The 2015 Jefferson Jackson Dinner is now officially in the books, after a full day of rallies, sign wars, pre-concerts and speeches from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The entire affair was a hell of a lot of fun, even if it didn’t measure up to the majesty and drama of the epic 2003 and 2007 JJs.
It certainly had a different feel from those two past major JJ Dinners. Last night the vast majority of the audience felt very set for who they support – natural because most were brought in by the campaigns, but even then few seemed too interested in even considering the other candidates’ arguments. And most of the “neutral” dinner tables in the middle didn’t get that excited for anyone. John Kerry and Barack Obama used stellar speeches to sway both undecideds and people in other campaigns’ camps to propel to a caucus victory. But those years the caucus was way more wide open in terms of competitiveness, with many candidates seeing a path to victory. This year we have a very set two-person field, both with extremely distinct bases of supports, with a third candidate who hasn’t caught much traction.
That different dynamic made analyzing the entire JJ Dinner rather difficult. While news was made with Sanders drawing sharper contrasts with Clinton for the first time, the whole thing felt like more of the same. O’Malley gave a very good speech as always, but not a great enough one to vastly change the race. Sanders again demonstrated he commands the most enthusiastic base of voters, but it’s unclear if he expanded it at all. Clinton gave the best speech in terms of style, showed organizational superiority and fired up her supporters, but she didn’t warm much to those opposed to her candidacy that she’ll need later.
No one really rose to the occasion of a JJ Dinner to create a breakout moment for themselves. So on we go. Here’s our best take of the evening from your Starting Line team, who covered the full entirety of the JJ activity, starting late Friday night.
Republicans Should Be Afraid
Let’s start off with the good news for Democrats overall. The enthusiasm of the night was similar to a rock concert. Democrats are pumped for their candidates. What’s more, the organization of each candidate’s caucus operation was a sight to see. No Republican campaign comes close. The most staff any Republican has in Iowa is a dozen. A single Hillary Clinton field office could run rings around the Iowa campaigns of Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina. Hell, he may be low in the polls, but we would even bet on the campaign of Martin O’Malley beating any of the Republicans’ operations in a straight-up fight.
Democrats are also clearly taking Iowa extremely seriously. Clinton brought in both Bill and Katy Perry for this event. Sanders staged a huge march that must’ve been quite the undertaking to pull together. Republicans haven’t done anything similar.
Earlier this week a Rubio campaign official suggested that having a campaign organization with lots of staff on the ground was a thing of the past. What a bunch of idiots. Republicans are missing out on a massive opportunity to build finely-tuned Iowa operations that can then be deployed throughout the country for the general election.
The biggest takeaway from the entire weekend was the strength of Clinton’s Iowa operation. They produced a classic Iowa Caucus scene at the JJ Dinner, with the Clinton section waving electric blue glow sticks and amp-ed up staffers leading the crowd in boisterous, unified chants. It was a culmination to a day-long effort of showing off their organizational advantage and rallying their supporters.
Clinton’s speech was largely a mish-mash of her previous two well-received speeches at the Hall of Fame and Wing Ding dinners. The most notable new section came on guns. Sanders drew a lot of media attention for the stronger implied criticisms he made of Clinton that night, but Clinton’s new focus on guns contained very harsh contrasts. Her push-back on being chided by Sanders about “shouting” on guns revved up her section and drew complaints from those still in the Sanders seats. She noted that women are often told they’re shouting when expressing their opinion. It’s highly questionable whether that was Sanders’ true intention or motivation behind that debate line. Essentially calling an opponent a sexist is the strongest criticism any Democrat has made this year.
Her delivery, once again, was spot on, knowing when to make more emotional appeals with stories of hardship from specific voters she’s met, to blasting Republicans on women’s issues in a fiery voice that brought nearly the entire audience to their feat. The whole performance was an emotional and feisty delivery, and her section, plus decent portions of the dinner table crowd, loved it. She and Bill stuck around afterward to shake hands and pose for pictures.
