Iowans gathered around TV screens across the state this evening to watch the fifth Democratic debate, and the Starting Line team was out there with them in the Des Moines area. There were less “neutral site” debate watch locations as Iowa activists start to make up their mind, so we attended more candidate-specific events.
Tonight’s ten-person debate came just as the race in the Iowa Caucus is in the middle of a shakeup. Pete Buttigieg surged to the top of the pack in last week’s Des Moines Register poll, leading most to assume he’d take significant incoming fire in order to slow him down in the early states.
Before the Buttigieg watch party at Exile Brewing in Des Moines got going, attendees were braced for the tough road ahead.
“We all think Pete walks on water. He doesn’t,” joked Rich Eychaner, a Des Moines business leader, longtime LGBTQ advocate and Buttigieg endorser. “He’s going to stub his toe sometime. He’s going to say something he shouldn’t say and have to pull back. That’s all part of a campaign.”
The warning was largely unnecessary, at least for this debate, where Buttigieg sailed through with relatively few attacks given his new polling status. Several candidates backed off previous recent criticisms of Buttigieg, or made much softer arguments against him. Tulsi Gabbard got in a heated tiff with him at the end, but overall it was not anything like the pile-on that Elizabeth Warren experienced once she rose up in late summer/early fall.
“I think people would like to be able to do that (attack Buttigieg), but the moderators aren’t really letting that happen,” Jason Benell of Des Moines, 35, an attendee at a Buttigieg watch party said. “Though, they do seem to be trying to set the leading four — Bernie, Pete, Warren, Biden — up to stumble, just not because of others.”
Those who have seen their own candidate take concentrated fire in the past were a little frustrated.
“I’m surprised they haven’t been on Mayor Pete more,” said Arlene McAtee, 66, of West Des Moines, a Warren supporter. “They really went after Warren in the last debate when she rose. Which makes me worry that perhaps an effort to lessen the more progressive positions is happening by people who are feeling that we’re needing something more moderate.”
But for other backers of candidates who would benefit from a Buttigieg stumble, there wasn’t a big desire to see their favorite do the dirty work.
“Oh God, no, no, no, no, I don’t like the fighting,” said Chris Hartline, who was at an Amy Klobuchar watch party. “I hate the fighting. We’re not about fighting, we’re about unity.”
Susan Barnes, another Klobuchar backer, shook her head when asked if she was surprised Klobuchar didn’t go harder on her competitor.
“I thought she took the high road and I thought it was good she did. [That question] was a trap for her,” Barnes said of a question about experience.
But there were still plenty of interesting interactions between the candidates, which Iowa caucus-goers had some opinions on.
One flashpoint late in the debate came when Cory Booker took aim at Joe Biden’s recent comments that America shouldn’t legalize marijuana.
“The controversy between Booker and Biden was sort of interesting, and I think that’s one where Booker really stood out and Biden didn’t look as good,” said Eli Jost, 21, who was at a neutral debate watch at Drake University. “It was interesting when he said he had support from the only black woman in the Senate and Harris sort of laughed at that.”
Early on, many watch party attendees commented on the back-and-forth between Booker and Warren on a two-cent wealth tax. Booker suggested that there were better ways to raise revenue through other forms of taxes.
“I think [Booker’s] plan would actually be less popular,” said Hayley Rauzi, 32, who was at a Warren watch party. “He’s just banking on the fact that no one knows what he’s talking about.”
Grace Libeck, a 19-year-old student at the Drake event, saw it differently.
“I feel like what Booker was saying about increasing wealth and revitalizing the economy through ways other than taxation is going to be a take that’s going to be embraced, or maybe not embraced, but appealing to Republicans, so I think that could maybe be a good thing,” she said.
Gabbard’s mixing it up with several of the candidates drew reactions from people.
“The [Harris/Gabbard moment] was an uncomfortable split screen, but it’s something good for the party to see its divisions and move forward,” said Kathrin Skilton, 30, of Des Moines, who was at the Buttigieg event.
As one would expect, backers of the candidates Gabbard attacked didn’t much appreciate it.
“Tulsi is using her position in Congress as if that’s power,” commented Buttigieg supporter Eric Champlin, 32, of Des Moines. “Tulsi looked like she pulled out a shovel and dug a hole tonight. Pete has the experience in South Bend, he has the leadership experience in the military, he’s a Rhodes scholar. I don’t think it was a good look for her.”
This debate featured some discussion about how far to the left the party’s nominee should go, and whether candidates with more moderate plans or approaches would appeal to more voters. That helped some Iowans make up their minds.
“I haven’t committed yet, but tonight is the closest I’ve come, and it’s [Klobuchar],” said Jean Davis, of Des Moines, at a Klobuchar gathering. “We’re not going to get everything on the left or everything on the right. I like that she’s had to walk that fine line and build coalitions.”
Others were pleased with unity-focused appeals.
“After every debate, I walk away feeling proud knowing that I chose the right candidate,” said Melissa Hale, a Cory Booker supporter. “A candidate who speaks on love, hope and unity.”
Many analysts online felt that Kamala Harris had a particularly good performance, and it seemed to solidify her among some Iowans who gathered to watch the debate.
“I’ll caucus for Kamala,” said Grace Libeck, 19, at Drake. “I feel like she stands for all the big issues that I’m invested in, gun control and climate change, but while promoting it in a more moderate way.”
Warren, as she often does, appeared to put in another steady performance, which pleased her supporters.
“Her plans have been very detailed and very bold, which I really appreciate,” noted Kody Craddick, 20, at Drake. “I’m from eastern Iowa, and I’ve seen her organization out there and I’m very impressed with it. Those two things are very important to me.”
Outside of the candidate interactions, attendees appreciated how the debate, moderated by four women, covered far more and different topics than previous debates did. That included housing issues, paid family leave, some rural topics, a lot more foreign policy topics and the military budget.
“I think that the little debate back and forth that Warren and Booker were having about the housing crisis was very interesting because it was something that hasn’t been heavily talked about,” commented Emma Hannum, 18, an undecided voter at the Drake watch party. “And I appreciated Steyer’s comments on sustainability and the environment.”
Other young voters at Drake agreed.
“I liked what they were talking about with paid leave for parents and childcare,” said Natalie Novak, 18. “That is not really an issue that I thought of before a lot so bringing that up gave me a new perspective to consider.”
“I think I’ve heard enough about Medicare for All right now, but it’s been nice to hear about paid family leave and climate change and a lot of the major issues that haven’t really been brought up in previous debates,” added Craddick. “It’s been really nice that we’ve seen more of the candidates’ platforms.”
The housing discussion surprised and was appreciated by many Iowans watching this evening.
“For me it’s an extremely important issue because I work with refugees where access to affordable housing is a serious, serious problem,” said Rauzi. “I appreciate that [Warren] actually has a plan for that.”
And for some Iowans, it was just fun to see all their favorite Democrats on stage once again.
“I’ve been supporting Elizabeth Warren for a number of months now,” said Vicky Daniel, 75, of Windsor Heights, at a Warren event. “On this tonight, I think she’s doing well but not fabulous. I think Amy is doing very well. And I think Booker is doing well! Kamala’s doing well! Hey, we’ve got some candidates!”
by Pat Rynard, with reporting by Josh Cook, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek and Isabella Murray