DES MOINES, Iowa — Before Steve Streed moved from Fort Myers to Iowa, he wondered why the heck the country would let a small Midwestern state get the first say in choosing the next president every four years.
On Saturday, as Streed looked out at the sea of camping chairs and campaign signs and people eagerly awaiting the men and women vying to be president, the ex-Floridian’s doubts were erased.
“I’ve never been to anything like this,” Streed said. “I love it.”
Floridians may have caught snippets of candidates in debates or during one of their rare, scattered visits to the Sunshine State. But to many, the 2020 presidential race feels a ways away.
Not in Iowa.
The candidates have camped out for months in the Hawkeye state. Only here can a local party event in a park — the Polk County Democratic Party Steak Fry — draw 17 presidential candidates and humble each of them to ask for votes, one by one.
On Saturday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sprinkled seasoning on a steak as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders shouted from a stage for a political revolution. California Sen. Kamala Harris led a trail of television cameras through trampled grass and past food trucks, stopping for a photo with a young Julián Castro supporter in a cowboy hat. Nearby, Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, waited to be noticed.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg marched in with an entourage of hundreds in yellow shirts. A mob of reporters followed former Vice President Joe Biden as he left the stage. And Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett casually strolled through rows of lawn chairs, introducing himself to a thinning crowd before leaving in a Dodge Caravan.
All were seeking validation from 12,000 men and women who will cast first judgement for Democrats on this question: Who is the best candidate to face President Donald Trump?
lf Iowa held its nominating contest today, the likely answer from the state’s Democrats would be Warren. In Des Moines, the state’s capital and most populous city, Warren’s surge is not just theoretical, it’s tangible.
As she stepped through bales and decorative gourds to the microphone, the park erupted. No matter the name on their T-shirt or button, attendees pulled out their cell phones to record her. Some eagerly chanted out favorite lines from her speeches, others hearing her for the first time loudly applauded her critiques of corporations and corruption in politics.
More than 1,000 people lined up to meet her as she left the stage to flip steaks, choosing a chance at a selfie with Warren over watching the follow-up acts, including Sanders and Biden, neither of whom generated the same level of enthusiasm.
Hours later, a Des Moines Register/CNN poll would for the first time show Warren jumping ahead of Biden and distancing herself from Sanders, her progressive ally in the Senate. She is the top pick of 22 percent of Iowans, the poll said. Biden, who has led in Iowa for months, was closely behind at 20 percent. Sanders trailed at 11 percent. No other candidates reached double digits.
The most popular candidate though, is the one who can beat Trump. And there are very different ideas of what form that candidate should take.
Retired school teacher Cassandra Flomo wants someone “who can bring the Republicans and the independents on board." She’s leaning Biden. Clara Ortgies says a candidate, “must be consistent with their views,” which is why she likes Sanders. Araceli Goode prefers Castro, the former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, because he has challenged Trump’s immigration policies more than anyone else.
Robbie Robinson, a teacher and father of four, said that all these options are a good thing because they considered the sour sentiments from four years ago, when “people felt pigeonholed into one particular candidate and that Bernie didn’t get a fair shake.”
“This time around there’s more collective action and energy," Robinson said, “but in addition to that, I feel when candidate that is chosen, we’ll all support them."
It’s a "quirk of history,” that these people will separate the contenders from the wannabes, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. Candidates who fail the Iowa test on Feb. 3 may not be around when Floridians vote in their March 17 primary. Some, like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have already dropped out; others, like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, warned Saturday that they may not last much longer without a boost.
It’s a responsibility Iowans insist they don’t take lightly. It’s why on a dreary Saturday in September, four months before their nominating contest, they listened to hours of speeches as campaigns and prognosticators tried to analyze how they responded to each candidate.
Are they cheering wildly for Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, because they like him more than most, or because they approve when he repeats his commitment to eradicating AR-15s? Was Biden flat, or are his supporters older and quieter? Was all the support for Buttigieg natural, or is the best-funded Democratic candidate manufacturing that strength? Is New York businessman Andrew Yang and his idea for a $1,000 universal income gaining steam?
“We know there are lot of eyes are on Iowa,” said Alicia Rowley, a 36-year-old mental health therapist. “That has a way of getting us really inspired, to be a barometer check of where the Midwest is hanging out politically.”
Critics say the Iowa caucuses — which are long community meetings where people are sorted by who they support and their votes are counted by hand — are not inclusive and take too long. The turnout is generally low; about one in five voters participate. One suggested remedy, holding virtual caucuses online, was shut down after the national Democratic Party successfully hacked a test run.
But retiree Paula Zenick said she prefers it over what she experienced when she lived in Tallahassee. She said Iowa’s first-in-the-nation position encourages much more civic engagement and buy-in from the candidates.
“We expect all the politicians are going to visit us," Zenick said. "We expect to be first, we expect to have that voice.”