DES MOINES — Former Vice President Joe Biden brought in a fire truck, bouncy house and ice cream truck for a carnival-style “Biden fest.”
A Mariachi band played at former U.S. Housing Secretary Juliàn Castro’s rally site and then marched in with the candidate and his supporters. And Lizzo and Prince blared through the speakers at a gathering for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
But others took a different tack: U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren focused on organizing supporters, gathering voter information and knocking doors rather than big displays of support.
Saturday’s Polk County Steak Fry in Iowa was the largest in the event’s storied history, drawing more than 12,000 excited Democrats to Water Works Park, where they heard from 17 presidential candidates vying for their attention and support on caucus day.
Many of the candidates gathered with their supporters ahead of the main event, holding rallies where they each tried to outshine their competitors.
Polk County Democrats' chairman Sean Bagniewski said organizers had sold more than 12,000 tickets, purchased more than 10,500 steaks (plus vegan options for vegan candidates U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii) and counted roughly 18,000 candidate signs scattered across the park.
"This is the biggest steak fry in history," he said.
Each candidate was given 10 minutes to speak. The only major candidate not in attendance was former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who was attending his daughter's wedding.
Raindrops began falling ahead of the event, but Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price appeared relaxed about the potential for a downpour. Iowa Democrats have fared well in both rain and heat at previous steak fry events, he said.
“They have endured all weather,” Price said. "And they still come because they know this is a great opportunity to see the candidates and a great opportunity to show just how committed we are to the democratic process.”
The rain held off for almost the entire event, but the skies opened up as the final candidate, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, spoke.
“I’m prepared for this," Ryan said, pausing as it began to rain harder. "I’ve got my Progress Iowa hat.”
State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad joined Ryan on stage, holding an umbrella over the congressman’s head so he could finish, even as most attendees headed for the exits.
Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic Iowa governor and former U.S. agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, said the Steak Fry can send a message to Iowans.
“We are giving them an opportunity to make the case — to make a strong, passionate, enthusiastic and thoughtful case — for their candidacy,” he said. “What separates them, what’s unique, about their campaign. This is a great forum.”
"The speeches are certainly important. That's one part of it," Bagniewski said Saturday. "... The most important thing, I would say, are the rallies."
Each of the candidates had space outside the event where they rallied their supporters, and many of them organized marches into the venue to showcase their organizational strength and volunteer enthusiasm.
Former President Barack Obama, when he was a candidate in 2007, set the standard for those marches when he arrived with more than 1,000 people and wowed the crowd, Bagniewski said. Since then, other campaigns have attempted to replicate that moment.
On Saturday, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California appeared to have the largest and most energetic supporter groups.
Buttigieg’s rally began in the early morning with a performance by Relaxed Fit, a jazz band from Cedar Rapids. And the campaign bused in the Clay High School Marching Band from South Bend to hype the crowd. Later, in a mass of golden T-shirts and signs, Buttigieg and his supporters marched toward the Steak Fry, chanting “I-O-W-A, Mayor Pete all the way!” as the crowd crawled down the narrow street.
Leading the crowd was Sam Ingersoll, a 47-year-old supporter from Iowa City, clad in an inflatable dinosaur costume.
“My daughter says I’m ‘extra,’” Ingersoll said, his voice emanating from deep within the dinosaur’s neck.
Biden’s pre-Steak Fry rally had a block party feel, complete with a bouncy castle, lawn games, pancakes and an ice cream truck. The campaign bused in supporters from around the state and said they have contacted more likely caucusgoers in the week leading up to the Steak Fry than in any other one-week period this year.
Biden’s march into the event was led by a fire truck and the Union Crusaders drill team from Waterloo, who danced, chanted and played drums.
The former vice president promised supporters that if he got the nomination, he would beat President Donald Trump “like a drum.” He also urged them to get involved in his campaign.
“This is how we move to Iowa,” Harris said as she greeted her supporters ahead of the Steak Fry after marching in with SEIU members and the Fight for 15 movement.
