Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat running for president, hugs an Iowan who came to hear him speak in Creston, Iowa on Jan. 1.(Photo by Allison Kadlubar, LSU Manship School News Service)
Tom Steyer, a hedge-fund billionaire running for president, puts a green-and-red plaid design on koozies he offers to potential supporters. (Photo by Allison Kadlubar, LSU Manship School News Service)
John Olsen, who says he has attended more than 100 candidate events, at a New Year’s Eve party put on by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont who is seeking the Democratic nomination. Olsen is a supporter of former Vice President Joe Biden. (Photo by Allison Kadlubar, LSU Manship School News Service)
Democrats in Iowa maneuver to stand out in crowd
Allison Kadlubar / LSU Manship School News Service
Presidential candidates flock here months before the Democratic caucus to gain attention and to get Iowans to stand in their corner on caucus night Feb. 3.
TV ads flood commercial breaks, T-shirts and buttons are given out or sold at most events. But lesser-known candidates need more to stand out.
Andrew Yang, a tech and education entrepreneur who trails in the polls, offers hats, beanies and pins emblazoned with “MATH.” meaning, “Make America Think Again.” He also hands out copies of his book, “The War on Normal People,” to explain the economic disruption from technology and automation he talks endlessly about.
Tom Steyer’s hedge-fund billionaire status makes him a curiosity in unflashy Iowa and his ubiquitous plaid tie and colorfully-woven fabric-and-leather belt helps him stand out a little more. The green-and-red plaid is like a logo he wears to events and debates. He includes it on free koozies and even on the back of his campaign bus.
Pete Buttigieg, who just finished eight years as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, offers “Boot Edge Edge,” stickers to help voters pronounce his name.
Many Iowans are accustomed to questioning candidates as well as shaking hands. Selfies began appearing four years ago. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts takes them to a new level. In her carefully-planned selfie assembly line, lines form, Warren stays put and grins, a volunteer takes coats and purses and sets up the picture. Warren shook the hand of each person and told them, “I’m so happy that you came,” or “it was so nice to meet you.” When it’s over, aides zoom in with the crucial question: “Are you ready to caucus for Senator Warren?”
Knowing that politicians are chronically late, Sen. Warren, who makes a point of mentioning she is a mom and a former elementary school teacher, offers coloring pages and markers to occupy children. One little girl sitting on the floor of a rally in Davenport, Iowa, scrawled “Go Warren” with her Crayons, while her mom listened to the candidate.
Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, gives each attendee a front-facing camera selfie and takes questions or listens to ideas. After a conversation with an elderly woman at a coffee shop event in Creston, Iowa, he leaned in, gave her a hug and said, “Thank you for coming.” She looked up at him with a gleaming smile.
In Iowa, these all pass for quirks, and “quirks are expected from candidates,” said David Yepsen, former Des Moines Register chief political writer and host of “Iowa Press” on public TV. “They have been important and still are.”
Jimmy Carter, a little-known Georgia governor, appeared at one TV interview wearing an apron and a chef’s hat, and talked about cooking fish during the 1976 caucus campaign which he won.
Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor, campaigned in 2016 with a beer in one hand at Iowa restaurants and pubs.
Steyer said his red-and-green plaid tie symbolizes “the idea of getting up and having a lot of energy and verve in going after things that need change.” As for the belt, with bright green, red, blue, white, orange and black, he said he bought it when he visited schools in Kenya and it was woven by Kenyan girls. “I wear the belt to remind myself that sometimes just doing a simple, decent thing has incredibly positive ripple effects that no one anticipates,” he said.
Seth Andersen, director of the Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College, what makes Iowa different than most states, is “you have to actually campaign on the ground, meet real people and answer their questions and be responsive to their concerns. If a big state went first, most candidates would just buy as many ad times as they could, and they wouldn’t really have to meet real voters and answer their questions.”
John Olsen, an Iowan who calls himself “Dr. Vote,” has been to over 100 candidate rallies and events. He was dressed in red, white and blue striped pants, shirt, hat and vest at a New Year’s Eve Bash in Des Moines for Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.
He said his favorite event so far was Sen. Booker’s Christmas Party. Booker’s staff filmed an impromptu commercial at the party while Booker said his lines and spit out numerous jokes between takes. “It’s just all fun,” said Olsen. “He was just so exuberant.”
Did that win him over to the Booker camp? Nope. For now, he is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden.