In this edition: The wait for Joe Biden in Iowa, the latest campaign litmus test for Democrats, and the poll that changed everything (for now).
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – John Mertz, a retired state employee in a small and shrinking city, appreciated it when Amy Klobuchar stopped by for a town hall. On Friday, he stood at the back of a microbrewery to hear Beto O'Rourke make a pitch and take questions. Neither of them made him a believer, but they tried, and he had begun to wonder about the candidates who weren't coming to Knoxville.
"Joe Biden's quiet," said Mertz, 72. "You don't hear much about where he's at or what he's doing. I understand that there's 19 of the Democrats going to Cedar Rapids, but not him, and that's odd to me."
Biden, who will return to Iowa on Tuesday, has been less visible in the state than most of his competitors. In late April, he told audiences that they'd be "seeing a lot of him." In the last month, he didn't visit the state at all; on Saturday, a Des Moines Register poll that has unusual power to set narratives showed his lead over the field slipping, with just 24 percent of potential caucus-goers picking him as their first choice.
The former vice president's rivals have used that time to build up campaign operations in Iowa, banking on the state's voters to reward the candidates they see and hear the most. While Biden's campaign is ramping up — it will have 50 staff in the state by the end of June — the candidate will have skipped a party convention in California and an Iowa Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, which bustled with rival Democrats and their supporters, taking every chance to get in front of voters.
"Joe Biden has a long history here," said former governor and agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. "He doesn't need to introduce himself to Iowans like a lot of candidates do."
As Vilsack said that, he was standing in the lobby of the Cedar Rapids convention center, where supporters of Democrats such as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar waved signs, banged glowing "thundersticks" and inserted their candidate's names into old protest chants.
"There's still plenty of time," Vilsack said, "despite all of this."
Biden had reasons for missing the Iowa gala, telling state Democratic chairman Troy Price that he was at a family event he would "postpone an inauguration for." (It was his granddaughter's high school graduation.) He would be coming back to Iowa two days later, and his campaign said that it was building, quietly, earlier than many previous Iowa operations. Voters who attended Biden's first four events in the state, or RSVP'd for them, had gotten calls informing them of how they could help; the campaign had organized live-stream house parties on May 18, when Biden gave his extended launch speech in Philadelphia.
A Biden campaign operative argued that the flashy, early organizing of some other campaigns came with risks candidates didn't want to admit. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign, which has the largest Iowa staff, spent around 87 cents for every dollar it raised from January through March. Former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who has opened eight offices in the state, has not moved up in polls or noticeably grown his crowds.
"We're probably good with offices in Iowa," Delaney said in an interview.
And former Texas congressman O'Rourke, who adapted the "distributed organizing" of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign for his Senate race in Texas, has dipped in polling of Iowa after holding 15 town halls and about as many meet-and-greets, more than any other candidate who declared this year.
"This is the only way I know to learn what's most important to the people of Iowa," O'Rourke explained after his Knoxville town hall. "It's to show up and listen to them; and not just the questions that get asked publicly, but in line, folks will say, 'Hey you know, on your answer about this, have you thought about taking this additional step?' We're writing down everything everyone tells us, and then incorporating that, as long as I agree with it, into the plans that we're proposing for the country."
The record of candidate time in Iowa translating to votes in the caucuses is decidedly mixed. Ahead of the 2004 contest, John Edwards visited all 99 counties and surged to a second-place finish that helped him secure the party's vice presidential nomination. Four years later, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut moved to the state, putting his young children in local schools; he ran sixth in a field of eight candidates, then quit the race. Marianne Williamson, a self-help author, has moved to the state; in an interview, she downplayed what it meant for her campaign or for the media's expectation.
"My lease was up in New York," she said. "I've been living out of a suitcase!"
It's in the interest of most candidates, however, to play up their own Iowa work and draw attention to what the leader in the polls isn't doing. After a Saturday morning house party in Des Moines, Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, declined to talk about Biden but explained just how much he was getting from spending time in the state.
"The way the voters here really take seriously their responsibility and their position to evaluate who the next nominee and next president is going to be," Buttigieg said. "It just makes it a great place to campaign and you'll be seeing us here very often."
