OPINION — As a political reporter, it’s hard not to love the Iowa State Fair, the two-week staging ground for some of the biggest names in American politics to make their case alongside a 600-pound butter cow and an epic hog calling contest. The fair is both a thermometer and a road map that tells you how hot a party or candidate is at any given moment, as well as where they’re likely headed next.
In a midterm election year like 2018, when Democratic energy is palpable and first-time candidates are plentiful, you’d think the parade of high-profile national Democrats showing up to claim their time at the Des Moines Register’s famous Soapbox stage would be long and strong.
The stage is a debut space of sorts for anyone even remotely considering a run for president, a place for the truly ambitious to make their ambitions known and to put a stake in the ground for donors, future voters and other candidates around the country. If there is a star rising in American politics, it will rise in Iowa first — most likely at the Iowa State Fair.
But when this year’s fair wrapped up on Sunday, the biggest headlines from Democratic stump speeches were a John Boehner sighting at Rep. John Delaney’s Soapbox speech (the Maryland Democrat is running for president, by the way) and Stormy Daniels’ lawyer’s barn burner at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Wing Ding Dinner about 100 miles away.
If there are stars about to drop out of the sky to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, they weren’t in Iowa this year. Compare that to the deep field of national Democrats at the fair just before the 2006 midterm election, and Democrats, you have a problem.
2006 was the year that Sens. Joe Biden and Evan Bayh spoke at the Soapbox, along with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Of the no-shows, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton skipped the fair that year, but she was busy trying to deflect attention away from herself until she declared her bid for the White House.
And although Barack Obama didn’t attend the fair until 2007, at this point in 2006, he had already given his famous DNC speech two years earlier, won a Grammy, appeared on the cover of Men’s Vogue and, most important, in September of that year made a huge splash at former Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa.
“I tried to get Bono for this weekend,” Harkin jokes of Obama’s already huge celebrity. “I couldn’t get him, so I settled for the second biggest rock star in America today.” Several weeks later, Obama appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.”
Definitely not Bono
Compare the 2006 Democratic field with the maybe-I-wills who did go to Des Moines this year. Former HUD Secretary and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro was certainly the best known going into the two weeks, but even he opened with a joke that most people don’t know the difference between him and his identical twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro. “I feel like I always have to explain which one I am,” he laughed.
Likewise, billionaire activist and Trump impeachment aficionado Tom Steyer started off by acknowledging that most people there had probably never hear of him either. “If you know who I am, it’s probably because of the impeachment ads I’ve been running for the last eight months.”
Two House members, Rep. Delaney and Rep. Eric Swalwell, rolled up their sleeves (literally every man on stage rolls up his sleeves) and showed up too.
Swalwell got a slow start after he introduced himself as representing the San Francisco Bay district where Rachel Maddow grew up, but got the crowd listening when he told them he was actually born in Algona, Iowa. Rep. Delaney said he was about to hit his 89th of Iowa’s 99 counties and gave a call for pragmatism in politics and for the Democratic Party to “start doing real things for the American people.”
Finally, Andrew Yang, a young-ish, mostly unknown entrepreneur who admitted that, yes, he is definitely running for president, gave one of the looser, more engaging speeches of all the Democrats. “You’re going to love what you’re about to hear, I believe,” he promised the crowd.
Where were the women?
All of the men have solid credentials and gave earnest, occasionally interesting speeches. One or two might even have star potential. But two huge problems with the turnout of hopefuls in Iowa can’t be ignored. First, where are the women? If a woman is going to run for president for the Democrats in 2020 and her name is not Elizabeth Warren, she’s going to need to start building her infrastructure, not to mention her national profile very soon.
Second, none of the Democratic speeches in Iowa, except potentially Michael Avenatti’s, seemed remotely up to speed for a Trump-era presidential contest.
When Trump did the Iowa State Fair himself in 2015 at the same fairgrounds where the Democrats gave their 10-minute mini speeches over the last two weeks, he buzzed the crowd with his airliner before giving out free Trump helicopter rides to little kids. “I love children, I love Iowa,” Trump told a stampede of reporters. “Great place!” The media could pay attention to nothing else. The march to the White House had begun.
While Democrats in Washington are wrestling over what their “unified” party message should be and if-not-Pelosi-then-who for House leader, a larger, more important reality is unfolding in the real world where people meet candidates and form opinions and decide who they’ll support for president the next time around.
We know that Republicans have a media-hounding, china-smashing, rule-bashing Goliath in the White House, who has a small but fiercely loyal band of supporters and has won the only election he’s ever run in. What do Democrats have? It was hard to tell at this year’s Iowa State Fair.
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