Over the fair's first days, conveniently, the poll affirmed the conventional wisdom about Iowa. Nearly every Republican voter dropped a kernel in the “Donald Trump” jar, giving him 97 percent support and the quixotic candidacy of Bill Weld just 3 percent. (One of Weld's votes came from J.D. Scholten, the Democrat running against Rep. Steve King, who did not want to show a Democratic presidential preference with cameras rolling.) Democrats spread their votes around; on Day 1 a third of them picked Joe Biden, and by Day 4 it had fallen to 25 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had jumped into double digits.
This Iowa weekend didn't diverge from the wisdom of the corn.
Voters are raising questions about Joe Biden but not abandoning him. The former vice president's long Iowa weekend started out like a dream, with a passionate Wednesday afternoon speech about saving the “soul of America” from a president who encouraged hate and racism. Things slid downhill from there; he tripped over a point about “poor kids” and education, and he twice claimed that Parkland, Fla., shooting survivors “came up to see me when I was vice president.” (His vice presidency had ended more than a year before the shooting.)
It was just one weekend, but it was the busiest one of Iowa's political year so far; Biden drew smaller crowds than his leading Democratic rivals (more than 100 in Boone while Warren drew 350 in Fort Dodge) and struggled to recapture the power of that Wednesday speech. It's in the interest of nearly two dozen Democratic candidates to stoke worries about Biden's age and acuity, and among Democratic voters, the gaffes were getting noticed.
“I've been a Joe Biden guy from the beginning,” Ted Crawford, 69, said after Biden closed out the Wing Ding with a speech about combating racism. “But I'm a little concerned with his lack of inspiration.”
Still, Crawford said, Biden remained in his top four. Every Iowa poll this year has put Biden in the lead, but the heavy schedule and voter contacts of this weekend emphasized his strengths and weaknesses. Few candidates are more relatable and winning with voters, one on one; several rival candidates in this primary are sharper on the stump. Biden made no gaffes, for example, at the Wing Ding, but he didn't match the intensity of that Wednesday speech.
“After the Civil War, we saw the rise of the Klan,” Biden had said in Burlington, Iowa, reading from a teleprompter. “It was beaten down only to rise again in the 1920s. In fact, in August of 1925, 30,000 Klansman in full regalia marched on the streets of Washington. Imagine that today. And then the Klan was beaten again. How? Courts, press, and, yes, presidents stood against them.”
Two nights later, at the Wing Ding, that riff turned into this something harder to follow: “We have been here before. We've been here before with the Ku Klux Klan, after the Civil War. We've been here when 3,000 (sic) Klansmen, in 1925 walked down the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington D.C., wearing full garb, wearing in fact, pointed hats and the like. There were over 30 members of the House who were declared Klan members. In fact, there were I think, six or seven senators who were open Klan members. Ladies and gentlemen, we fought back.”
Biden has shown the ability to remind Democrats why they love him; he's also been prompting questions of whether he'd make unforced errors in a battle with Trump. This is the conflict to watch for the next few months.
The rise of Elizabeth Warren is real. The state fair soap box's crowds are flawed metrics of candidate strength; anyone who shows up midday during the workweek has less of a built-in audience than anyone who draws a weekend slot. So, yes, Warren got the biggest fair crowd; what was more telling was the mob that followed her to and from the stage. No other Democrat, even the ever-cheerful Biden, was so surrounded for so long. Voters chased her for photos, for signatures (a bane of state fair appearances), and hugs.
“I'm a special needs teacher!” said Ariel Glassman, 30, wedged between reporters as Warren toured the Varied Industries building; within seconds, she was pulled close to Warren for a selfie. “I caucused for Bernie in 2016,” Glassman said, “but I just love her.”
Warren has not enjoyed one particular breakout moment in Iowa. At the Wing Ding, she spent her scant five minutes focusing on her new rural economic plan; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) got more applause by focusing on gun violence, and Buttigieg got more with a tightened stump speech. But Warren shined at the ad hoc gun safety forum Saturday morning, and the idea that she has more thought-out plans than the field has sunk deeply into Iowa Democratic thinking. At the state fair, for the first time, her riff about a 2 percent wealth tax turned into a cheer — “Two cents! Two cents!” That was egged on by her campaign, but a cheer doesn't work unless a crowd believes it.
The worries about Medicare-for-all have started to sink in. On Thursday, at that Fort Dodge town hall, two of the four questions for Warren were about her endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) health-care plan. Both questioners were nervous, asking how Warren's ideal health plan would affect their supplemental private plans.
