Tonight was the biggest night of the year yet for the Democratic field, and hundreds of Iowa caucus-goers filled bars, coffee shops, homes and county party offices to watch the first debate.
Team Starting Line deployed reporters to seven different debate watch parties throughout Iowa, speaking with voters in urban, suburban, rural, college town and blue-collar areas of the state.
Here’s what Iowans had to say, both during the second half of the debate and after it was all over:
Des Moines Debate Watch Party
Blake Hanson, 30, Urbandale
Hanson came into the night with Booker, O’Rourke and Biden as his frontrunners, but isn’t committed to anyone yet. He noted that some of the candidates struggled to answer the questions asked, and thought Booker did well in that regard, while O’Rourke mildly underperformed.
“Cory Booker did a good job in terms of being genuine, but also introducing himself to voters and getting across what he needed to get across,” Hanson said. “So, at this point, I think Cory Booker has, at least in my mind, set himself apart. But, you know, it’s tough when you have ten candidates standing there and they’re all fighting for attention and time.”
Melissa Hale, 55, Bondurant
Hale came into the night looking forward to hearing from Booker and Warren and left thinking both were impressive. She also mentioned that there was a bit too much bickering and fighting on stage for her.
“Warren and Booker are strong because they’re concise and precise, and they know what they’re talking about. I don’t feel like they’re showboating, it seems like it’s coming from the heart,” Hale said. “Going in, I had about ten [candidates] I like, but Booker is probably my top one.”
Lu Ann Pedrick, 64, Urbandale
Pedrick told Starting Line halfway through debate that Warren and Booker had impressed her, and spoke very highly of Booker afterward but also gave praise for Bill De Blasio and Jay Inslee.
“I was surprised by de Blasio. I was very impressed with him tonight. I was impressed with Inslee, hadn’t really seen a lot of him,” Pedrick said. “But overall, I still think that Cory Booker has the best message that I’ve heard so far, and he was able to grab the mic a lot tonight, but do it in a very polite way, so he got his points across. Some of the others were a little too pushy and rude.”
Winterset Debate Watch Party
Mike Kaldenberg, 53, Winterset, 20-year retired Military Veteran
“I like Elizabeth Warren,” Kaldenberg said. “She has a lot of passion in what she says and stuff. I was also impressed with Bill de Blasio and Jay Inslee, they spoke well. Cory Booker speaks very well. It’s – it’s a tough time … This is really probably the first debates I’ve ever watched. Really, I mean, I tended to vote uneducated, which was stupid … I look forward to tomorrow night. The first person I ever listened to out of all these people was Andrew Yang. I really liked what I heard. So, a thousand dollars a month. Will it work? I don’t know. I think he’s got a good dream.”
“I like Elizabeth because I don’t think she takes crap from anybody,” he added. “Cory Booker doesn’t either. Yeah, I think de Blasio is probably the same type of person. I don’t want that typical Democrat, spineless. Because we’re not going up against just anybody.”
Gene Reed, Winterset, Retired
“I really like Elizabeth Warren, but Cory Booker kicked ass tonight,” Reed said.
Altoona Debate Watch Party
Rosie Thierer, Rural Polk County
“Elizabeth Warren certainly stands out,” Thierer said. “She was very articulate and was able to talk about her plans.”
Thierer said she enjoyed listening to Warren because she can relate to people and understands what it’s like to be struggling.
Thierer took issue with one question the moderators asked, which included a statistic that said 70 percent of people are happy with the economy.
“I don’t know where they got that,” Thierer said. “I don’t believe it.’
She has five favorite candidates right now: Booker, Buttigieg, Warren, Gillibrand and Bullock.
Perry Antonelli, 29, Altoona
Antonelli put his support behind Warren before the debate even started, but said Booker and Castro seemed to stand out Wednesday night.
“I just think they are good candidates,” he said.
Antonelli is particularly interested in hearing more about the candidates’ stances on healthcare, gun violence, climate change, prison reform and mental healthcare.
Polly Antonelli, 64, Altoona
Antonelli said she’s a Warren fan, but she was impressed Wednesday night by Booker, Gabbard and Klobuchar.
She was particularly impressed with Gabbard, who she said she didn’t know much about before the night’s debate.
Antonelli’s favorite line was “windmills don’t cause cancer, they cause jobs,” although she couldn’t recall who said it (it was Inslee).
Despite the night’s excitement, Antonelli said she started the debate as a Warren fan and ended the debate as a Warren fan.
“I support her because it goes back to the ‘she persisted’ thing,” Antonelli said. “That’s when I first started to learn about her, and then the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau thing was all her, which I think was very important.”
Clive Debate Watch Party
John, 68, retired (both declined to give their last name)
John liked Warren’s toned-down approach. He came out for her and still supports her, but he’s very interested to see all the candidates hash out all these issues.
“It looks like the two Texans are trying to cut it down to one,” he observed.
Tina, 68, retired
Tina didn’t come in with any expectations, but three people are on her list now: Warren, Gabbard and de Blasio.
“To my surprise, de Blasio stood out,” she said. “Because New York, it’s huge. And Trump can’t eat him. He knows how to deal with Trump.”
Fairfield Debate Watch Party
Kathy Snow, 52, Fairfield
Snow said she was “really impressed” with the 10 candidates on stage Wednesday night.
“Every message was hopeful,” said Snow. “I wish you could take a little from each candidate to make one super candidate.”
Of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Snow said she was “really impressed she won in all of those red counties.”
“It has to be the most electable,” she said of the eventual Democratic nominee. “It just has to be.”
Johnston Debate Watch Party
The Johnston Democrats held a presidential watch party tonight at Doc’s Lounge. They turned out about 25 Johnston-area Democrats. On entering the event tonight, the Johnston group asked every attendee to list their top pick of the candidates participating in the night’s debate. Warren received 8 votes, Booker 2 votes, Inslee 2 votes and O’Rourke 1 vote; the remainder didn’t receive any votes. They were asked their preference again at the end of the night; no one changed their mind.
Colin Scanes, 71, Urbandale
Scanes is a business owner and is very active politically with the Democratic Party. He hasn’t narrowed the field down to one top candidate. Scanes pointed to authenticity and integrity as the key components for his final pick. Following the debate, Scanes said he felt Klobuchar and Booker performed very well.
Ames Debate Watch Party
Dustin Mason, 36, of Ames, Pipefiter
Story County Democrats Vice Chair Dustin Mason came into the debate with an open mind. Like many other Ames Democrats, he is currently undecided and was hoping that tonight would shed some light on who he plans to caucus for this upcoming February, though his opinions didn’t change much.
On the whole, the Ames crowd was very pro-Warren.
By Rob Bingham, Jake Bullington, Josh Cook, Julie Fleming, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek, Lauren Johnson, Elizabeth Meyer, Pat Rynard and Rick Smith