Overall, the night belonged to Clinton on a number of fronts, meaning she has now won a trifecta of the major Iowa Democrats’ dinners in Iowa. But what does a “win” mean? It’s questionable what more there was to accomplish at the dinner other than to please her own supporters (still important). Most of the Sanders crowd had already left, denying her the chance to at least impress them so they would find her acceptable for the general election. But she got little – if any – positive reaction from those that did stick around for her. Perhaps that’s because much of her speech focuses on her personally? It’s an important factor to keep an eye on.
Bernie Sanders is starting to act like a serious presidential candidate, and he showed a more polished side at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. On the campaign trail, the Vermont Senator has stuck to his script of calling out super PACs, pushing for gender equality, drilling Wall Street bankers, and igniting a revolution across America. And though those elements remained in his speech in front of thousands of Iowa Democrats, he had new remarks that were meant to draw a larger contrast between him and Clinton, especially on Clinton’s positions on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“It is not now, nor has it ever been, the gold standard of trade agreements,” said Sanders on the TPP. “I did not support it yesterday. I do not support it today. And I will not support it tomorrow.”
Sanders also talked more extensively about his Senate record, something he hasn’t done to this extent while campaigning across the country. His votes on gun control were called out by Clinton in the first Democratic presidential debate more than a week ago, and Sanders felt that he needed to set the record straight on his work in the Senate on other issues, especially gay marriage.
“In 1996, I faced another fork in the road,” said Sanders. “A very, very difficult political situation. It was called the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA…That was not a politically easy vote. Now today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying that they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse. That is not the case. There was a small majority in the house opposed to discriminating against our gay brothers and sisters and I am proud that I was one of those members.”
And Sanders’ crowd in the bleachers loved it. They ran up and down the sections during his big moments on stage, some volunteers even sliding down the ground on their knees in excitement. Sanders knows what his crowd enjoys about his message, and he certainly played them up at the dinner. Democrats throughout the room gave him positive reviews as well.
“I think he had the most vocal support, clearly,” said Evan Derse. “He talked about the issues most important to the constituents and to his supporters. He wasn’t just inciting response from the crowd; he was actually speaking to his constituents about the issues that matter.”
“He had the strongest message and he was the most emphatic,” said Taylor Thompson of Sanders. “He talked about, and has, a proven voting record, and that really showed tonight.”
What should be noted on the difference between Sanders and Clinton during the dinner is not about the candidates themselves and their speeches, but about their supporters. Sanders voters’ cheers came with a deeper intensity, with nearly every single member in the bleachers standing up and screaming during his speech. There was some organized chanting, but much of it started organically. When it got to Clinton’s time on stage, some of her supporters were visibly tired after a long day of marching and waiting through nearly five hours of other Democrats to hear her. Though her members knocked out the competition in terms of organization, visibility, and sheer size, Sanders takes the crown for his supporters’ depth of support during the dinner. They like Sanders and perhaps only Sanders – a large amount of his group left before Clinton took the stage (there’s conflicting accounts on this – it seems the buses simply have to leave, but one wonders if that still could’ve been adjusted), but that’s the Sanders base: his people are not swayed to move to Clinton’s camp. Sanders is essentially the anti-Clinton of the Democratic party, and his supporters refuse to leave his side.
For another interesting take on the potential Sanders supporters/Hillary tension, check out John Deeth’s post on it.
The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner could have been third-place candidate Martin O’Malley’s breakout moment. He had the ear of all the top Democratic leaders in Iowa sitting feet away, as well as the attention of many voters new to his platform. He delivered a powerful speech that appealed to entire audience, but it seemed awfully similar to the message and delivery that’s only gotten him to a few percentage points in the polls. O’Malley simply cannot break up Sanders and Clinton’s momentum.
