voters, chosen by a random, ticket-based lottery. She’d stopped for three short media scrums, evaded one heckler and battled one cold (“too much time with little people!”), the waking nightmare of any presidential candidate.
The first visit to a primary state by a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate found a candidate still honing her stump speech, with a well-oiled campaign infrastructure and audiences that were still in the tire-kicking phase. It revealed plenty about how Warren, who has been urged to run for president since at least 2013, would approach a real campaign. The caricature of Warren — by mid-December, she was being covered as a flawed and stumbling liberal who had missed her best shot to run for president — did not survive intact. Here’s what replaced it.
She’s not focused on Donald Trump. In 2016, as the primaries were winding down, Warren began attacking Trump on Twitter, branding him a “xenophobic bully” as he fired back with attacks on her claim of Native American heritage. At the time, Democrats insisted the senator was cracking a code. "She’s showing that the best way to respond is to punch back hard and to call him out,” former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times.
But Trump won the election, and ever since his insults have been perceived, by the press, as masterful distractions that no Democrat can effectively rebut. Since her DNA test, Warren has simply stopped responding to Trump's insults; over four Iowa events, she mentioned the president's name only once, when asked about the aforementioned test, saying that she simply could not stop him from "hurling racial slurs."
Trump has become the silence between the notes of Warren's speeches, which portray an economic system that has been rigged, for decades, to favor the wealthy. When Warren talks about the fights she's been through, she focuses on the "million dollars a day" that bank lobbyists spent, unsuccessfully, to stop the creation of the financial-industry regulatory agency she proposed and initially ran, and on her evisceration of former Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf, which was a factor in his resignation. It's a return to the rhetoric that worked so well for her in 2012, affirming her status as an icon of the left.
Warren also emphasized her lower-profile Senate work to demonstrate that she was more than a left-wing candidate. In Sioux City, she talked about her effort to pass legislation lowering the price of hearing aids.
“I talked to a lot of people about what would it take to do this, and then I called Chuck Grassley,” she said. After some boos at the name of Iowa’s senior Republican senator subsided, Warren said she’d “called another Republican and another Republican and another Republican, done all this all under the radar screen, put no hard lines on it, and [wrote] a bill.” It’s not the most dramatic story, but it tells Iowans more about Warren than they knew before she flew in
She is not Bernie Sanders. Plenty of the Democrats who wanted to draft Warren into the 2016 race went on to support the Vermont senator; a good number of those strategists, activists and voters now support him even with Warren in the race. But Warren’s approach to campaigning could not be more different. The Sanders approach, which has not changed in decades, is to sketch out a social democratic vision of America — universal health care, free public college tuition, a $15 minimum wage — in sentences punctuated by applause. He mentions his biography only to talk about how he proved skeptics wrong as mayor of Burlington. Voters who show up to hear Sanders hear “the message,” and then they decide whether they’re in.
Warren’s stump speech begins with “a little bit about who I am,” with a story that quiets down the crowd: about the night she heard her mother muttering, “We will NOT lose this house” as she contemplated how to deal with her father’s medical bills. She moves on to a vision of “changing the rules” of three sectors of society: the economy, government and politics. (Her introduction these days is less biographical, though the story of fighting to keep the house often comes up later.)
In that litany, anti-corruption legislation is filed under government; voting rights, including a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to vote, is filed under politics. It's more incremental than the Sanders approach, but it grows out of a rationale for running, the sort of thing Democrats believe Hillary Clinton never was able to do. Warren, who has been accused of elitism (by Republicans) since entering politics, connects every policy position to her identity and the years she spent (to use a phrase she's dropped) on "the ragged edge of the middle class."
Warren is one of five senators with presidential ambitions who has co-sponsored the Medicare for All Act; she is also the first of them to announce a campaign or exploratory committee. Yet at her first four events, the Massachusetts senator did not mention the legislation at all. Only in Des Moines did she say something that emphasized her support for universal care: “Health care is a human right.” (She still usually doesn’t bring this up on her own.)
After the Sioux City event, I asked Warren if there was a reason she wasn't mentioning Medicare-for-all in the stump speech. "No, no special reason," she said. "No one’s raised it. But I have had a chance to talk about Medicaid. Partly because I think we’ve had a national conversation about health care, and I think it’s been enormously valuable. It’s obviously about how we protect ourselves and each other. But it’s also about our values. I hope we continue to have that conversation. I will continue to talk about health care every chance I get."
Contrast that with Sanders, who never lets a speech end without talking up Medicare-for-all. Contrast it with what the bill’s other sponsors might do when they get to Iowa and work to distinguish themselves. (As more candidates have joined the race, Sanders is still the only one who always brings it up.)
She has a fan base, and she takes care of it. At every Warren stop, but especially in Des Moines, it was easy to spot merchandise and tokens of support that predated her trip to Iowa. Shirts reading “Nevertheless, she persisted,” references to the 2017 moment when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented Warren from negatively referring to Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, were everywhere.
A 2014 "Run, Warren, Run," sign, printed by MoveOn, was unfolded in Storm Lake. A shirt from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's 2012 ad campaign, "I'm from the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party," was visible at three of the stops. In Council Bluffs, a Teamster named Bob Payne briefly pulled Warren aside to ask if she'd gotten a shirt he'd sent her office, to advertise a pension reform bill the union supported.
"I got it and I wore it!" Warren said, hugging Payne — who called her "my hero" for working on pensions.
It was also easy to find Democrats who had wanted Warren to run before and were still shopping for a candidate but had an emotional connection to her.
"From the moment of ‘nevertheless, she persisted,’ I got the mug on my desk," said Julie Brown, a 55-year-old businesswoman who brought her daughter to see Warren in Des Moines. "I’ve got a pen that says it. It was a rallying call for women, in particular. When you live that, when this happens to you on a daily basis, and you have a strong wonderful woman who shuts it down — it’s very inspiring."
A lot of that could change as candidates pile into the race (it hasn’t really), but Warren’s campaign, at the moment, is taking full advantage of the pent-up interest. At every stop, she has stopped to take pictures with anyone willing to wait for one; her team has grabbed copies of her books (or even photographs and baseballs, which sometimes are passed around by autograph hunters) and returned them to voters, signed. It’s more like the approach Clinton’s campaign took in 2016, and Sen. Cory Booker’s pre-campaign is taking now, than what fans of Sanders found last cycle.
Both Booker and Sanders, of course, had been to Iowa more recently than Warren had. Both, if they run, will get their chance to introduce themselves to voters who don’t see a clear favorite right now. But Warren’s visit, coming after a long stretch of skeptical coverage, set a higher bar than many expected.
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This edition is from Jan. 20.
DES MOINES — The first thing many Democrats want to know about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is: What changed? During her maiden voyage to Iowa as a presidential candidate — seven stops in four cities — the senator often described how she won a 2006 race for Congress, then got a question about why she no longer sounded like a conservative-leaning Democrat.
“When I became senator, I recognized I had a lot to learn about my state and all of the 20 million people I was going to represent,” Gillibrand told one voter in Sioux City, who said he had seen a Fox News article about her “evolution.”
Every presidential candidate tells a story, and Gillibrand's was always going to be, in part, about her mistakes. Former president Barack Obama's “unlikely” story was that of a son of a Kenyan academic and a Kansas social scientist who was raised by his grandparents and became a community organizer. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's story, on the stump, includes a reference to her “smart” decision to walk away from her college scholarship and get married at age 19.
Gillibrand's story is, in political terms, pretty “likely” — the daughter of politically connected Albany lawyers, she received an Ivy League education, became a corporate lawyer and won a tough race (in a good Democratic year) before she turned 40.
