Democrats Descend on Iowa for a Chance to Break Through

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren took selfies — with each other. Senator Bernie Sanders marched with striking fast-food workers. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., played the blues on an electric keyboard. And former Representative John Delaney brought a team of bagpipers.

The Democratic Party gathering in Iowa on Sunday, the state’s first major event of the 2020 election cycle, had the atmosphere of a circus, and one with a very, very big tent. The 19 presidential candidates in attendance chatted with reporters, gabbed with voters and tried to grab a breakout moment to distinguish themselves in the party’s historically crowded primary field.

A three-hour marathon of speeches by the candidates underscored the stratified reality of the early months of the primary race. There is a set of candidates — at most eight — who consistently break 2 percent in polling nationally and in early voting states, including Iowa.

Then, there is everyone else.

“They’re dividing it into the A group and the B group,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said. “I’m proud to be in the A group.”

[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]

Nowhere is that two-tiered race clearer than in Iowa, the state that kicks off the primary contest and where voters expect their candidates to visit early and often.

The candidates tried their best to deliver this weekend, descending on the state for a 48-hour sprint of town-hall-style meetings, meet-and-greets, house parties and, of course, plenty of stump speeches. The 23-person field is large enough to exhaust even those Democrats committed enough to spend a postcard-perfect summer Sunday inside a hotel ballroom along the banks of the Cedar River.

“I’m waiting to see who is leading the race later this year before making up my mind,” said Sue Wagner, a retired schoolteacher from Maquoketa, Iowa. “It’s a little overwhelming right now.”

The convergence of the candidates and their supporters led to an array of only-in-Iowa scenes.

A Cedar Rapids police officer took to his bullhorn to scold Ms. Warren to get off the street. Mr. Buttigieg tossed beanbags with students from Washington. And supporters of former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas distributed coupons for free tacos to volunteers and supporters from rival campaigns.

Missing from the action was former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the leader in the most recent poll of Iowa voters by The Des Moines Register/CNN, who remained in Washington to attend his granddaughter’s high school graduation.

Several candidates offered oblique critiques of Mr. Biden’s record and candidacy. Mr. Sanders, of Vermont, criticized Democrats pursuing a “middle-ground strategy,” an attack he has used before and a clear reference to a Biden adviser who described the former vice president’s climate policy as “middle ground” in an interview last month.

But mostly, they kept their focus on President Trump.

Ms. Harris, of California, said she would “prosecute the case” against Mr. Trump, an argument aimed squarely at Democratic voters’ highest priority — finding a nominee who can defeat the president.

While unseating Mr. Trump was paramount in the minds of Democratic activists, there was also widespread agreement among the candidates that the country needed broader change.

“Beating him will get us out of the valley, but it will not get us to the mountaintop,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York leaned into the female-centric argument that has guided her campaign, saying: “Now is not the time to be polite. Now is the time to fight like hell!”

And Ms. Warren, a Massachusetts senator who has seen a boost in the polls in recent weeks, argued that Democrats were “ready for big structural change.”

The lack of a clear front-runner in the state has encouraged candidates who have yet to break into the top tier of the race. Presidential campaigns are historically unpredictable, shaped by events both within and beyond the control of the candidates.

At least that is the hope of most of the field.

“There’s very few candidates I think really have any votes nailed down,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said. “It’s a fluid electorate, and you have a lot of folks like myself who are just introducing ourselves to the voters.”

Mr. Biden is set to return to Iowa on Tuesday, when he will begin a two-day campaign swing at the same time that Mr. Trump will be in the state for two events.

While Mr. Biden retains a sizable lead over the rest of the Democratic field, party leaders in Iowa say they have seen little enthusiasm on his behalf.

Some Democrats attribute the strength Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are showing in early polling largely to name recognition, arguing that the race will begin to shift over the summer. There is some evidence for that view: The recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll showed support for both men slipping, while Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg saw their numbers rise.

“I really haven’t heard much about Biden up here,” said Laura Hubka, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Howard County, along Iowa’s border with Minnesota. “People don’t want what feels like establishment or ingrained into politics. I know the polls all say Biden has got it by 30 points, but I don’t feel any excitement about his campaign.”

Attendees at campaign events over the weekend emphasized that the coming months would inform their views of which Democrat would be best positioned to defeat Mr. Trump 17 months from now.