Harris’ energetic supporters prepared for her arrival with dances and chants of “KAM-ALA, Kamala Harris all the way.” The Isiserettes drumline led her supporters on a march into the main event.
Harris also struck a note of unity.
“We know that we are fighting for the best of who we are as a nation, and we know the greatest power in our fight is the people and the fact that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” she said.
Two others, Sanders of Vermont and Warren of Massachusetts, opted to focus on voter outreach and organizing rather than big visual displays.
Sanders built a small tent at his rally site staffed by just a couple of people. There, the team leaned a wooden door against the tent and posted a sign that said “Out door-knocking. Be back later.” The sign kept a running tally of the number of voters the campaign had contacted throughout the day, building to a total of 27,000 phone calls and more than 7,500 doors knocked, the campaign said.
“This is how we'll win the election,” Sanders’ Iowa state director, Misty Rebik, tweeted.
Warren’s team adopted a similar approach, but focused its organizing efforts on the more than 12,000 Democrats who attended the Steak Fry.
Instead of a large rally or march, volunteers fanned out to speak with Iowa Democrats about her story and the issues she's running on. The campaign used its rally spot as an “Organizing HQ” to train volunteers on canvassing, including tips on how best to approach potential supporters.
Volunteers were easy to spot as they canvassed the crowd with “liberty green” clipboards and balloons — the color of the Statue of Liberty and the signature tint of the Warren campaign. Many wore buttons that said, “Ask me about Elizabeth Warren.”
Warren and Sanders both addressed supporters, but they did not march into the event. Afterward, Warren stayed for her signature “selfie” line, taking 1,050 photos in two hours, according to her campaign.
Many of the campaigns purchased tickets in bulk and distributed them to volunteers, helping to ensure friendly crowds.
According to event organizers, Biden purchased the most, at 1,800. Buttigieg purchased 1,500 tickets, Harris had 1,000 (though she turned out an additional 200 people who attended her non-ticketed rally), and Warren bought 750. Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke each purchased 500 tickets, and Klobuchar bought 325. Sanders, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Castro all purchased 200. Activist Tom Steyer bought 100, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado bought 80.
Buttigieg seemed to generate the most raw enthusiasm from the crowd — much like he did at the Democratic Wing Ding event in Clear Lake last month.
“Because when I’m your nominee, this president will have to compete with an American war veteran on the subject of who would make a better commander in chief,” he said.
Warren also drew an enthusiastic response as she took the stage. As she said “I have a plan,” the crowd erupted, and when she talked about her proposed wealth tax, the crowd chanted “Two cents! Two cents!” back at her.
Biden, who also was well-received, drew cheers when he spoke about climate change.
“Folks, as president, the first thing I will do is rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and, within 100 days, within 100 days, call a meeting of all the major nations in the world to come to Washington to up the ante. Because they are responsible for 85% of all the pollution.”
Klobuchar was applauded for going after Trump.
“We have a guy that would rather lie than lead,” she said. “… He gloats about an economy he didn’t create … then, when anything goes wrong from his own making — from his trade war, from his ethanol waivers, from how he handles the farm economy — what does he do? He whines.”
Booker on the ropes
Though the event had the air of a festival, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey took some time before the event to speak frankly about the state of his campaign.
Booker, speaking with reporters in the back of his campaign van before the event, said he needs to see more “fundraising success” if he wants a better chance at becoming the Democratic nominee.
Earlier in the morning, his campaign issued a memo to supporters announcing an ambitious fundraising goal: raising $1.7 million over the next 10 days.
“If we can’t raise that, we do not have what we need to grow this campaign to win,” he said.
Booker has more than 50 staff working in the state along with more than 50 endorsements, including the largest stable of state lawmakers in the Democratic field.
But he said he doesn’t want his campaign to become a “vanity project.” When asked if he would drop out or cut staff if he doesn’t raise the money, he said the campaign would have to make “tough” choices.
“If we don’t raise that money, we’ll have to have a serious moment of introspection,” he said.
