Live From Iowa: Caucus Night

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign bus in Iowa City. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the second part of periodic reports from the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps beyond, should the republic last until South Carolina and Nevada. This was written before the voting in Iowa.

With the three horse-persons of the impeachment—Senators Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar—glued to their desks during last week’s trial, I fanned out across Iowa in search of the second team.

One of the myths about the Iowa caucuses is that the state is rural and small, with few urban centers, enabling candidates to meet-and-greet their way through Grange halls to a primary victory.

In fact, while Iowa is largely an agricultural state, it also has a population of three million and a number of small cities—Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Davenport among them. To get from one side of the state to the other requires five hours of driving.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter won in Iowa, giving him the halo of the people’s choice, but in general all that matters in the caucus is to acquire the aura of having exceeded expectations—whatever they may be.

Hence the winner might simply be the candidate with the best spin doctors, and not necessarily the candidate who wins the most votes on caucus night.

Nor does winning in Iowa guarantee a candidate his or her party’s nomination. At stake are 41 delegates, out of some 4000 national delegates that will go the summer party nominating convention. Among those who have won in Iowa but failed to get the nomination are Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Mick Huckabee, and Dick Gephardt.

That said, if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic caucuses this year in Iowa—at the moment he’s ahead in the polls—and wins in New Hampshire, he will be hard to beat in the remaining Democratic primaries.

Andrew Yang: The Democratic App

I wanted to connect with Andrew Yang, who was on an extended bus tour in eastern Iowa, and to do that I had to drive to Grundy Center, a one-horse town not far from Waterloo.

Yang was speaking in the community center that is in the same building as the town hall. When I got there, everyone was seated on plastic chairs, as though waiting to see someone about a building permit.

The room had space for about forty people, but about one-third were media, who filled the back of the room with bulky TV cameras. In the campaign, for the most part, towns like Grundy Center are Potemkin villages in which the candidates put on their one-act plays for the evening news.

At this point, I am a little surprised no one has come up with a virtual green screen that would allow the candidates to film their small-town docudramas in a studio and spare everyone in their wake (groupies, staffers, media types, and TV trucks) from having to drive halfway across Iowa to hear them say exactly what they said at the previous stop.

Yang’s schtick is that of a tech and corporate guru, for whom government, if not the presidency, is yet another start-up in need of private equity to get things running better. In many respects he’s the perfect millennial candidate, who sees government as yet another dinosaur of the fossil fuel era.

By the standards of this election, he’s young—45 years old—and he has the air of someone who doesn’t need to watch a YouTube tutorial either to install his router or run Linux on his laptop.

To my knowledge he’s never held or run for elective office. His parents were immigrants from Taiwan, and after coming to the United States they worked to get advanced academic degrees.

Part of the second generation, Yang went to elite private schools, including Philips Exeter (George W. Bush went there too) and Columbia Law School, which may explain why Yang is comfortable addressing audiences.

I suspect Yang would solve many of the problems of American government or society with an app.

Yang speaks softly and gives no evidence of wielding a big stick. At the beginning of his talk in Grundy Center, two activists decided to gate crash the event and held up a small, hand-printed sign (“Andrew Yang is a robot…”), accusing Yang of having funded artificial intelligence that would take jobs away from Iowans.

Had it been a Trump or even a Sanders rally, and had some hacktivist rushed the podium with a grievance, security guards would have dragged away the protester, in the same way that the Chicago police cleared the streets around the 1968 Democratic convention. In this case, Yang simply stood still and did nothing, until the audience booed and chided the interlopers to leave, which they did.

Yang owes his primary longevity (he’s lasted longer in the race than several professional politicians) to his plan to pay every American over age eighteen $1,000 a month.

He calls it the “freedom dividend” and claims the idea dates to the early days of the republic, when Tom Paine (Common Sense) talked up the payout (he presumably wanted to pay over the money in pieces of eight). In modern times, the state of Alaska pays its residents an annual dividend based on energy production.

To pay for the giveaway, Yang would tax large tech companies, such as Google and Amazon, because, he argues, they have grown rich on gathering and selling the metadata of average Americans, who should be paid for the use of their assets.

People could spend their $1000 any way they choose, although he quips, “You might even get your own Netflix password.” Mostly the money would end up back in the local economy, so it’s hardly different from other government grants, including social security, if not the bailouts of large banks.

Most of the other candidates in the primaries do not speak so much as they bark at their audiences. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren often sound like truant officers lecturing runaway students.

Yang’s approach is calmer. His tone is that of a corporate consultant, and he speaks in the voice of a facilitator at a company offsite, explaining how employees (well, voters in this case) can live happier, more productive and efficient lives (especially if they download the Yang voter app).

He has a number of stock phrases, repeated at most events, that play well with an audience that, truth be told, only half listens to the campaign talks and spends the rest of the time skimming their iPhones.

On addressing climate change, Yang says, “I am the ideal candidate. I am an Asian man who likes math.” He doesn’t blame Trump for every ill in the society, preferring to target the Big Brother qualities of large tech companies, who are turning citizens, especially children, into automatons (“computer dopamine” is one of his phrases).

His warnings about the brave new world include vignettes about jobs disappearing when self-driving trucks replace the some three million truckers on the road (and with them go waitressing jobs in truck stops and many motel clerks), and he makes the larger point that “corporate profits don’t equate to our well-being.”

Mostly Yang talks about the Manichean world—hey, I said he was new age—of technology, which can be your friend but also the cause of unemployment, hunger, suicide, drug dependence, gun violence, and health issues.

