SIOUX CITY, Iowa — People stood in parking lots, jostled into front yards and packed into the rafters to witness Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s inaugural appearances here in the first presidential caucus state.
It was part of a trend: In December, the liberal group Progress Iowa doubled the size of its annual meeting from four years ago, with 300 activists eager to participate. In October, Iowa Democrats sold out their 1,500-seat dinner in Des Moines, which featured another potential contender, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
The Iowa caucuses remain 13 months away, but a pent-up demand for change in the White House is tangible among Democrats eager for the 2020 campaign to start in earnest. The throngs of voters bombarding events in Iowa are testament to something fearful for Republicans: The huge tide of Democratic voters who powered the party’s 2018 gains have not lost interest as attention turns to the 2020 presidential race.
“I’ve never been to a rally, but I wanted to for a long time,” said Dan Elliott, as he waited in the ornate Orpheum Theatre lobby in Sioux City for Warren to speak Saturday morning. “I’m surprised by the energy here. The lines are longer than people expected.”
Iowans cited a slew of reasons for their eagerness to begin the lengthy nomination process to settle on a leader to go up against President Trump. There were the tax cuts that one voter called “a waste of time and money”; the trade war with China depressing demand for exports and hurting farmers; the hostility toward immigrants, a labor pool heavily used on Iowa farms; the rolling back of environmental regulations that impact Iowa’s rivers; a foreign policy approach changing the country’s status in the world; and the general chaos and lack of civility in the White House.
“It is never too soon to try to get rid of Donald Trump,” said Shannon Kennedy, a 48-year-old Iowan who stood in line to take a selfie in front of a barn-door-size American flag at the Orpheum Theatre. “There is an urgency to get things back on track. Our country is a laughingstock right now.”
It’s not just Warren drawing interest in what amounts to the widest-open caucus competition since 2004.
Booker was greeted by enthusiastic crowds when he made his first trip to Iowa in early October for the Democratic Party gala. His visit included standing-room-only turnout at an event advertised as a discussion on agricultural issues and hosted in the Boone County Democratic offices.
As Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) gave a speech in Ankeny during her pre-election Iowa tour, she was greeted by a shout: “Run for president!” When she spoke in Iowa City and Des Moines, she filled rooms holding about 500 people.
“They’re paying attention because they don’t think this guy can be reelected,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who has already visited all 99 counties in his presidential bid. “And the takeaway I hear from a lot of Democrats is that 2016 wasn’t a good primary. It was about people going into their camps early. This year, it’s the opposite; Democrats are focused on how we beat this guy in 2020, and they come into the primary process with an open mind.”
Helping to channel some of this Democratic enthusiasm are organizations like Siouxland Progressive Women, one of thousands of groups that have cropped up on the left since the 2016 election.
“We’re so ready,” said Susan Leonard, 64, a co-founder of the group. Her 200-member organization campaigned for J.D. Scholten, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Now they’re turning to 2020.
“We’ve got invitations out to several presidential candidates already,” Leonard said. “It’s a big group, and we want to hear their ideas.”
There are plenty of candidates and potential candidates coming to Iowa to meet with Democratic activists. A day after Warren departs Sunday, Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor, is planning stops in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Delaney, who was the first Democrat in the race, will open campaign offices here when he returns to Iowa for events Friday and Saturday.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire who has been campaigning to impeach Trump as he ponders his own presidential bid, is returning soon for an event about education reform. He said in an interview that Trump’s actions in the past few weeks had added to what was already highly charged enthusiasm. He specified the government shutdown and the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“We added 5,000 people to our list this morning; we added 10,000 people to our list yesterday,” Steyer said. “Just look at the turnout on November 6: It broke records, and we think the people on our list turned out something between 75 and 80 percent. And subsequent to that, they literally can’t get [an agreement] to keep the government open, and the most respected member of his Cabinet resigned!”
Progress Iowa drew about 150 people to its 2014 meeting that featured Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Last month’s attendance doubled even though the roster included lesser-known potential candidates such as Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“We’ve seen massive jumps,” said Matt Sinovic, the group’s executive director. Online donations are also up, he said.
This jolt of Iowa energy for Democrats began in early 2017, as Trump took office and Republicans assumed control of both houses of the legislature and retained the governor’s mansion here, he said.
“Now that we have the chance to take on President Trump directly, now that he’s on the ballot, you’re going to see that continue to grow,” Sinovic said.
Republicans have noticed the enthusiasm.
“The Democrats are in a constant hissy about President Trump. It is sustained year around,” said David Kochel, a GOP strategist who oversaw Iowa campaigns for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016. He predicted that Democrats will see a big caucus turn out in 2020.
“They’ve been hungry for this presidential campaign to start in a real way,” Kochel said. “That’s what you’ll see with attendance and turnout early this year. They are champing at the bit to get started.”
For Warren, a Friday night event in Council Bluffs meant for 300 people drew an extra 200. “I’m sorry that there’s not enough room to get inside, but I’m glad you’re all here,” she said. She would repeat that apology Saturday when several dozen couldn’t squeeze into a panel discussion at a Storm Lake community center.
The crowds coming out are eager to engage. In Sioux City, when Warren told the audience there that she couldn’t do anything about Trump’s insults, Glenda Verhoeven, a 63-year-old farmer, shouted, “Yes, you can!”
Verhoeven, who did not caucus for any Democrat in 2016, said that she considered the senator a strong challenger to Trump because the president seemed obsessed with her.
“Any time he starts calling people names, they’re the people who bother him,” Verhoeven said. “She already knows the enemy, and he knows her.”
Verhoeven, whose farm and investments have been hurt by the administration’s trade war, said Trump’s actions make her more interested in the election.
“He’s embarrassing,” she said. “The tariffs are just blackmail, no less than the blackmail he’s doing now, refusing to open the government unless he gets his way.”