Former Vice President Joe Biden drew more people but Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a presumptive long-shot in a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, still was able to rouse Democrats and generally curious Iowans who heard both men speak at the Iowa State Fair Thursday.

Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock casts a kernel ballot in the WHO straw poll at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Credit: Shawn Plank/for IowaWatch

Such is the landscape in Iowa, the state with the nation’s first precinct caucuses that start gauging real delegate support for selecting a party’s 2020 presidential nominee: first-time national candidates, in this case seeing an opportunity to defeat a controversial Republican president in Donald Trump, vie with national figures more familiar to voters to gain support for higher office. Iowa gets them all before the winnowing process begins.

Bullock told fairgoers the election must be about more than defeating Trump. “Look, I’m a pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat that won three eletions in a red state, not by compromising our values but by getting stuff done,” he said.

Bullock and Biden kicked off the fair’s election season political soapbox, a Des Moines Register-sponsored feature that gives candidates time to make stump speeches at the fair’s main concourse. The fair started Thursday.

Biden, the summer 2019 opinion poll leader – for what that’s worth at this point in time in the nomination race for the November 2020 election — hit common themes for him and the other Democratic candidates: preserve and improve the Affordable Care Act, support wages that reward workers, give more federal dollars to public education, enact controls on purchasing assault weapons and background checks for gun purchases, and repeal tax cuts enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress after Trump became president.

Photographers and reporters crowd around Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as Biden meets with audience members at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Credit: Shawn Plank/for IowaWatch

“We can afford to change this if we can get rid of that god-awful tax cut that was passed,” Biden said when talking about having a strong economy that rewards workers.

The stakes are high for each of the more than 20 Democrats seeking the party’s nomination because voters have plenty of time to weigh whom they will support when caucusing the night of Feb. 3, 2020. That is when party members gather in voting precincts to select delegates to county conventions in a nominating process that has the delegates supporting a particular presidential candidate. 

Mary Madsen of Sioux City said she was 75 percent sure she would support Joe Biden for president in 2020 but wanted to reserve final judgment for a few months. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

“I’m going to leave myself open for the next few months,” Mary Madsen, 63, of Sioux City, said. Madsen said she is 75 percent sure she’ll support Biden but wants to hear more.

“I’m listening for someone who can stand up against Trump. I’m listening for someone that looks presidential, for someone that sounds presidential,” she said.

Tony Broeker cautioned Democrats against putting all of their hopes into opposing Trump. Broeker, 47, of Burlington, voted for Trump in 2016 but said he is keeping open, for now, his support in 2020. He said he is weighing the Democratic candidates against whether or not they measure up to Trump.

“The Democrats, themselves, they need to not worry about the Trump thing, like he (Bullock) said,” Broeker said after Bullock’s stump speech. “Don’t chase Trump because, if you chase Trump, you’re going to fall into the same trap that they did last election.”

Tony Broeker, Burlington, supported Donald Trump in 2016 but is checking the field for 2020. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

While Bullock touted having a public option for health care, affordable college, fair wages and supporting a woman’s right to chose an abortion, he had choice words for what Democrats see as a political opportunity: talking about Trump’s controversial and combative Twitter messages, bombastic attacks on opponents and sometimes allies, and Trump’s frequent efforts to focus on himself.

“We expect more out of our preschoolers now than we do the president of the United States,” Bullock told the Des Moines audience.


Bullock also criticized Trump and Republicans for being unwilling to enact legislation that he said would lessen the influence of dark money– funds that are hard to trace to the donors who seek to influence public policy secretly — in political campaigns. “We’ve got to change the money in our system,” he said.

He said any of the Democrats can guarantee winning party strongholds California, Massachusetts and Minnesota but that he also could deliver Montana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that went for Trump in the 2016 Electoral College. Noting his underdog status in the nomination race, he urged voters to place him in the top three of their choices for the caucuses.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock makes a point at the Des Moines Register political soapbox on Aug. 8, 2019, at the Iowa State Fair. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Here is what Bullock faces: He got less than 1 percent of support from those questioned in the most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll reported in June. Biden led the field with 24 percent support, that poll showed. The poll was conducted June 2-5 with 600 likely 2020

Democratic caucus participants and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Bullock had raised $2.1 million and spent $581,000 as of June 30, Federal Elections Commission statistics show. That’s a far cry from the $22 million raised this year by Biden, who had spent $11.1 million this year through June 30. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic candidates in money raised and spent so far this year: $46.4 million raised and $23.7 million spent as of June 30, FEC records show.

Donald Trump’s campaign had raised $56.8 million this year out of the $124.4 million his campaign has raised overall. It had spent $19.4 million in 2019 — $75.2 million overall since he announced the start of his campaign in January 2017 upon taking office.

Bullock is not alone in the underdog role. Plenty in the crowded field face the tough reality of early opinion polling showing them with scant support and raising relatively little money to compete with heavier hitters. Democrats Seth Moulton, Bill De Blasio, Timothy Ryan, Henry Hewes, Hart Cunningham and Maurice Gravel all had raised less than Bullock as of June 30. So had Trump’s Republican challengers William Weld and Joe Collins III, FEC records show.

Democrats Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet were less than $1 million ahead of Bullock in funds raised, FEC data show.

National media were at the first day of the Des Moines Register political soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

During Thursday’s soapbox event, Biden renewed his theme of being in a fight for the country’s soul. He said he also is running for president to unite the country and push for policy that, he said, restore the middle class as the country’s backbone.

“The idea that we don’t reward work as much as wealth is bizarre,” he said. “The middle class built this country. Wall Street didn’t build this country.” [Ed. Note: This quote was typed incorrectly in an earlier version. It was corrected 8/9/19.]

That kind of talk appeals to people like Mazie Stilwell, 28, of Des Moines. Stilwell, communications specialist with Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said she was interested in issues that connect with workers. “He does a good job of connecting to working people,” she said about Biden, “and talking about those issues.”

Other candidates are to speak at the fair through Aug. 17. One scheduled candidate, Beto O’Rourke of Texas, canceled his scheduled appearance Friday because of the mass murders in El Paso over the weekend. O’Rourke formerly represented El Paso in Congress. President Trump is not scheduled to appear at the fair. Weld and Collins are.

This story also was published by Montana Free Press under IowaWatch’s mission of making its news stories available to media partners.

Former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd at the Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, political soapbox, hosted by the Des Moines Register at the Iowa State Fair. Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

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