Iowa State Fair: How the 2020 underdogs are keeping hope alive

Just nine candidates have qualified for next round of debates, highlighting high stakes for candidates at Iowa's biggest political events

Clark Mindock
Des Moines, Iowa
Saturday 10 August 2019 16:21
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Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman who begins most speeches with a cheery “aloha”, wants Iowans to know about the “high cost of war” that she says detracts from domestic priorities like education and infrastructure development.

Marianne Williamson, a self-help author with a seemingly unflappable calm, says she wants to disrupt of American politics in a way that goes beyond beating Donald Trump, and to a “way more powerful level”. You have to lead with love, she said.

Meanwhile, John Delaney, the businessman-turned-congressman who has been touring Iowa for well over a year preaching a moderate platform, says radical calls for change coming from others in the Democratic field will alienate centrist voters they all may need if they hope to beat Mr Trump.

That’s at least what the three hoped to portray during their Des Moines Register “Political Soapbox” speeches on Thursday, as the deadline to qualify for the next democratic debates in September looms. They are all trying to keep hope — and, by proxy, their visions for America — alive, and to find a way to make sure they make it through next month alongside the likes of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

They’re not alone. A dozen presidential candidates have flocked to Des Moines this week for the Iowa State Fair, hoping to find any sort of foothold that might boost their chances with six months until the caucuses.

The event draws each candidate to a small stage in the centre of the Iowa State Fair, where they have around 20 minutes to make their case to the voters spread out just an arm’s length away, just beyond some hay. Many may not even know their names, but are giving them something of a chance to explain their case and draw their votes — or, at least, that’s what voters say.

“Iowa has a special place in our political process, and they get candidates here in person, so there’s something to be said about seeing them up front and close and listening to them and getting to talk to them,” said Roger Sherman, a political consultant who drove in from Colorado, said as Andrew Yang joked on stage nearby about throwing a party with Tom Hanks and others to celebrate his policies as president.

For candidates like Ms Gabbard, Ms Williamson and Mr Delaney, the Iowa State Fair may be the last good opportunity to attract a decent amount of attention to themselves — and, by virtue of that, strong polling performances and donations — before the cutoff date for the debates, as set by the Democratic National Committee for 28 August. To qualify: Four polls showing 2 per cent support, alongside 130,000 unique donors.

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And, so far, just nine candidates have met those polling and donation thresholds, leaving the other 13 or so declared candidates scrambling to make the cut.

For Ms Gabbard, who took a stroll along Grand Ave by the carnival rides and food vendors while greeted fans who happened to see her, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, who spoke Friday morning at the soapbox, defending his brother for tweeting a list of Donald Trump's donors, registering for the debates means just meeting the polling threshold.

But for candidates like Ms Williamson, Mr Delaney — a businessman with a considerable fortune who is funding his own campaign, in part — and others like Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, Montana governor Steve Bullock, and Colorado senator Michael Bennett, both criteria remain to be met.

In a state like Iowa, though, some residents said most folks are already tuned in, at least a bit.

With candidates touring through the state’s counties constantly, it is hard to miss the 2020 race, they said. But, it’s nice to have all of them in one place, they said.

“Most of these candidates we’ve seen three or four times,” said Jeanne Uhl, 67, of Elhart, Iowa.

“It’s nice to see several of them in a day, though,” she continued.

Even for candidates who attract some good will, though, that doesn’t always translate into support.

Take Joel Wackner, for instance, a 21-year-old from Aimes who ran over to Ms Gabbard at the fair, and asked for a selfie. The moment was kind, they joked, and they took the photo.

But: “Honestly I’m kind of leaning towards Yang,” Mr Wackner said.

Does she still have time to win his vote? Sure, he said: “I liked her at the debate. Sure, I’m considering her.”

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