“The basic idea behind Medicare-for-all is just to say we have a goal, and the goal is, to get the best possible coverage at the lowest possible cost,” Warren said.
Two days later, at the state fair, Warren was pressed on whether she saw Medicare-for-all as a goal to be approached incrementally or something to enact quickly. “There's a reason there's a transition period already in the bill,” she said, asserting that the question didn't make much sense.
The campaign to kill Medicare-for-all is making some inroads. The Partnership for America's Health Care Future has been running ads to warn that it would kill the health insurance that works for most people; candidates from Biden to Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado have warned that it's political poison; last week's Monmouth poll of Iowa asked and found that Democrats preferred not to support legislation that would replace all private insurance. This isn't like 2015, when Sanders's advocacy for “Medicare-for-all” was seen as pure theory, to move Democrats to the left; the mounting worry is that Democrats should be embracing only popular policies, to limit their exposure in a race against Trump.
Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Booker are also in the hunt. That's it. After speaking to one of the state fair's largest crowds Saturday, Booker told reporters that he was happy to be polling in the low single digits. “Anybody leading in the polls right now hasn't gone on to win in the states,” Booker said.
That's not wholly true, not anymore — the party's 2016 nominee had been well ahead by August 2015. But it's now impossible for the campaigns with weak Iowa support to paper it over. None of the stragglers at 1 percent made an impact at the weekend's showcase events; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio got loud Wing Ding cheers for talking about his gun safety caravan through Ohio and followed it with a Saturday speech to a small, drifting crowd. There were no surprises, no counted-out candidates who caught fire.
That has put four other candidates in a different tier; Sanders, who has struggled to build on his most hardcore support, is in there, as are the three candidates presenting themselves as center-left alternatives who could be more exciting or sharp than Biden. Klobuchar used the weekend to emphasize her Midwest credibility, with no need for subtext, noting that she was just “one of three” candidates on offer who had been elected in the region.
“My policy is not just words on a page; it's based on hardcore negotiations of three farm bills,” Klobuchar said, noting sarcastically that her top rivals had voted against previous farm bills but supported the 2019 version, as they campaigned around Iowa.
Harris and Booker, both of whom had gone after Biden in debates, did not much talk about him in Iowa. But both were working to show that they offered electability — intangible, hard to define, essential — by hustling around the fair and across the state. Harris, who had been compared to yesteryear candidates who were worried about committing to Iowa, made the fair the midpoint of a five-day bus tour; at the fair, where candidates were strongly encouraged to help cook meat, she pointed at her electability while holding a spatula.
“I can also flip Republicans,” she said.
“Democrats descend on Iowa — with renewed anxiety,” by Matt Viser
Voters who remember falling in love for Barack Obama still wonder whether any caucus choice will be so easy come February,.
“The art of giving a damn,” by Megan Garber
Democratic candidates navigate Trump news cycles with four-letter words.
“Democrats converge at the Iowa State Fair, trying to balance serious and silly,” by Holly Bailey, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Sean Sullivan
Fried food is essential to electing a president for some reason that I do not want to dispute.
“Inside Warren's early-state sleeper campaign,” by Jonathan Allen
The building of a grass-roots juggernaut, much of it coming together when its candidate was being written off.
The president and his fans resent the way he's being talked about.
ON THE TRAIL
IOWA FALLS, Iowa — Tom Steyer had arrived at River Tap, a pizza pub in this town of around 5,000 people, with bad news and good news. Washington was “broken,” and none of the two dozen Democrats they'd met up to now could fix it. But he could.
“When people talk about all their different policies — which health-care policy, which Green New Deal, which education policy we should have — none of that stuff's happening,” Steyer told 20 local Democratic activists. “We're not getting any of that stuff until we beat these corporations.”
As Steyer spoke, one of his presidential campaign ads played on the TV above his head. Fifteen minutes later, as the subject turned back to the environment (“a plant-based diet would have a huge impact”), the ad played again. Steyer, a billionaire who entered the race for president July 9, had bought the precious commodity of attention from Iowa Democrats with two dozen other presidential options.
Those other Democrats have responded with a mixture of denial and disdain. But seriously: Tom Steyer, whose years-long Need to Impeach campaign has made him a familiar living room (and YouTube) presence for liberals, insists that he will make the third Democratic debates and, from there, win the presidency. Having hit the DNC’s 2 percent threshold in three polls — four are required — he says he will reach the contribution threshold, too, and then appear onstage in September.