To combat this, he wants all Americans, in effect, to be shareholders in their enterprise, and at least to earn some money while Google and Amazon are mining your data. And he would transform government (“it’s twenty years behind the times”) into a responsive web site.

If you sat next to Yang on a flight to Dayton and if he talked about “corporate change and technology” for the entire trip, you would not give him another thought after you said good-bye and “Good luck at your conference.”

But for the moment he’s a presidential candidate, complete with his own chartered bus and a road show across Iowa—in the tracks of earlier faith healers who looked for souls to cure on the frontier.

It says something about current times that so many candidates in the race—Tom Steyer is another—have never run for or served in any public office, before they decided—Trump-like—“I think I would make a good president.”

Then if they can pay the campaign bills, they can have a chartered bus, front yard signs, media attention, and, for a brief shining moment in Iowa, some name recognition in the political world.

The Yang event lasted about thirty-five minutes, and when it was done he shook a few hands and posed for selfies—obligatory for everyone except Bernie in this campaign. Then Yang vanished through the back door to his waiting bus, to continue his fourteen-stop tour in the days before the Iowa voting.

The Andrew Yang getting on the bus—looking at his phone, surrounded by young men who could themselves be working for a tech company—didn’t have the look of someone who lives to drink the Kool-Aid  of modern political campaigns.

He ignored greeting a few kids with Yang signs who were hanging around the parking lot (Biden would have given them an encouraging word), and there was no wave to the faithful, even if they were just a few crazies mumbling to themselves about Google running our lives.

I did like the Yang approach to politics, although during his talk I was reminded of something Speaker Sam Rayburn said in the JFK era about “the best and the brightest” of Ivy Leaguers then determined to engage the United States government in a VietnamWar.

Rayburn said to his friend Lyndon Johnson: “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriffjust once.”

Tom Steyer: The Californians Run For President

Tom Steyer is a billionaire in the Democratic presidential race who has never served in public office. His picture is on billboards all over the state, and usually the picture shows a humble Tom chatting up an Iowa farmer or union worker about the big issues of the day. (It’s either that or he’s trying to persuade the farmer to invest in Steyer’s twenty billion-dollar hedge fund.)

Under the words TOM STEYER, the sign reads: “Democrat for President,” just so that passing motorists have some clue who Steyer is and why his picture is on billboards in places like Madison County (of romantic movie fame).

Otherwise, as Tom bears a slight resemblance to Clint Eastwood (Meryl Streep’s love interest in the film), Iowans might think that Tom was on the lookout for their wives and that these billboards were retro Tinder ads.

I caught up with Steyer in a Des Moines restaurant where he had come to lobby for union support in the upcoming caucuses. The room was tiny, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members, about twenty or so, were seated in a semi-circle facing the front of the room, where candidates were coming to make their pitch.

From the questions I got the impression that most in the room were school teachers or health-care professionals, all of whom had problems with their bosses (most of whom probably looked and sounded a lot like Tom).

Steyer is one of the few candidates who campaigns in a suit and necktie (Trump and Bloomberg are the others—it must be a billionaire thing). But his blue suit was rumbled and poorly cut—think of a homicide detective—and his necktie was a bright tartan plaid, as though the office he was seeking was that of Scottish highland chief.

I don’t want to suggest that Steyer’s eyes are rolling in his head, but he does have the look and air of a true believer—at least in the greater good of Tom Steyer.

He speaks in the clipped phrases of democratic earnestness and corporate efficiency, and during most of his presentation, while making it clear that he had a billion big ones stashed away in some bank (“I can beat Trump his own game…”), Steyer suggested that what had really fueled his professional career was a love of the working class (especially those in AFSCME locals).

Steyer’s entrance ticket to the Democratic primaries (leaving aside that he has a billion dollars burning a hole in his pocket) came through his advocacy of Donald Trump’s impeachment. For a while, he was funding those running for office who would pledge to support impeachment.

After some time, he must have figured, as Winston Churchill joked, “Why talk to the monkey when you have the organ grinder in the room?” and he declared his own candidacy for the presidency (mostly with billboards in the Iowa fields of dreams).

Now that Trump (for a little while longer) is under impeachment, Steyer has shifted his platform to climate change, economic redevelopment, and education for the young (he said to the unionists: “I’m an education bug” and talked their ears off about how kids need to be reading by the age of three…).

I have to assume that the Democratic candidates, including marginal ones such as Tom Steyer, tailor their pitches based on what they hear from their pollsters.

For example, no one out here is beating the drum over Quemoy and Matsu, capital punishment, inflation, or the Laffer Curve. Instead all anyone talks about is health care insurance, climate change (using only the vaguest platitudes about saving the planet), and student debt, and when they need a metaphor for foreign policy, the only issue worth mentioning is Iran and the killing of General Qasem Soleimani.

Although Steyer would love to convince the electorate that he’s an enlightened plutocrat and more at home in a trailer park than on his 1800-acre eco-ranch outside San Francisco, he still speaks like a guy hustling assets under management. So, in prefacing his rap on education, he says: “So here’s my deal on student debt.”

His plan involves free community college and debt forgiveness for those who work in the military or serve others (that category is a bit hazy), and like all the other Democrats in the race he will pay for his gravy trains by taxing polluters, monopolies, tech giants, and freebooters—in other words, a list of companies that, back in the day, I am sure, helped to make Tom his first billion.

Steyer didn’t linger too long in the union cell meeting. Even he could tell that his pitch was falling on deaf ears and that most were just killing time until Bernie turned up.

