(Photo by Gia Cabral)
Marlborough High School

Opinion: My experience in Iowa offered insight to presidential candidates’ audience interactions

With 10 candidates still in the running to be president of the United States — that dwindled down from an original 32 — there is a constant struggle to obtain, maintain and grow supporters in each of their respective campaigns.

Being on the ground in Des Moines, Iowa just a few weeks ago allowed me, a 16-year-old sophomore, to see clear differences in each individual candidates’ strategies for continued, or new-found, success in the future primaries and caucuses while on their road to securing the position as the 46th president of the United States.

Through the process of interviews and meetings, a strategy that seemed to be consistent within each of the candidates’ campaigns was the idea of being on the floor and interacting with the everyday citizens.

Each of the presidential candidates’ demeanors and connections with their respective audiences attributed to their support and possibly, their overall success in not only the Iowa Caucuses, but also in the future political benchmarks, such as Super Tuesday.

When at a Joe Biden Rally at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines on Feb. 2, we faced a group of about 1,000 supporters, mostly middle aged, who stared up at Biden and participated occasionally with a rhythmic fist pump or exclamation of “yeah!”

The gym was humid and stuffy with people tightly packed next to each other, but what seemed to be lacking was the enthusiasm from Biden’s following. Even from the perspective of sitting in the section behind the former vice president, I witnessed a group that seemed lackluster, and Biden knew it.

After a series of introductions from his sister and fellow political leaders, the 78-year-old stepped on to the stage, spoke for a few minutes and then skipped through a handful of pages of his speech on the podium while telling the crowd, “I’m going to keep this short.”

However, the rally had seemed slow-moving and forgettable, the charisma of Joe Biden showed through while he greeted the last one hundred people at the event. He made sure to shake hands with the final supporters left in the humid gymnasium as well as take pictures with everyone who asked.

This was the most memorable part of the event and gave a personable impression of Biden, yet only about 10% of the rally’s attendees got to witness it as most were out the door after the final words of his speech.

There are some who are polling remarkably low, however struggle forward and seem to be hoping for the best.

A recent dropout, Joe Walsh, attempted to connect with his audience in a Des Moines coffee shop, Grounds for Celebration, by commenting on the food people were eating and appealing to our group of teenagers who made up about 75% of the attendees at the location.

When asked about his future policies highlighting the idea of bringing the nation together, Walsh delivered an unsatisfying answer and essentially explained that he would figure it out once he got to it.

This prompted his campaign staffers to whisper to our group members to “ask again,” and used the excuse that “he [Walsh] is hard of hearing.” Walsh avoided a few questions altogether by not giving an answer and then quickly circled back to ramble about the purpose of his campaign: to beat Trump.

His demeanor was loud and comical however there was little reaction even from maybe thirty people listening.

Bill Weld, the other Republican candidate running against the current president, and his wife Leslie Marshall had a press meet at Freedom Blend Coffee, just a five-minute drive from Grounds for Celebration. A direct contrast in presentation was represented in Weld than that of Walsh.

Instead of a fiery attitude, both Weld and his wife spoke softly and used muted facial expressions that were difficult to capture with my recorder during the interview. Rather than the coffeehouse being filled with supporters the majority were journalists or local Iowans simply enjoying their morning coffee.

No explicit energy could be drawn from the people there and it was hard for me to see citizens being excited or cheering for Weld’s cause.

Screen Shot 2020-02-16 at 10.19.46 PM
Andrew Yang signs a few quick autographs before his swift exit. (Photo by Gia Cabral)

Andrew Yang, another candidate who recently ended his bid for president, used his well-known humor in a rally at the Marriott Hotel in Des Moines to uplift spirts in the crowd when discussing emotional topics of unemployment and the struggles of low wages facing the townspeople of Iowa.

He made references to “the Russians” and interacted with the crowd to raise their hands or shout out answers to his questions about the certain causes or effects to the previously mentioned situations.

His presentation was a clear opposite to that of Joe Biden in that he delivered an enthusiastic speech however seemed to almost sprint off the stage after signing a few autographs. Many seemed dejected about not having a chance to speak or obtain a picture with the entrepreneur and then soon filed out.

Pete Buttigieg was one who stood out much more than any of the other candidates. In comparison, we encountered Mayor Pete at his ‘victory rally’ shortly after the caucuses were expected to conclude.

After waiting for about two and a half hours the former mayor walked out onto the stage on a runway-like long platform where he delivered an energized speech directed towards the locals, “Iowa you have shocked the nation.”

Prior to his entrance, the crowd remained excited and preserved the momentum with varying cheers about Buttigieg. Deafening chants of “Boot-Edge-Edge,” “President Pete,” and simply “Pete!” filled the large gym at Drake University, intensifying the feelings in the room.

The audience was mostly made up of young people, clapping and participating in the wave, all eager to hear Buttigieg speak and the excitement almost never wavered. He had a similar exit to that of Biden along with his husband, Chasten, greeting people and thanking them for their attendance.

From my experiences in Iowa, what soon became clear to me is how telling the connection can be between a candidate and their audience.

Those who were able to rally the crowd and hold energy within their supporters usually were more successful in terms of the final caucus numbers, and those who could not, sometimes fell short of expectations.

In a political system where voter turnout is an essential part of obtaining delegates, it is critical to be able to have supporters be excited about the campaign throughout the entire political process in order to ensure they vote, tell others, and participate on the candidate’s behalf.