She does not claim to have lived a hard-knock life. At that same Sioux City house party, the story of her political setbacks peaked with an anecdote about a panicky voice mail for the governor of New York, left because she realized she hadn’t lobbied hard enough for that Senate appointment. The story Gillibrand tells on the stump is of a politician who won, changed and won again. Sometimes, she goes into detail about how those victories came together.
“I’ve been able to do well because I listen to all voters, all people I represent, and I bring people together,” Gillibrand said. “I do well in the red and purple places where, perhaps, other Democrats don’t do as well.”
This came on a trip that looked more like a typical exploratory visit to Iowa than the big rallies that Warren, Obama and Donald Trump held on their first visits to the state. Gillibrand's roundtables and her house party appearance (organized by Sioux City Democrats) attracted a few dozen people. Her Saturday night town hall at the microbrewery, held across the street from a venue where more than 1,000 people saw Warren, pulled in around 150.
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The senator is already heading back to Washington, but this trip laid out a candidacy, skill set and rationale that’s different from what we’ve seen in this field so far. Here’s what stood out.
“More cows than Democrats.” Gillibrand repeatedly described New York’s old 19th Congressional District, which she won in 2006 and 2008, as Republican turf where her party was outnumbered 2 to 1, as a place much like Iowa. She was not bluffing — it was a largely rural, economically frustrated district with no major population centers. (Gillibrand’s actual upbringing, in Albany, was not rural at all.)
“The way you win campaigns is door to door, family by family, person by person, voter by voter, caucus-goer by caucus-goer,” Gillibrand said in Sioux City. “The issue back then was getting out of Iraq. People not only wanted to get out of Iraq, they wanted you to explain why. And even though my district is conservative and only 30 percent of the district wanted to get out of Iraq, by Election Day it was 70 percent. You can lead a narrative if you’re speaking from your heart, and I think Democrats can win any district.”
Not every question about that district has to do with Gillibrand’s old, more conservative positions. At several stops, she emphasized that she had sold Medicare-for-all, as a concept, to conservative voters.
“I always thought Medicare-for-all was a great idea,” she said in Sioux City. “When I first ran in 2006, I made it really clear: I said, wouldn’t it be good if you had at least one not-for-profit public option? Wouldn’t it be good if anybody could buy into Medicare at a price they could afford? Just to create competition? Insurance companies keep raising your rates because they can! I always believed that Medicare-for-all was a great solution, and that was in a 2 to 1 Republican district.”
This is not a description of the current Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, though Gillibrand has co-sponsored it. There is plenty of skepticism, on the left, about Democrats who use the “M4A” brand to advertise something else. But Gillibrand can truthfully say that she has discussed the concept since 2006 and won every election she's ever contested.
Check the record. Every Democratic senator who’s won the party’s presidential nomination has been hit with accusations of thin experience. It happened to Obama, who had been in the U.S. Senate for just four years and who talked more about what he had achieved in Illinois politics than his few bipartisan Senate bills. It happened to John F. Kerry, who ran for president after 20 years in the Senate and was accused of doing little with the job.
Gillibrand preempts any attempt to diminish her record by describing how much she passed and how much she's proposed. Her first real national attention came with legislation to get medical care for 9/11 first responders and a simultaneous effort to end the military's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy — both are part of her story now, as was a bipartisan bill that provides one of her readiest laugh lines: “I worked with Ted Cruz on ending sexual harassment in Congress. I can work with anybody!”
At times, Gillibrand packs so many of her priorities into a sentence, so quickly, that it can sound like she's auctioning them off. In Des Moines, an attack on state Republicans' work to end collective-bargaining labor rights turned into a riff on what workers needed: “To have fair wages, to have fair benefits, to have fair opportunity, equal pay for equal work, how about affordable day care, universal pre-K and a national paid-leave plan?”
Running against Trump. It was hard to miss it when some other Democratic candidates visited Iowa and did not use the president’s name to criticize his administration. That’s not Gillibrand’s style: She says the president is “destroying the moral fabric” of the country. She blames him for Republican voters believing, incorrectly, that criminals are about to leap across the border straight to West Des Moines. She says he is the reason she’s running. (Since former vice president Joe Biden got in, he’s been taking on the president directly.)
“President Trump promised no bad trade deals. What he's created are trade wars,” Gillibrand said at one stop in Des Moines. “For folks I talked to today and yesterday in Iowa, for folks I talk to in Upstate New York, it's crippling. President Trump has to stop.”
At one Sioux City stop, Gillibrand confronted an issue that has dogged her for more than a year: Her vocal role in urging Al Franken (D-Minn.) to step down from the Senate after eight allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate touching were levied against him. Gillibrand did not mention the president's name in her answer, but put her decision in an unmissable context: It was impossible for her work against sexual harassment and disrespect toward women if she gave a friend a pass on it.
“You have to stand up for what’s right, especially when it’s hard,” she said. “And if you create a pass because you love someone, or you like someone, or you admire someone, or they’re part of your team, it’s not okay. It’s just not. I feel strongly about it. It’s painful. It was painful for me. It was painful for a lot of us. But enough was enough.”
From Feb 10
MASON CITY, Iowa — Steven Howell, 64, was halfway through asking Cory Booker about the state of family farms when he added that his wife sent her regards.
“Keep talking,” said Booker. “I'm just going to steal your phone.”
As Howell talked about “takeover of family farms by industrial ag monopolies,” Booker grabbed the phone. “Hi, Kristi, this is Cory Booker,” he said. Oh, and as Howell knew already, Booker was pushing farm legislation through the Senate because even a “New Jersey boy” cared about Iowa farmers.
“This dangerous illusion of separateness in our country is going to hurt us,” Booker said. “It’s a cancer.”
Booker, who has been seen as a potential presidential candidate for most of his 22-year career, made his campaign trail debut in a state where Democrats are still proud of launching Barack Obama to the presidency.
The senator from New Jersey, just eight years younger than the former president, is already separating himself from the populist candidates who frame the election as a way to dismantle the power of the very rich. His operating theory is that swing voters, stressed out every day by the behavior of the Trump administration, will want a healer to replace him. That's unique in the “first tier” of candidates; here's what it looks like.
He’s putting his biography front and center. The last Democratic president won Iowa every time he was on the ballot said that his own family’s story was the story of America. Booker’s pitch begins with the story of his African American ancestors and how, from setback to setback, they raised a senator. (Booker endorsed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign just a few months after it began, when the senator from Illinois was a big underdog.)
“My grandmother's husband was a coal miner in Alabama. He got killed. As a single mom, she moved our family to Buxton, Iowa,” Booker said at one of his first stops here. “Buxton is sort of the story of Iowa; when it came to gender equality, when it came to race equality, Iowa was ahead of the country.”
At every stop, Booker leavened his family's civil rights history with a joke, describing how a racist landlord sicced a dog on his father for trying to integrate a white neighborhood. “Every time he told the story, the dog got bigger,” Booker said in Des Moines. “I'd be eating my Cheerios, and my dad would say, 'Boy, I fought a pack of wolves to get you in this house!' "
The way he tells that story, a terrifying scenario quickly becomes a joke about what happens when you overcome adversity. His stories about Newark often take the same path: tough situations turning into lessons about why America needs free education “from the womb” to community college.
He sees bipartisan victories just around the corner. Booker doesn’t have many stories to tell about winning over Republican voters; most of his election wins were in deep blue Newark and the rest were in reliably blue statewide New Jersey. Rather than talking electability, he talks about how uninterested most voters are in partisanship and how he should know, after running a city.
“Some people are going to tell you we need to fight fire with fire,” he said in Marshalltown. “Well, I ran a fire department. I can tell you, that doesn't work.”