Steyer drifted back into the restaurant, where there were a bevy of television reporters and enough cameras and klieg lights to make even Steyer think that his message was being heard. (Meth must give off the same highs, and it doesn’t cost $25 million or require chartering a campaign bus.)

Steyer took a few desultory questions from the professional chorus (he batted away one about peace in the Middle East), and then settled into a longer, more intimate interview with network television—always in search of the perfect soundbite that would somehow propel him into fourth place.

But the moment Bernie walked through the front doors of the restaurant, all the cameras around Steyer vanished, and he was left alone standing next to a large pile of pizza boxes. “So here’s my deal on pepperoni…”

Bernie: Same Speech for Forty Years

Bernie had not been scheduled to appear at the AFSCME meeting, but apparently he could not resist the chance to stop by and flash his union credentials.

His wife came with him, and Bernie only spoke for about eight minutes, ticking off the highlights of his union activism, which began when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s.

There were palpable gasps in the restaurant when he came through the door, as though maybe Jesus himself had decided to drop by a local church and teach a Sunday school class. (“I was born in Bethlehem…”)

As it happened, I was on my way to a full-blown Bernie event at Simpson College, in Indianola, which is south of Des Moines by about 12 miles. So I got to hear him speak twice in less than two hours, which is a touch trying, as at all his events Bernie repeats the same speech, word-for-word, syllable-for-syllable.

After the second hearing of the stump speech, I did begin to wonder how anyone could take pleasure in repeating the same words over and over again. Then I bumped into one of Bernie’s political rivals, who joked: “He’s been making the same speech for forty years.” I guess maybe that’s part of the appeal, but in person it’s like listening to the loop on a call center’s Muzak.

In the four years since I had seen Sanders (I heard him speak several times in New Hampshire in 2016), he has turned into a saint. This time there was a little more order to his hair (I am sure the campaign staff has strategy meetings with his barber). Otherwise Bernie still dresses like an unmade bed and has the air of wandering hermit.

(When traveling around the United States in the early 1960s for the book that became Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wore casual clothes. At one point he ran into someone on the Great Plains who remarked of Steinbeck’s threads: “You gotta be awful rich to dress like that.”)

Actually, the best outfit for Bernie would be a hair shirt, as the message he delivers (at each stop along the wandering road) is a gospel of penitence—for how the United States deals with health insurance, student debt, climate change, minimum wages, women’s rights, homelessness, big pharma, corporate greed, immigration, teacher salaries, the 1%, tax breaks, prescription drugs, and the criminal justice system. (If I am leaving out some his outrage, you can fill in the blanks.)

In front of the AFSCME members, he boiled down the set speech into several minutes—stressing his union affiliations—but in Indianola he gave the full pre-recorded message, which lasted about 45 minutes.

At Simpson College, a pretty liberal arts school, Sanders’ staff went out of their way to humanize the candidate (which I am sure isn’t the easiest task in presidential politics).

On the undercard there were a number of speeches from supporters, including one by Representative Ilhan Omar, best known today (at least in the popular press) for ditching her husband for a campaign consultant and for her work alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in what is called “the Squad.”

In person Ilhan is a dreary speaker whose voice rarely misses a monotone beat, and as she spoke everyone around me was checking their phones or chatting with a neighbor.

Her job as a warm-up band was to emphasize, at least to the press gaggle that had packed the hall, that Bernie is “electable,” which is the adjective of choice among Democratic operatives.

Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all make the point that Bernie and Warren are “un-electable,” meaning they would lose to Trump in the general election. Too much shining, not enough path…

Hence all the Bernie TV spots running in Iowa insist that he’s not only leading a revolution but that he can beat Trump (“the most corrupt president in our history….and a pathological liar…”). And that message is also delivered by his spin doctors, Representative Omar among them.

After Omar spoke, Bernie’s wife, Dr. Jane Sanders, introduced her husband, again as part of the humanization process. She didn’t talk about her honeymoon in the Soviet Union (a staple at the Trump rally), but said that Bernie at home was the same Bernie on the road—honest, caring, and always fighting for social justice.

As she spoke about her perfect husband, I imagined her asking him to take out the garbage, and Bernie responding: “What we have seen is that while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels. This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans … You know, this country does not just belong to a handful of billionaires.” And then Jane saying: “I know, Bernie, and put the lid on the cans so the raccoons don’t get in them…”

Bernie greets a few voters after his orations, but not many. He’s not Elizabeth Warren with her selfie lines or Joe Biden working the velvet rope to reconnect with his firemen friends.

In his persona, Bernie’s a professor of sociology at a left-wing university—say the New School in New York City—who is happy that you take his courses but who has no interest in drinking beer with you on a Thursday night after his Thorstein Veblen seminar.

If Sanders wins the Iowa caucuses, and right now the polls are saying he will, and then goes on to win in New Hampshire, which would make him a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, what will have turned the tide in his favor is that his ideas, once on the fringe, are becoming more mainstream, at least among younger voters.

Twelve or even eight years ago, no one, not even the saintly Barack Obama, could have run for president on universal health care, the forgiveness of student debt, a wealth tax, and a green new deal that by some estimates could cost $23 trillion to implement.

Now, at least in a few early state primaries, Bernie’s celebrity as a truth-teller (think of Savonarolapreaching his bonfires of the vanities in 15th-century Florence) outweighs any scrutiny of Bernie’s plans, whether they would pass, and how Congress would pay for them.

