In the snowy straights of Iowa, full of silos and big skies, voters are about to show us the very best in their nation’s political system.
The Hawkeye State takes its ‘first in the nation’ status very seriously. Voters often attend multiple events – listening to the options (and this year they’ve got a lot), before caucusing with their neighbours.
This race is all about the Democrats, but we started our journey at a Trump rally in Des Moines. It was yet another reminder of how loyal his supporters are and how clear his messaging is. “Build that wall, impeachment is a sham, jobs, jobs, jobs” – ready made applause lines. Everyone feels they know what Trump’s about, whether they love or loathe him.
But with Democrats it’s different. The party has been going through an identity crisis that has created a very long line of candidates. On one hand, they are fighting for the soul and future of the party: will it be progressive or centrist, diverse or resist change? On the other, they know they need to find and back whoever has the best chance of beating Donald Trump. It won’t be easy and after three days, more than 500 miles and six rallies, they are a long way from answering those questions.
We started our journey in Clinton, Iowa – fitting for a Joe Biden event, a man closely allied with the establishment end of the Democratic Party. The former vice president is still leading the polls narrowly, but it’s not a result of dynamic campaigning. His crowds have been relatively small. And when we walk inside, it’s clear they’re a little sleepy and greying too.
His performances have been uneven and at this event, he spends more than 15 minutes on a fairly meandering speech about foreign policy – that may land nationally but it didn’t ignite this room on a Friday afternoon.
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But after he spoke, he spent about an hour doing what he does best – meeting voters, listening to their stories, asking for their contact details to see how he could help. He sparkled, he held their hands and they seemed to love Uncle Joe’s touch.
I asked him if he thinks, at 77 years old, he has the energy to match Trump. “I have more energy than all of them. It comes from the heart,” he declared as he touched his chest. He may not be fizzing on the campaign trail yet, but he has a charisma one-on-one and he’s the name America knows the best. He’s also refused to take a hard turn to the left. That could all play in his favour. Or massively backfire.
There is another man in the middle, former mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s a veteran and he’s openly gay. But he’s also just 38-years old – that could be his biggest challenge. His crowd is enthusiastic and he has a baritone voice and conciliatory tone that seems to reassure the audience.
I asked him just how critical winning over independents and Republicans was to Democrats’ success this election. “I think it is important for us not only to defeat Donald Trump but to do it by a big enough margin that Trumpism itself goes into the history books,” he said. “For that to happen, we need to unite, not just the left, not just progressives and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats but independents and Republicans.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren is running, often literally, on a radically different ticket. She’s a progressive, serious about inequality and corporate power. Her rallies have a folksy charm too – she’s travelling with her dog Bailey who even stops for selfies. But the former teacher has become most famous for being heavy on policy.
I asked her if she thought she could win the battle on ideas alone. “Our country is always about the head and the heart, simultaneously. The structural change I talk about is let’s ask the billionaires to pitch in two cents so we can have universal childcare for every baby in this country.”
But she’s fighting for the same votes as an independent with a cult-like appeal: Senator Bernie Sanders. His rally is the largest we see, teeming with people shouting his name. And tonight, he is supported by popular band Vampire Weekend. His supporters have stuck with him since his 2016 defeat and new ones have joined. There’s a real alacrity about the room – the closest we’ve seen to a Trump rally.
He a self-confessed Democratic socialist, who has never joined the party he wants to represent. He’s banking on young voters though. It’s a gamble and he knows it. He says they desperately need a high turnout to win here.
But if he does, Democrats must start facing an uncomfortable truth: he could well be the nominee. There’s a lot of road to run yet. But there’s an energy around him that we didn’t see elsewhere.
Having said that, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s about the power of the silent voters. Bernie’s guys might shout loudest. But those quiet Biden loyalists may end up being louder than they look at the ballot box in November.