Thirteen Democratic candidates for president delivered 10-minute stump speeches Friday night to a crowd of more than 13,000 people packed into Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines.
The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty & Justice Celebration was not only the largest Democratic event in Iowa, it was the grandest gathering of party faithful until the National Convention in July.
Held at a cavernous multi-purpose events center, the gathering had the energetic feel of more than just a political party event.
To get to the podium to deliver their speech, candidates had to strut down a long catwalk as their theme music played.
Here are the takeaways, in order of candidate appearance:
Key quote: “I don’t come here just to end the era of Donald Trump … I’m here to launch the era that must come next. Because in order to win and in order to lead, it’s going to take a lot more than the political warfare we’ve come to expect from Washington, D.C.”
Summary: As the first presidential candidate to speak at the LJ and a top-tier hopeful steadily increasing in the polls, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor highlighted his Midwestern, anti-establishment roots and pitched a goal of unifying the country by appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.
Buttigieg ranked third at 18% in a New York Times/Siena College poll released Friday — knocking former Vice President Joe Biden down a notch. His crowd, which took up at least five sections of the arena compared to an average of two from other candidates, cheered loudest when the candidate spoke about his heartland ideals, military background and plans to bring the country together.
“I don’t go to work in an office in Washington, D.C. My office is about six hours that way down I-80. Here in the Midwest,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg garnered huge applause from the crowd after he spoke on his deployment in relation to President Donald Trump’s interest in defense.
“I don’t have to throw myself a military parade to know what a convoy looks like,” he said. “Because I was driving one around Afghanistan right around the time this president was taping season 7 of the ‘Celebrity Apprentice.'”
The candidate, known for his relatively moderate ideas next to more progressive competitors, then went on to explain his plans to unify the country.
“We will fight when we must fight,” Buttigieg said. “But I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point. The point is what lies on the other side of the fight … the hope of an American experience defined not by exclusion but by belonging. That is what we are here to deliver.”
Buttigieg then made a jab about his age as the youngest candidate running for the Democratic nomination.
“If talking about hope and belonging sounds optimistic for you at a time like this, fine. Call it optimistic, but do not call it naïve,” he said. “Because I believe these things not based on my age but on my experience.”
Key quote: “The very character of America is on the ballot next November. The very character of the country. And Donald Trump is a genuine threat, a man lacking in character we need.”
Summary: The former vice president’s speech had a long arc from negative to positive.
He started by listing the ways Donald Trump has failed as a president by encouraging hatred and division. In speeches, Biden often focuses on how America’s character is under threat because of Trump’s corruption and the amount of division he’s sowed in the country.
“Hate only hardens, it never leaves,” he said.
Biden said he was flattered Trump and and Russian President Vladimir Putin saw him as a threat to their power. He pointed out the attacks against him while news broke of Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son.
He then moved on to how he’s different from Trump, and started by saying he was raised to see everyone as his equal and to value dignity.
Biden emphasized how he had the experience to solve all of the challenges the country faces: climate change, gun control, education, unequal taxation and health care. On health care, Biden said the best, quickest solution would be to improve the Affordable Care Act and introduce a public option, knocking the idea of Medicare for All.
Another challenge he highlighted was the task of healing the country and the world when Trump left office.
Biden emphasized America was in a perfect position to lead the 21st-century, and the first step in that direction was to get Trump out of office.
After listing the challenges, Biden ended on an inspiring note by assuring the audience that the only thing standing in the way of America and progress is Donald Trump.
Key quote: “I am not running for president because I fantasize about running for president; I am running for president because, like so many of you in this room, I’m a parent and I’m a patriot. I can see the future that lies ahead for our children and it is not something I am willing to accept.”
Summary: The New York entrepreneur ran through the greatest hits of his out-of-the-box presidential campaign, speaking directly to the “Yang Gang” scattered throughout dinner tables on the main concourse and high up in the rafters of stadium seating.
He talked about the loss of manufacturing jobs across Iowa and the nation, the future of automation and his Freedom Dividend proposal to give $1,000 a month to all American adults.
“Experts are calling this economic transformation, this period, the fourth industrial revolution,” Yang said. “When is the last time you heard a politician even breathe the words fourth industrial revolution? Just now, right? And I am barely a politician. These are the problems that got Donald Trump elected, and this is what you must solve. This is how you must use your power.”
Yang’s speeches often include a call-and-response and show of hands with the audience. His speech at the LJ was no different. Members of the Yang Gang and others in the audience shot back loudly when he asked how much Amazon paid in federal taxes and whether anyone received compensation for the use of their digital data.
He also boasted about his impressive third quarter fundraising haul.
“How did a man you never heard of before raise $10 million last quarter in increments of only $30 each? So, my fans are almost as cheap as Bernie’s,” Yang joked.