Some Iowa Democrats, who have not seen this level of individual candidate organizing in a lifetime, want to prove that candidates must work the state and answer questions, or there will be setbacks.
"I call [Biden] the 'leader,' with air quotes," said 2018 congressional candidate J.D. Scholten, whose narrow loss to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) won him a following. "He hasn't been to western Iowa yet, and I know we have questions to ask him."
On Sunday, as Democrats took the Cedar Rapids stage without Biden, there was no evidence of his Iowa operation in sight. But there was not much evidence that rank-and-file Democrats wanted to punish him. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who had come into the state a day early to hold rallies and marched to the convention center with fast food workers, used some of his time onstage to attack "a middle ground strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody, and that changes nothing.”
It was clear that he was referring to Biden; it was hard to hear much applause.
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An event that didn't attract many Democratic candidates 10 years ago became a must-attend campaign stop.
Iowa Democratic caucuses (CNN/Des Moines Register, 600 likely caucus-goers)
Joe Biden: 24% (-5)
Bernie Sanders:16% (-9)
Elizabeth Warren: 15% ( 6)
Pete Buttigieg: 14% ( 13)
Kamala Harris: 7% ( 0)
Beto O'Rourke: 2% (-3)
Amy Klobuchar: 2% (-1)
Cory Booker: 1% (-2)
John Delaney: 1% ( 0)
Steve Bullock: 1% ( 0)
Jay Inslee: 1% ( 0)
Michael Bennet: 1% ( 0)
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% ( 1)
Julián Castro: 1% ( 0)
Andrew Yang: 1% ( 1)
It's easy to describe the Democratic primaries in two ways: Joe Biden is running ahead, helped by the pileup of candidates behind him. Last night's benchmark poll clarified both story lines. First: The vast majority of Democratic candidates are nowhere close to becoming viable in Iowa. ("Viability" means getting 15 percent or more in a caucus room.) Second: Biden is running behind previous "front-runners" at this point in previous cycles. At a similar point in 2007, John Edwards led the Iowa field with 29 percent support; Hillary Clinton led with 57 percent. And that's why so many candidates continue to see a path past Biden.
But at this moment, it's really Warren who shows the most room to grow in the state, with Harris not far behind. Warren now has the highest net favorable rating among Democratic voters; she and Harris are the second choice of the most voters, each getting 14 percent of them. Cory Booker is being "actively considered" by the most voters, 36 percent, but Harris and Warren are close behind; 32 percent of voters say they're at least considering support for them. Also in the "actively considering" club: Beto O'Rourke, who despite tumbling as a "first choice" is still being considered by 33 percent of voters.
No campaign thinks the June 2019 polling fully captures what will happen in February 2020. But it does suggest that some campaigns have been effective over the past few months, and some haven't. Sanders, who started his campaign seven weeks after Warren's, is only now catching up in on-the-ground staff, but his universe of supporters is shrinking; he's pulling just one third of the support he got in the 2016 caucuses.
DES MOINES — On Saturday afternoon, while half of the Democratic presidential contenders fanned out across Iowa, 600 voters packed a high school auditorium to hear from a candidate who'd already dropped out. Richard Ojeda, a former West Virginia legislator whose White House run lasted just 75 days, thundered that any Democrat worthy of the presidency would back "free college for all of our students" and "make the top one percent finally pay" higher taxes.
"We need candidates who will do just that!" Ojeda said. "If they won't do that just, kick 'em off your porch!"
The crowd at the "Revolution Rally," organized by the liberal news network The Young Turks, cheered, and waved signs — "HIGHER WAGES," "GREEN NEW DEAL" — in the network's yellow and black colors. Ojeda was there to launch the "TYT Army," the latest and loudest organization dedicated to pressuring candidates into taking hard stands on issues.
"We want to clarify what the 'progressive' position is, because it feels like the media is calling everybody a progressive," Cenk Uygur, the network's founder and main host, said in an interview before the rally. "So, the TYT Army is going to find the candidates, and ask them questions, and keep asking them, and asking them."
