No need to bury the lede here: Hillary Clinton didn’t win the Iowa Caucus with just one speech, but she came damn well close on Friday night. Her feisty, passionate barrage of policy issues, one-liners and hits on Republican candidates stood out amongst the crowd on an exciting night full of great moments. Clinton didn’t only give one of the best speeches she’s ever delivered, but one of the best Iowa Caucus speeches Starting Line has seen, rivaling (though not overtaking) John Kerry’s 2003 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech and Barack Obama’s one at that same event in 2007.
That’s certainly not to say the other Democrats didn’t turn in great performances as well. Martin O’Malley helped himself more than any other candidate Friday night with some powerful oratory of his own, positioning him as the progressive alternative with executive experience. Bernie Sanders demonstrated once again that he commands the most enthusiastic supporters of the field, and gave a classic stem-winder that brought many to their feet. Even Jim Webb, with a much lower-key approach, still improved upon his niche in the party.
Iowa Democrats were treated to an outstanding show from their candidates and Iowa leaders, gathered in Cedar Rapids at the annual Hall of Fame event to honor a number of activists and elected officials. This gathering was particularly informing on where Iowa caucus-goers feel about their 2016 candidates. It’s still early enough in the cycle that many remain undecided and very few labor unions have endorsed, so the crowd’s reactions weren’t skewed by one or two campaigns bringing in swarms of supporters. Each campaign was given ten tables, all of which obviously cheered on their candidates loudly, but the rest of the room was fairly neutral.
Your Starting Line team roamed the pre- and post-events, talked with attendees, and sat back in press row to bring you all the angles of big night. Here’s our analysis and summaries of the day’s important moments:
The Pre-Events: Clinton Rally and Sign Wars
Clinton held a pre-rally a few blocks away from the convention center before the main event started, and a thank-you session with a smaller group of staff and volunteers at a pizza place earlier in the day. About 250 came out to the pre-rally, some of which hadn’t been able to get tickets to the Hall of Fame Dinner. That turnout seemed a bit low, and is something to keep an eye on. Although, if people attended some of these pre-events around 3:00 and then the dinner, they would have been committing a full seven hours of a day.
After what Iowa Starting Line has officially dubbed “The Great Sign Wars of 2007” (and 2003), we had high expectations for each candidate’s cheering section outside this year’s Hall of Fame dinner. Unfortunately, high expectations led to disappointment, as they so often do. Hillary Clinton’s group numbered around 50 for most of the time, not exactly like the massive, intimidating presence the campaigns had in 2007.
A group of Martin O’Malley supporters got reinforced by members of the O’Malley Super PAC, Generation Forward, which is working to hire its own campaign team in Iowa. The Generation Forward volunteers stood across the street from O’Malley’s volunteers, sometimes joining in the same chants. Which raises the humorous question – does joint chanting constitute coordination?
The most unexpected moment of the sign wars was not a moment at all, but an absence. Bernie Sanders’ supporters have a reputation for rowdiness, but were nowhere to be seen outside the DoubleTree Convention Complex. A meet-and-greet with Sanders nearby pulled them away, apparently replacing a planned outside rally they had. We have to assume that they were not too upset at the opportunity to meet their candidate in an air-conditioned facility. Temperatures approached 100°F, and all Democrats participating in the sign wars ran a risk of melting. Perhaps, then, all can be forgiven for “The Great Sign Wars Let-Down of 2015.”
The Convention Center
The Secret Service caused long lines for attendees, as they had to pass through metal detectors, but the event otherwise ran quite smoothly. The NextGen Climate team was the most visible presence in the hall of booths, with about 40 staff and volunteers by the entrance. With nearly every important Democratic activist and leader in town, the hall was filled with glad-handing Iowa candidates. Senate hopefuls Rob Hogg, Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause all had booths, as did announced 1st District candidates Monica Vernon and Gary Kroeger. Sadly, there were only two small bars in the event and no cocktail tables – Starting Line heard a number of attendees lament the long lines, saying, “We’re a bunch of Democrats, we love to drink!”
Each campaign could fill up to ten tables with supporters, and seating arrangements had an impact on the energy in the room. Face the stage and look right to find Bernie’s supporters; turn left to see Hillary volunteers. Watching each side of the room get fired up for their respective candidate was fun, but most interesting was the O’Malley table placements. The candidate trailing behind Hillary and Bernie had his volunteers at tables near the press, making them sound a lot louder to the journalists. Good strategy.