Bernie has become a primetime player, and that means he can campaign in an old blazer and build (publicly-owned) castles in the air by taxing climate abusers, the 1%, and greedy tech titans. I suspect, however, that voters in a general election would not be as reverential in their assessments as are his wife and Representative Omar.

Another advantage that Bernie enjoys in the early primaries is that he has been here before and has a network of activists in place, all of whom want nothing more than to knock on doors in Cedar Rapids and to drive senior citizens to caucus locations. (And he’s something of a favorite son in New Hampshire, which is next door to his home state of Vermont.)

Bernie’s campaign is a children’s crusade and that should lead to heavy turn out in places such as Des Moines, Iowa City, and Ames, all of which are student cities. And as Bernie said at Simpson College: “If we get a large turnout, we will win. If it’s a low turnout, we will lose.” And at least for a large turnout, he will have an ideal weather day—sunny and dry.

Finally, I think Bernie benefits from what might be called the Zelig vote—the inclination of voters to see in him whatever they don’t like about other candidates.

Bernie is a windbag who, as his critic said, “has been giving the same speech for forty years.” His record in Congress is that of a moral purist, with few legislative achievements, and I suspect Hillary was speaking for more than herself when she said he had few friends in Congress and didn’t play well in the sandbox of democracy. But in 2020, prickliness plays.

Look at the Republicans in the thrall of Donald Trump. Could the Democrats want some of that stridency on their side? If so, Bernie is the delivery drone of moral clarity, more so than Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden, both of whom (less so Warren) feel somewhat tethered to terrestrial life.

Bernie’s home district is the cosmos, and I can well imagine voters, on both sides in 2020, wanting a spirit in the sky.

Elizabeth Warren: Pilates in Chief

From Indianola I had to hot-foot it out to Iowa City, more than a 2-hour drive, if I was going to catch Elizabeth Warren at Iowa City West High School, which is a few miles outside the university town.

At least the ice on the roads had melted, and I could set the rental car on cruise control to race through such towns as Marengo (named, I presume, after the Napoleonic battle in Italy), Grinnell (where a good friend went to college), and What Cheer (an odd name for a decaying coal town).

Along the way, I reflected that none of the Democratic candidates even make a pretense of speaking to Iowa farmers. (Their audience is a network producer in New York City or Los Angeles.) It used to be a truism that Democratic candidates—including even urbanite JFK—had a farm policy.

Now farmers are on the wrong side of the climate change barricades, and they rarely get a shout-out, except when they are enlisted (presumably against their will) to go green. It’s surprising, as Trump screwed over Iowa’s soybean farmers with his China tariffs. China retaliated by not buying Iowa’s beans.

Warren’s staff was all over the entrance the gymnasium at West High School, and they were doing their best to get the email and phone number of every person who entered the event. (The Biden people just smile and wave you inside.)

The event set-up was like that of all other campaigns. The candidate speaks from a raised podium at the center of a hollow square surrounded with chairs. Behind the chairs, at least on one side but sometimes two, there are risers and platforms for television cameras; they get the box seat views.

Behind the risers are desks for print journalists, bloggers, and influencers, but those seats come with no view of the candidate. So while I have seen many events across Iowa, I have had to struggle just to see the candidate speaking. And no candidate wastes their time talking to print journalists, who might as well be throwing their dispatches on night trains heading for Chicago.

The Warren speeches I have attended have had a lot more buzz and bigger audiences than the Sanders events. And Warren turns out a broader demographic than the pollsters, 538 included, have picked up.

Her supporters are mostly women, but they are all ages, and they are more passionate about their candidate than are the Sandernistas who, I suspect, now communicate more through texts than by showing up at Bernie’s rallies.

At the Warren events I have attended, I have seen a number of supporter groups that include a mother, daughter, and grandmother all wearing Warren t-shirts or stickers.

Warren blamed her late arrival on Donald Trump and the impeachment hearings, which stuck her in the Senate until late Friday night, but she still arrived with her trademark bountiful energy, as if about to lead a pilates class for about four hundred people.

I don’t think she was carrying a mat or boom box, but there was jazzercise music coming from the rafters and Elizabeth kept punching the air, especially when Aretha Franklin hit some of her high notes (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T…Find out what it means to me…”).

I have now heard Warren speak three times and the set speech has never varied, down to her attempts at humor, as when she talks about her divorce and says: “Well, it’s never a good thing when you have to number your husbands…”.

Elizabeth Warren is not stupid (she was a Harvard Law School professor, which must count for something). Her campaign is meticulously organized (about twenty minutes after I signed in, her press office invited me to a Super Bowl party). And I imagine that she has some of the best pollsters and speech writers in the business crafting her image (that of a struggling single mom who worked her way through law school and now wants to be president).

But at each event, instead of hearing a political argument, I felt as though I were watching a Broadway production—with Aretha’s music, some song and dance, and tragedy at the end of the second act (the evil 1% takes over America).

Then in the finale, a big chorus number called “Hope Over Fear,” Elizabeth is elected president and, with her 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million, she leads the country out of Winkie Country (it’s in Oz) to a place somewhere over the rainbow.

Best of all, after the play, the lead actress comes down from the stage and poses for selfies with members of the audience. Or if she’s pressed for time, she leaves behind her faithful golden retriever, Bailey, who, a bit like Lyle the Crocodile’s close friend Hector P. Valenti, has become “a star of stage and screen.”

Bailey did the heavy lifting for the campaign when Elizabeth was stuck in the impeachment trial, and I suspect more than a few voters wish it was Bailey Warren who could get their vote at the caucuses. (He doesn’t talk as breathlessly and has fewer plans.)

The soliloquies in Warren’s I Am Woman play tell the story of her childhood in Oklahoma (not on an Indian reservation). Her mom worked at Sears (at the minimum wage) while her older brothers joined the military. Her childhood dream was to teach second grade in a public school (emphasis for AFSCME members on the word “public”).

At age 19 Elizabeth was led into temptation, got married, and had children, until she divorced the man in the libretto called “Husband Number One,” and started working her way through law school. That led to various professorships, consumer protection agencies, the U.S. Senate, and now a presidential bid, based on the premise that “Men in Suits” (it’s a fairly catchy tune) are responsible for most American problems.

For someone who has spent much of her life in two of the most exclusive clubs in America—Harvard University and the U.S. Senate—Warren is, nevertheless, basing her campaign as an attack on wealth and privilege. (Harvard and the Senate don’t seem to figure much in her presidential job interview.)

I don’t think I need to hum all the refrains, but basically her many plans provide universal health care, free tuition and education, subsidized child care, climate change correctives, gun safety in the schools and malls, jail time for polluters and corporate embezzlers, affordable public housing and prescription drugs, write-offs of student debt, and a livable minimum wage.

And if that sounds worthy if a touch expensive, she assures her audience, it’s not, because to pay for everything in Oz, all that is required is to impose a wealth tax on 2% of American fortunes that are greater than $50 million. Who would not sign up for that?

In the number entitled, “All I Need for Christmas is My Two Percent”, Warren hits the high notes of all of the social programs that a wealth tax will cover, and it’s a bucket list of every American ill—from the opioid crisis and teen pregnancy to the gig economy and the Amazonian jungle. And all you have to do is elect Elizabeth Warren as president and wait for the 1% to hand over their 2%.

Needless to say, from her devoted fans, Warren gets rave reviews: “Breathtaking…the best play since Evita….Judy Garland could not have done better….When do we start marching?” And at the beginning of the event, I was impressed with the size and energy of the crowd packed into West High’s gymnasium. But then about half-way through the talk, I started to notice people streaming out of the gym, such that, at the end, I suspect that about half the crowd had voted with their feet.

It was the Saturday before the caucuses, when many Iowans are window shopping candidates, and I still think Warren’s base is motivated for a good result. Plus she’s been everywhere in the state, as has Bailey, and if you are from Iowa and don’t have a selfie with Warren, you only have yourself to blame.

The Iowa polls have Warren finishing third, behind Bernie and Biden, but I think she will do better than Biden (she has more than the firemen behind her) and her supporters are well organized and enthusiastic. I doubt that she will outpoll Bernie, but I would not rule it out entirely.

If supporter energy means anything, Warren’s people seem more numerous and more committed to their candidate than are the Sandernistas, who were hard to find amongst all the TV reporters. Bernie may have more media cred, but I suspect Warren has more a more energetic base.

The Cautionary Tale of Herbert Hoover

To get from the Warren musical to Mayor Pete’s get-out-the-vote rally, I took the slow roads. Instead of driving directly from West High School to Cedar Rapids, I detoured through Iowa City (home to Iowa’s Writers Workshop) and West Branch, where President Herbert Hoover was born and raised (it’s about 11 miles east of Iowa City and the university).

Hoover is a cautionary tale in the election of presidents, as few men have ever brought to the presidency his sterling credentials, and few have ever failed as miserably as he did in office.

Before his election, Hoover had worked in business, made a modest fortune, saved millions of European refugees from starving after World War I, and worked in a senior capacity in the cabinets of Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He wrote well and had creative ideas, but as president he failed to anticipate or ameliorate the Great Depression, and Hooverville became the word to describe encampments of the homeless across the United States.

I am not sure Hoover deserves all the blame history has given him, as Franklin Roosevelt had no more success in ending the Depression than did his predecessor. But FDR understood the mythical aspects of leadership better than Hoover, whose only response to the economic collapse was to preach faith in American capitalism. And the times were not on his side.

His boyhood home was closed when I got there, as was his library, but I enjoyed my brisk walk in the cold around West Branch, which has saved a number of houses from Hoover’s Quaker community, including the small cottage (almost a log cabin) in which he was born.

It’s thanks to Hoover that we now have the ritual rite of passage of post-presidential memoirs. He wrote his in two volumes, and it took him 18 years to finish them. But two volumes were not enough to change the verdict of history, and he’s remembered as uncaring.

Mayor Pete’s Big Job Interview

Mayor Pete, as he is called, although he’s no longer in office, had started speaking by the time I slipped into the hall. Again I was seated at a desk behind the television cameras (think of those obstructed view seats in Fenway Park), so to watch more closely I walked around the perimeter  and took up a post closer to where Pete (in a necktie but no jacket) was speaking.

I had seen Pete in the springtime, just after he announced his candidacy, and at that event he spent a fair amount of time speaking about being a Rhodes Scholar and what it meant to get “a first” at Oxford. (As he explained, it was a grade; he wasn’t first in his class.)

On this occasion, he didn’t review his school transcript in such detail, and after a few prepared remarks he answered questions, which is something he does better than giving set speeches (in his formal remarks he sounds a bit like an awkward valedictorian).

What struck me about Pete was the extent to which—consciously or not—his speech patterns have come to mimic those of Barack Obama. I noticed a slight southern drawl (South Bend isn’t any farther south than the South Side of Chicago), and he drops the word “folks” into his delivery on many occasions.

