A tale of two rallies: Buttigieg, Biden campaign back-to-back in Des Moines

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg cheered and waved signs during a rally at Lincoln High School in Des Moines on Feb. 2, 2020. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Before entering a gymnasium to see former Vice President Joe Biden speak for one of the last times in Iowa, undecided caucusgoers peeled off yellow and blue “Pete 2020” stickers from their puffy coats. 

As presidential candidates tried to fit in a few more handshakes and selfies 24 hours before the start of the Iowa Caucuses, both Biden and Pete Buttigieg courted voters in Des Moines high school gymnasiums on Sunday. They tried to tip the scale in their favor as Iowans make their last-minute decision on who to caucus for Monday evening.

Below is a comparison of both Des Moines events:

Crowd size:

A crowd at Hiatt Middle School waits for former Vice President Joe Biden to speak the night before the Iowa Caucuses. (Photo by: Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Biden: 1,134 in the Hiatt Middle School gymnasium, according to Biden’s campaign. The number came from a crowd counter.

Buttigieg: Just over 2,000 in the Lincoln High School gym, according to the Buttigieg campaign, quoting a Des Moines police officer. 

Main points from speech:  

Biden: The former vice president focused heavily on critiquing President Donald Trump and his administration, ranging from his handling of international diplomacy to his ability to empathise with returning troops from overseas. He also talked about the importance of supporting labor unions in the U.S., which prompted some of the most fervent applause from the crowd.

Setting himself apart from the crowd, Biden also pointed to his past policies and history as vice president, differentiating himself as a candidate with real-world executive office experience.

“The next president is going to inherit a country divided and a world in disarray,” Biden said. “We need a president who’s going to be ready on day one.”

Buttigieg gave a wide-ranging speech, touching on issues from climate change and health care to the war on terrorism.  

He pushed back on Biden’s claim that only experience can prevail. “I know there are ads on TV saying this is no time to take a risk on anybody new,” Buttigieg said. “But I would say in a moment like this, history has taught us we cannot take the risk of meeting a fundamentally new challenge by falling back on the familiar.”

His closing argument, however, centered on a word that was central to the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. “I know why hope went out of style for a while in a dark and divided moment. I would also argue that you would not be here in this room right now, if some sense of hope hadn’t propelled you into this space,” he said. “… Iowa, you have a beautiful, beautiful tradition of vindicating people’s hope” and changing what they think is possible.

Standout moment:   

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines on Feb. 2. (Photo by: Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Biden talked about U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and the criticisms she’s directed towards him. Last week, Ernst told reporters, “Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening,” she said. “And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucusgoers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?” according to the New York Times.

He said he heard that Ernst was on CNN Sunday morning, where she talked about the intelligence of Iowa caucus goers.

“Why don’t (you) all show Joni Ernst just how smart you all are?” Biden said. “By caucusing for me.”

Buttigieg was asked to name a favorite Beatles song.  “It’s tough to pick just one,” he said. “But at a moment like this, the answer’s got to be ‘Come Together.’”

The crowd also roared when Buttigieg pointed out that Iowa helped blaze the trail for couples like himself and his husband to get married.

Surrogates: 

Biden: Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens; his wife, Jill Biden; Harold Schaitberger of International Association of Firefighters; former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Christie Vilsack,  U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne.

Buttigieg: Maryland Congressman Anthony Brown;  Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart introduced Buttigieg.   Buttigieg’s mother and mother-in-law were both in attendance, he said.

Did the candidate take questions?   

Biden did not take questions.

Buttigieg spent about 15 minutes answering written questions that rally attendees had placed in a fishbowl.  Asked how he responds to people who are “fed up” with the president but don’t think a Democrat can win, he said:  “I can give my answer but starting tomorrow, you can give yours.”

Lots of non-Iowans:  There were quite a few non-Iowans in both crowds – a reporter asked a half-dozen people at the Buttigieg rally and encountered residents of New York, New Jersey, Florida and Ohio before finding an Iowan.

Internationally, there were also caucus tourists from Canada and Germany.

Voter interviews:

Amy Luong of Des Moines was undecided in the Iowa Caucuses on Feb. 2, 2020, as she attended a Pete Buttigieg rally in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Amy Luong, 23, of Des Moines, who works in public relations, said she was originally for Kamala Harris. On the day before the caucuses, she was still trying to decide between Buttigieg and Joe Biden.  She was planning to attend rallies Sunday for three different candidates, including Biden and Bernie Sanders.

A key issue for her is how candidates will handle college loan debt, as well as grow the economy.  “I hope to have children some day and one of the struggles right now is paying my loans back and trying to build wealth for myself,” she said. “I can’t afford a house because I’m drowning in loans.”

Betty Wolfe of Des Moines, a teacher, said she has supported Buttigieg since she attended her first rally for him back in May.  “I didn’t know anything about him and I was very impressed with how he spoke, handled the crowd. He spoke calmly about issues.”

She caucused for Sanders in 2016, she said.  “This time, I’ve been spending too much time in nursing homes.  I don’t want anybody whose 70 years old. It’s time for a younger person.”

State Rep. Karin Derry of Johnston had already endorsed Amy Klobuchar, but she was attending the Buttigieg rally with a friend from out-of-state.  “She can win in states we need to win to get the White House,” she said. She added she believes Klobuchar can win suburban districts like hers, where Republicans have a 7-point advantage in party registration.

Jeff Clayton, a West Des Moines lawyer, attended with his wife and two children.  He said he planned to caucus for Buttigieg because “I think he’s a little more moderate than some of the other candidates, which I like.  I think his appeal is a little bit more widespread than some of the other candidates.” 

Deb Bell, 49, Waukee said she’s going off her gut instinct as she decides between Buttigieg and Biden.

At the Biden event on Sunday, she said Biden seems more likely to beat Trump in a general election, but she liked Buttigieg’s younger age and his policy stances.

Bell wanted to see Biden speak in person. After the last debate, she said she had an “uneasy feeling,” about Biden.

“It could be tomorrow night that I could go in to caucus and I still don’t know,” Bell said.

Leah Lopez-Cardenas, 27, of Waukee, said she came to Biden’s event right after seeing Buttigieg. She is learning more toward Biden but Buttigieg is also in her top two.

Lopez-Cardenas said Buttigieg invokes an “Obama-like” optimism that she appreciates, but she also believes that Biden is more electable and could sway moderate Republicans to vote for him.

While she was inspired by Biden during his vice presidency, what she’s seen on television more recently has not left her feeling the same.

“Recently it’s just been a little bit less inspiring to me,” Lopez-Cardenas said. “I want to hear him speak in person and see what he’s like and see the difference.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.