When more than 12,000 Democratic Party enthusiasts raise their voices in near unison, one tends to take notice.
With that in mind, there were a few moments that stood out during the Sept. 21 Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines.
If crowd enthusiasm is the key metric, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg won the misty day. (Or the rain-soaked day, if you were the horribly unfortunate last speaker. Right, Tim Ryan?)
The Steak Fry crowd’s cheers for Warren and Buttigieg reached decibel levels that clearly surpassed the other 15 candidates who spoke.
It is neither a scientific metric nor a critical indicator, but neither is that crowd response totally uninformative. Enthusiasm matters in any election, especially a party primary. And there was clear enthusiasm for Warren and Buttigieg in that mass of Democrats.
Given that, it was not terribly shocking when the latest Iowa Poll, published later that evening by the Des Moines Register and CNN, said Warren has taken the lead in Iowa for the first time, although the race is a statistical dead heat between she and Joe Biden.
In the latest poll from Ann Selzer’s firm, Warren was the first choice of 22 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucus participants, just ahead of Biden’s 20 percent.
Warren built one of the first robust campaign operations in Iowa, and her showing in the polls has climbed steadily. And as the Steak Fry showed, there is obvious enthusiasm around her campaign.
The Steak Fry cheer-tracking made less sense when paired with the new Iowa Poll results for Buttigieg, who remained the fourth-most preferred candidate (behind Warren, Biden and Bernie Sanders), but whose share of first-choice selections dropped from 15 percent in the previous Iowa Poll to 9 percent in the newest survey.
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How did a candidate whose Steak Fry reception was so remarkable actually slip ever so slightly in the poll?
That could be answered by a number of possibilities.
Perhaps there is a surge for Buttigieg that is in the works, but just did not yet show up in the Iowa Poll, which was in the field Sept. 14-18.
Or perhaps those loud cheers are more attributable to Buttigieg’s growing campaign operation than his support among the Democratic primary electorate. The Buttigieg campaign has significantly expanded its Iowa operation; perhaps that loud applause was a product of the campaign’s organization at the Steak Fry.
Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to watch future polling and the reception of Buttigieg at campaign events, especially rallies and multiple-candidate events. He rocked the room at the North Iowa Wing Ding on Aug. 9 in Clear Lake and now the Steak Fry. Will that enthusiasm start to translate to the polls — or, more importantly, in securing support for the caucuses? Those are the questions and challenges facing the Buttigieg campaign.
If we’re talking Steak Fry crowd response, it also bears noting the cheers that went up when Beto O’Rourke talked about his proposal for a mandatory buy-back program for military-style assault weapons like the AR-15, which has been used in so many U.S. mass shootings in recent years.
When O’Rourke repeated his debate response that, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” the Steak Fry crowd responded with vociferous approval. As I said on this weekend’s episode of our “On Iowa Politics” podcast (shameless plug), gun control policy has joined health care and climate policy as the top issues Democrats want to hear their presidential candidates discussing. The reaction to O’Rourke’s remarks confirmed that.
Does that mean a candidate like O’Rourke who favors a mandatory buy-back program gains an advantage over a candidate who favors a voluntary buy-back program or no buy-back program? There is less anecdotal evidence to support that, but it’s a debate worth watching in the months to come.