Like Obama, he’s taken to delivering what might be called dramatic truisms, as was the case when he told the crowd that he would never cut any benefits associated with social security. Of course they cheered and clapped, but I don’t think even Herbert Hoover would run today on cutting entitlements (a word Pete dislikes, as the good working “folks” of Iowa have earned their payouts).

I was also struck by Pete’s drugstore cowboy patriotism, in all his talk about “restoring the credibility of the United States” around the world, and the necessity of having a military “second to none”.

That said,  he might re-order the priorities of military spending so that, while maintaining the capacity to make the rubble bounce, we could also have first-rate schools, job training centers, renewable energy, voter security, gun safety, and more efficient government.

Pete is actually more an heir to Jimmy Carter than Barack Obama, in that his appeal is largely that of someone new and untainted with the sins of Washington. Despite all of Jimmy Carter’s talk about zero-based budgeting and restoring “trust” in the post-Watergate White House, essentially the Carter appeal was that he was unknown.

Author and essayist Lewis Lapham wrote at the time in Harper’s Magazine that Carter was elected “to redeem the American soul, not to govern it,” and, if elected, the same might said about Mayor Pete, who on stage in Cedar Rapids looked a bit lost and out of place, like some fan at a Cincinnati Reds game who is picked out of the stands and asked to play right field against the Cardinals.

Although I hardly put them in the category of daring ideas, Pete’s platform includes some tepid criticism of the electoral college (“I might get in trouble for saying this…”) and the number of justices on the Supreme Court (nothing in the Constitution caps the number at nine).

He also speaks about passing as a constitutional amendment a new voting act for the 21st century, that would put an end to voter suppression and end the discrimination that amounts to a kind of poll tax.

Pete is running as the first openly gay candidate, and he makes reference in his set speeches to 2008, when he was knocking on doors in Iowa for Obama, and the fact that he would not then have been able to marry his partner legally.

To Iowans, he says of his wedding band: “You made it possible,” and that’s an effective applause line, as popular as when his partner Chasten joins him on the podium and they work the crowd for selfies.

Logic suggests that, at best, Pete is running for consideration as a vice presidential nominee, and for that he might well pair with the older Sanders or  Elizabeth Warren, although she might not want another Harvard alumni on her ticket.

In the Iowa polls, Pete is the wild card, as he has invested heavily in what is called out here his “ground game” (staff on the ground in far-flung counties), and because he’s a centrist who has both right and left appeal.

If he doesn’t get to the “viable” threshold level of 15%, the question is whether he releases his supporters to Amy Klobuchar (another centrist) or makes a deal with one of the big three, Biden, Sanders, or Warren.

Once the Iowa caucuses are over, Pete will lose whatever influence he might have as a kingmaker, as Iowa is one of the few places where there is ranked choice voting, and those behind in the polls can throw their weight to another candidates.

My guess is that Pete isn’t at ease with the backroom deal aspects of presidential politics, and I think he would be most comfortable, on a personal level, dealing with another midwesterner, Amy Klobuchar, although the risk for both of them is that, if behind, they would, in military terms, be reinforcing defeat.

Based on little more than head counting at Super Bowl parties, I would say that Klobuchar will do better than Pete in Iowa (she’s a good organizer), and that Iowa (and then maybe New Hampshire) will be the end of Pete’s golden resumé to the presidency.

Republicans Against Trump: William Weld

To my surprise and pleasure, I found out that two Republican candidates were in Iowa campaigning against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. I say pleasure because rarely, if ever, do I hear any Republicans put the boot into Trump, and both William Weld and Joseph Walsh—the candidates out here—hate Trump with a passion. Plus they are mostly campaigning around Des Moines at coffee shops and universities, so are easy to meet, and only a stray media person or two ever goes to their events.

I met William Weld at Waveland Café, which is in the Des Moines suburbs. He served in the Reagan justice department and two terms as governor of Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard in classics and is what was once called a “Rockefeller Republican,” meaning a Republican from the northeast with fairly liberal positions on social issues.

Weld was governor from 1991 to 1997, and in 2016 he ran as the Libertarian candidate for president. This time he has ruled out running as a third party candidate (he’s 74 years old) but he would like, especially in New Hampshire, to shake up the Trump campaign and pull in Republican voters who share his values and hate Trump.

Weld showed up at the Waveland with his wife and a campaign volunteer. It looked as though they arrived in a rental car; there’s no chartered bus in the Trump opposition.

Weld is very tall, with a full head of gray hair, and a pleasing, if slightly reserved, personality. He shook hands with the five people on hand to greet him, including two women who had voted for him as a Libertarian in 2016. Then a supporter with a dog showed up, and Weld tried to stoop over enough to get both him and the dog in the picture. It wasn’t easy.

I asked Weld if he had ambitions beyond New Hampshire, and he said he did, adding that he hoped there were enough Republicans “out there” who want to reclaim the party from Donald Trump.

He also pointed out that he had more executive experience than did Trump, before his election, and more familiarity with foreign affairs. “I am one of the few,” he said, “who has ever counted among his friends both Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres.”

Weld worked his away around the Waveland Café, shaking hands with people eating breakfast. The customers were more accepting of the campaign intrusion  than the waitresses, who kept complaining that they had people to serve.

I still wonder if most of those who shook Weld’s hand knew that he was running against Trump on the Republican ballot, but they all seemed gracious , and during the meet-and-greet some local television people showed up to tape a brief interview. On the last Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, there are enough camera crews on hand to film games of pick up touch football in the parks.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans do not caucus in the clusters of supporters, but vote for the candidates of their choice.