“We’ve got 8.2 million signatures at Need to Impeach,” Steyer told one voter in Iowa Falls. “You think we can get 130,000 contributions? I'd love for people to think we can't.”
Steyer, 62, has spent $7 million on advertising, with more on TV, than any other candidate. Much of that has gone to TV and digital ads; some has gone to mailers, four of which have appeared in Iowa Democrats' mailboxes, talking up Steyer's business record and his spending on California ballot initiatives.
At the Iowa Falls gathering, his first in the state as a candidate, Steyer told voters that no other candidate would be able to break the Washington logjam, that no one else could make fun of President Trump's claim to be a successful billionaire.
“He's a failure,” Steyer said. “I don't feel one bit scared by this guy. He's a fake. He was a failure in business. He's actually a TV businessman; his actual job was pretending to be a businessman. On a TV show.”
“He couldn't even run a country club,” muttered a voter at the table.
“Who would want to be in it?” Steyer said.
Polling has found most Democratic voters skeptical of any candidate who lacks governing experience; even 2018 polls that asked how Oprah Winfrey would fare in a primary found her trailing candidates such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Steyer's arrival in the race, with his years-long background of spending on climate issues, has added to the problems Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has had in his climate-focused campaign. All of a sudden, a Democrat who had spent years and tens of millions of dollars for people to view him as a climate hawk was in the race.
“I think people have recognized my long public experience as a public official, in not only fighting these battles and warning the public about this upcoming catastrophe, but also advancing the ball as a leader,” Inslee said in a recent interview. “That is, I think, unique in the field.”
Steyer is unique, too; after his remarks at the Iowa State Fair, he lampooned the televised presidential debates so far as “senator, senator, senator, former senator, congressman, mayor.” In an interview, he preempted any criticism of his investment career — he had initially invested in private prison and Australian coal interests, before backing out and apologizing — by pointing out that he'd lived a different life.
“They weren't investors!” Steyer said of his rival candidates. “l would bet you an awful lot of money that I'm more progressive with investment than anybody else. How many of those people own the S&P? All of them?”
Entering late, and missing the first two televised debates, had some advantages. At the state fair, Allan Stokes, 70 dropped a corn kernel in Steyer's jar and explained that he had been a Republican until Trump's takeover of his party. Steyer, from what he could tell, was a businessman, not like the others, not like the left.
“I've seen his ads on TV,” Stokes said. “He's not promising all this stuff he can't pay for, like the rest of them.”
Partnership for America's Health Care Future, “Same Thing.”
The insurance industry's effort to tamp down support for Medicare-for-all has been on the air and online for months. Its first efforts looked like visual explainers, walking through the costs and risks of national health-care plans; more recently its content has gone for a man-on-the-street approach, with the message that any idea to create a larger government role in health insurance will wreck the system.
“The politicians may call it Medicare-for-all, Medicare buy-in, or the public option, but it's all the same,” the actors say. The kicker: “We need to fix what's broken, not start over.” That's the rhetoric Joe Biden and others use to argue for a public option, saying that it would not replace anything created by the Affordable Care Act. Polling has found even attentive Democratic voters to be confused about the difference between sweeping Medicare plans; this ad campaign ads rides along with that confusion.
2020 general election (Democracy Corps, 1700 registered voters)
Joe Biden — 49%
Donald Trump — 41%
Elizabeth Warren — 49%
Donald Trump — 43%
Joe Biden — 45%
Donald Trump — 35%
Justin Amash — 13%
Elizabeth Warren — 45%
Donald Trump — 39%
Justin Amash — 11%
A pro-Democratic Party pollster that follows verified polling standards, Democracy Corps specializes in testing populist messaging to find what works and what flops. This edition of the poll quotes from Warren's and Biden's stump speeches, asking voters to consider (for Warren) whether “the rules of the economy are rigged for the wealthy” or (for Biden) whether “the middle class is hurting in America today and powerful forces are trying to tear America apart.” The Warren message is more resonant, by 14 points, with independents; but Biden's personal appeal pulls in more voters overall. Both benefit from presidential approval numbers that aren't moving.
There are 24 Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination, and — at the risk of jinxing things — there aren't going to be any more. On Sunday's episode of CBS's “Face the Nation,” former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg ruled out a run for president, again, even after speaking wistfully about his visits to Iowa and admitting that the more left-wing Democratic candidates looked less electable to him.