Finally, there was no missing the NextGen Climate folks, and not just because they showed up in bright orange t-shirts. NextGen had a cluster of tables near the center, and were perfectly willing to give any candidate who mentioned climate change a standing ovation.
The Iowa Speeches and Honorees
While the presidential candidates spoke later in the evening, the real reason for the dinner is to honor important Democratic activists and elected officials. The honorees this year were Pam Jochum, Kay Halloran, Bev Hannon, Penny Rosfjord, Melinda Jones, Kurt Meyer and Morgan Miller. Jochum spoke on her own behalf, though we wish everyone got to get up and say something (of course it would need to be strictly time-limited). While these are all well-known Democrats to the activist/insider crowd, there’s still tons of attendees who haven’t seen these folks before.
The night began with IDP Chair Andy McGuire bringing all five presidentials up on stage, with chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” already coming from the audience. McGuire gave a solid and well-received rally speech to get the Democrats fired up, with that day being the six-month anniversary of her election as party chair (we interviewed her about that here).
Both Dave Loebsack’s and Jochum’s speeches ran a little long, but the overall event only ran a mere 30 minutes past schedule. Democrats should be thankful. Starting Line has attended several Republican cattle call forums this year that have seriously lasted from six to eight hours.
The Presidential Candidate Speeches (in order of appearance)
Speech: Speaking before a crowd of 1,300 key Iowa Caucus activists, Chafee kept his speech to a simple six minutes of the fifteen allowed. He mostly touted his record of liberal votes, on addressing climate change, women’s choice, LGBT rights, immigration reform, public education support and infrastructure funding. At times he seemed impressed at the applause he did get, smiling and looking around when the crowd clapped politely at some of his lines.
“We have a choice in 2016: prosperity through peace or endless war,” Chafee said, thanking President Obama for the recent Iran deal. He stayed on the topic of foreign policy for a while, promoting diplomatic cooperation, and highlighted his resume on international affairs.
Analysis: Chafee missed a big opportunity here with a dull and short speech. About 99.5% of the Democrats in the room have never seen him in person before, and he didn’t present either a memorable biography of himself or a vision for the country. If you’re going to be an extreme long-shot running for President, one would figure you’re running because you have something to say. Chafee didn’t say much at all. And oddly, his constant recounting of liberal policies he’s supported in the past seemed like a defense of his former Republican Party allegiance, but many people there probably weren’t even aware of that. He was elected to the Senate and the Governor’s office in Rhode Island, so he clearly has some political skills. They weren’t on display Friday night. I mean, come on man, prepare a real speech next time.
Speech: Clinton’s speech targeted Republicans early and often, but she also added in near the beginning a story of speaking with her late mother, who struggled early in life. Clinton recounted how her mother instilled in her the passion for public service, a useful explanation that could help with those who doubt her motivation.
When Clinton brought up her section about paid family medical leave and jobs, she jokingly noted, “I know that when I talk about this, some people think, ‘There she goes again, with the women’s issues.’ Well I’m not going to stop, so get ready for a long campaign.” She went on to list off issues like paid sick leave, childcare help, the minimum wage, adding, “These are not women’s issues, these are family issues and they are economic issues.”
In one of the most well-received lines of the night of any candidate, Clinton ripped into Terry Branstad for the vetoes on the mental health facilities and education funding. “So tonight I’m adding my voice to yours: Governor Branstad, put down your veto pen,” she said, bringing a long-lasting standing ovation to the room.
Most of the final six minutes of her speech was a rapid-fire, non-stop applause line bonanza, bringing the crowd to their feet a number of times.
“We’re not going back to denying climate change – if you ask most of these Republican candidates about that they’ll say, ‘Sorry, I’m not a scientist,'” Clinton shouted near the end. “Well then why don’t they start listening to those that are scientists? Look, I’m not a scientist either, I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain, and I’m not going to let them take us backwards!”
She finished with a forceful crescendo, saying, “I am running for anyone who’s ever been knocked down, but refused to be knocked out, I’m running for you, we’re going to build an America where we don’t leave anyone out or anyone behind!”