Yang also gave a shoutout to the Iowa Falls man chosen to participate in his Freedom Dividend experiment, telling the crowd Kyle’s mother was recovering from cancer, but the $1,000 a month distributed by Yang has helped him keep up with bills and play his guitar for an audience “for the first time in years.”
“This is what the Freedom Dividend would mean for us in real life,” Yang said, noting other examples from across the country. “And this is the vision that you can make a reality, Iowa. This is your power, and your power alone.”
Key quote: “Complacency does not win elections. Hope and courage wins elections. I’m not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas not to offend anyone. I’m running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families.”
Summary: The Massachusetts senator forced her large number of LJ supporters, and the rest of the attendees, to make a choice during her speech.
In one of the most pointed performances of her candidacy in Iowa, a state where she garnered 22% as the front-runner, according to the New York Times/Siena College poll released Friday, Warren asked a growing number to choose between the “big ideas” of her campaign and the more moderate ones of her competitors.
“Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight,” Warren said. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you to dream small and give up early is not going to win our party to victory.”
When the candidate took the stage, she immediately mentioned her trademark distaste of big corporations, health insurance companies and lobbyists. She then received a huge applause from her fan section after using her tried and true phrases about stopping “corruption plain and simple,” and making “big structural change.”
“I get it, big structural change is hard, but it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Big ideas are the “lifeblood” of the Democratic Party, Warren said, and they are needed to face the challenges of this generation.
“Here’s the critical part: we need to be willing to fight for them. It’s easy to give up on a big idea, but if we give up on big ideas, we give up on the people whose lives would be touched on those ideas,” Warren said. “And those fights are all our fights. Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we are already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight.”
Key quote: “We’re here because this is the moment when we have to be prepared to fight for the best of our country.”
Summary: The California senator had a strong, familiar theme to her speech: fighting for justice for all Americans.
“I believe in 2020, justice is on the ballot,” Harris said. She highlighted economic, health care, education, youth and reproductive justice.
For each of those issues, Harris declared what she would do as president. She said she would introduce a middle class tax cut and repeal Trump’s tax breaks for the wealthy, ensure Medicare was available for all Americans — but that they can choose whether to take it — that the teacher pay gap closes, women have choice over their reproductive health and the gun lobby loses power.
Harris also emphasized how important it was to fight against Trump.
At stake in the fight, she said, is the country, the rule of law and democracy itself. To wage it, she said Americans have to fight against hate and division.
She ran through her background as a prosecutor, attorney general and senator, and touted how she defended rape survivors, took on big banks and confronted people like Jeff Sessions, William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh.
Harris also promised she was the candidate to go toe-to-toe with Trump on the debate stage.
When she said she’d fight for the people, Harris emphasized that it meant every American, regardless of background, political affiliation or country of origin.
“Justice is on the ballot, so it is time that we fight. And this is a fight that is about all of us because yes, a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us,” Harris said.
She closed by saying she believed in the ability of America to overcome injustices.
“I do believe that when we overcome these injustices, we will unlock the promise of America and the potential of the American people and I do believe that this is what we want and need,” she said. “That is the America that I see. That is the America I believe in. That is the America I know us to be.”
Key quote: “Corporations have bought our government in Washington, D.C. And all the great plans, for us to get them done, we’re going to have to break that corporate stranglehold. That’s why I’m running for president.”
Summary: The California businessman addressed the largest crowd of his campaign in the wake of a success separate from his presidential bid: the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
The founder of “Need to Impeach,” Steyer brought the progressive movement together soon after Trump took office.
He acknowledged the impeachment investigation, describing Trump as “the most corrupt president in American history.”
“When people said to us, it’s not politically smart to push impeachment … it’s not a question of what’s politically convenient, it’s a question of what’s right,” he said.
If elected president, Steyer said his “No. 1” priority would be to address the devastating effects of climate change.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we need to address it on a real-time basis, on an emergency basis, if we’re going to end it,” he said. “And I have over a decade-long history of winning around the country on climate change.”
Steyer said he had “taken on the oil companies” and “pushed clean energy.”
Part of his plan to end government corruption included implementing term limits of 12 years on members of the House of Representatives and Senate. Steyer specifically mentioned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as lawmakers long overdue to leave office.
He touched on his personal background, describing his mother’s teaching career and his father, the first in his family to go to college. Despite his vast success in business, Steyer said he left his career in business to start progressive organizations, vowing to donate the majority of his vast wealth.
“If you support me, there are three things I promise you: I will tell the truth; I will take bold action and I will deliver on the promise.”
Like all presidential candidates when given the opportunity, Steyer gave a shoutout to an Iowa relative, his soon-to-be 100-year-old Aunt Betsy.