Booker’s been in the Senate for a bit more than five years; in Iowa, the main accomplishment he discussed from this period was the passage of the First Step Act, a criminal justice restructuring bill endorsed by the Trump administration. He recalls "some guy named Chuck Grassley” (the senator from Iowa who has never been well liked among Democrats in this state and is less liked than ever since the 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination) trying to smother the bill. “I didn’t stand there and answer his speeches with my angry speeches,” Booker recalled in Marshalltown. “I went to his office, sat down there, and talked to him.”
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He’s not taking fire from the left — not yet. (This is still true.) If you spend some time on Twitter — please, consult a family doctor before you do so — you’ll find that Booker takes more fire from his party’s left than any current candidate for president. The litany is long, from his campaigning for charter schools in Newark to his mayoral-era political alliances with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ivanka Trump, to his vote against a pharma amendment championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Over six stops, not a single voter asked Booker about any of this — not even the charter schools. Booker shaped some of this with events that frequently gave the first questions to legislators he'd campaigned for in 2018, but in the absence of political attacks, voters simply didn't sound as if they were aware of Booker's "heresies." He described his support for Medicare-for-all by saying there were many potential paths to universal coverage, an idea is anathema to the left but didn't get any pushback in the room.
Booker’s critics doubt he’s a progressive, but he’s happy using the term.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that progressives are not the most fiscally responsible people on the political spectrum,” Booker said at several stops. “Why do I say that with confidence? The morally right thing to do is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.”
He may be on to something about the Democratic base. A recurring theme in conversations with voters at Booker’s events was nervousness — a real dread about picking the wrong candidate, one who couldn’t defeat the president. Annelie Heinen, a 35-year-old teacher who attended Booker’s Waterloo roundtable, showed up wearing a “She Persisted” T-shirt, a reference to Booker’s Senate colleague and presidential competitor Elizabeth Warren. But she said she was nervous about Warren’s ability to win.
“I’m a big fan of hers, but women, especially older women, get pegged as being divisive,” she said. “Warren is incredibly intelligent, she’s a fabulous writer, and unfortunately there’s this huge segment of the population that doesn’t know that and will vote based on persona.”
A number of voters said that they were inspired by the more fiery rhetoric from other Democrats, but thought a more unifying, inspiring candidate could take a clear run at Trump.
“I have a problem with some of the far-left people,” said Midge Gaylor, a 79-year-old retired teacher who came to see Booker in Mason City. “I'm enthralled with the young woman from New York” — she clarified that she meant Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — “but she comes out so far left that she digs in the heels of the right.”
Booker’s team is not naive about his vulnerabilities. The senator frequently describes constituents he helped, or lessons he learned from civil rights heroes. In the past, he’s been accused of making these stories up. But every anecdote is backed up by some preemptive research. That’s ready to be deployed, but in Iowa, voters didn’t give Booker a reason to do so.
From Feb. 17
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The lasting image of Sen. Kamala Harris’s first campaign trip through South Carolina was not one of her crowds (the largest of any candidate in the race), or the crush of selfie-seekers that had to be nudged back behind a rope line, or the barbecue plate that she kept getting asked about (pulled pork, collard greens, corn bread).
No, the lasting image was the rainbow sequin jacket she bought at Styled by Naida, a boutique on Columbia's Lady Street, whose owner had come up from poverty. A member of the press corps had spotted the jacket as the senator talked with customers. It was as frivolous as these photo ops get, and it sparked a conservative media backlash, but Harris asked reporters to see the meaning of the visit.
"This is the classic story of women in America achieving economic success," Harris said after visiting a few more woman-owned shops. "These are incredible stories of women who were in foster care, who understood what it meant at a very early age to struggle, but who also had dreams about what they could be."
Harris, who is narrowly polling ahead of every other declared Democratic presidential candidate (now she’s generally in a second tier, below Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden), is running a campaign as the ambassador of another, kinder America. Early polls may not tell us much, but she has, out of necessity, skipped past the house-parties-and-roundtables part of the campaign and moved to large rallies that channel the spirit of the first Women’s March. In speeches, her first applause line is usually “we are better than this,” an exhausted, hopeful declaration that the Trump administration will be a historical blip.
She doesn’t get into the weeds about mass political mobilizations or how bills could move through the Senate. She does not talk about endorsements. Instead, she describes a tolerant and aspirational country where “we have more in common than what separates us.” The South Carolina trip was Harris’s first real campaign swing; here’s what it looked like.
“Let’s speak that truth.” On the stump, Harris uses that phrase more than any other. It usually sets up discussion of policies that every Democrat supports as suppressed or whispered secrets; the implication is that obvious, moral facts are being suppressed by the Trump administration.
"Let's speak truth that in our country today, this economy is not working for working people," she said at a town hall in Columbia, where around 1,200 voters showed up. "When we realize and know that almost half of families in America today cannot afford a $400 unexpected emergency, let's speak that truth."
Like most Democrats in the field, Harris does not mention the president by name unless she’s asked to. She does not wade into the controversy of the day; in neither of her big South Carolina town halls did she talk about the president’s emergency declaration, which she told reporters, separately, needed to be undone by courts.
"There are a lot of people — our neighbors, our friends, our family, our co-workers — who rightly are feeling a great sense of distrust in their government," she said in Columbia. "And we've got to deal with that."
The Democratic primary so far (still true) has showcased two basic arguments. One of them, as advanced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is that the political system has been rigged for years and must be dismantled and reoriented. The other, advanced by Harris (and Sen. Cory Booker), is that America always eventually does the right thing and just needs the right people pushing it that way. Harris, the first of these candidates to get a cable news town hall to herself, is often the first candidate voters hear saying this in person. (This has been followed by many towns halls.)
“Smart on crime.” The people showing up to hear Harris are generally aware of her story and her ideas; many say they first really connected with her during some of the Senate hearings where she grilled Trump nominees. But for most voters, she is able to introduce the rest of her record for the first time.
The best example of that is criminal justice and policing, the focus of Harris's career up to 2016 and the focus of her first really rough coverage. At her first events, the pushback on her record — one that included leading a truancy initiative that punished parents and defeating an incumbent district attorney she criticized over San Francisco's lack of convictions — was limited to one protest, in North Charleston, by a trio of activists. More than 2,000 people, inside her events, heard her describe the "progressive prosecutor" who's portrayed in her memoir.
"Listen, I just think that we have got to recognize that there are a lot of failures in the design of our criminal justice system, and they can be repaired, and we would actually be smarter with taxpayer dollars to understand this essential point," Harris said in Columbia. "Prevention is smarter than reaction. Putting money in public education is smarter than putting money in mass incarceration."
In interviews with voters around these events, there was next to zero awareness of the criticism Harris had faced. Convincing rank-and-file Democrats that Harris committed unforgivable sins in the DA’s office will take real work and time, and a credible communicator. There is no rival campaign doing so right now (still true); that might fall to the Trump campaign, or an opposition group such as America Rising, which has experience getting intraparty issues in front of voters. But it would have to do so with Democratic voters who are increasingly skeptical of negative coverage when it hits their candidates.
But right now, the voters nervous about her record are overwhelmed by members of Harris's Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, filling the front rows of events in their signature pink and green — black women thrilled almost beyond the telling to see a black woman doing so well. Even the usual snark about what a campaign is doing right, like a miscommunication that left some key Iowa Democrats at home when they could have been at the CNN town hall, is going unsaid.
“I intend to win.” The “electability” question, which has surfaced earlier than usual in this primary, would seem from the outside to be tougher for Harris. It’s implicit in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (Minn.) campaign so far, and it was explicit in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (N.Y.) talk about her own record of winning rural voters. Several Democrats have won races in tough states and districts; Harris has won every election in either Democrat-friendly San Francisco or greater California.
But there have not been many electability questions for Harris. (Voters aren’t asking this of her specifically, but many candidates are being compared to Biden on this measure since his entrance.) Asked by one tearful woman how she could beat Trump, Harris gave a somewhat long-winded recitation of her campaign platform, from “public education to ... the criminal justice system to climate change,” then explained that she knew how to face down opponents.
