As it has in past Democratic primary cycles, this weekend’s Steak Fry event proved a major road marker on the path to the party’s nomination. That, combined with the Des Moines Register’s new poll and Saturday’s The People’s Presidential Forum, helped set the tone for the new state of the race in the Iowa Caucus.
Here’s my major takeaways and analysis:
Putting Up A Fight For First
The story out of Iowa recently has deservedly been Elizabeth Warren’s steady rise, but the other noteworthy plot line getting little attention has been Joe Biden’s resilience. Some have used words like “fading” or “plunging” to describe Biden’s Register poll dip in Iowa, but in reality, this contest was always going to tighten, and Biden was due to get seriously challenged by some opponent.
And Biden is still among the top two with a lot of distance between the rest, despite months of withering attacks and critical press coverage. He’s taken a ton of hits lately, and is still standing. The next question will be how Warren fares with increased scrutiny.
More importantly, the message that came through from his campaign at the Steak Fry was loud and clear: they’re not giving up this Iowa lead without a fight.
Biden, flanked by firefighters, marched into the Steak Fry with a long column of nearly 1,300 supporters behind him, brought in from around the state by the busload. If this was a fading candidacy, it didn’t look like it on Saturday.
No, Biden’s crowd was not chanting as loudly or dancing as much as Buttigieg and Harris’ contingents, but they still came out in a sizable, well-organized force. And caucus night isn’t a dance-off, it’s a battle of who shows up, and the people backing Biden are typically the ones who come out on a cold winter night for the caucus.
Biden certainly faces a big challenge in Iowa, one he may lose, but predicting too much doom and gloom at this point is foolish.
What Warren Gets That Sanders Doesn’t
At the pre-rally sites before the Steak Fry, both Warren and Bernie Sanders’ fields stood largely empty as neither campaign decided to engage in the sign wars. That’s par for the course for Sanders’ campaign, which prefers to send their staff out to knock on doors and make phone calls during that time (and tell everyone that’s what they’re doing). The visibility stunts can be goofy, though they are effective for media exposure, but it’s still a legitimate decision to abstain.
Warren, however, instead tasked her organizers with training volunteers to engage attendees inside the event and talk to caucus-goers about Warren’s plans. Her staff tied liberty green balloons to themselves, a nice visual, then fanned out to sign up people.
Sanders, meanwhile, only provided updates of their day’s field efforts outside the event on a door at their empty rally spot, had a small, brief march in during the afternoon after everyone had already moved away from the entrance, gave his speech and left.
This was a mistake.
As a former field staffer, I can easily tell you there’s no way you’re going to make as many contacts with several thousand doors knocked instead of crowd-canvassing an event the size of the Steak Fry. I get the avoidance of sign wars, but Warren’s team was simply more clever in their tactics to still make use of the event.
Sanders and his team focused more on the People’s Forum across town, an event put on by progressive and far-left groups, which is great, but you can do both.
Here’s my main problem: I feel like the Sanders campaign is sometimes so focused on making a point of snubbing their nose at the party establishment that they end up choosing a less-effective campaign strategy.
There were over 12,000 people at the Steak Fry, probably around 10,000 of which were Iowa caucus-goers. Are you telling me Sanders and his campaign couldn’t win any of them over?
If you want to primarily organize outside the party structure, fine. But what sin did the attendees commit, other than choosing to attend an event put on by a county Democratic party? That doesn’t make them less worthy of outreach to any campaign, especially when these are folks who are definitely going to caucus.
If you were a progressive-leaning voter at the Steak Fry, and you saw the crowd go wild for Warren after her supporters chatted you up, while Sanders’ speech got polite applause and he had little to no presence there, what would you come away thinking? The Register poll found a larger percentage of former Sanders caucus-goers backing Warren instead of Sanders. The support he’s hemorrhaging isn’t the far-left base, but those more mainstream progressive Democrats.
The non-Biden candidate who’s going to be able to go the distance against the former vice president needs to appeal to more than just one section of the party (and those new voters outside it). Warren and Julian Castro did that by both engaging at the Steak Fry and attending the People’s Forum. Pete Buttigieg, even though the far-left doesn’t like his health care plan, at least made the effort to talk with those at the People’s Forum, finding some things they do agree on.
Sanders largely stuck to his strategy of mobilizing the far-left that’s already mostly with him. And, who knows, maybe with their massive volunteer base they really will turn out so many new people on caucus night that that alone can guide him to victory. But it sure seems needlessly risky.