Key quote: “Brothers and sisters, good policy is good politics. Now is the time to stand with the working families of our country and end the outrageous level of greed and corruption we see from the corporate elite.”
Summary: Straight off the street from his pre-LJ “March Against Corporate Greed,” the Vermont senator took the stage by denouncing Trump and his corruption. A “man who will soon be impeached,” Sanders said.
He also noted that his campaign had just cut a $20,000 check to the Iowa Democratic Party — Sanders held a separate rally for his supporters across the street during the event.
The candidate went on to speak about his trademark push to denounce the greed of the “corporate elite.”
Sanders then acknowledged some of his self-described “socialist” ideas. He proclaimed the Democratic Party has to be the party of working people.
“The Democratic Party must become the party of the working class of this country, not the Super PACs, not the corporate interests, not the lobbyists,” Sanders said. “Do we continue the status quo politics which has enabled the wealthiest people in our country? The largest corporations and their lobbyists who have extraordinary influence over the economic and political life of this country? No is the right answer. That is where the Republican Party is.”
He highlighted that his campaign had received “more campaign contributions from more people than any candidate in the history of presidential politics up until this point in a campaign.”
Sanders said his agenda spoke to the “pain” of working class U.S. families, which would include the addition of universal preschool, free public college, cancellation of all student debt, passing a Green New Deal, and reforming the criminal justice and immigration systems, among other things.
“Tonight, I say to you, If I am fortunate enough to accept the nomination of our party … that convention will not be funded by corporate interests of their lobbyists, that convention and our victory over Donald Trump will be funded by millions of Americans who are sick and tired of our status quo politics,” Sanders said.
Key quote: “You have a job to do. You may not have asked for it, but do you know what your job is? It is to save this democracy for the next generation of Americans.”
Summary: Bennet, a senator from Colorado, spent his time on stage distinguishing himself from more progressive competitors and making the case for a moderate position.
He said his position as a superintendent and a senator gave him a perspective on the issues facing the country (he also took a not-too-subtle shot at Buttigieg over the size of government the mayor has governed). Bennet said he disagreed with some of his fellow Democratic candidates, not because he doesn’t have big ideas, but because he has a different point of view.
Bennet said he wanted to implement universal health care coverage with a public option, not Medicare for All; he wanted to end childhood poverty and raise wages so people can afford their health care, their education and housing.
Bennet said he wanted to fix American politics by working to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling on campaign finance laws.
Near the end of his speech, Bennet repeated he wasn’t advocating for smaller ideas, just different ones, and that fighting for those ideas may be hard, but it wouldn’t be any more difficult than anything the country had tackled before.
By the end of his speech, Bennet repeated some ideas he had at the summertime Hall of Fame dinner — that every American is a Founder because every American preserves and changes the country all the time.
He closed by asking for Iowa’s help and to join his campaign because he wasn’t afraid of Trump and he knew how to deal with “schoolyard bullies.”
Key quote: “Somewhere along the way in our country, we forgot to talk about the poor. To talk about the most vulnerable.”
Summary: Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro didn’t do what everyone else did before the LJ dinner.
Instead of holding a rally or putting up signs, the candidate toured affordable housing units at Des Moines’ Supportive Housing Campus. Then, during dinner, he again highlighted his differences, this time those of his campaign as a whole.
“This campaign has marched to the beat of its own drum. We’ve been a little bit different than all of the other campaigns,” he said. “We have been speaking up for the most vulnerable folks in this country. People sleeping on the streets… in tunnels in Las Vegas. Folks who were the victims of police brutality.”
Castro also made the speech Iowa-specific. He’s fighting for a woman in Waukee, he said, “who has lived in her trailer home for 40 years and got a notice a few months ago that her rent was going up by more than 60 percent.”
Castro said that while other candidates focus on talking about the elite, or helping the middle class, he focuses on the country’s marginalized communities.
“We’re great about talking about the middle class, and I’m fighting for the middle class, but we also need to fight for the poor, and those who have the least. Those who suffer the most,” he said.
Castro announced this morning that he had raised over $1 million in October, after he made a fundraising plea of $800,000 to stay in the race. During his speech, Castro noted he will stay in the race long enough to walk current President Donald Trump out of office on inauguration day.
The crowd applauded when Castro said he would tell Trump, “Adios.”
Key quote: “And to the NRA and to Big Oil and to Big Pharma, no you do not own America and when I am President, they will not own me.”
The Minnesota senator used her time on the stage to call Americans to action.
She started with a callback to the 2016 election and her daughter’s concern after Trump was elected. Klobuchar then pivoted to talking about how the country responded with marches and protests against Trump’s more egregious actions, like when he tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Klobuchar said the only answer to the question of what we do next is to act.
