No Fair Contest

Long-shot Democrats keep campaigning in Iowa, but they’re at the mercy of TV.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate, eats a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Sunday.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Sunday.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

DES MOINES, Iowa—“Please know that there are powerful forces that do not want me to be in the third debate.”

Marianne Williamson, a viral sensation following each of the first two debates who has translated that surge in search traffic to precisely squat in subsequent polling, was fielding questions at the Iowa State Fair before an audience of potential caucus-goers in 88-degree unmitigated sunshine.

“It’s kind of interesting,” she continued, “because just like President Trump looks at certain people from certain countries and says, ‘You’re not like us, you don’t belong here,’ there are political forces in this country who say ‘You’re not like us, you’re not in our club, you don’t belong here.’ ”

And then, in deference to those political forces, Williamson segued into a call for those who had not donated to her campaign to chip in at least $1. This was not an investment in recruiting loyal caucus-goers to her side this coming winter. It was her bid to survive in the contest that has jumped ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire: the effort to get enough individual donors and hit the polling thresholds to qualify for the next televised debates.

Following her speech and a press gaggle, Williamson ran off to do a local television interview in an air-conditioned souvenir shop, where the manager promptly and angrily kicked her and the press out for taking up too much space. As Williamson was trying to walk through the Fair’s main drag toward an exit, I asked her whether she thought the debates, with their moderator-induced fights and countdown clocks and assorted other choreographed cable-news stunts, were playing too determinative a role in the winnowing of the Democratic presidential field.

“It’s all part of a dog-and-pony show, isn’t it?” she said. “But I’ll tell you what is real and important, and that’s when you’re out there and you’re talking to voters about things that matter. And that’s the core of democracy, and that’s where it’s meaningful, and that’s where it’s powerful, and that’s where it’s beautiful.”

[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]

The Iowa State Fair—an ecstatically sweaty, humid, diabetic summer festival attracting roughly 1 million attendees over the course of 11 days each summer—is billed as a central event in, and self-conscious celebration of, Iowa retail politicking. Candidates come to shake hands, mingle, eat fried meats or fried desserts, and deliver a speech at the “soapbox” before fielding questions from a spontaneous crowd of spectators about anything and everything. For generations of would-be presidents, it has been an essential stop en route to the February Iowa caucuses, when the public first gets to weigh on the nominating contest.

But given the extraordinary size of the Democratic presidential field this cycle—22 candidates, or 23, maybe 24; there is no recognized official count—the first cutdown won’t come in a few months, as Iowans make their choices. It will come at 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 28, by which time candidates must show the Democratic National Committee that they have received donations from at least 130,000 unique donors and earned 2 percent support in four qualifying national or early-state polls during the previous month, to avoid being left out when ABC presents the third presidential debate.

So far, only nine candidates have met both qualifications. For at least half of the field, then, the Iowa State Fair was part of the final stretch leading into what has become, in effect, the first nominating contest: participation in the next stage production, licensed this time to the American Broadcasting Company.

None of the candidates I asked about this impending early reduction of the field explicitly called it unfair. The rules were the rules, and, more importantly, they didn’t want to sound like whiners. How they felt about those rules, though, typically corresponded with which side of the cut line they were on.

“I think it’s a little early to be trying to have something so significant winnowing the field,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, among the long shots on the brink of televised extinction, told me. He spoke about how his crowd sizes had “tripled” since the last debate—from about five to 15, mind you—and said he would continue campaigning, even without the oxygen of another debate presence.

“The plan is to keep going because I’m still getting a good response,” he said. “And at some point, if I send something out and no one shows up, then I’ll stop, because I’ve got a wife and kids and a family and, you know, another job.”

When I told Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet that I was writing a story about the outsize importance of the early debates in culling the herd, he perked up. We were at the “Wing Ding,” a party fundraiser in Clear Lake that served as a cattle call for the candidates to give their five-minute pitches to a packed ballroom of Iowa Democrats. Bennet was milling through the hallways introducing himself to voters carrying plates of barbecue (and boneless chicken wings).

“I’m not sure that’s the role they should play,” he said. “I think the debates should be only one small part of this process. I understand why they’re useful to the television networks, but I don’t know why they’re useful to our democracy in the same way that having these kinds of conversations are.”