Presidential candidates, who spend the months before the first primary contests taking questions from voters, have made their peace with pressure groups. They see them every cycle, in different guises, from the Moms Demand Action questioners who show up in their red and white shirts, to the "bird-dogging" climate activists who will use their time in a rope or photo line to flip open a phone and record as they ask about getting off of fossil fuels.
The pressure group electorate had been moving left already; the ACLU's "rights voters," who sign up to learn how to approach candidates and ask the meatiest policy questions, have gotten Bernie Sanders to endorse voting rights for prisoners, and gotten Joe Biden to (eventually) abandon a ban on federal money paying for abortion.
But TYT, with its 6 million subscribers, has a particularly active and left-wing audience. Uygur, who co-founded Justice Democrats two years ago, set out to replace "corporate Democrats" with like-minded "progressives." Just 18 months later, Justice Democrats helped elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which undeniably changed the party and its internal debate, an achievement Uygur feels that the left does not get enough credit for.
"If Breitbart elected a member of Congress, you would never stop hearing about it," he said.
TYT has launched a few other projects designed to put 2020 Democrats on the record, starting with an occasional interview series where the candidates are grilled on their commitments. The goal of the new army is to get straight answers, yes or no, on the "progressive economic pledge," an agenda TYT sketched out after consulting with some like-minded members of Congress. Ocasio-Cortez was one of the initial endorsers; the presidential candidates were next.
The five-plank pledge syncs up with the agenda of Sanders's campaign, though some of his rivals have endorsed parts of it. To get right with the TYT Army, a candidate must commit to a constitutional amendment "banning the private financing of elections," free college tuition, Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, and a worker's agenda that includes a $15 minimum wage and an expansion of labor rights.
"If you get elected and you don't fight for these things, we're going to be all over for you," Uygur said. "If Elizabeth Warren gets elected and says, 'well, I like Medicare-for-all, but Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer say we can only get a public option,' then, okay: We're going to surround the White House."
On Sunday, Uygur began to test the pledge in the field. He roamed the convention center in Cedar Rapids, with a camera crew, asking the candidates he could find whether they would sign the pledge. John Delaney went point by point, saying where he disagreed. Jay Inslee told Uygur that he would be handling press questions later in the day.
At a small rally outside the convention center, Uygur spoke to dozens of activists in new TYT Army shirts, urging them to get in the potential presidents' faces. Within a few hours, three candidates — Sanders, Marianne Williamson, and an absent Mike Gravel — had signed the pledge.
"They're going to hear a lot from us!" he said.
Bernie Sanders. He's giving the first major speech of his campaign on Wednesday, discussing why "democratic socialism is the only way to defeat oligarchy and authoritarianism" at George Washington University. It is likely to expand on several previous speeches he's given about combatting right-wing nationalism, but could also echo the November 2015 speech he gave on "democratic socialism" at Georgetown.
Steve Bullock. He was officially endorsed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who had publicly held out some hope that the Montana governor would run for Senate.
Amy Klobuchar. She was endorsed by two Iowa legislators this week, the latest sign of how the establishment in the state is scattering between several contenders.
Two years ago, after a long run at the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim took over the Washington bureau of the Intercept, the news site that launched with exclusive coverage of Edward Snowden's archives of NSA material. Grim's shop began covering the battles inside the Democratic Party closely, and with an angle; the party's establishment was broken, and candidates who turned down big money were trying to fix it.
This week, Grim published "We've Got People," a history of the party's grass-roots movements and the forces that usually defeated it, personified by former Chicago Mayor and former congressman and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chief Rahm Emanuel. Grim talked to The Trailer about the book this week; a lightly edited transcript follows
The Trailer: How long have you been writing this book?
Ryan Grim: [HuffPost reporter] Arthur Delaney and I actually were kicking around a book like this in the spring of 2010 as the Affordable Care Act was wrapping up, and we outlined what it would look like. But we eventually concluded it just wasn't there yet. My take was that there wasn't really a protagonist for the story yet. You couldn't really wrap it around [former Rep.] Lynn Woolsey, and Elizabeth Warren was still a law professor.
