DES MOINES, Iowa — An energized audience of about 13,000 Democrat activists united in their hatred of Donald Trump packed the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Friday night to listen to 13 candidates for the party’s presidential nomination make their case for the nod to challenge the incumbent president in the November 2020 general election.
Earlier in the day, a fourteenth candidate who had been scheduled to speak, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), withdrew from the race.
Democrat National Committee Chairman Tom Perez set the tone for the evening when he told the audience Donald Trump was “the worst president in the history of our country.”
Perez attacked members of Iowa’s Republican Congressional delegation as well.
Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) “is a Trump puppet, plain and simple,” he said, and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) “is an utter disgrace not only in Iowa but in the country.” Comparing Rep. King to one of the characters created by the horror novelist Steven King, Perez said, “Steve King is that evil clown.”
The most recent poll of likely Iowa Caucus attendees shows a top tier of four candidates: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Two themes dominated the candidates’ speeches: a promise to take the fight to President Trump and a promise to unify the country after that fight is won. Notably, among the top tier candidates, only Sanders mentioned the word “impeachment” in his speech.
Buttigieg, who has been moving up in the polls and appears to have the best on-the-ground organizational infrastructure in the state, was the first of the 13 candidates to address the crowd. As Breitbart News reported on Friday, an estimated 1,200 Buttigieg volunteers from around the country, including 150 from California, flew into Des Moines to attend Friday night’s event.
In advance of Buttigieg’s speech, his campaign had attempted to create the expectation he would replicate the “Obama moment” of the 2008 campaign when then-candidate Barack Obama, addressing the crowd at the same event (then called the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner, now called the Liberty and Justice Celebration) in November 2007, shifted the entire momentum of the primary campaign from front runner Hillary Clinton to the relatively little-known junior senator from Illinois.
But there was to be no “Obama moment” for Buttigieg in Des Moines on Friday night.
While his speech was politely received by the entire audience, the loud applause and wild demonstrations that constantly interrupted his talk came from one narrow section of the arena–the part reserved for a large contingent of about 1,500 Buttigieg supporters wearing yellow t-shirts and waving rally batons.
“The first time I came to this state was as a volunteer who knocked on doors for a presidential candidate, a young man with a funny name. We knew the stakes were high then. The stakes are colossal now,” Buttigieg began.
“This country cannot afford four more years of Donald Trump. We will not recognize it if he is re-elected. We know what is at stake. And we know he will do everything he can to hold on to power. But if you nominate me, his playbook isn’t going to work this time around,” he continued.
Buttigieg was followed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who promised repeatedly that if he is the Democrat nominee, he will “beat Trump like a drum” in the general election.
Sen. Warren noted that the country needed “big structural change” due to the abuses of wealth and power visited upon the middle class by the rich and that she is uniquely qualified to deliver that structural change by offering Medicare for All and her two percent wealth tax.
“I’m here to talk about something that people all across Iowa and people all across the country know in their bones. Our democracy has been hijacked by the rich and the powerful,” Warren began.
“They make it work for themselves, and they leave everyone else behind. We see it every time a corporate executive threatens to cut pay and move jobs overseas. We see every time an insurance company won’t give people, denies treatment and denies people access to the doctors they know and trust. We see it when a criminal justice system tears apart black and brown families,” she continued.
Sen. Sanders began his speech by noting that “tonight, no matter what candidate we are supporting, all of us are in agreement that we must defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country,” echoing the theme sounded by DNC Chair Tom Perez at the beginning of the evening.
“The man is a pathological liar, a man who is running the most corrupt administration in the history of our country, a man who does not understand the rule of law, or our country’s history, and a man who will soon be impeached. That is what we all agree on,” Sanders said.
“But let us acknowledge that we have some disagreements,” he continued.
“Do we continue the status quo politics that has enabled the wealthiest people in our country, the largest corporations in their markets, to have extraordinary influence over the economic and political life of our country?” Sanders asked.
Andrew Yang was the only candidate who chose not to focus on what a terrible president Donald Trump is but instead on the underlying economic reasons for his election victory in 2016–the loss of retail and manufacturing jobs around the country and the rise of the power of technology companies.
Yang in particular focused on Amazon, which, he said, had over $20 billion in revenue but paid no taxes, while retail clerk jobs were disappearing around the country.
Yang’s solution was to tax the technology companies and use those proceeds to pay each American $1,000 a month, an idea, he said, that was not new. He claimed it was a proposal passed by Congress in 1971.
[Note on crowd size: The seating capacity of the Wells Fargo Arena is 15,000 for hockey games and 16,000 for basketball games. The arena appeared to be about 3/4 filled at the beginning of the event, hence the estimate that the crowd size was about 12,000 in the stadium seats and about another 1,000 were seated at dinner tables on the floor of the arena.]