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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On the morning after Hillary Clinton lost in November 2016, I stood wedged between television cameras, in the back of a hotel ballroom, and watched a Democratic breakdown.
Ashen-faced Clinton aides stood in stunned silence. Supporters wiped tears from their eyes. A sense of shock hung heavy in the room.
I kept returning to that moment as I traveled across Iowa in recent days as this Democratic primary moves, finally, toward votes being cast and counted with tonight’s Iowa caucuses.
The 2016 election was a turning point in Democratic politics; a deeply painful event after which nothing would ever be the same. Even now, that trauma lingers.
As the candidates made their way across Iowa, the 2016 race was the subtext — and often just the text — of their closing messages.
“The less 2020 resembles 2016 in our party and our country, the better,” Pete Buttigieg told voters. Amy Klobuchar pledged to build a “beautiful blue wall of Democratic votes,” citing her tour of “the states that we should have won in 2016.”
Even some of the political drama feels like a rerun: Some supporters of Joe Biden are fretting that some backers of Bernie Sanders may disrupt the caucuses tonight, citing old intraparty anger about the 2016 primary.
Yet, as much as Democrats cannot seem to escape their past, the country’s political story has moved on. And now, on the cusp of the caucuses, the party faces its most significant decision since that crushing defeat: Does that 2016 loss, and all that followed in the Trump era, lead Democrats to dream big or dream safe?
“I’m torn between, do you vote for what you really want, or do you vote for what you think can happen?” Sara Curtin-Delara, a teacher from Coralville, told me, as she managed her 3-year-old son and listened to Klobuchar addressing a crowded hotel ballroom.
Biden hopes voters like Curtin-Delara go with safe. He’s closing his Iowa campaign arguing for experience and stability, casting himself as a steady hand in a dangerous world and a divided nation. Buttigieg has adopted a slightly younger variation of the same argument, saying the biggest risk for Democrats is “to look to the same Washington playbook.”
Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say the 2016 loss delivered a different lesson: Democrats cannot win unless they go big.
For Warren, the mantra plastered on her mint-green campaign signs is “dream big, fight hard.” Sanders promises to bring together a movement of millions, urging voters to have “the courage” to take on Wall Street greed, corruption and the military-industrial complex.
Even in the final hours, after years of angst and agonizing, Democrats still seemed slightly immobilized over how best to move past their old electoral wounds.
Curtin-Delara, who said she was choosing between Warren and Klobuchar, wondered if she should back the woman less likely to succeed in the caucuses to prolong her presence in the race. That, she argued, could give Democrats more time to pick the right candidate this time around.
“For the caucuses, it’s like, who do I want to keep in the race until tomorrow?” she said. “We can’t mess this up.”
Photo of the day
It was time for final preparations on Sunday in Ames, Iowa, where Warren supporters organized caucus cards at a “Get Out the Caucus” rally.
A final snapshot from the Iowa trail
Our politics reporters were fanned out across Iowa this weekend, attending dozens of events and following the major candidates as they made their final pushes. We asked each reporter for a quick appraisal of their candidate’s campaign.
Katie Glueck: I’ve been on the Biden bus for the last few days, and the key test for him here boils down to two questions: 1) Is beating Trump the top priority? 2) Do Iowa Democrats buy Biden’s argument that he is the best-positioned candidate to do that? The Biden campaign bet goes like this: Democrats here may have thrilled to the expansive policy proposals of Warren and Sanders, relished the idea of a fresh face like Buttigieg or felt affinity for their neighbor from Minnesota, Klobuchar. But ultimately, they want to defeat the president, and believe Biden can do that. Yet over the last week, Biden’s crowds have often been thin compared to his rivals’. Party officials have quietly noted gaps in his campaign organization. And poll numbers suggest a volatile race. Will moderate voters come home to Biden? Or does that vote splinter, raising questions about Biden’s message — that he is the most electable candidate?
Sydney Ember: Sanders has distilled his closing message here in Iowa down to one word: turnout. It’s historically been a theme of his campaigns, but never more so than now: To win in Iowa — and in the general election, should it get to that — he needs more people to come out and vote. Sanders has a particular set of voters in mind. For his entire political career, he has gambled that he can get working-class voters and young people, both groups that typically do not turn out in large numbers, to vote — and to vote for him, because his message speaks to them. If he can get these people to caucus on Monday night, he has said repeatedly, he will win.
Astead W. Herndon: Warren’s final pitch in Iowa comes down to converting undecided voters to her message of unity. The campaign has largely ceded the idea that Sanders will own the committed left wing, and therefore it must make up ground by pulling in more pragmatic voter. That’s why she’s largely abandoned the talk of what her plans entail: She started the election motivating people on big change, but her final pitch was centered on her ability to win through uniting the party around a message of anti-corruption.
Reid J. Epstein: Buttigieg hopes Democrats are sick of relitigating the 2016 primary. The 38-year-old’s big message in the past week has stressed the need to “turn the page” on both the long-ago past and the party’s still-raw wounds. It’s less about ideology (he’s openly courting Republicans) and more about tapping into how people feel. It’s a savvy way of dismissing Sanders and Biden in the same breath. Buttigieg usually follows it up by reminding audiences that every newly elected Democratic president since John F. Kennedy had the sheen of somebody new to the national political scene. With three septuagenarians as his top rivals, Buttigieg hopes that means his turn is now.
Nick Corasaniti: For Klobuchar, the final pitch has been simple: Iowa, I’m one of you, and I can win. She has been attracting crowds in the 200 to 300 range, with a Saturday morning event at a brewery topping 500 people (and forcing me to file my story from the top of a brew canister). But for Klobuchar to be successful on caucus night, she needs Iowans to buy into her argument that her ability to win in Minnesota will translate to other Midwestern states — a “big blue wall” that can turn back the Trump tide.
Trip Gabriel: At a Mexican restaurant in Boone on Saturday, amid a crowd duly packed with millennials — so-called digital natives — there was Andrew Yang, offering his biting critique of the digital economy. Stuck in low single digits in Iowa polls, he has little chance of emerging from the caucuses with delegates. No matter how long his candidacy lasts, his ideas seem destined to have an enduring impact on American politics. At the end of his appearance, a graduate student told him he used to be a Republican, and that he had never donated to a Democrat; then he pressed Yang to take the $35 he had in his wallet. It reminded me of Bernie Sanders’s first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate in 2015, when a hat was passed among supporters who filled it with loose bills.
Compton’s mayor endorses Bloomberg
While the rest of the candidates duke it out in Iowa, Michael Bloomberg is stumping across California. It’s voting day there too, sort of — early ballots will be mailed to millions of California voters today ahead of the state’s Super Tuesday primary. The former New York City mayor is making stops in Sacramento and Fresno before ending his day in Compton.
He will pick up the endorsement of Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, a rising star in Democratic circles. Brown is one of several black California mayors backing Bloomberg, joining London Breed of San Francisco and Michael Tubbs of Stockton. With 415 delegates (10 times as many as in Iowa) California is one of the most important states in Bloomberg’s unusual bid for the Democratic nomination.