“There's a lot a president can do by herself, and for the rest of it, you need to pull Congress in,” Warren said, as several thousand voters lined up for official campaign selfies. “To make that happen, you need crowds like this.”
Over the past week, Warren drew the largest crowds of her campaign. Seattle's audience dwarfed a 12,000-head-count crowd in Minneapolis; a more hastily planned event in Los Angeles drew around 4,000. Warren, once nearly counted out of the race, can now pull out crowds comparable to Barack Obama's in the summer of 2007 or Bernie Sanders's in the summer of 2015.
The difference between those campaigns and this one is that another candidate — Sanders (I-Vt.) — is also attracting crowds in the thousands. For the third Democratic primary in a row, the leader in early polling struggles to draw the same turnout as an insurgent candidate. What's new is that Joe Biden's crowds are being dwarfed by two insurgents, both of them picking up steam since the start of this summer.
“It's thrilling,” said Tina Podlodowski, the chair of Washington's Democratic Party. “That's not an endorsement of Elizabeth as a candidate; it's that's the whole reason we moved from a caucus to a primary, to have these kind of big events with the top candidates. I think the other candidates should take note.”
But Warren's crowds, never small but increasingly impressive, are complicating rival campaigns' views of their competition. Sanders, whose ability to fill arenas four summers ago fed into his 2015 surge, has never had to contend with a primary opponent like that. And Biden, whose crowds have been noticeably smaller than Sanders's or Warren's in early-voting states, bristles at the idea that his competitors are bigger draws.
“What I'm trying to do is go around from town to town, and I'm drawing as big of crowds or bigger crowds than anybody,” Biden told reporters last weekend in tiny Prole, Iowa. “Have you seen anybody draw bigger crowds than me in this state?”
“Yes,” said Fox News reporter Peter Doocy.
“You have?” asked Biden. “Where?”
“In Des Moines,” said Doocy.
Biden's campaign has been more diplomatic than the candidate himself, suggesting that big audiences in blue cities don't mean much when Iowans start voting. In a statement first given to Politico — Biden's campaign referred to it again for this story — deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanaugh said that “national media” was more focused on crowds than local media.
“We’re not going to Cedar Rapids and Des Moines every trip,” Kavanaugh said. “I get it. It would be lovely to have a crowd of 1,000 people every day. But it does not matter on Feb. 3.”
But a comparison of events even in smaller towns finds Biden speaking to fewer voters than his rivals. Over the weekend, he filled a room of 400 people for an event at Dartmouth College; Warren drew a crowd that size in the college town four months ago, and her more recent visit to New Hampshire, in a more remote part of the state, drew around 750 people.
Warren's recent success is a more obvious threat to Sanders, whose supporters have dismissed the idea that the senator from Massachusetts can build a grass-roots movement as effectively as the senator from Vermont has. After both candidates spoke at the Iowa State Fair, Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner told reporters that the senator had gathered the biggest audience of the week, though Warren's crowd appeared slightly larger.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has endorsed Sanders, said he was happy to see Warren draw such a large crowd — and happy when Sanders filled the standing area a few days later at the Minnesota State Fair.
“Look, Bernie's my candidate, but Elizabeth Warren proves that Bernie's ideas and her ideas are really shaping the debate,” Ellison said. “You know: Income inequality. Climate change. Racial healing and harmony and justice. Those are the issues. Everybody knows that Trump is a racist, so if that's your whole campaign, then you ain't got no campaign.”
Sanders's campaign declined to comment for a story about the candidates' crowds, but Sanders, while often matching Warren's turnout, has not matched his highest numbers from 2015. Warren's 15,000 turnout in Seattle was exactly as much as Sanders's in an August 2015 visit to the city. But neither candidate has spoken before crowds as large as Sanders did that summer, when 27,500 came to see him in Los Angeles and 28,000 came to a rally in Portland, Ore. Kamala Harris's California launch event drew around 20,000 people, bigger than any crowd of this campaign so far; she has yet to repeat it but frequently bests Biden on turnout.
The Sanders advance team, which unlike 2015 has a well-known candidate to work with, isn't staging events this large right now. While Warren was speaking in Seattle, Sanders was addressing close to 2,000 voters in Louisville, a show of strength in a blue city often ignored by Democrats; adjusted for population, it was comparable to Warren's crowd, but a bit smaller. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 190,836 votes in Louisville's Jefferson County; she won 718,322 votes in Seattle's King County.)
Warren's rallies have taken the same, often lighthearted touch as they've expanded into five-figure crowd sizes. They begin with an organizer sharing advice on how to help out, they continue with a 30-minute Warren speech, and they end with three or more questions drawn from a ticket raffle. The same jokes that Warren uses in rooms for 300 or so Iowans appear in the remarks to mega-rallies.
“I used to line up my dollies and teach them,” she said in Seattle. “I had a reputation for being tough, but fair.”
But the rallies have scaled up Warren's voter outreach operation. Every entrance to Seattle's International Fountain park was flanked by Warren supporters collecting information. The “selfie line,” which can take close to an hour at smaller events, went on for hours in Seattle. As they curled around the park, some supporters cheered when a loudspeaker announced Warren's 50,000th campaign selfie.