O’Malley began his time on stage like any other instance he’s been in front of a large party gathering: he introduced himself and said, “I need your help.” O’Malley was quick to emphasize that he’s a Democrat that “can get things done,” and included one of his campaign slogans frequently throughout his speech: that he is someone who is about “actions, not words,” an implied contrast with Clinton and Sanders.
O’Malley’s pitch was certainly the more universal one for the room. He even got several enthusiastic rounds of applause from folks in the Sanders section. And he got two standing ovations from nearly the entire room, one for his effective “barb wire/Statue of Liberty” line that he linked with a criticism of Donald Trump.
Still, it’s questionable just how many new Democrats O’Malley won over to his campaign team. Sanders voters will stick with Sanders and Clinton supporters are too much in love with their candidate to move over to O’Malley’s camp. Again, there is not much room for O’Malley to wiggle himself into the Democratic voter base across Iowa and the country. Not all Democrats have made up their mind, but it’s safe to say that after this week’s Benghazi hearing, Clinton’s voters’ support is stronger than ever before. She’s riding on cloud nine, while O’Malley remains on the ground.
One thing Martin O’Malley could have done in his speech to gain more attention was take a note from his two counterparts and raise his voice. When O’Malley began to shout over the screaming of his supporters in the bleachers, his voters responded with even more enthusiasm and cheering, and he got bigger applause from the rest of the hall. It may seem silly that people are only convinced that you really care about something if you’re shouting about it really loud, but hey, it seems to work for Sanders and Clinton so far.
The security check-in process at the JJ Dinner was a completely unacceptable mess. The start of the night’s program was delayed for an entire hour as hundreds of attendees continued to be stuck in a massive cluster to get through the metal detectors. Some people had to wait two hours to get in. How does that happen? It’s a ticketed event. You know how many people are coming. How do you not plan better or have more security guards on hand to clear people? Yes, their job is to keep Hillary and Bill Clinton safe, not to ensure event attendees are happy, but come on. Be better prepared.
The issues were particularly frustrating for the Sanders campaign, whose supporters got to the event later than Clinton’s (though still well ahead of the event start time) as they entered from their march. The Clinton section was nearly completely filled-in for hours beforehand, while the Sanders section slowly trickled in and was pretty empty for a while.
This has become a trend on the 2016 campaign trail. Secret Service seems to work excruciatingly slow at many Clinton events. There were several times over the summer where the backup became a legitimate safety concern, with older caucus-goers standing in extreme heat and humidity while waiting on security. There’s always going to be delays when Secret Service is involved, but we’ve had them at JJ Dinners in the past, and we never had to start an hour late. You can’t really blame Clinton, as protection is necessary and they operate completely separately from campaign concerns (which they should). But maybe someone higher up on the Clinton campaign needs to sit down and have a talk with them about their staffing levels.
An Awkward Agenda
The Iowa Democratic Party did a great job with the night overall, but there were some odd parts that could be better next time. It’s perplexing why they chose to have Andy McGuire introduce each candidate for Congress and Senate, and essentially give a one or two-minute long pitch for each’s candidacy. Either just give them two minutes to speak (like was done at the Wing Ding), or invite them all on stage to wave and be done with it. If you’re going to prolong the evening with talking about each, they may as well get something out of it, and they didn’t seem to last night.
Although I guess it’s not like we have anyone else to pull from to speak. “Send me help [in Congress],” Dave Loebsack implored the crowd. Yeah, he – and the Iowa Democratic Party – sure could use it. Former Congressman Leonard Boswell is a great man, but when we have to start reaching for speakers who were defeated two election cycles ago, the dearth of Democratic leaders in this state is all too obvious.
They also could have run this part of the program while the security delay was happening. No one wants people to miss out on the main candidates’ speeches, but it would have been better to get the show under way. A couple hundred people missing the pass-the-hat isn’t a big deal.
Asides from that, however, a good JJ Dinner. The place looked spectacular.
by Pat Rynard and Sarah Beckman
with reporting by Brayton Deprey