Analysis: For whatever reason, at past major multi-candidate gatherings in 2007/2008, Clinton often struck the wrong tone of what Iowa caucus-goers were looking for. These types of events have been a real weakness for Clinton before. Not Friday night. Gone were the too-cutesy lines that often fell flat outside the most ardent supporters, the touchy-feely cadence meant to “humanize” her that just comes off weird, and the tone-deaf jokes like “I’m baaack!”
Instead Clinton was energized, punchy and a little bit chippy. She cracked a few jokes, but quickly turned serious again in the next sentence. She sounded strong and confident. Most of all, she looked and sounded authentic. It seemed like she was finally enjoying herself while campaigning.
A number of news outlets labeled the Hall of Fame room a “Hillary crowd,” probably thinking a fundraiser had more “establishment” Democrats that would be predispositioned to her. But that simply wasn’t the case. If you watched the crowd closely, when Clinton was introduced she got her big cheers from her section of tables, but the rest of the room gave typical, polite applause (much as happened for every candidate). It wasn’t until really the last six minutes of her speech that the room erupted in excitement and sustained standing ovations, and it was most definitely earned, not already present.
“She was very moving – everything she said made me want to get shit done,” said Tiffany Hach, who still noted she’s currently supporting Sanders. “She was very good at striking a chord, hitting the heart strings.”
“I love her passion and her tenacity – she’s so inspiring, she knows how to get you fired up,” said Cassie Yost. “What resonated with me was talking about the wage gap. I work forty plus hours at three jobs trying to pay my rent and my bills. I’m already in student debt as a nontraditional student, trying to earn my degree to get a better job. So having someone who can fight for us and has been fighting to get into this office for years, I love that. That determination to keep fighting for America, even though you get knocked down, you get back up again. She’s phenomenal.”
Speech: Hillary Clinton’s speech brought down the house, and Martin O’Malley had a tough act to follow. But O’Malley was impressive in his own right. He highlighted his executive experience as the governor of Maryland, where his administration raised the minimum wage, froze college tuition for four years, and expanded family leave.
O’Malley also highlighted his advocacy in Maryland for driver’s licenses for new American immigrants, marriage equality, and a ban on assault weapons. “And we didn’t just talk about it, we actually got it done,” O’Malley said to audience applause.
O’Malley also got big applause for his criticism of Wall Street executives’ role in the 2008 recession. “What have we come to as a nation that you can get pulled over for a broken taillight, but if you break the nation’s economy, you’re untouchable?” O’Malley said.
The middle class makes the economy strong, he noted, and many in the crowd were impressed by his desire to fight for the working class. They were especially excited when he condemned Branstad’s recent education veto, a move that shows how well O’Malley knew his audience.
Also impressive is O’Malley’s extensive energy platform, which certainly gave NextGen something to cheer for. “I am the first candidate, but let’s hope I am not the last, to call for moving America forward by 2050 to a 100 percent clean-powered electric grid,” O’Malley said.
For those wary of Clinton and concerned about Sanders’ electability, O’Malley made himself their candidate on Friday night. His speech started out slow, but became very forceful and eloquent near the end, eliciting some of the most widely participated in standing ovations of the night. O’Malley does very well at these major speaking events, a gifted speaker armed with well-structured speeches. He certainly gained the most of anyone at this event, and should pick up a number of new activists and endorsers with his performance. Most importantly, his appeal seemed to reach broadly across the room and didn’t appear to turn anyone off. He’s positioned himself as part of the top three candidates, a legitimate option that should begin to pick up steam.
“I like his executive background, that he’s actually been a governor and a mayor, and I think that’s really important in a president,” said Margaret Appleby. “I think he did a wonderful job.”
“He has a record of being able to work with Republicans, and enact legislation, really good legislation that works for working class families,” said Sharon Holle. “I thought he gave a really good speech. He touched on all the major issues.”
Speech: “Preach!” shouted a Bernie-backer in the Sanders corner of the room, and boy, did he ever.
The “Bernie” chants started the moment O’Malley wrapped up his speech, before the Vermont senator was even announced. The craziness didn’t stop there. In typical “Feel the Bern” fashion, Bernie supporters whooped and hollered during the speech; a few even pounded on tables in support of Sanders.
Sanders, like the candidates before him, was game to criticize the Republican party and their emphasis on family values. “Their family values say that a woman does not have a right to control her body. I disagree,” Sanders said to applause. “They say women should not be able to get the contraceptives she needs. I disagree. They say that our brothers and sisters who are gay should not be able to enjoy the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples enjoy. We disagree.”
