Nation & World

Democrats' cattle call season gets big, but late, start

Twenty four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination from file photos (L-R top row): U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel. (L-R middle row): Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. (L-R bottom row): Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Mayor Wayne Messam, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.   REUTERS/Files
Twenty four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination from file photos (L-R top row): U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel. (L-R middle row): Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. (L-R bottom row): Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Mayor Wayne Messam, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. REUTERS/Files

DES MOINES — Cattle call season begins this weekend in Iowa with a herd that would make a factory farm blush.

Seventeen presidential candidates will speak at Sunday’s Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids.

It is the first significant multicandidate event of the 2019-20 caucus cycle, giving Iowa Democrats their first opportunity to hear from a majority of the candidates in the vast field on the same stage.

Multiple-candidate events, commonly referred to as cattle calls, have become a staple of the Iowa caucuses. Political party organizations and issue advocacy groups put on the events to give voters a look at as many candidates as possible on the same stage and, especially in the case of advocacy groups, to put a set of issues at the forefront of the campaign.

Whether these cattle calls will prove useful to Iowa Democrats as they try to navigate a field of roughly two dozen candidates remains to be seen, and is in part up to the candidates themselves, experts said.

What’s more certain is Democrats already are behind the pace set by Iowa Republicans during the 2015-16 cycle, when they also faced a large field of primary candidates.

By the end of May 2015, there already had been three such events featuring significant portions of the large field of Republican candidates. Nine then or eventual candidates spoke at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January 2015, nine spoke at the Iowa Ag Summit in March and 11 spoke at the Republican Party of Iowa’s annual spring fundraiser in May.

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The next Democratic event likely to attract a similar number of candidates probably will not be until the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in late September, or the Iowa Democratic Party’s Fall Dinner in November.

One potential exception could be Progress Iowa’s annual Corn Feed, scheduled for July 14 in Cedar Rapids. As of mid-May, six candidates had pledged to attend, although that number could grow.

That contrasts with 2015, when Republicans held six cattle calls. In addition to the three previously mentioned, Bob Vander Plaats’ Family Leader organization hosted two events and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s first Roast and Ride summer fundraiser featured seven candidates.

Yet it may not have mattered that Republicans held all those cattle calls in 2015. Donald Trump finished second in the Iowa caucuses and eventually won the party’s nomination not because of his campaign appearances at Iowa cattle calls — he only participated in two — but despite at least one of them.

At the first Family Leader event, in July 2015 at Iowa State University in Ames, Trump made his infamous comments questioning U.S. Sen. John McCain’s status as an American hero and saying he preferred military members who were not captured.

Steffen Schmidt, a Lucken Professor of political science at ISU, said more credit for Trump’s success in 2015 goes to his performances in the debates, where he could directly attack fellow candidates.

“Did (the cattle call events) cause Iowa Republicans to support Donald Trump in 2016? No. He won because of his ‘HUUUGE’ and unusual personality, his attack dog tactics and demeaning his opponents,” Schmidt wrote in an email to the bureau.

The Democratic candidates next weekend in Cedar Rapids have just 5 minutes to stand out in the crowd.

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“It really is a challenge for any one of the large field of Democratic candidates to stand out at this point, regardless of the forum,” said Donna Hoffman, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

“The cattle call-type events can be memorable for a particular candidate if they do very well, or if they say something controversial or provocative. But for most, it will be just another campaign appearance in the state and certainly won’t make or break a candidate.”

Timothy Hagle, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa, said the expansive field and short speaking time create unique challenges. But a good communicator could deliver a message that resonates with not only Democrats but a broader audience, Hagle said.

“If the candidates are all saying the same things on major issues and not getting off their 5-minute talking points, then it’s hard to distinguish between them,” Hagle said.

“Then again, a 5-minute pitch might be enough to tell if a candidate can quickly and clearly make the case for him or herself, or for a particular issue.”

At the very least, Hagle said, the event can help the candidates simply by their showing up and getting in front of some of the most active Iowa Democrats. Even if a candidate is not able to leave a lasting impression, just being among the voices heard could be helpful.

“Showing up at events like this won’t guarantee success, but not showing up can be a problem,” Hagle said.

“The nature of the caucuses are such that candidates need to attend a wide variety of events and activities across the state. This gives them opportunities to meet many of the activists who they would like to have support them in their caucus campaign.

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“Along these lines, big events, which are likely to draw the party’s activists, are pretty important in terms of making a good impression by showing up or avoiding a bad one by skipping it.”

For the candidates who have decided to show up, they face the challenge of threading a very fine needle: saying something that makes them stand out from 16 other candidates while not saying something so outlandish that it hurts their campaign.

Hoffman said the more likely result is that none of the speeches will represent a turning point and few — if any — will be memorable.

That’s not to suggest cattle calls are not worthwhile, Hoffman said.

“Because it is early, a good or bad performance isn’t necessarily going to be remembered three months from now. But, anything to help with a little momentum for the campaign might be useful as they begin preparing for the debates at the end of June,” she said.

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