Buttigieg’s Inverse Enthusiasm Gap
There’s clearly something happening on the ground for Buttigieg in Iowa, regardless of where he’s at in the polls right now. His campaign made a statement on Saturday with a massive rally, march and sustained enthusiasm throughout the day, which started early for the small army of Buttigieg staffers who arrived at 5:00 a.m. Yellow Buttigieg shirts flooded the Steak Fry grounds, and the mayor received some of the loudest cheers from the crowd.
Those major party events where campaigns buy up tickets can be deceiving, of course, but Buttigieg’s momentum carried on through his bus tour. In Waterloo yesterday, around 600 people sat through rain in the dark for an event there. His crowd in Elkader, a small, rural town in Northeast Iowa, appeared much larger than the one Warren drew there (to be fair, though, that was in early March).
Back in 2015, I recall a rather dumb acquaintance of mine walking up to me across the street from a Trump rally during the last caucus, scoffing at his huge crowds and saying they won’t show up to vote. Barack Obama literally proved the exact same kind of doubts wrong just eight years previous after he saw massive rallies across Iowa. So, the Buttigieg crowds do mean something.
Now, it could just be an instance where a lot of voters love Buttigieg and want to see him, they just think he’s too young to caucus for, which isn’t all that helpful for him. But he’s certainly the one to watch, especially if any other candidate stumbles.
Wait And See
Kamala Harris’ 6% in the Register poll isn’t great, but it’s also somewhere to grow from as she makes Iowa her battleground. Her campaign team here is large and growing, she had a very enthusiastic, sizable group of supporters at Steak Fry and will be here half the month in October. And Harris is clearly having fun, which voters do see and appreciate.
With Harris, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the next month.
Needing A Spark Very Soon
Both Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker arrived to the Steak Fry with excited supporters in tow. Both gave well-received speeches. Both have strong organizations in Iowa and lots of endorsements.
And both continue to have real potential in Iowa.
But it’s almost October and that potential needs to turn into something pretty soon. Yes, caucus-goers make up their minds late, but they also want to back someone they see as viable in their precinct, and hanging around the 3% range for much longer won’t cut it.
Is there still time for another low-polling candidate to catch some fire for a while in Iowa, putting them in a place to over-perform enough on caucus night? Maybe!
If so, I’d look to Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Yang for a late surprise.
O’Rourke is back on the trail with renewed passion and purpose, drawing one the largest cheers from the Steak Fry for his lines on assault rifle buybacks. His campaign has leaned into the position, chanting, “hell yes, buy them back!” outside the event. That might frighten national Democratic pundits, but it hits the kind of emotions that rank-and-file Democrats have right now over gun violence. O’Rourke still has a large field presence in Iowa, with enough activists who signed on early to still make a real play here.
As for Yang, literally any notable performance on caucus night will draw attention, and he’s been getting a lot more national looks as the only non-traditional candidate on the debate stage now. His message is unique, he has a strong online following, he’s appealing to that ever-elusive “outsider” vote and he has the funding to run ads. So even though a Yang surge would certainly have its limits, given the circumstances, why wouldn’t he have a decent chance to break out?
Back To The Grind
For pretty much everyone who isn’t on the debate stage and still polling in the small single-digits in Iowa, there was no major breakout moment at the Steak Fry. So, it’s back to the grind on the campaign trail, making due with small to mid-size crowds around the state until a national moment happens.
A Real Round Of Drop-Outs Coming?
Poor Tim Ryan, he simply has no luck at Steak Frys. The Ohio congressman attended the 2017 Steak Fry as one of the three headliners, but a lengthy speaking line-up dwindled the crowd by the time Ryan took the stage near the end. This time, the rain just started pouring as soon as Ryan, the last speaker this year, took the stage. Most attendees scattered for dry cover as he tried to keep the crowd engaged.
That’s too bad, as Ryan is actually one of the field’s most effective, passionate speakers at events like these.
It was surprising to me that we didn’t have more candidates drop out around Labor Day once it was clear they weren’t making the next round of debates. We might see a mass exodus soon. If you’re not on the debate stage, if you’re not breaking out at major events like this in Iowa or other early states and you’re running low on money, what the hell do you do at this point?
Michael Bennet has enough funds to do at least a month’s worth of TV ads here, so he’ll probably wait to see what results from that. Everyone else? The clock’s ticking…
by Pat Rynard