Several of those lawmakers, state Reps. Amy Nielsen, Kenan Judge, Heather Matson and Jennifer Konfrst, spoke at Booker’s pre-Steak Fry rally, hyping the red-shirted crowd before the march to the event.
Booker led about 200 supporters down the path to the event, standing next to a full-throated organizer with a bullhorn leading chants like “Hope. Hype. Hustle.” and “I believe that we will rise.”
During his speech, he echoed his campaign’s “now or never” memo.
“I’m going to call to you right now,” he said. “I need everyone’s help with my campaign because we’re not running an individual campaign. We will win this election not by dividing Democrats but (having) people that unite us and bring us together.”
Booker stayed around for a couple of hours after his speech to take photos with attendees and mingle with the crowd.
Democrats talk impeachment
As she took the stage, Warren called for Trump's impeachment — a message she’s renewed in the wake of reports that Trump asked Ukraine’s leader to investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, in that country.
Warren called for Trump’s impeachment in April, when the Mueller report was released, saying the findings proved Trump welcomed the help of a foreign government that had attacked the country’s election system, and tried to obstruct justice when the government investigated.
“I read all 448 pages, and when I got to the end, I called for the impeachment of Donald Trump,” she said to raucous cheers Saturday. “Congress failed to act, and now Donald Trump has shown he believes he’s above the law. He has solicited another foreign government to attack our election system. It is time for us to call out this illegal behavior and start impeachment proceedings right now.”
Harris, too, addressed Trump, drawing cheers for a line that has become common in her stump speeches: “Dude’s gotta go!”
“Dude’s gotta go!” some in the crowd chanted back at her.
After listing a series of examples where Harris said Trump took the word of a foreign dictator over the word of the U.S. intelligence community, Harris referenced the news reports about Ukraine.
“Just in the last 48 hours, yet again we find that he is in cahoots with a foreign government to manipulate the outcome of this election for president of the United States,” she said. “Iowa, we need a new commander in chief. And we need to, absolutely, by the way, begin impeachment proceedings.”
Biden also addressed Trump when taking questions from reporters. He called Trump “a serial abuser” of power and accused him of bullying a foreign leader and violating presidential norms. Biden has resisted calling for Trump’s impeachment, but said the House should investigate the president’s actions to see if impeachment is warranted.
“Depending on what the House finds, he could be impeached, but I’m not making that judgment now,” Biden said. “The House should investigate it. The House should investigate it. This appears to be an overwhelming abuse of power, to get on the phone with a foreign leader who is looking for help from the United States and ask about me and imply things — if that’s what happened. That appears to be what happened.”
From the stage, Castro addressed “my House Democratic friends.”
“It is time for you to do your job and impeach Donald Trump,” he said. “How many crimes does this president have to do before Congress will act and impeach him?”
O’Rourke leans into gun control message
O’Rourke made news when he said on a presidential debate stage that “hell, yes,” he would support a mandatory buyback of assault-style weapons, and he seemed to embrace the phrase as an unofficial rallying cry at the Steak Fry.
His supporters, at their rally site ahead of the event, held signs with each letter, spelling out “hell, yes.”
And when O’Rourke took the stage, he recalled the debate stage moment.
“The people of El Paso, Texas, are the ones who gave me voice to say, ‘Hell, yes, we are going to buy back every AR-15 and AK-47 in this country,’” he said. “Get those off the streets and out of our homes so that no one ever has to fear that again.”
He said gun control advocates should not let corporations, the National Rifle Association, political action committees “or even our fellow Democrats” tell them what is possible.
“We the people decide what is possible in this country,” he said. “And ladies and gentlemen, that is how we defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020. That is how we bring a deeply divided country back together again. Are you with me on this? Let me hear you say, ‘Hell, yes!’”
The crowd shouted back, “Hell, yes!"
“You with me on this?” he asked again.
“Hell, yes!” they answered.
Register reporters Kim Norvell, Austin Cannon, Barbara Rodriguez, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Katie Akin, Shelby Fleig and Robin Opsahl contributed to this report.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is Chief Politics Reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Election 2020: Polk County Steak Fry draws largest crowd in its history