"I believe this is a moment in time that we need fighters on the stage who know how to fight," she said. "I do. And who also have a proven desire to lead. And to lead understanding that the sign of true leadership is about leading on behalf of the needs of others and not self-interest. It's going to be about running a smart campaign and working hard, and that, I have learned, as most of us have, is a good way to win."
This was mostly boilerplate; any Democrat could say it. One unmissable aspect of Harris’s rhetoric is that, like Barack Obama in his early days as a candidate, she can use roughly 50 percent more words than necessary to make a point. But she’s operating in a Democratic Party whose last electoral disaster, in 2016, came after it was seen to be tacking to the center without giving reluctant white voters a reason to come out and support it. Of the candidates now in the field, only Klobuchar hints that some centrist voters need to be won back; Harris and her voters see a new majority being built. (Klobuchar has since been joined by a few other candidates in that message, including Biden.)
“I think we were too centrist last time,” Charles Nicholson, 62, who was still shopping for a candidate. “I think Hillary at least would have been better off with a progressive running mate. We need to get people excited.”
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From March 21
CONWAY, N.H. — At his third stop in the Granite State — his third of 10, over two days — Beto O’Rourke was asked about white privilege. He’d taken similar questions before, but this time, he paused for five seconds, looked down, then looked up again.
“This country will truly hit its stride when it reflects and represents and involves the contributions, the genius, and the creativity of everyone,” O’Rourke said. “And right now — economically, politically, where power is concentrated, you don’t have that representation. You don’t have a true reflection of who we are, a people from every corner of the globe, who came together here to make this the indispensable nation on the planet.”
It would have been an unusually existential answer to the question for any other candidate, but it was not unusual for O’Rourke. In his first blitz as a candidate for president, O’Rourke has dealt with nagging questions — Is a failed Senate candidate ready for the presidency? Is he serious about policy? — with real-time prose. Other candidates talk in applause lines, while O’Rourke speaks in paragraphs, with lots of asides and emphasis and aphorisms.
The result was the first Democratic campaign to really shake up this race since Kamala Harris’s enormous early crowds surprised her rivals and boosted her in public polls. It is not like any other campaign — by design.
He’s still figuring this whole thing out. More than any other candidate for the presidency, O’Rourke admits that he does not have all the answers and will get things wrong. He thanks crowds for telling him what he did not know. He thanks reporters for being patient with him — after some complaints about access in Iowa, he began to hold 10- to 15-minute news conferences after nearly every event.
In Conway, this reporter asked O’Rourke about his 2012 run for Congress, when he talked about the “extravagant” size of government and the need to means-test entitlements — i.e., to shrink Social Security payments to many recipients. What changed his mind? Why should voters think it won’t change back?
“I think I've become a lot smarter, from listening to the people that I represented, to listening to people in Congress and others who understand this issue better than I do,” he said. “If you were to raise the [Social Security tax] cap, so that every extra dollar or extra hundred thousand dollars or extra million dollars that you earn is taxed, you would ensure the viability of that program well into the next century without means testing.”
After another town hall, in Durham, O’Rourke was asked about reparations for the descendants of slaves. His answer to that question is better seen in full; it was a perfect example of how O’Rourke, rather than giving a quick sound bite, will spell out the journey he made toward an answer.
“I have been talking to and, more importantly, listening to a lot of people on this question. I reached out to [civil rights activist] Bryan Stevenson, who was helpful in establishing the memorial to peace in Montgomery, Alabama, that records, to a great degree, the brutality visited upon African Americans, the lynchings throughout so much of this country. And he reminded me that at the root of the word reparations is the word repair and that in order to repair this deep and lasting damage to our country, we first have to confront the facts and the truth.
“And so, in addition to celebrating civil rights victories, we also have to acknowledge the extraordinary suffering and death endured by African Americans and people of color in this country, long after the end of the Civil War. People who were pressed into convict work gangs simply because of the color of their skin. People denied opportunity. People living in constant fear for their lives.
“And so, I said: What do you want to see the next president of the United States do? And he said he wanted the next president of the United States to help ensure that that conversation continues, that as many Americans as possible are confronted with those facts and acknowledge our history. And then he said, out of this can begin the real work of repair or reparations, so that truth, those facts, and a wide acceptance and understanding of what this country has done is the most important step that we can take.”
Another, shorter way to answer that would be to quickly say that he supports a study of reparations, which is the only legislative proposal recently introduced in Congress. But that’s not how he talks, and while answers like the one he gave would not fly in debates or quick TV interviews, they are finding an audience on the trail.
He’s already in a policy war with Bernie Sanders (and he isn’t losing). O’Rourke has refused to attack any Democratic rival; Bernie Sanders has pledged not to go negative on any other candidate. But the first real skirmish of the primary is underway, pitting supporters of Sanders against O’Rourke, and at the moment it’s breaking to the Texan’s benefit.
On social media and at a few town halls, voters have asked whether O’Rourke has real policies or he’s going to offer platitudes — something that has grown out of his aforementioned, philosophical answers. Unlike Sanders, who states his policies one by one, O’Rourke tends to get to them after a soliloquy on what the country needs.
But the rumor that O’Rourke is a policy lightweight makes it easy for him to impress voters, for now. (Although recently voters have begun to contrast idea-focused candidates like Elizabeth Warren with more charisma-driven candidates like O’Rourke.) In New Hampshire especially, he’s got heads nodding with a quick summary of the state’s “safe stations” program for tackling opioid abuse; in Manchester he described it as one “where anyone can walk into a fire department in some cities, and, without fear of being entangled in the criminal justice system, get lifesaving help right away.”
Like Sanders, who won over voters who had simply never heard a candidate state bluntly that America needed universal health care or free college, O’Rourke takes some clear positions on issues that other candidates often handle with extra caution. Asked in Manchester whether undocumented immigrants should have driver’s licenses, O’Rourke said “yes,” then argued it would “demonstrably make us safer.” Asked about marijuana, O’Rourke says it should be legal.
He does not go as far as Sanders on some issues, but he has been able to disarm critics offline. After O'Rourke's Durham town hall, an activist with the New Hampshire Youth Movement got into his photo line and, as phones recorded (and staff stood by nervously), asked him to commit to free college for “all Americans,” including those with criminal convictions.
“I believe in free community college and I believe in debt-free four-year public college, so the cost is not a barrier for admission,” O’Rourke said. “We should ensure that incarceration is also not a barrier to advancement.”
In the long run, this approach could put O’Rourke on the record for issues that Republicans can weaponize in a general election. At the moment, it is stymying the effort to portray him as a cipher.
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He’s starting small. There are no campaign signs, yet, at O’Rourke’s events. There are no signs telling people where to go. The only evidence of a campaign advance team is the existence of working microphones at the venues after O’Rourke arrives. But in his first days as a candidate, O’Rourke is trying to keep the trappings of his Senate campaign, scaling it up nationally in a way that cannot work for much longer. (Read about how O’Rourke’s campaign has changed since its launch.)
“I know that we have not done an event where folks cannot ask questions or make comments or level criticisms at me,” O’Rourke said in Manchester. “I’m getting better along the way. I have a long way to go, and that’s very clear to me, but I am grateful for the opportunity.”
If he wanted them, O’Rourke could be speaking to much larger crowds. Only in Conway, a long drive north from New Hampshire’s population centers, did his audience merely fill the venue. Everywhere else, he has walked into an overflowing room, with dozens of people outside — and in places where, if he chose, he could book bigger spaces.
This won’t last; O’Rourke’s launch day, scheduled for March 30 (read about the launch, with a bilingual call to unity), is going to feature three rallies across Texas. But the degree to which he’s maintained a “home-brew” image is almost surreal. He shows up at events in a van, joined by two staffers, who insist that he does not let them drive. He has just a few volunteers collecting names; in Portsmouth, they were outnumbered by activists looking for signatories on Medicare-for-all petitions. If the knock on O’Rourke was that he embodied a wistful writer’s ideal of how a campaign should look, he has answered that by embracing it.
From March 24
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Pete Buttigieg, who celebrated his 37th birthday this year, had come to South Carolina to help his party. On Saturday, that meant walking door to door with Tina Belge, a Democratic state Senate candidate nearly 10 years younger than him. A group of teenage girls, curious about the TV cameras following two youngish people through a suburban street, asked what was going on.
“We thought you were shooting a promposal,” they explained, “or a reality show.”
Buttigieg, who was elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., before he turned 30, is used to the double-takes. As his dark horse candidacy has gotten more attention, he’s leaned into his age, declaring himself a member of the “school shooting generation” that will live through the “business end of climate change.” The people who come to see him, sometimes clutching copies of his memoir, marvel at how he graduated from Harvard, attained a Rhodes scholarship and fought in Afghanistan — all before he combed gray hair.
“He's the smartest guy I've ever met,” said Eric Schronce, 43, an Indiana-based attorney who left his family vacation in Myrtle Beach to drive to a Buttigieg event in Columbia, 150 miles away. “The last election was about emails and porn stars and whatever. I want an election about issues, and Pete knows the issues inside and out.”
The Indiana Democrat, who is expected to officially launch his candidacy next month (read about his launch with an assertion that he can beat President Trump), has turned years of “next big thing” coverage into a genuine presidential boomlet. He raised more than $1 million after a CNN town hall and appeared to have met the standard for entering the first Democratic debates. He’s adding to a skeletal staff, expanding his campaign headquarters and beginning to build the sort of operation that could compete in early states. Here’s what it looks like on the ground.
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Left-wing politics in moderate portions. Buttigieg, who has been seen for years by national Democrats as a potential star, arrived on the scene in 2017 as a candidate to run the Democratic National Committee. He came in third place then, but what matters is that his only previous march through national politics let him speak generally about what the party should do. He never needed to cast votes that might be litmus-tested; he never got into messy fights with Democratic interests.
That's not to say that being a successful small-city mayor was easy, but it's not a job that requires a ton of roll-call votes like many of the candidates have taken in Congress. Buttigieg rarely gets into the weeds about specific legislation that must pass, speaking instead about the principles he would carry into policy fights. On Medicare-for-all, for example, he supports the concept but stops short of endorsing any of the legislative vehicles for it.
At one South Carolina stop, in Rock Hill, Buttigieg's position on health care was tested. One questioner asked about a single-payer model, then criticized Buttigieg for not supporting a full, fast transition to a health-care system that would eliminate insurance companies. Buttigieg argued that creating a Medicare buy-in would allow everyone to get covered while not touching people who enjoyed their employer-based coverage.
“If people like me are correct about the way it can be designed, it will become more popular,” Buttigieg said about the Medicare option. “Eventually it can be a very natural path to a single-payer environment. But the bottom line is, we cannot tolerate the fact this country is the only developed country that lacks universal health care.”
Other Democrats who have co-sponsored the Senate's Medicare-for-all bill but say a "public option" might be an achievable first step are getting torn apart by critics on the left and compared unfavorably to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has no caveats about single-payer health care. Buttigieg tells voters that he's on board with the agenda and concerned only with how to get it passed; at the moment, this is enough for a lot of Democratic voters.
Youth for youth’s sake. It can’t be overstressed how many Democrats come to hear Buttigieg, or give to his campaign, for the simple reason that he’s young and new. The current state of the Democratic primary has Joe Biden ahead in all polls and Sanders leading among the candidates who have declared. Both men are about 40 years older than Buttigieg. A topic that comes up frequently at his events is that the party might be in trouble if it nominates an elderly candidate.
(In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 5 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents offered Buttigieg’s name as their choice; Biden was at 13 percent and Sanders at 9 percent. Respondents weren’t offered a list of names.)
“I’m a little worried about age, to be honest with you,” said Susan Mathis, 40, who came to see Buttigieg in Columbia. “You have to ask: Who will the next president be leading? The answer is a much younger country, demographically.”
Polling, which may largely reflect name recognition right now, does not show a youth advantage for Buttigieg at this point. Sanders does best among voters younger than 35, as he did in 2016; he often notes to audiences that he got more votes from young people than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump did during their primary bids.
The voters most likely to prize Buttigieg's youth are, themselves, a couple of decades older than him. Buttigieg's crowds in South Carolina also skewed white, which he acknowledged, telling reporters that “building a diverse [campaign] team” would allow him to start making more introductions to nonwhite voters. Nan Johnston and Dianne Bledsoe, two volunteers in their 60s who met Buttigieg during his Greenville canvass, argued that the party needed to move past candidates of their generation.
“I love Joe Biden, but we need young leaders,” Johnston said. “Look at all the people who won in 2018 and never dreamed that they’d run.” It would take a “miracle,” she said, to persuade her not to back Buttigieg.
Buttigieg is not the only young candidate seeking the White House. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a fellow military veteran, is just nine months older than he is; Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who just turned 40, is still exploring a run. (Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who’s 38, has also joined the field.) Both have also made a “generational change” pitch; that has not drawing crowds the size of Buttigieg’s yet but is getting them second looks. The average age of a president upon taking office is 55 years old. Buttigieg, if elected in 2020 then reelected to a second term, would leave office the day after he turned 47.
Hasn’t taken a punch yet. More than anyone else in the race, Buttigieg has benefited from the idea that the 2016 election demolished notions of what sort of résumé voters needed in a president and what sort of character traits were dealbreakers. In conversations across his South Carolina trip, no voter suggested that a candidate who was born in 1982, whose highest office was mayor of South Bend and who would be the first openly gay nominee for the presidency, would face “electability” issues. (While he hasn’t taken a hit from another candidate, he has grappled with negative coverage of his tenure in South Bend.)
On the trail, Buttigieg tells the story of a gay man who fought for his country, then was able to marry after the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision. It’s one of his steadiest applause lines. On a riff about his “bumper sticker” slogan for the party — freedom, democracy, security — Buttigieg says that his own right to happiness depended on a 5-4 court vote. Only once, when prodded by a local religion reporter, did Buttigieg grapple with how some social conservatives might view him morally; “freedom,” he explains, can be a Democratic Party issue, so long as they explain how it’s not just government that threatens freedom.
“You know, I was married in our church, and my marriage and my faith go well together,” Buttigieg said. “Other people can have their interpretations of their religion. But we live in a country that is committed to the idea that people of any faith, or no faith all, have equal claim over the blessings of life in this country. And what I'm finding with the turning tide on LGBT equality is that more and more people are coming to understand that.”
Democratic voters have told pollsters that they're comfortable with a gay presidential nominee, so Buttigieg may face more heat on issues where the party's base is looking for details; his criticism of President Barack Obama's clemency for Chelsea Manning has emerged as one of those issues, though it didn't come up on the trail this weekend. But the candidate's brand, as a Midwesterner who came home after fighting in a war, is like a sun that every question or test orbits around.
After one of his Greenville stops, when asked about the winding down of the Russia probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Buttigieg said that “the ballot box” was the place to end the Trump presidency and then argued, from a Midwest perspective, that Democrats needed to understand why even a litany of scandals and character flaws did not defeat him in 2016.
“I think a lot of folks are waiting for some piece of evidence to come along that finally proves once and for all that he's not a good guy,” Buttigieg said. “And what they forget is that there are a lot of people where I live, and maybe a lot of people around here too, who, knowing that he's not a good guy, walked in to the voting booth and voted to burn the house down because of some very deep issues that motivated them to send a message. Some of which I think we should give no quarter to, like racism, but others of which deserve to be taken seriously.”
One day later, the release of a summary of the Russia probe’s findings had Republicans celebrating and mocking Democrats who had invested so much in the probe. Buttigieg, by his own positioning, was not among those Democrats.
From March 31
HORNICK, Iowa — Amy Klobuchar wanted to know everything about the flood that had breached the levees around this town of 219 people. She asked Hornick’s 47-year-old mayor, Scott Mitchell, about the evacuation. She described how flood plain towns in her state had rebuilt. She marveled at how Mitchell’s 13-year-old daughter, Becca, had helped her father without thinking of herself.
“You got his shoes and not yours?” Klobuchar asked Becca Mitchell. “What did you lose? It must be hard.”
As Klobuchar walked away, Becca overheard her father get asked why a presidential candidate from Minnesota had come to their town.
“She’s a senator?” said Becca. “You just called her ‘Amy’! I didn’t know she was a senator!”
Klobuchar's unfussy, neighborly approach to retail politics, which has powered her to three landslide victories in a swing state, is being adapted to early-voting primary states. She doesn't pull in the crowds like fellow senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren; she doesn't aim for the rafters with her stump speech, like former congressman Beto O'Rourke or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Voters in Iowa this weekend met a presidential candidate who's running like she's already their senator.
Here's what it looks like.
“K-L-O-B-U-C-H-A-R.” There are half a dozen Democrats running for president who fill VFW halls or city squares or public parks. Klobuchar is not one of those Democrats. Her audiences are rapt and curious but small. Her Friday night visit to Council Bluffs, which took place in the same venue and time of day as Warren’s first visit to the city, attracted 75 people. Warren had pulled in several hundred people, with her crowd spilling into the parking lot.
This, according to Klobuchar, was something she could work with. In Council Bluffs, when a reporter said that the senator was at 3 percent in a CNN poll of Iowa, Klobuchar noted that another poll had her at 6 percent, and, well, it was March. (A Monmouth poll in April showed her at 4 percent.)
“You have two candidates out front and the rest of us pretty bunched together,” she said, referring to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. “Having met with Jimmy Carter, watching how Bill Clinton won, I think Iowans are pretty open to candidates and like to listen to smart new ideas. They also want to meet somebody who can win.”
Carter’s upset 1976 victory began with a win (technically, a second-place finish to “uncommitted”) in the first Iowa caucuses; Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, repeatedly written off, was rescued by a strong second place in New Hampshire after a weak showing in Iowa. But Iowa is a do-or-die state for Klobuchar. She’s been seen as a prospective presidential candidate for years — her memoir hit shelves in 2015 — and she has quietly made trip after trip to Midwestern Democratic dinners.
Klobuchar has cultivated a sort of anti-star power, as if it would be wrong for a crowd to start venerating her. She made seven campaign stops in Iowa from Friday through Saturday; she delivered political remarks at only three of them. In the small city of Stanton, she offered most of an hour to locals describing what they needed to bring broadband to northwest Iowa. In Hornick, she patiently waited for local TV networks to finish interviewing the mayor, then was asked by Siouxland reporters how to spell her name.
“I'm here to look at damage from the flood,” she explained.
“I took the lead.” Klobuchar, alone among the Democratic senators running for president, has not sponsored “Medicare-for-all” legislation. She has not endorsed the legalization of marijuana. She has not endorsed free tuition at all public colleges. She does not demean the colleagues who have endorsed all that; she just argues that she knows how to pass bills. The goal of universal coverage can be met by starting to expand the Affordable Care Act once there’s a good, bipartisan deal to let the government negotiate drug prices, she says.
Klobuchar frequently calls herself a “progressive” before explaining how she came early to an issue or built a coalition when no one else could. She jokes about the conversations it took to get Republican co-sponsors for her bills. In Council Bluffs, she spent some time recalling how Ted Stevens, the late senator from Alaska, was talked into backing legislation that tackled swimming pool safety: “He said, 'Well, I used to be a lifeguard, and we don’t have a lot of pools in Alaska, so I’ll help you.' "
In Sioux City, she smiled through a lengthy question about opioids, bristling a bit when asked whether she would support a new bipartisan bill to tackle the problem.
“I was the lead on an opioid bill along with three other senators, including [Rhode Island Sen.] Sheldon Whitehouse — the original opioid bill, that saw this as the hazard it was, four years ago,” Klobuchar said. “Everyone was patting us on our heads, and telling Sheldon and me, ‘Oh, how nice, you’re working on this.’ And then they realized how bad it was.” (Indeed, multiple Klobuchar bills on the opioid crisis have become law, while generating few national headlines for her.)
There is not much flash when Klobuchar describes her Senate record; the audience is encouraged to listen between the notes. Early-state voters are going to hear from close to two dozen candidates with plans; the subtext of nearly everything Klobuchar says is that she actually executed plans because she didn't obsess over the optics or credit, unlike a certain person in the White House.
“I'm the first presidential candidate to put out a big infrastructure plan, $1 trillion,” Klobuchar said in Sioux City. “The president said that he would, and he didn't deliver.”
“I can win.” More than any of the senators running for president, Klobuchar puts “electability” — the concept that voters say they hate, then prioritize in public polls — at the center of her pitch. Every audience learns that she was voted “the most effective Democratic senator” in a study from Vanderbilt University. Most audiences also get a rundown of her win record in Minnesota, in detail, with everything but a handout map.
“If you haven't noticed, by just looking across the border, I can win,” Klobuchar told voters in Sioux City. In 2018, Klobuchar said, she “did the same thing I do all the time,” going “not just where it's comfortable, but where it's uncomfortable,” to help Democrats sweep the state.
“I won back 40 Trump counties, okay?” she said to applause. “For the third time I won every single congressional district in our state, including Michele Bachmann's old district. Most important to those of us that want a progressive agenda and want to get things done, we won not just my race, [appointed Sen.] Tina Smith won her race, the governor won his race, we went up and down the entire ticket, and we flipped the House.” (Left unsaid: Minnesota Democrats gained two suburban seats in the House of Representatives, while narrowly losing two rural seats that they'd held for years.)
Among the other Democrats running for president, only Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says more about how she won voters who rejected other candidates from her party and how she changed minds. The key difference between the two senators is that Gillibrand has a narrative of personal evolution, moving left on big issues; Klobuchar describes a career with goals and wins and no real ideological baggage. She closed her trip with the longest (and arguably best-received) presentation of the four presidential candidates at a Heartland Forum, describing her goal of breaking up corporate agricultural consolidation by saying that the Midwest had led on that issue until the companies moved them aside.
“Many, many years ago, there was a movement that started here in Iowa — and Minnesota — called the Granger movement,” she said. “Farmers felt that they weren't getting the right price for their goods, because you had monopoly railroad companies, and you had monopolists in iron ore. And this movement started where? In Iowa! In Minnesota! People said: 'We want to see a change in our laws.' We see the same thing today.”
Other candidates describe the same struggle between laborers and corporations in dramatic terms; Klobuchar describes a tradition that she wants to pick up and take to the presidency. No voters asked about the stories of how Klobuchar treated her Senate staff, stories that hamstrung the start of her race. Their questions focused more on whether she could restore the kinder, more familiar country they lost in 2016 — one where politicians did not have to be celebrities.
From April 14
GARY, Ind. — The streets of downtown Gary were mostly empty except for Bernie Sanders, a camera crew, and a whole lot of reporters. The senator from Vermont, joined by local police and elected officials, walked half a mile through the blighted downtown of a city that has become synonymous with Midwestern industrial decline.
“It used to be a big steel town, correct?” Sanders asked as he passed by boarded-up stores, colorful murals, and a Popeye's chicken restaurant that was undergoing repair. “Back in the day, was it a diverse community?”
A campaign team trotted backward, cameras rolling, as Sanders learned some grim local history. When he arrived at the city’s Genesis Center, he asked the Hoosiers gathered around a table what they were concerned about, then began to explain how their government had failed them.
“We are, in the United States of America today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said. “If I came before you today and I said, you know, well, America, we're a poor country, and we can't do this, and we can't do that, that's not the truth. This is a country that, a year and a half ago, gave a trillion and a half dollars in tax breaks to the top one percent.”
Rather than tailoring his remarks to Gary, Sanders was giving his stump speech; the assumption was that it was exactly what a struggling and forgotten city needed to hear. The candidate’s commitment to “the message” — not “a message,” but the outlook he’s been sharing for more than 30 years — is unlike anything offered in the 18-candidate Democratic presidential field. (Since then, the field has grown to 21.)
Sanders’s four-day swing through five Midwestern states was designed to demonstrate why that message is the one that can defeat President Trump in 2020. Here’s what it looks like:
“Well, a funny thing happened.” The existential question for Sanders’s 2020 bid was why he needed to run again when his most popular ideas — a $15 minimum wage, universal Medicare and free college tuition — had been adopted by younger Democrats. This question is answered very simply in the Sanders stump speech: He was there first, and he can therefore be trusted most.
“The ideas that we were talking about then were considered by establishment politicians and mainstream media to be 'radical' and 'extreme' — ideas, they said, that nobody in America would support,” Sanders said at his first Midwest stop, in Madison, Wis. “We've come a long way in the last few years. Now we are going to complete what we started.”
When Sanders speaks, each of those ideas explodes into an applause line. Among them: “Guaranteeing health care as a right,” “a one trillion dollar investment in our infrastructure,” free child care, and a $15 minimum wage.
“When we talked about the idea of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, it seemed like an impossible dream,” Sanders said in Madison. “Well, since then, we have successfully pressured Amazon and Disney to raise their minimum wage to $15, and just today Costco raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
Sanders's personal campaigns to get wage raises at big corporations are some of the highlights of his speeches, not to mention his career. When he has finished delivering his stump speech, which usually runs 50 minutes, the audience has heard the senator lay out an agenda that he believes can be enacted as soon as he becomes president. There is no talk of convincing Republicans to get on board, or of the cost; much as Barack Obama did in 2008, Sanders says that repealing most of an unpopular tax cut will pay for his agenda.
“We have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar.” The Sanders stump speech, which always diverges from prepared text and which can be shrunk down for shorter campaign stops, describes a country that wanted more radical change in 2016, but got bamboozled. The president won the Midwest, he says, only because he had promised voters that he would leave their benefits untouched and defend their jobs, while expanding health-care coverage.
“Trump said he would provide ‘health insurance for everybody,’" Sanders said in Wisconsin and Michigan. “Trump promised he would not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid — he was a ‘different kind of Republican.’ Remember that?”
Plenty of Democrats agree with Sanders. Voters saw Donald Trump as more moderate than any Republican nominee for the presidency since George H.W. Bush, and they have come to see him as conservative. The president has been underwater in polling across the Midwest since he took office, and Republicans lost big pieces of his coalition in 2018.
In Ohio, Sanders called on the federal government to deny contracts to General Motors until it reopened a plant in Lordstown. In Michigan, he called on President Trump to scrap the revised NAFTA that was introduced shortly before the midterms, describing it as yet another failure by a president who said he'd get tough on trade, then ballooned the trade deficit.
“For once in your life, keep your campaign promises,” Sanders said. “Go back to the drawing board on NAFTA.”
He also smooths some of the edges off his ideas — the ones that Trump would go after if Sanders won the nomination. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, he described single-payer health care like this: “We say to the private health insurance companies: Whether you like it or not, the United States will join every other major country on earth and guarantee health care to all people as a right, not a privilege.” He was not as direct in calling for the end of the private insurance industry as he has been when pressed in interviews.
“We won victories in 22 states around the country.” If Joe Biden runs for president (he’s in), Sanders will be one of just two contenders for the Democratic nomination who sought it before. That comes with advantages; Sanders’s ground team is by far the most war-ready in the Democratic field, collecting the names of every voter who wants inside a rally, passing out signs with slogans that have not changed since 2016.
Sanders stands apart in another way: He seldom discusses the midterm elections, when Democrats broke the Republican majority in the House and swept key races in the Midwest. Instead, he discusses the 2016 election and primary. In Wisconsin and Michigan, he thanked the audience for delivering big primary wins, and noted, at a western Michigan stop, that some had called his victory there “the biggest upset in modern political history.” In both states, he noted that he won “more votes from young people — black, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American — than Trump and Clinton combined.”
No other candidate for the Democratic nomination still talks about Hillary Clinton, whose surprise defeat was traumatic for millions of Democrats. Poking at the primary wounds can be risky; in Michigan, when Sanders reminded the crowd of his successful fight to end the voting power of “superdelegates,” there was a mix of cheers and boos. Mark Craig, 66, a Sanders organizer in Flint, took a cigar out of his mouth to shout a four-letter expletive about the party's 2016 nominee.
Sanders's rhetoric also sets him apart from other Democrats, who talk about the midterms as the first step in a Trump removal campaign. Beto O'Rourke talks about the youth voter turnout surge in Texas's midterm elections. Amy Klobuchar talks about Minnesota Democrats winning every statewide election in 2018, and drops in references to how Wisconsin Democrats beat Scott Walker.
But Sanders, who stumped across the country for Democrats in 2018 — including stops in Michigan — does not get into the local politics. At that same Michigan stop, Sanders said he supported the legalization of marijuana, with no mention of how the state’s voters legalized the drug for recreational use in a landslide.
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“This bothers me a little bit.” Sanders, more than any other candidate for the Democratic nomination, dislikes the political press. It’s not personal for him; he does not, like Donald Trump, spend his time onstage prodding the audience to boo the dishonest media. The Sanders critique is the one advanced by left-wing media critics such as Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney, in which corporate control of the media leads it to cover scandal and gossip, which is not a threat to their power, instead of policy — which is.
That leads Sanders to bristle and attack the premise of questions where other Democrats might be apologetic or evasive. In Gary, for the first time since launching his campaign, Sanders offered to take questions from reporters. He didn’t do so in a “gaggle,” the term of art for when a candidate stands surrounded by cameras and reporters, and takes questions from any direction. He did so with the media gathered across the room from his roundtable, with his supporters looking on. (Sanders continues to not take questions from reporters.)
The first question, from Francesca Chambers of the Daily Mail, was one of the senator’s least favorite subjects: whether making more than a million dollars, as he has since 2016, cuts against his message.
“I didn't know that it was a crime to write a good book,” Sanders said, to applause from the crowd. “It turned out to be a bestseller. My view has always been that we need a progressive tax system that demands the wealthiest people in this country finally start paying their fair share in taxes. If I make a lot of money, you make a lot of money, that is what I believe. So I don't apologize for writing a book that was number three on the New York Times bestseller list, translated into five or six languages.”
There was more applause, but Sanders wasn't done. “This bothers me a little bit,” he added. “Maybe we want to talk about Gary, Indiana. Maybe we want to talk about poverty. Maybe we want to talk about youth unemployment.”
During his Midwest swing, Sanders was the first candidate for the Democratic nomination to plunge into a national controversy and attack the president for a video accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of forgetting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But that was on Twitter. On the trail, he is relentlessly focused on his issues and his message, and steers away from anything that could become a distraction. It worked well enough for a surprisingly strong second place in 2016. It hasn’t been truly tested in 2020.
From April 30
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Joe Biden’s first rally in Iowa, on his third try for the Democratic nomination, was the biggest he’d ever had as a solo candidate. Around 500 people gathered in basement of this city’s Veterans Memorial building — busy for a weekday, yet about half as many as had come to see him rally for the state’s Democratic ticket on a Tuesday last October.
Still, the bar for a Biden presidential bid has been set low, and the former vice president has leaped over it. His bids for the 1988 and 2008 nominations, one a debacle and one a springboard to the vice presidency, had left a perception that he simply struggled in the big game. He’s now a front-runner in early polling, the holder of a single-day fundraising record, and the first Democrat to score a national labor endorsement.
“No one's going to work harder in Iowa than Joe Biden,” Biden told voters Tuesday afternoon.
No candidate in this race came into it with more speculation, or with a stronger perception of “electability,” than Joe Biden. Here's what we're learning about his campaign, now that it's real.
The “broken bargain.” Biden, who reportedly considered tapping Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a running mate had he been the party’s 2016 nominee, has adopted some of her rhetoric. She tends to talk audiences through the history of post-Reagan capitalism, identifying moments when deregulation allowed executive pay to skyrocket and for companies to focus on share value over workers. Biden delivered a version of that’s a bit more nostalgic and a bit less pointed.
“A lot of folks are worried that the American Dream is literally slipping from their grasp,” Biden said in Cedar Rapids. “That bargain, that drove the most successful economic engine in the world, that bargain is pretty simple. If you contribute to the welfare of the outfit you work with, you got to share your benefits. If an enterprise hit hard times, everyone took the hit, from the CEO to the secretary. But folks, the only people who benefit now, because that bargain was broken, are the CEOs.”
In Pittsburgh, Biden said that his campaign was built on three pillars: to “restore this nation,” to “rebuild the backbone of America,” and to “unify this nation.” There is some overlap in his explanation of the first and third ideas, both of which center the president as an aberrant political force who has defended white supremacists and divided the country.
“Donald Trump is the only president who decided not to represent the whole country, but to represent his base,” Biden said in Pittsburgh. At the moment, the two ideas — Trump's unique badness, and the setbacks for workers — come together when Biden promises to repeal the 2017 tax cut and asks his crowd (knowing their answer) whether they felt any benefits from it. But Biden does not attack Republicans as Warren does; at one point, in Cedar Rapids, he interrupted his own riff on clean energy spending to say that “a deal has been struck” on infrastructure spending, referring to a Tuesday meeting between Democrats and Republicans that many are skeptical will amount to anything.
Folks, folks, folks. Biden’s first speech as a candidate, in Pittsburgh, made use of two Teleprompter screens. That was unusual. As a surrogate for other Democrats in 2018, Biden tended to let it rip; an audience might hear five or six minutes of anecdotes about how the Senate used to work before Biden’s standard, high-energy “get back up!” closer.
The Cedar Rapids speech ditched the Teleprompter and brought back the traditional Biden, with a good example of how he likes to close:
“We choose hope over fear! We choose unity over division! We choose truth over lies! We choose science over fiction! This is the United States of America! We can do anything! God bless you, and God bless our troops.”
That’s pretty standard political rhetoric, and it’s what Biden delivers. At age 76, he has settled into a rhythm of speaking quietly and reflectively before ramping up and getting loud. In Pittsburgh, he briefly remarked on the 2018 massacre at a nearby synagogue; in Cedar Rapids, he reflected on the grit he saw from firefighters during family tragedies. (The International Association of Fire Fighters was the first union to endorse him, doing so Monday.)
The rest of Biden's messaging resembles what Democrats have run on for decades: populist praise for the “dignity of work” and a promise to take on special interests. Hillary Clinton ran on the same things in 2016, but where she carefully talked crowds through the agenda, Biden seasons his speech with “that's no joke” and “literally” and “folks,” a word he used 26 times in Pittsburgh.
“The country wasn't built — I'm making clear to you — the country was not built by Wall Street CEOs and hedge fund managers,” Biden said in Cedar Rapids, using a line that he has been deploying at labor rallies. “It was built by ordinary American doing extraordinary things! You built it! That's no joke. That's a historical fact.”
Some Democrats have convinced themselves that the party stopped talking like this in 2016 and therefore lost the election. That’s not the case. “Democrats are the party of working people,” Hillary Clinton said in her speech accepting the party’s nomination, “but we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through and that we’re going to do something about it.”
The Biden difference is what Democrats at his speeches call “sincerity” and what pundits call “folksiness.” It's harder to define than it is to say that many voters didn't see it in Clinton. Clinton simply did not have it. Asked how Biden could convince voters who abandoned Clinton in 2016, the IAFF's president, Harold Schaitberger, repeatedly said that voters simply like the guy.
“He hears them, and they hear him, and they know it's genuine,” Schaitberger said. “It's real. It's not artificial. It's not phony. It's not scripted.”
As a campaigner, so far, Biden has blended that impression with a fairly careful media strategy. Unlike most other Democratic candidates, he has not taken questions from reporters on a ropeline; in Pittsburgh, a divider kept most press far from the area where Biden greeted supporters. Asked by one reporter if he could take questions about today’s clashes in Venezuela, the sort of question a post-presidency Biden sometimes leaped at, he said “later, later,” and returned to hugging and taking photos with voters. (He did engage with a few reporters at an ice cream stop between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque but told the New York Times that he was not “going to get in a debate with my colleagues here.”)
PTSD from 2016. Two types of Democrats have been especially excited to see Biden: those who worry that the party is moving too far left to win and those who worry that it will take a white man to defeat the president.
To that first type of Democrat, Sanders looks unelectable, no matter what polling says about his swing-state pull. After a morning labor event Monday, Darrin Kelley, the president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said flat-out that no other Democrat would be able to win Pennsylvania — a state Clinton lost only narrowly, one where Democrats made big gains in the midterms.
“National politics has been polarizing; it’s about what divides,” Kelley said. “You want to win this state, you have to work on what unites. Until we get back on that message, nobody’s going to win this thing. If you come with the Green New Deal, you’re going to lose Pennsylvania, and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Other Democrats said that candidates who they might agree with more than Biden would alienate winnable voters. Several, in both Pittsburgh and Cedar Rapids, pointed to the idea of free public college tuition as wonderful and aspirational and probably not safe to use in a general election.
“That's a great place to get to, but I don't see it as viable,” said Michele Merkle, a 56-year-old educator from York, Pa., who saw Biden in Pittsburgh. “You've got to appeal to more people, and the country just isn't ready for that.”
Sanders, of course, did not lose the 2016 general election. Clinton did. And a number of Biden supporters arrived to see the former vice president convinced that only a man could beat Trump.
“He’s a man; that’s what’s different,” said Elizabeth Harkay, a retired teacher in Pittsburgh who said that she’d backed Clinton in the 2016 primary. “A man will stand up to him a little better. Misogyny in this country isn’t seen as a big deal by a lot of white men in the power structure. So, even though I could see it was misogyny when he lurked around her on the debate stage, I know he wouldn’t do that to a man. I’d like to see a woman in the White House, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.”
Nervousness about nominating a female candidate came up again and again at Biden's rallies; at times, voters seemed to be talking themselves into raising Biden's grade as a speaker. Sara Reilly, a 59-year-old Cedar Rapids attorney who had supported Biden in the 2008 caucuses, said he had room to improve and would clearly do so.
“He actually had a tighter speech today,” Reilly said. “In 2008, if you ever followed Joe, you couldn't get him off the stage!”
And Harkay, who had been convinced that Biden could take on Trump, left with some nagging concerns about the enunciation and the speed of the 76-year-old candidate's speech.
“The first stump speech is always tough,” Harkay said. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll have to, you know, make adjustments. But I think he was having some kind of dental problems today because my husband has the same issue."