“The candidates are drawing enormous crowds, but a lot of the people leaving those events aren’t committing for the candidate,” said former Representative David Nagle, who served as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. These early months are a chance for Iowans to look over the candidates closely, he said, “because we don’t want to be wrong.”

While 20 candidates will stand on the stage during the first primary debate this month, many expect the field to winnow over the summer.

And if it does not, the party is likely to force the movement: The Democratic National Committee has announced far stricter qualification measures for the fall debates.

“Once we get to Labor Day we’re going to have two distinct types of campaigns,” said Grant Woodard, a prominent Des Moines lawyer and a former Democratic campaign operative. “We’ll have those that have real organizations in states, and those that don’t and exist to hit up the cattle calls and cable news.”


more recommended stories

  • Can Europe Wean Itself From Fossil Fuels? Its Leaders Are About to Decide

    Want climate news in your inbox?.

  • At Raucous Reparations Hearing, Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes Aim at Mitch McConnell

    The House waded into the decades-old.

  • U.S. Navy Says Mine Fragments Point to Iran in Tanker Attack

    Fragments recovered from one of two.

  • We Put 21 Democrats on the Spot: Here Are 7 Takeaways

    We tracked down 2020 Democrats and.

  • Biden, Recalling Civility in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators

    Joseph R. Biden Jr., defending himself.

  • Donald Trump Attacks Familiar Foes at Orlando Rally – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search Donald.

  • ICE Signals Mass Immigration Arrests, but Not the ‘Millions’ Trump Promised

    WASHINGTON — Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

  • Trump, Seeking Re-election Since His Inauguration, Will Now Make It Official

    ORLANDO, Fla. — Almost four years.

  • As U.S. and Iran Face Off, Europe Is Stuck in the Middle

    BRUSSELS — As tensions between Washington.

  • Amy Klobuchar to Outline Plans for Her First 100 Days as President

    WASHINGTON — Senator Amy Klobuchar of.

  • On Politics: Iran Threatens to Exceed Nuclear Limits

    Good Tuesday morning. Here are some.

  • Landlords Oppose Trump Plan to Evict Undocumented Immigrants

    WASHINGTON — Landlords and local officials.

  • What Do You Want to See From the Democratic Debates?

    The 2020 Democratic primary race is.

  • ‘Hillary and Clinton’ to End Broadway Run Early

    “Hillary and Clinton,” a Broadway play.

  • Trump Campaign to Purge Pollsters After Leak of Dismal Results

    “These leaked numbers are ancient, in.

  • Elizabeth Warren Is Completely Serious

    A month earlier in Mingo County,.

  • On Politics: Trump Ousts Pollsters

    • Retailers like Walmart and Costco.

  • Drug Prices Are a Populist Campaign Issue. Here Are the Latest Proposals to Lower Costs.

    It can be hard to find.

  • Driver’s Licenses for the Undocumented: New York’s Immigration Land Mine

    [What you need to know to.

  • Visa Delays at Backlogged Immigration Service Strand International Students

    WASHINGTON — The visa applications of.

  • ‘Catastrophic,’ ‘Cataclysmic’: Trump’s Tariff Threat Has Retailers Sounding Alarm

    Already battered by the e-commerce revolution,.

  • 2020 Democratic Favorites for New York Donors? Biden, Buttigieg, Harris

    Mr. Booker, a fixture on the.

  • Trump Renews Feud With London Mayor, Calling Him a ‘Disaster’

    WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday.

  • Democratic Candidates Promise to Close Wealth Gap Between Blacks and Whites

    CHARLESTON, S.C. — Four top Democratic.

  • In Face-Off With Iran, Escalation May Depend on Who Prevails Inside Washington and Tehran

    WASHINGTON — As Iran and the.

  • Immigrants Brought Riches to Urban Schools. Now They’re in the Shadows.

    BALTIMORE — Mary Donnelly, the principal.

  • As Passions Flare in Abortion Debate, Many Americans Say ‘It’s Complicated’

    Few states have a political history.

  • U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid

    After Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Russian hackers.

  • Justice Dept. Backs Mnuchin’s Refusal to Release Trump’s Tax Returns

    WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on.

  • A President With a Taste for Planes Has a Plan for Air Force One: Paint It Red, White and Blue

    WASHINGTON — As someone who fancies.

  • Roadside Blast in Niger That Hit Americans Shows Growing Threat, Officials Say

    WASHINGTON — The roadside bomb that.

  • New York City Allocates $250,000 for Abortions, Challenging Conservative States

    [What you need to know to.