Bennet, who in his soapbox speech said that the nomination shouldn’t be determined by “more nonsense fights on cable news,” hit on an issue that I suspect would gain more currency among the candidates, if by hitting on it they didn’t risk coming across as that worst of specimens, a whiner: Why are these all-powerful sorting mechanisms handed out to private, for-profit media networks to begin with?

“I don’t think it should be!” he said. “But we’ve got the system that we have. I think we’ve got to make sure that we allow the democracy to do its work as well.”

Can “the democracy” do all the work, though? As in: Is it possible for a candidate to build viability the romantic way, by stitching together a coalition of caucus-goers one-by-one through handshakes and coffees, debate participation be damned? If candidates who aren’t going to make the next debates need a rationale for extending their campaigns, they at least have to believe that model can work.

That’s why some of these candidates, when I’d ask them about the centrality of the debates, insisted to me that the debates had very little to do with anything. “I think you see people making their judgments well beyond just debates, and I think it’s just one piece of the equation, I really do,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told me. The exposure from the debates doesn’t outweigh the importance of retail politicking, he added. “You’ve seen this reality from the debates, that they haven’t really changed the overall picture that much, so, no, I think it’s one piece of the puzzle.”

De Blasio, who reportedly spent seven hours at the fair on Sunday, had a point, or half of a point: After two debates, Joe Biden leads the field, with Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris jockeying around for position in the next tier. That was the arrangement in May and June as well. Meanwhile, the candidates hovering close to the zero-bound have stayed there. Yet surveys do say their name recognition has improved after they’ve gotten TV exposure. By missing the future debates, though, they can’t take the next step toward any later, hypothetical rising in the polls. Voters might just think they’re out of the race, if they knew they were in it in the first place.

In a scrum with reporters following his soapbox speech on Saturday, former Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper was asked what he needs to do to break out from the field. He responded that he had hoped the media would have some advice for him.

“How do you break out? How do you capture people’s attention?” He listed some of his environmental accomplishments as governor and lamented, “That’s not picked up by the media, that’s not celebrated by the public.”

But when I asked him about his concerns about the debates prematurely winnowing the field, he didn’t spin an answer. He didn’t argue that the debates were too unserious a spectacle for such a solemn office, or that they weren’t important to one’s campaign. He didn’t offer an explanation that served himself.

“I respect that the DNC is trying to winnow the field,” he said. “They should. It’s not good for the party to have 24 candidates.”

For candidates like Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bennet, De Blasio, Williamson, and others, the weekend was all business: cutting as many interviews, meeting as many voters, and getting photographed eating as much junk food or riding as many nauseating carnival rides as possible. It was the real, granular work of the Iowa State Fair and the Iowa caucuses: getting your name out there not through major ad campaigns, but by saying it to individual voters, in person.

For the top contenders, it was just a photo-op. The two candidates with the largest showings at the fair, Warren and Sanders, were barely visible during their visits, so tightly packed were the scrums of staff and cameramen surrounding them. Sanders, in particular, seemed to be counting down the seconds until he could leave the grounds; it probably was not easy for his staff to convince him that he needed to have his picture taken eaten a corndog. He made a brief pilgrimage to the fair’s famous “butter cow,” which he and his wife Jane looked at for a few seconds before bouncing. His staff told media that the next stop would be the Ferris wheel, sending salivating cameramen into a sprint.

“Please God, let him get on the ride,” one prayed.

The Sanders blob, instead, headed toward the exit.

As Sanders was walking down the main drag, a couple spotted him. The woman yelled “Bernie!” and shortly thereafter, the man said, “Fuck Bernie.” The day before, when the Warren blob was checking off its boxes at the fair, a man wearing a “POLITICALLY INCORRECT” shirt got word that the Massachusetts senator was in the middle of it.

“She’s such a stupid woman,” he said. “Pocahontas!” He put his hand to his mouth in Native American mockery.

These taunts of the leaders were common. And I thought of how much the dozen presidential candidates polling at zero to 1 percent would have enjoyed the luxury of someone in the distance, unseen through mobs, wanting to heckle them.