Caucus Crazy 2020 — From Tom to Bernie

In the AFSCME Scrum and Hearing the Sanders Stump Effect

Bernie Sanders at Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, February 1, 2020. | Credit: Lawrence Gamble

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Saturday, February 1: A Tom Steyer Event (?) in West Des Moines

Early in the day I ventured to West Des Moines to the Tavern Pizza Parlor. At first I thought I was in the wrong place — no campaign signs, very few people outside of the restaurant. Entering I discovered that I was in fact at the correct location. In a very small back room (seating for only 30 non-press) a local union leader was addressing members of the public service employees union, the AFSCME. His main pitch: we all needed to unify behind the Democratic candidate and defeat Trump in November.

I thought I was attending a Tom Steyer town hall, but it turns out all the candidates were there, either in person, or through surrogates to make their pitches to this very important union. Although there were only 30 union members there, I am guessing that their support is supposed to translate to other members of their union. Whether this union is going to formally endorse a candidate before the caucuses is anyone’s guess.

Rep. Ayanna Presley

The first surrogate is Congressperson Ayanna Presley of Massachusetts, a co-chair of the Warren campaign. She gives a short, focused pitch for union support. Next, Brad, a top campaign aide to Andrew Yang, reads a prepared speech. He starts with recounting his experience is government (Congressional aide, campaign worker, etc.) and then rhetorically why he is supporting a non-politician like Andrew. The answer? Yang is the only one who is addressing the very real problems of the 21st century. Says that Andrew is for change that will “rewrite the rules” so that the American economy works for everyone. He then details specifics of Yang’s pro-worker, pro-union agenda.

Tom Steyer speaks next. He is friends with the union leader who led off the session. They hug each other vigorously. Turns out Steyer has been active in Iowa going back several years when he founded a group called NextGenAmerica, whose goal is to empower young people to be civically engaged. I need to do some research on NextGenAmerica. Steyer speaks briefly. His best line has to do with negotiating with the current Republican Party. His pitch is for everyone to work hard to elect Democrats in November to all levels of government. His line on the Republicans: “There is no middle with these guys, we need to defeat them.” Good line, audience responds with enthusiasm. Then a fellow stands up and says that although he had been undecided, he was going to commit to Tom. Steyer thanks him for his support. 

Tom Steyer

Leaving the room, Steyer is pounced on by reporters and the cameras roll. He is pulled into several spot interviews. He seems happy to oblige and is very personable. Smiles much. As I am about the leave the restaurant, former governor Vilsack (for Joe Biden) walks in as does a surrogate for Amy Klobuchar. As I walk out, Bernie Sanders walks past me into the restaurant. As he enters, a loud cheer erupts. Now I know who all those non-union and non-press people were who were standing in the back of the restaurant. 

In retrospect, this seemingly little event takes on greater importance. I will keep my eyes open to the news tonight to see if and how it is reported. Bernie is followed with a much bigger staff than the others. I think Tom Steyer had one person with him. The surrogates came alone.

I left West Des Moines and headed for Indianola.

Noon:  Bernie Sanders Townhall at Simpson College in Indianola

Lobby is jammed with people waiting to get in, and the auditorium is already full. Press area is full, so I am turned away (I don’t feel too bad: a reporter for ABC was also turned away). Bernie has been leading in recent polls, does this enthusiasm pre-date the polls? Is it because we are in a college town? Or is the bandwagon effect in full force?

I can hear speakers from the auditorium. Bernie is not here yet. And they have just opened the press entrance, so I am going to try to get in.

Rep. Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar is introducing Bernie when I enter the room. When she finishes, Bernie’s wife gives a rousing speech detailing why everyone should support the candidate. Her best line, “We support him because of his moral clarity.”

After she finishes, Bernie enters to thunderous applause. He begins by introducing two of his grandchildren, who stand next to him at the lectern, and says he is running for them and for all the kids. Bernie gives a fairly impassioned stump speech. He seems very energized. It may be because the caucuses are two days away, or maybe the support from the room lifts him up, but he seems more excited and energized than the other candidates I have seen. One of his best lines, “Let’s make justice the ‘moon shot’ of this generation,” harkening back to JFK. He reviews his policy agenda, contrasting it with what Trump has done in office, and Bernie spends time going over health care, choice, gun violence, special interest groups’ impact on government, and the like. It reads like a progressive dream of an agenda, but I can’t help but wonder: dream or pipe dream?

He says this is the most consequential election in our lifetimes, and no one in the room disagrees. I think consequential is a better word than “important,” because important is vague, but consequential is less so, and Bernie laid out item after item how his election to the presidency would mark a strong break with Trump and why that should be important to all but the “one percent and the large corporations.”

Bernie pauses to let everyone know that if he doesn’t win the nomination, all Democrats will support the nominee. He says that in order to defeat Trump, we will need the largest turnout in American history. He believes that his “movement,” as he calls it, is energizing nonvoters into become involved, and he mentions that he is supported solely with grassroots donations.

His Iowa organizer confirms that by the time of the caucuses, Bernie people will have knocked on 500,000 Iowa doors. He adds, as an aside, that that isn’t bad in a state of 3 million people. And that 3 million number makes me reflect on how much attention this state gets and other, much more populous and diverse states, do not.

Many proposals have been made over the years as to ways to reform and improve the nominee selection process. I think we should do rotating regional primaries or caucuses, dividing the states into four or six zones so that candidates can focus their time, money, energy on areas that will be more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire. The latter two won’t want to give up their primacy, but in reality it is the national parties headquartered in D.C. who decide where and when primaries and caucuses will be held.

Before I leave the rally, I bump into Tommy Vietor, one of the Pod Save America hosts and we briefly chat about the speech. He assures me that they will be podcasting from Iowa very soon. In the men’s room I run into Jon Lovett. I compliment him on his performance in Iowa City, and he confides that he was a little star struck having Michael Moore on stage because he had never spoken to him before. I told him the show was worth the long drive from Des Moines, and he laughed.

I leave Indianola and head back to Des Moines. Before I return to my hotel, I stop by and eat a pork tenderloin sandwich. It’s an Iowa thing; if you ever come here you will understand.

Checking the Candidate Tracker, no one is near Des Moines for the rest of the day until tonight. Evelyn is flying in just as Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar are holding rallies in the downtown.

My political education will have to wait for tomorrow.

After teaching high school social studies for 19 years, Lawrence Gamble retired this past June. A Goldwater Republican at age 14 and a Bobby Kennedy Democrat at age 18 who later walked precincts for anti-Vietnam-War candidates, Gamble spent years trying to explain the Iowa caucuses to his American Government students. “I am in Iowa to see American democracy up close and personal.” he wrote in his first Caucus Crazy 2020 blog entry.

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