She peppered her speech with jokes new and old, like how she won’t host a meeting of global leaders at one of her resorts. She paused to remind the audience she doesn’t own any resorts, unlike the president.
She ran through some of her goals when she got to the White House, like fighting climate change, bringing sanity back to foreign policy and being a president for all Americans.
Klobuchar also emphasized her background, like how she’s passed more than 100 bills in the Senate, that she consistently wins even in conservative areas of Minnesota.
When she told the crowd, “We can’t just win, we have to win big,” the crowd chanted it along with her.
Klobuchar ended her speech on: “We live in a country of shared dreams.”
Key quote: “We will rise to make sure that we in America are truly a nation for liberty and justice for all. We’re not defined by Donald Trump, we’re defined by the love between us.”
Summary: “I see you, I love you.”
That simple phrase was repeated often during the New Jersey senator’s time on stage.
Booker was quoting a man he described as his hero, a Newark, New Jersey, man who died 10 years ago this month. As mayor of Newark, Booker said he came to know him personally and professionally as a leader in ousting “slum lords” from the struggling city.
“Frank knew that the power of this country comes from those who are often overlooked, often ignored, that the power of the people in a projects basement — I see you, I love you — is powerful enough to tear down a rich and powerful slum lord,” he said.
Booker is known for his soaring, optimistic rhetoric, drawing less on specific policy proposals and more on the shared values and ideals of America.
“This is going to be decided by who can best call us to our common aspirations, who can best inspire us to be the truth of who we are,” he said. “We don’t abandon our values during trials, we double-down on them.”
One of the driving reasons behind his presidential campaign, Booker said, was ensuring women’s rights remain in tact, particularly reproductive rights. The rights of union members and public employees was top of mind, too. As president, Booker said he also would “deal with the challenge of climate change.”
For Democrats to strive only for a candidate who could beat President Trump would be a mistake, Booker said. He argued Americans must look beyond Trump to the nation they wanted to build for centuries to come.
“Democrats, beating Donald Trump is the floor, it is not the ceiling,” he said. “Beating Donald Trump gets us out of the valley, it does not get us on top.”
Key quote: “I’ll never forget what I’ve learned in rural Iowa. In coffee shops and in living rooms and in small towns. Hearing about the dignity of these communities. What you’ve done for this country and how you’ve been left behind.”
Former Maryland Representative John Delaney spent the beginning of his speech describing the story of the boy who was his grandfather who immigrated to the United States with his family, but almost getting deported because he only had one arm.
Now, he urges event attendees to take a chance on him.
“I need your help,” Delaney said. “This race has become nationalized very early. The role that Iowa’s played historically, the important role that you played, particularly in your rural communities, in having a voice in what your agenda is, isn’t being heard. Rural Iowa’s issues are not the center. This is why I need your help.”
They should take a chance on him, Delaney said, because he knows Iowa better than the other candidates.
“I’ve shown up,” Delaney said. “Democrats have not been showing up in rural America, but I have. I’ve been to every one of your 99 counties.”
Delaney acknowledged the trade war and ending the ethanol wavers—rural Iowa specific topics.
“This is an unrivaled economic agenda for turning around rural America. And it includes trade. Because we’ve got to end this trade war,” Delaney said. “I’ll end these ethanol waivers. That agenda will beat Trump in rural Iowa.”
But he also used time onstage to focus on his policies meant to help the working class.
“My dad told me, John, if you care about workers, you vote for a Democrat. I grew up in a time when America worked,” Delaney said.
Key quote: “Don’t tell me that we can’t turn out our base and bring back those Obama-Trump voters.”
The Montana governor closed out the night with a speech heavy on the cowboy influence.
“Together, we can boot Donald Trump out of office,” he said at the beginning, starting a theme that would carry through the rest of the speech.
Another focus of his speech was the places that went for Trump in the last election and how they can be reached again. He said he had the secret to winning conservative areas.
“It ain’t that complicated,” he said. “You’ve gotta show up.”
Bullock also told people that no part of the country should be written off because he refuses to believe that all Trump voters are lost forever.
“Don’t tell me that we can’t win back the places we lost,” he said. “Don’t tell me places like Iowa, Montana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are any less important to the Democratic Party than California and Massachusetts.”
Bullock emphasized how he’s won statewide elections as a Democrat, three times, first as attorney general, then as governor. He pointed out that he got the Koch Brothers and the influence of Citizens United out of Montana.
“Winning doesn’t mean compromising our progressive values,” Bullock said.
He also acknowledged that he’s an underdog in the race, but it doesn’t bother him because he’s used to it as a Democrat in Montana.
Bullock closed by saying he’s in the race to beat Trump, bridge divides in the country and to make the economy and Washington D.C. work for all Americans.
By Elizabeth Meyer, Isabella Murray and Nikoel Hytrek