But I kept taking notes on the idea over the next decade. I was on the train coming back from the Bronx on June 27, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory party, when it clicked. It was like: Oh, people care now! The Sanders campaign brought a ton of people in to the process. Then Trump winning brought another several million people from casual observers to fanatic activists. And then Ocasio-Cortez showed that Sanders was not a one-off phenomenon.
TT: There's a lot of contemporary reporting here, and a lot of history. What did you learn that you didn't know before digging in?
RG: I wasn't quite as familiar with Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign. I had vaguely heard of the Michigan upset; I didn't realize the depth of the panic that it set off, when Jesse beat Michael Dukakis. But the story started before that, with the Chicago machine establishment's reaction to Harold Washington winning the Democratic primary for mayor in 1983. I didn't realize that the party flipped like it did; Washington wins the 1983 primary and the machine does what the left always fears and warns that the machine is going to do: They literally switched sides and supported the Republican in the general election.
So in Chicago, then and now an almost universally Democratic city, Washington wins by four points in the general election. The police chief worked against him and so did all of the bosses of the machine including [the late Rep.] Dan Rostenkowski, who was literally Harold Washington's congressional colleague. That, to me, was stunning, and that launched Jesse Jackson's campaign; Jesse worked closely with Washington and when he saw the party establishment fighting against him, he decided that they needed to fight back in a more insurgent way.
TT: What was something you learned, from your research, is widely believed by Democrats but not really true?
RG: The 2006 midterms. Having covered them and having thought about them since then, I've always thought that Rahm's celebration of himself was overblown. But looking at it race by race I was I was surprised at just how overblown it was. He pulled off such a PR magic trick with it that when I went back, every data point just kept backing up the idea that he was wrong; he insisted that progressive candidates couldn't win and they did. [As chairman of the Democratic congressional committee] He pulled money out of races where they won the primaries, and the Republicans lost.
TT: Did you identify some moment or pivot point when the left blew it, where if some different decisions had been made it wouldn't have lost its power in the party?
RG: You had this moment, after Watergate. The party is fired up, party activists are fired up, and the country is thoroughly rejecting Republicans. And so that is one reason you get so many candidates running in 1976 is that they all recognize the same thing that the Democrats recognize about 2020: They have a very good shot at being elected president. So as a result you get this flood of candidates, and Jimmy Carter squeaks through, and instead of delivering the kind of agenda that might have been possible, like card check, they go into this frenzy of deregulation. Had Democrats acted differently, you could have avoided the whole Reagan revolution.
The more recent example is that the Obama decision not to mobilize his base, and to pass a stimulus that was too small. What if he said, look, this is the stimulus that we need right now, I'm putting it on the floor: Go ahead, I dare you to vote it down. Let the Dow drop a thousand points and then we're putting it back on the floor next week. Instead he said, 'Well, [Obama economic chief] Larry Summers says we can't get more than $700 billion so we're just going to have to live with 10 percent unemployment for the next several years,' which not just produces an intense amount of pain around the country but basically helps launch the rise of authoritarianism here and abroad.
TT: You write a lot about the organizing techniques of the Sanders campaign, but the campaign lost. How effective are those tactics, really, and what are they?
RG: The best quote on that was from [Sanders's 2016 digital organizing director] Claire Sandberg, saying that by the time we had built the airplane we had run out of runway. And that's kind of a key point to understand. By the time they ended up having 200 million texts to voters, or whatever, 90 percent of those were after Iowa. They didn't really get their operation up and running late January, February. The example to look at is Beto; he uses these techniques and he wound up overperforming his polls by several points. Now, he's not running that operation anymore. But I think Iowa will be a big test to see whether a grass-roots operation and distributed organizing can perform in caucuses.
TT: What's going to come from the DCCC cutting off consultants who work for candidates running against incumbents?
RG: I think they're really going to come to regret this decision. One of the one of the main sources of power that the district [clique] has is this ecosystem that it has built up. It is the consulting world; it revolves around these party committees. And that means that you know you kind of, whether or not there's a blacklist, got to stay in the good graces of these party committee structures. But if people create an entire independent structure and they have no control over it, that gives this nascent movement access to professional [campaign] assistance.
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