“I know how to put together a team not just to win elections; I know how to put together a team to actually deliver the services you promise,” Bloomberg said. “But I did that, and now it's time to do something else.”
Bill Weld. He made his first Iowa stop of the 2020 campaign at the state fair and the political soapbox; as luck would have it, he spoke during the rougher part of a rainstorm. Afterward, he told reporters that he held the president “more responsible than most people do” for the El Paso shooting.
Elizabeth Warren. She rolled out her own gun-safety plan ahead of Saturday's forum, with the goal of reducing gun violence by 80 percent; she'll be among the candidates heading to Atlanta on Friday for the Black Church PAC’s 2020 Candidate Lunch Forum.
Kamala Harris. On Sunday's episode of “Meet the Press,” she called this week's immigration raids a “campaign of terror,” designed in part to depress Latino participation in the 2020 Census.
Bernie Sanders. On CBS's “Face the Nation,” he chastised Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) for noting that the man who shot him at a 2017 baseball practice was a Sanders supporter: "As soon as I possibly could, I was on the floor of the Senate condemning that action. What we are is a nonviolent, political movement.”
DES MOINES — As Elizabeth Warren approached the foot-long corn dog stand, the cameraman squeezed his way into her circle, jostling with photographers and fans. He made eye contact, then let loose with the question:
“I'm wondering if the senator is in support of truth and accountability commissions for September 11,” he said. “What about Jeffrey Epstein?”
Warren waved off the questions, as her spokesman offered to send him a statement and a burly “body man” moved him out of the way. And Warren had some of the least trouble with an unloved feature of the state fair — the activists and trackers who, for a couple of hours, can get right into the candidates's faces.
The ambush primary, in which candidates must react to left-field or loaded questions without looking ridiculous, took place every time a candidate ambled around the fair. Every candidate who spoke at the fair's soapbox headed to a nearby tent to take questions from reporters, which told activists and conspiracy theorists exactly where to go if they wanted access.
Prevented from entering the tent itself, they positioned themselves in the chaos around it. There was the woman in the black dress who wanted every candidate to define “assault weapons.” There was the woman in a red-and-blue athleisure dress who worked to stop Democrats by asking,"How many genders are there?" There was, most noisily, the man with the camera asking candidates what they would do about the role Israeli intelligence played in the death of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The ambushes often got results. The “genders” question, posed to Joe Biden, got him to tell an activist that there were “at least three genders,” without elaborating, before he swung back to make a point about how progressive he was on LGBT issues.
“First one to come out for marriage was me,” Biden said, a reference to his 2012 endorsement of marriage equality. (Biden was not the first 2020 Democratic candidate to endorse legal same-sex marriage, as blue state senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren got there first.)
The “gender” question went to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, too, who went back and forth with the activist about “honesty and self-identity” before turning around and facing an activist who wanted him to condemn the loose left-wing “Antifa” movement, which organizes to block racist and right-wing protests, and has attacked media outlets trying to cover them.
“We denounce political terrorism from every place,” Inslee said. “Now, tell me about Antifa.”
“It’s based out of Washington,” the activist said, incorrectly. (There is no single Antifa base.)
“Tell me about Antifa,” Inslee said. “Tell me who Antifa is, so I can say whether that person should be condemned.”
“Well, they’ve been identified as terrorists,” said the activist.
“Oh, you’re talking about the movement!” said Inslee. “Now, tell me what you’re talking about?”
In general, candidates with less support in the polls, less voter interest and less media interest made softer targets. Joe Sestak, who entered the race in June and subsequently had spent most of his time in Iowa, gamely took every loaded question that came his way; the “assault weapons” gotcha inspired a soliloquy about the types of guns banned in 1994.
“A lot of people don't even know the difference between a semiautomatic and an automatic,” Sestak said.
More gotchas flew at Sestak as his small entourage moved slowly toward the fair's exit. He stopped and took them all, musing about the constitutionality of censoring online personalities and, unlike Warren, pausing when a passionate cameraman began asking about Jeffrey Epstein's death.
“We're not doing this,” an exasperated staffer said. “Miss this one, Joe.”
Sestak did not miss it, politely telling a man who had sweated through his shirt and been moved away from the media area that he did not know what he was talking about and that he could email him to explain whatever it was that he wanted candidates for president to talk about.
… eight days until the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Iowa
… 10 days until the Iowa AFL-CIO forum
… 17 days until the deadline to qualify for the third debates