On the campaign trail in Iowa: Warren surges in the first-in-the-nation caucus state

Iowa’s primary importance has long been outsized. New Statesman America takes the temperature on the ground.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As the dust settled on a whirlwind week of campaigning in Iowa, Democratic presidential candidates adjusted to a new reality. Senator Elizabeth Warren had, for the first time in the state, dislodged former vice president Joe Biden from the top spot, according to a poll released on 21 September by Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom.

Three days later, the news broke that House Democrats had decided to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, a development that threatens to suck oxygen from coverage of an already crowded field. The reaction in Des Moines, a blue enclave in the now red-leaning Iowa, was a mixture of excitement and a sense that it was “about time”.

By virtue of its first-in-the-nation caucus, which will be held next year on 3 February, Iowa’s importance in the electoral calendar far outweighs its size. Doing well in the state is vital for any campaign wishing to demonstrate that it can mount a credible bid for the nomination. It sets a narrative in the media that can run throughout the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, when 13 states vote at the beginning of March, and it builds the priceless commodity that every candidate needs to win: momentum.

Iowans take their role in the process seriously. In the state’s capital Des Moines, more than 12,000 people gathered on Saturday 28 September at the Polk County Democratic Party’s steak fry to hear from 17 candidates, each of whom was given ten minutes to make their case for the presidency.

Warren was prepared for the moment. “I’m here today to stand up for the constitution of the United States of America,” she began as the crowd cheered. “No one is above the law, not even the president of the United States… It is time for us to call out this illegal behaviour and start impeachment proceedings right now.” Warren reminded those present that she has been calling for impeachment since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into alleged collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.

Biden, by contrast, was the only top-tier candidate who did not deviate from his script to acknowledge the story broken by the Washington Post; that a whistleblower’s complaint had reportedly been suppressed from Congress with explosive allegations that Trump had sought to pressure the Ukrainian president in return for a political favour. Warren’s ability to tailor her message to the occasion, unlike Biden, is one reason why she now compares favourably to him among voters.

“I just love this,” said Kirk Nelson from Altoona, surveying the crowd at the Water Works Park. “We take a lot of time and effort and a good long look at everybody and I think we do a pretty good job. I think it’s a great thing we get this chance to do it, it’s too bad not every state gets to do it.”

Kathrine Howsare from Urbandale was energised by the turnout. “I am thrilled that there’s this kind of passion,” she said. As to which way she’s leaning? “Right now probably Elizabeth,” she said. “But we really liked Pete [Buttigieg], and we like Corey [Booker], Biden’s okay, and we like Amy [Klobuchar].”

“We’re approaching 70,” said her husband, Galen. “One of the keys to when you get older is knowing when it’s time to walk away,” he said, explaining why they are less enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. However it’s not a concern they share about Warren. “I think women are stronger,” said Kathrine, bursting into laughter.

Warren’s famous selfie line drew a significant number of attendees away from the stage as the day progressed, but Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, emerged as the surprise package; his campaign having invested heavily in the event by snapping up 1,500 tickets for its supporters who made their presence felt.

Enthusiasm for Warren’s campaign was evident two days earlier in Iowa City where 2,000 people gathered to watch her give a speech on the University of Iowa campus as the sun set. “I love college campuses,” she said after running on stage to her campaign theme, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”. Her speech focused on the structural changes needed to create “a government that works for the people.”

“If there’s a decision to be made in Washington I guarantee it’s been influenced by money,” she said, before outlining the steps she plans to take “to tackle corruption head on.” Afterwards, Jamie Jones who works at Mount Mercy University asked Warren to reveal her favourite book. “Sense and Sensibility,” Warren replied, “because it’s about an observant woman who cuts through all of – I know Jane would never call it this but – the BS, right?”

Her campaign has the unofficial slogan “I have a plan for that”. Later, I asked Warren if she has a plan to deal with the “Pocahontas” taunts that will inevitably follow should she win the nomination, referring to a derogatory nickname given to her by Donald Trump when it emerged that she had mistakenly described her heritage as Native American. “I just don’t think there are a lot of people that are going to be persuaded by that,” she replied.

Buoyed by his showing at the steak fry, Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the race, hit the road on a blue and yellow bus full of reporters. A strategy devised by his ebullient senior adviser Lis Smith, she explained “we’re doing something no other campaign is doing by being as transparent as possible with the media.”

“I’m intrigued by a candidate who can string a few sentences coherently together,” said Brad Jensen, a former Bernie Sanders voter from Cedar Falls, as he waited in line to hear him speak at an event in Waterloo on Sunday evening. Lynn Klein, also from Cedar Falls, said “he is bringing back kindness and compassion to our country.”

More than 600 people stayed in the pouring rain to hear a speech that acknowledged he's the first openly gay candidate to mount a major campaign for the presidency. Describing his marriage, Buttigieg said “the best thing in my life exists by the grace of a single vote on the United States Supreme Court,” a line that received huge applause.

The sun was shining in picturesque Elkader the following day, a small northeast Iowan community along the Turkey River, where campaign staffers and volunteers were thrilled to see over 400 people turn out in a town of only 1,200 to watch Buttigieg speak at the-turn-of-the-century Opera House. Sally Stromset from Decorah commented afterwards, “it was inspiring, he was intelligent and articulate and that is so what we need.”

Later that evening, after the final stop of the day in Dubuque, Buttigieg told me that at Oxford, where he studied after graduating from Harvard University, he had learned “a rigour, in terms of saying exactly what you mean and making sure what you write and say is precisely correct. That’s very important in the political environment where anything you say that’s even just a little bit loose will be probed or used against you.”

And as for the British politicians that he finds inspiring? “I certainly appreciate Sadiq Khan as a mayor,” he said, and “Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester is doing some really interesting work.” He concluded, “I think we’d be better served if mayors ruled the world!”

Chris Robinson is a freelance reporter in Iowa covering 2020 US election whose work has previously appeared in the Guardian. He tweets @thenoyz.