Just to be sure nothing gets out of hand, however, Trump is sending in a planeload of senior Trump officials, including his sons Don Jr. and Eric, to speak on Trump’s behalf when the Republicans gather to vote.

Among those in the entourage is Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff who refused to testify in the House impeachment hearings. He’s on his own at an elementary school in Waukee, Iowa, a town just west of Des Moines. I thought of showing up and trying to issue a citizen’s subpoena, but that might mean having to listen to Don Jr. speak on some close-captioned hook up, and that would be more painful than a double dose of Bernie and Elizabeth Warren.

Republicans Against Trump: Joe Walsh

The most engaging personality in the Iowa caucuses belongs to a former Republican congressman, Joe Walsh, who is also running against Trump in the caucus and who has zero chance of winning. It’s too bad, as he hates Trump as much as Adam Schiff does. In fact, he sounds very similar to Adam Schiff on the subject of the sitting president.

In making the caucus rounds, I had thought about skipping the Walsh campaign and only focusing on those who might have a chance to figure in the news.  Then I decided I needed to see and hear every candidate in Iowa, and that lead me to track down Walsh on the campus of Simpson College, where instead of speaking in the main event hall, he was appearing in one of the classrooms.

Walsh is from the South Side of Chicago, and he was elected to Congress as a Tea Partier in 2010. He only served one term before getting “redistricted” and then he lost where he tried to stand for reelection.

I get the sense that, politically, he’s been all over the map. Early in his career he was a social worker and history teacher. Then he was a moderate Republican before becoming a Tea Partier.

After leaving office, he was a right-wing conservative radio host, but since then he has become one of the most out-spoken members of the Republican Party in wanting Trump out of office—to the extent that he’s now funding his own run for the presidency, just to have a platform for his Trump-hating.

He begins his talks by saying, “I am a Republican, and I think Trump is unfit for office.” He goes on to say, and said it more than once, that “Trump lies every time he opens his mouth,” and to say that “all Trump cares about is Donald Trump. Nothing else.”

Walsh says Trump is absolutely guilty as charged by the House of Representatives, and when I asked him what other Republicans in the House and Senate think about Trump he said: “They all know he’s a moron. They are just scared to keep their jobs.” He says everyone in Washington knows that Trump is “mean and cruel and bigoted.”

Walsh believes that the Republican Party is threatened with extinction if it continues to roll over and play dead rather than take on Trump. He thinks the Senators who will vote for acquittal “will pay a price” in the fall elections. He added: “They will get smoked.”

He does not believe that climate change is “a hoax,” as Trump does, and while he is pro-life, he would love to position the Republican Party to attract more women.

He believes Trump is driving women from the party in record numbers. He does not think the plans of Warren or Sanders make sense economically, but he said (and you don’t hear this often from a Republican): “I love Bernie Sanders because he genuinely believes what he believes.”

He calls the killing of Qasem Soleimani a “bad and stupid thing to do,” and he’s the only politician I have heard in Iowa who has said nice things about Iran as a country and as a place he would like someday to visit. “It could even be,” he said, “an American ally.”

Whatever the subject, Walsh always comes back to Trump, “this crazy man show…this horrible human being in the White House.”

Walsh said he was getting death threats out on his campaign, and that it was personally costing him time and money to make his stand against Trump. He said he was running because: “I want to surprise him….I want get under his skin…and I want to wake up Republicans…”

In less than an hour, he was done talking. He had engaged a roomful of students, listened to their questions, stated his views, and spoken with civility.

I suspect he will get less than a thousand votes in the Republican caucuses, but I bet that any Republican who has gone to his events and met him will vote for him.

Joe Biden’s Last Stand

My day ended with Joe Biden’s pre-election in Des Moines and Amy Klochubar’s Super Bowl party in Johnston.

I had seen Biden in Council Bluffs, but I had missed Klobuchar as she had been in Washington at the Trump impeachment hearings.

Biden’s get-out-the-vote rally was held at Hiatt Middle School, which is on the edge of downtown Des Moines, not far from the state capitol but in a pawn shop district.

The doors for the rally opened at 3:45 p.m. and well before that there were lines of Biden supporters snaking along the school’s sidewalks.

Inside the school gym, there were literally hundreds of media types crammed into the corners. I talked to journalists from Washington, Israel, France, and Australia, and I could see big-name anchor people squeezed up against security barriers.

At that point in the day I was more interested in the Super Bowl than in hearing  another Joe Biden address, but I hoped that he might wrap things up quickly so that everyone present could get on the greater matter of state—that of the Chiefs and 49ers. It wasn’t to be.

It took forever for the state senators and members of Congress to give their speeches, and then Joe’s wife Jill had to sing her husband’s praises. For some of her remarks, she was speaking into a dead mic, although I don’t think many in the room were there to catch Jill’s encomium.

Then someone had to introduce the extended Biden clan that was seated in the bleachers, and some of the honored guests, including former presidential candidate and Secretary of State, John Kerry, who was later overhead in a Des Moines hotel saying Biden was “dead man walking” in the race and that he might have to jump in to save the republic. I am sure the Bidens were happy that they invited him to rally and gave him a shoutout.

By the time Joe was ready to speak, the mic and the acoustics remained weak. (We were in a middle school gymnasium with concrete walls…) So as much as Biden wanted to sound like William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate in 1896 and in two other elections (“… we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold…”), he made me think of an assistant principal telling seventh graders not to throw snowballs at recess. His voice was reedy, he sounded tired, and no one was listening. Yes, people cheered at the applause lines, but only because Biden would stop talking and wait for the clapping. In the end, with family present, it felt more like a retirement party or last hurrah than a new frontier.