“I originally RSVP'd when it was going to be at a smaller venue,” said Ursula Mehl, 34, who read a copy of Michelle Obama's memoir to pass the time. “I think it's awesome that they had to move it, but selfishly, I was a little bit bummed, because I knew how long the selfie line would be.”
The scale of Warren's event was also impressive to Democrats looking at their potential nominees' electability. Still, while supporters of President Trump sometimes point to his crowd size as a rebuttal to polling on his popularity, some attendees at Warren's rally said they needed to see more to be convinced that she could win.
“It definitely speaks to her appeal,” Aaron Grable, 34. “But then again, we're in Seattle. It's not the same as getting a big crowd in the Midwest.”
The looming showdown between Sanders and Warren is shaping views of their audiences, but the turnout is resurrecting an argument that never got settled in 2016. Hillary Clinton, the early polling leader in both the primary and the general election, rarely drew crowds as large as Sanders or Donald Trump. In the end, she got more votes than either; in the end, Trump won the presidency.
“Who has qualified for the third Democratic debate?” by Ashlyn Still and Kevin Schaul
The question that everyone is asking, for the next 36 hours.
“ 'You are helping him’: Vulnerable Democrats grilled on impeachment,” by Andrew Desiderio and Sarah Ferris
August's town halls haven't been raucous, but voters are showing up with deep knowledge of the Mueller probe.
A breakthrough for one candidate demonstrates just how divided labor remains about the top contenders.
“What Elizabeth Warren is quietly telling Democratic insiders,” by Jonathan Martin
The “other” progressive candidate has a big difference with Sanders: She has been game about helping the party raise money.
Campaign finance rules, who needs 'em?
“Did Bill Clinton see this coming?” by Todd S. Purdum
The disappearance of a Democratic icon in the post #MeToo era.
ON THE TRAIL
Over the past few weeks, Democratic candidates for president have been diverting from the campaign trail for an unusual stop: Santa Barbara, Calif. It’s home to Ady Barkan, 35, who is slowly dying from ALS and who has become an iconic figure on the activist left, protesting and speaking out for Medicare-for-all even as his condition literally robbed him of his voice.
“I’m trying to host a different kind of conversation: one that pushes candidates beyond talking points and to get personal and specific about one of the biggest crises in our society,” Barkan said in a statement. “I’m honored that all but one of the candidates in the third debate have agreed to have serious, in-depth conversations with me about health care.”
“Health Care Conversations with Ady Barkan,” co-sponsored by NowThis News and Crooked Media, will consist of short video interviews between Barkan and at least nine Democratic candidates. Many of the interviews took place at Barkan’s home; all are being edited for time, as Barkan speaks through a computer that tracks his eye movements, translating that into a synthetic voice.
Nine candidates have either sat for an interview or are expected to soon: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.); Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); former HUD secretary Julián Castro; former congressman Beto O’Rourke; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The campaign of former vice president Joe Biden has not yet committed to a sit-down, and Barkan has appealed for him to join the other nine candidates.
“They understand that it is a crucial topic that merits the time,” Barkan said. “The vice president knows this in the marrow of his bones. Even though I am dying, I cannot imagine the pain he has endured. That is part of why I hope that he too will have a health- care conversation with me. We have so much to discuss.”
Barkan, an economic justice activist whose health-care advocacy brought him new national attention, has previously gotten arrested for protesting the 2017 tax cut package and appeared before Congress to endorse single-payer health care. In emailed responses to questions, Barkan disagreed with one of Biden’s health-care premises — that Medicare-for-all would amount to scrapping the Affordable Care Act.
“The Affordable Care Act was a drastic improvement over the system that existed before it … [but] anyone looking our health care system today would have to acknowledge that things aren't working. I had to fight my insurance company to cover the cost of my ventilator, and still pay $9,000 per month out of pocket for full-time home care because it's not covered by insurance. Elsewhere, people are turning to GoFundMe when insurance companies deny necessary care, and cutting their pills in half when they can't afford the cost of prescription drugs.”
The Democrats who meet with Barkan are also answering one of the defining questions of the race so far: Can there be health justice in any system with an insurer profit motive? In Barkan's view, the answer is no.
“Candidates who want to preserve the insurance industry, which is built on paying out less for coverage than it takes in through premiums and co-pays, need to explain why and make a substantive case for how companies like Blue Cross make our health care system better,” Barkan said. “So far, I haven't seen anyone do that convincingly.”
The interviews will be rolled out one by one over the coming weeks. “I'm not sure I'll ever get to interview you again,” Barkan tells Booker in a trailer for the interviews. “So I'm just going to speak my mind.”
Joe Biden, “Personal.” Like all of Biden's TV spots so far, this one translates a point he makes on the trail, one that sometimes gets lost. Released in black-and-white, it tells the story of his interactions with the health-care industry, from the car crash that killed his wife and daughter and injured his sons to the cancer death of his namesake, Beau Biden, in 2015. Between both events: the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“When I see the president try to tear down [the law]," Biden says, “and others replace and start over, that's personal to me, too. We've got to build on what we did.”
Biden's rivals have utterly rejected the idea that single-payer health care would tear up the ACA; it would replace its private exchanges and subsidies with universal coverage. But it is hard to make the case when Biden is talking about his family.
Favorable ratings for Democratic presidential candidates, change from January (Monmouth, 298 Democrats)
Elizabeth Warren: +52 points (+12)
Joe Biden: +41 points (-30)
Bernie Sanders: +40 points (-9)
Kamala Harris: +39 points (+6)
Cory Booker: +35 points (+2)
Pete Buttigieg: +29 points (+27)
Julián Castro: +22 points (+7)
Beto O'Rourke: +19 points (-13)
Andrew Yang: +12 points (+12)
Amy Klobuchar: +9 points (-6)
The Sanders campaign thrilled at this poll, quickly adapting it into a shareable infographic, because the top line made history: It was the first national survey to find Biden falling out of first place. Monmouth also broke down the data into early states, where Warren led, and later states, where Biden led.
But here at The Trailer, we ignore the “national primary” — nothing matters until Iowa — and look at the underlying data. A worrying trend for Biden, Sanders and O'Rourke is that since the start of the primary, they've seen sharp declines in their overall favorable ratings with Democratic voters — their favorable ratings minus their unfavorable ratings. The decline for Biden has been the sharpest, coming off a probably unsustainable high from his final years as vice president.
IN THE STATES
Republican voters in Mississippi will pick a nominee for governor today, after a three-week runoff that pit Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves against Bill Waller Jr., the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The runoff, which was forced when Reeves fell just short of 50 percent support in the Aug. 6 primary, was defined by a fight about whether to raise the state’s gas tax and accept the Medicaid expansion money provided by the Affordable Care Act. Waller is for all of that; Reeves is against it.
That’s led to a campaign of Reeves tying Waller to national Democrats, and even “socialism,” as Waller reiterates that he has the same Medicaid stance as Vice President Pence. (As governor of Indiana, Pence expanded Medicaid.) In a letter to Republican voters obtained by Mississippi Today, a former state party chair and the current chief of staff to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith praised Reeves for “standing his ground” against the ACA.
“Bill Waller is carrying the water for Democrats,” they warned. “He wants to add 300,000 Mississippians to the state's welfare rolls.”
Reeves’s team has pointed out that Waller was the odd man out on Medicaid in the primary, with conservative state legislator Robert Foster opposing the expansion money. But Foster has since endorsed Waller, who has pitched himself as the most electable alternative to Jim Hood, the Democrats’ nominee for governor and the party’s first credible candidate for the office since 2003.
To win, Waller would need either a tumble in conservative turnout or a stronger performance with Republicans outside of the Jackson metro area. On Aug. 6, Waller won six counties, just four of them with a sizable number of Republicans; he ran a weak third place in the northwest Mississippi counties where Foster dominated. While Waller’s Medicaid policy is pitched toward rural voters with remote hospitals, Reeves did best in rural counties where the Dixiecrats of yore have become conservative Republicans.
In 36 hours, we will know who made the cut for September's Democratic debates. We will also know if we need to use that plural, “debates” or not. If one more candidate qualifies for the stage, ABC News, the debate's host, will split one night into two. If just 11 candidates cross the line, one debate will feature six of them, and the other will feature five.
As is true for so many things in life, this is up to two liberal arts universities: Quinnipiac and Suffolk. The New York-based Quinnipiac will release its final August poll, of the national Democratic horse race, at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Suffolk, which collaborates with USA Today, will also release results in the morning.
The existence of these polls has left 10 Democratic campaigns, their staff and several million voters waiting on the news about Tom Steyer. The billionaire needs just one poll in which he's at 2 percent or higher to make the Houston debate stage. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard needs two of them. The other nine Democrats still in the race appear to be effectively out of luck, for now.
Amy Klobuchar. She won the support of Fran Parr, a woman whose home in Pacific Junction — a small town in southwest Iowa — had been visited by the senator from Minnesota as well as by John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tulsi Gabbard. Klobuchar had made Parr one of her guests at the first Democratic debates, in Miami.
Julián Castro. He's in Nevada for a speech to the Nevada AFL-CIO and a host of events; this weekend, he told reporters that the DNC's debate rules had at least one flaw in that they included state polls, but few polls had been taken in Nevada.
Cory Booker. He's speaking to the Nevada AFL-CIO convention on his own, shorter swing through the state.
Steve Bullock. He's returning to Iowa on Friday for a 12-stop “town hall tour” taking him through Labor Day.
Joe Sestak. He's back in Iowa, where he has directed most of his attention as a candidate; on Friday he'll be the only Democratic candidate at the Sauerkraut Days parade.
Joe Biden. His campaign officially rolled out Students for Biden, the campus wing of its turnout effort.
… one day until the cutoff for the third presidential debates
… eight days until the CNN climate town halls
… 16 days until the third Democratic debates