CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The madness began at 5 a.m. A horde of supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris, clad in bright yellow T-shirts, woke up guests at the DoubleTree Hotel just after sunrise with their chants from the street below: “WHEN I SAY ‘PRESIDENT,’ YOU SAY ‘HARRIS.’”
Nineteen Democratic candidates descended on Cedar Rapids on Sunday for the largest gathering of the 2020 presidential race yet, a symbol of a vast, chaotic, and exhausting Democratic field — where one speaker bled into another and chanters on the streets drowned each other out.
The candidates at the party’s annual Hall of Fame dinner came in quick succession, each with five minutes to make their pitch to voters in the state that will kick off the nominating process next February in a field that remains fractured. Those who went over their allotted time were promptly played off the stage with an Oscars-style orchestra by unseen sound technicians.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked about her plans for big structural change. Sen. Bernie Sanders went after unnamed Democrats pushing a “failed” “middle-ground” strategy that, he said, would reelect President Trump. Pete Buttigieg told his story as a small-city mayor, veteran, Rhodes Scholar, and husband. Harris promised to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump.”
And lesser-known candidates tried to make their mark: Rep. Eric Swalwell by comparing the Democratic field to the Avengers (“In 2016, the Republicans were the Hunger Games”), Rep. Tim Ryan with a speed-dating joke (“If you want a second date, go to TimRyan.com”), Andrew Yang with a knock on the absent frontrunner (former vice president Joe Biden attended his granddaughter’s high school graduation this weekend instead).
In the end, though, the speeches were almost beside the point.
The parade of speakers was as much of a sensory blur as the hourslong pre-event festivities that overtook both sides of First Avenue East on Sunday morning. Amid the colored placards, chants, music, and marching — part of the so-called sign wars that often precede major party gatherings here during a presidential election — it was hard for any candidate to stand out.
“I guess this is what democracy sounds like!” Warren told reporters over the sound of supporters, all yelling in unison, “It’s time for a woman in the White House!”
On the streets of Cedar Rapids, Sen. Cory Booker’s backers, who had marked the sidewalk in colored chalk with messages like “Lead With Love” and “Brick by Brick,” had chants of “Iowa, I see you! Iowa, I love you!” Warren’s fans sang Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. Beto O’Rourke brought a taco truck, offering free breakfast tacos to other candidates’ staff. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign had draped a banner with her face on it over the side of a minivan, where a man tapped on a steel drum.
Instead of participating in the early frenzy of Sunday morning, Sanders sent his supporters to a nearby McDonald’s, where the candidate joined workers in a protest for a $15 minimum wage. But after leading the group in a march to the DoubleTree, he had to walk through a crowd of Harris supporters chanting, “It’s time for a woman in the White House!”
Everywhere, there were young men flipping giant “DELANEY” signs in support of John Delaney, a long-shot former representative who has been polling near the bottom of the field. Delaney’s campaign, it turned out, had paid professional sign-spinners to fly in from DC, one of the spinners said.
The lefty media group the Young Turks, meanwhile, showed up to yell at just about everyone.
Troy Price, the Iowa party chair, said he spent weeks planning to accommodate 19 speakers. “We’ve got timers. We’ve got music queued up to play people off. We want to keep it tight,” he said. “It feels like two weeks before an election and it’s felt like that since March.”
On the eve of Sunday’s Hall of Fame dinner, a poll by CNN and the Des Moines Register showed an open race in the state, with room for a candidate to emerge from a field that is split across at least five major contenders. Biden led with 24%. Sanders, dropping in position since the last Des Moines Register poll, came in at 16%, with Warren and Buttigieg right behind him. Most other candidates didn’t clear 1%.
Booker is one candidate hoping to “break out” in Iowa, banking on a moment he said he’s sure is coming. The New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark is leading much of the field in field organizing and local endorsements in this state — one big-name Iowa Democrat, Jerry Crawford, announced his support last week — but is still polling in the low single digits.
“People who win the Iowa caucus are rarely ahead early,” Booker said in an interview after his speech here Sunday, pointing to three exceptions — Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton. “Which is interesting: three candidates who didn’t go on to win. We are confident in our path, in our strategy, and in the fact that we’re gonna win Iowa.”
“We will break out here,” Booker said, “and we will have our moment.”
Warren, speaking to reporters outside the DoubleTree, said she’s found success here after an early launch in sticking to her strategy amid the chaos of a field that in the last two months has seen the entry of a former vice president and grown to a total of 23 candidates.
“I’ve just been out doing town halls all across Iowa and all across this country, talking about what’s broken — and I’ve got a plan to fix it,” she said. “For me, that’s the heart of optimism — is knowing what’s wrong, knowing how to fix it, and then building a grassroots movement to do it.”
Is it tricky to get attention in such a large field, a reporter asked.
Warren was ready with a quick reply: “No.”