There is no major interstate here, just a series of storied roads that connect it to the rest of the state — including the famed Highway 61, the north-to-south route celebrated in a Bob Dylan song. For that reason, Dubuque, with its rolling hills, gothic architecture and distinctly different look than other parts of Iowa, has always felt a little on its own, separated by hours from the state capital, Des Moines.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been in the thick of presidential politics. Last Friday, former vice president Joe Biden rolled through town, drawing a couple hundred Democrats on the campus of a university. A little over 24 hours later, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrived in town, speaking to an overflow audience of more than 650 at the high school. Later that afternoon, many of the same voters drove down the road to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speak to a crowd of about 450 at the convention center.
Just after sunrise Saturday morning, the lights were on at the campaign offices across the city. At the Pete Buttigieg office along Main Street, organizers were gearing up to canvass neighborhoods. Inside, there was a wall decorated with hundreds of signed cards from local Democrats already committed to caucus for the former Indiana mayor, but there was still work to do.
The battle for the airwaves is just as intense. During the 48 hours last weekend that coincided with visits from Biden, Sanders and Warren, nearly every ad on local television was a campaign spot. From last Thursday to Saturday night, viewers saw at least three Biden campaign ads in circulation, three from Buttigieg, two from Sanders and one apiece from Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). In some cases, a Biden campaign ad was bookended by a pro-Biden spot paid for by Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting his bid.
Locals who go out to eat or drink have found the campaign unavoidable. At bars and restaurants, televisions tuned to sports games broke to campaign ads featuring the Democratic hopefuls. A sports bar inside the Q Casino at one point showed three different ads airing on its wall of TVs.
“It’s just crazy how intense it’s been,” said Lyle Wilgenbusch, a retired priest from nearby Key West, Iowa, who turned out to see Biden speak last week. He cited that intensity as perhaps one of the reasons he still had not made a decision on whom to support. “I feel a little guilty that I am still figuring it out … but it’s been a lot,” he said.
Every four years, Democrats in this blue-collar town speak of the intensity of the campaign. But no one can quite remember a race like this.
“It’s overwhelming the number of candidates who are running,” said Teri Goodmann, a longtime Democratic activist in Dubuque who is backing Biden. “To get a handle on their positions and trying to match that up with concerns they have … it’s just slowed people way down in terms of making up their minds.”
Dubuque’s demographics have often proved favorable to more-moderate candidates. Democratic voters have tended to be older, more working-class and — in a town home to two Catholic colleges and seven religious orders — more socially conservative than other parts of the state.
But some wonder whether centrist-leaning tradition will hold in 2020. Candidates who some might have considered to be too far left to appeal to Democrats in Dubuque have attracted large crowds, including Sanders and Warren.
Others say Democrats are scarred by the 2016 campaign, when Donald Trump won Dubuque County — flipping what has long been considered a safely blue county. Some speculated the desire to pick a candidate who can beat Trump has prompted some Democrats to broaden their view on electability, looking for a candidate who can inspire Democratic turnout.
That has left many longtime activists grappling when trying to understand or predict which way Democrats might go ahead of next month’s caucuses. In the past, this would have easily been a Biden town, but even Goodmann cannot say that is the case anymore.
“I just think the rules have been thrown out the window,” Goodmann said. “The world is changing. And we are changing. … And who knows what is going to happen?”