DES MOINES — Six months before Iowans will caucus on a cold February night, the race to earn their support kicked off in earnest this weekend as candidates descended on the state fair and two different forums amid an uncertain race.
Iowa Democratic voters take their role in kicking off the voting process tremendously seriously, and few are willing to commit to a candidate with certainty. Those candidates are adjusting their strategies and tactics after an initial period of trial and error.
“We’re really coming to the end of the first half,” said Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic strategist who is unaligned this year. “I think you’re going to see people go into the locker room and make adjustments.”
Illustrating their rise, both Warren and Harris drew larger and more enthusiastic crowds when they appeared at the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair than did Biden — though Biden spoke Thursday, a weekday, and Warren and Harris spoke on a Saturday.
“We underestimate our capacity so, so badly. We’ve never lived up to it, but America is an idea. It’s the most unique idea in the world,” Biden told Iowans. “It’s time to remember who in God’s name we are.”
A hundred feet away, voters casting their corn kernels at an entirely unscientific poll conducted by WHO-TV favored Biden by a slim margin, but few of those who voted for him said they were enthusiastic about his candidacy.
“I like Joe Biden. I think I would prefer someone younger,” said Laura Burkhalter, who works at a Des Moines art museum and cast her kernel for Warren. “It’s time that we had a woman president.”
Dennis Schwartz, who works for the state government in Colfax, cast his kernel for Buttigieg. Schwartz said Buttigieg is “very quick on his feet.”
“I like Joe. I think he’s a gentleman. I think he’s past his prime,” Schwartz said.
“The first three issues that they think about when they’re evaluating candidates is, can you beat Trump, can you beat Trump, and can you beat Trump,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist who does not work for one of the candidates this year.
Burt Bibbons stopped by the state fair while visiting his adult kids in Des Moines, where he voted for Biden.
“I’ve always been a policy person, but this particular year, it’s who can beat Trump. If you don’t win, it doesn’t matter what your policies are,” Bibbons said. “My number one priority is to win.”
The candidates themselves recognize that priority among voters, and they have adjusted their stump speeches accordingly. Both at the state fair and at a Wing Ding fundraiser in northern Iowa, each of the candidates presented themselves as the most credible challenger against Trump, drawing only minor contrasts between each other.
“I hope they keep focused on Donald Trump and not each other,” said Patty Judge, the former lieutenant governor.
“This is not a referendum on one guy and one office. This is a referendum on us,” Booker said. “It is time for America to rise again.”
But with six months to go, none of the voters interviewed this week said they were certain to caucus for the candidate they favor today. Everyone has a list of three or more candidates they are considering.
“The reason things change is that people are paying attention,” said Rob Sand (D), the Iowa state auditor is only just tuning in himself. “There is a real sense of responsibility here that I think is unique to Iowa.”