Amy Klobuchar’s Super Bowl Party

I only went to Amy’s Super Bowl party because I had yet to hear her speak and because I didn’t think either Bernie or Elizabeth would have much to say about Patrick Mahomes or Deebo Samuel. One of the problems of this election is that I can’t think of any candidate with whom I would want to watch the Super Bowl.

Amy’s Super Bowl party wasn’t in her basement wet bar, but at Jethro’s BBQ n’ Pork Chop Grill, in Johnston, about ten miles from Des Moines.

By the time I got there, the place was packed, and the only place I could stand and watch some of the game was near the podium where Amy was supposed to speak at halftime.

When I arrived, the game was 3-0, and Jethro was doing a land-office business with pitchers of beers, nachos, and guacamole, but despite all the televisions around the bar I didn’t sense many people were watching the game. (Good for Amy, but bad for America.)

Only ten minutes after I got there, the front doors opened, and, surrounded by a flock of television cameras, Amy walked into Jethro’s. According to one of her handlers, Amy had to fly back to Washington to attend more impeachment hearings. She could not watch the game with everyone, and she would be speaking right away. (No one asked, but I wondered: What would Troy Aikman think?”)

On her arrival Amy’s super fans (“…real good, Bob…”) took up an “Amy, Amy, Amy…” chant. Only when she climbed on to the podium did things quiet down.

Klobuchar apologized to the party for not being able to stay for the evening and mix with the crowd. She said she had the people’s work to do back in Washington, and she was sure the crowd would understand her absence and work hard to turn out voters for the caucus.

She attempted to make a football joke, involving the goal line and a touchdown, but, to extend the analogy, she fumbled the ball and took the speech elsewhere.

For the substance of her talk, Klobuchar spoke about her roots as a political, grass roots organizer. She even told a self-deprecating joke about an early attempt in a political campaign, when she went into a room that was to have been full of Democrats, only to find only six people present. She braced herself for disappointment and began to give her speech, when one of the men listening said, “This is the golf club. The Democrats are next door.”

If Klobuchar exceeds expectations in Iowa, it will be because she’s good at grassroots politics, and because her home state of Minnesota shares a long border with Iowa. She’s also vying for center space with Biden and Mayor Pete.

Iowans might appreciate her midwest accent and sensibility, but I sense she will fail to make the 15% cut in most precincts, and thus be left to decide whether to make a deal with a frontrunner (say Joe Biden) or to team up with someone like Pete.

Her best prospect is to become a vice-presidential nominee, but that will only happen if, to use a Trump phrase from the impeachment hearings, she has “the deliverables.” Something tells me she does not, as no Democratic candidate needs Amy to win in Minnesota.

Her strength lies in her claim that she is adept at getting legislation passed in Congress—to distinguish her from the other senators running, Sanders and Warren, who are better at the talk end of politics than in getting bills passed.

Either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden could pick her as a running mate, but I suspect both would lean more toward Senator Kamala Harris, if only to solidify the African-American vote, which failed to turn out for Hillary in 2016 to the extent that it voted for Obama in 2012.

No sooner had Klobuchar greeted her guests than she headed toward her bus and presumably the airport for the flight to Washington. To my knowledge she didn’t have any of the wings being passed around or one of the 16-ounce beers that were sitting on the bar. I left at the same time, figuring I would see more of the game back in my hotel.

As it turned out, the Klobuchar bus, “Amy For America,” was parked near my car, so that I could see her walking back to her bus while I was fumbling for my keys.

It spoke well of her that she was willing to fly all the way back to Washington to hear closing arguments in the impeachment trial, even though the acquittal is a foregone conclusion.

At the same time, at the Super Bowl party or in the many Democratic debates, I have never heard from Klobuchar exactly why she wants to be president. I heard that she will be a careful guardian of the state and work hard and pass bills with the Congress, but as for the substance of her campaign, it felt a little like some of Jethro’s wings.

Who Wins Iowa?

Having taken readers this far, it’s only fair for me to venture my predictions for the Iowa caucuses.

Keep in mind, that I read the same polls as you do, and have no inside knowledge from some operative in Des Moines.

At the same time I think Iowa is the state in the primaries where polling means the least. Voters in school gymnasiums will literally be voting with their feet (they stand in clusters, around the name of their candidate), and when a candidate fails to get to the 15% threshold, they move on. Hence much of the polling data for Iowa has to divine not just first but second and third choices, and align them correctly.

One advantage to being on the ground in Iowa is to sense some of the buzz in the event rooms and to gauge a candidate’s organization. But it’s not rocket science. In that regard, my predictions for the Iowa caucuses are as follows:









The big winner, even if she doesn’t win the caucus, will be Warren, and the big loser, no matter where he places, will be Biden. I think Klobuchar will throw any votes she has to give to Biden, while I think Buttigieg, if given the chance, will pitch his delegates to Warren.

Overall, I think Bernie will do well enough in Iowa, even if he doesn’t win, to carry momentum into New Hampshire, and from victory there, I don’t see him losing the nomination to either Biden or Michael Bloomberg, who has not showed up in Iowa. (He’s Oz behind the curtain somewhere on the Great Plains.)

The only other candidate not in Iowa is Tulsi Gabbard. She is only here symbolically—her face adorns dozens of billboards across many fields—but she failed even to host a Super Bowl party or a get-out-the-vote rally. I guess she’s not as present as she believes.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.