Democratic family values are based on love and compassion, not hatred, Sanders said. “Our family values say that when a woman has a baby, she should get twelve weeks of family and medical aid,” Sanders said.
Bernie also launched his usual attacks on the billionaires who have in his eyes bought elections with Super PACs. He condemned the Koch brothers for spending more money on elections than the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. He further pledged to only nominate Supreme Court justices that would vote to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that he said is “moving this country towards and oligarchic form of society.”
Bernie ended his speech with a declaration that stirred the passions of everyone in the room, not just his devotees. “Think big,” Sanders said as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. “Think about a future where our kids get the best education in the world, where women’s rights are protected. That is the America we can become if we stand together.”
Analysis: It’s not like it needed confirmation, but Friday night demonstrated loud and clear that Bernie Sanders has the most enthusiastic supporters of anyone in the Democratic Party. Overall, Bernie followed his usual script. While both Hillary and O’Malley seemed to tailor their speech for the Hall of Fame event, Bernie stuck to his usual call for a political revolution, albeit in a voice slightly more hoarse than usual (he’s been speaking a lot lately). People like his “Bernie persona,” and it’s gotten him far to this point, so straying from it would have been risky.
But Sanders may need to consider what his best approach is for the nomination. His attack on the TPP trade deal didn’t get the overwhelming reaction from the entire room that it does at his own events. His corner of the room cheered wildly, but again, if you watched the crowd very closely, it wasn’t like the response to Clinton and O’Malley. He got considerable applause from the full room, but not the same type of standing ovations. Sanders gave a very dramatic and, at times, angry speech – it appealed to people already with him, but it may not have picked up many new supporters.
“I like how progressive he is,” Payton Kears said. “He’s got a long record of that. I remember reading about him in the 70s, supporting marriage equality.”
“I think that Bernie is the candidate that everyone always says they want to vote for,” said Adam Schantz, who noted that Sanders has had to increase space in a Texas venue because so many people want to hear him speak. “It’s very interesting to see the overwhelming response that he’s getting, and it will be very interesting to see if people can actually follow through.”
Speech: Webb began his turn at the lectern highlighting his past work on veterans issues, and asked the veterans in the room to stand up to be recognized. His speech was policy-heavy, but he still subtly dropped in some fun personality references that warmed the crowd to him, noting he’s likely the only former Virginia elected official “with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.”
“We see so much demonizing of organized labor these days,” Webb said in a very well-received line, one of the few non-foreign policy topics he hit upon. “Organized labor is not the enemy – it is the friend of working people.”
The most notable policy difference Webb mentioned was that he doesn’t support the new Iran deal. “I would never accept directly or indirectly Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons,” Webb said, getting mostly silence from the crowd for breaking with the Democratic president. It probably, however, helped his authenticity to tell such a liberal crowd something they didn’t want to hear.
Analysis: Some will likely think Webb failed to impress at the Hall of Fame Dinner with the lower-key speech, but that may not actually be the case. There really is a set of activists who like Webb’s approach. Not everyone gets swept up in the fancy rhetoric and applause lines. Many listen for specific policies – and on that front, Webb did deliver.
So Webb certainly did help himself with his speech. It wasn’t one that’s going to see him gain much in the polls, but it should help recruit a base of support, even if it’s a small one. That’s still important and needed for Webb to remain in any real conversations. And that’s still much better than Chafee, who likely didn’t pick up anything.
However, like Chafee, he alluded to potential foreign policy criticisms of Clinton, but didn’t specifically mention her and failed to land a solid hit. If these folks really want to have that debate, they need to do it, not make vague critiques that don’t have a more forceful impact.
“He’s really, really good on policy,” offered Joe Stutler. “Probably not the most enthusiastic speech, but then it’s hard to follow Bernie. But, Webb’s on message. And being a veteran myself, props to anybody who’s got a Purple Heart.”
“You can tell the conventionally top runners have maybe been out on the stump a little more,” commented Linda Santi. “Having said that, Jim Webb had substance and he too did a great job. A little less fire in his belly, and he seemed to have the legislative perspective.”
“I thought he did a good job,” said Carol Dillard. “I felt like his was a male point of view, a military point of view, and that’s not my point of view.”
by Pat Rynard and Angela Ufheil