The town halls are wrapping up, and as Iowa Democrats head to the caucuses Monday, polls show a majority of Democrats have one thing on their minds: defeating President Trump in November – even more important than agreement on the issues.
Nicholas Thompson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, asked several of the leading Democratic candidates for president if they will beat President Trump.
“Yes. Flat out. And I think he knows that,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. He added, “I think our democracy is literally at stake here.”
“Absolutely,” said the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg.
“Yes,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “I see this as a unique moment in American history.”
“Yes, I will,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “We lost an election in 2016, and it was a heartbreaker. But we didn’t lose hope.”
But just how to do that is threatening to divide the party.
Buttigieg said, “Most Americans are with us on the issues, and yet, we’ve often struggled to win. … This president absolutely could win again if we don’t have the right approach to challenge him and defeat him.”
The leading candidates have roughly split into two camps. And according to a New York Times poll, Iowa Democratic voters are split, too, between those who want a candidate who “promises fundamental change” (51%), or one who will just bring politics in Washington “back to normal” (42%).
On Iowa voter said, “I like more progressive thinking, and I’m really torn on their approaches to health care.”
Another Iowa voter said, “We really need to be able to balance everything in this country for everyone.”
Progressive Bernie Sanders (at 26%) is slightly leading in Iowa, according to, with fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren (at 15%) in 4th place.
For the moderates: Joe Biden (25%) and Pete Buttigieg (22%) are clustered behind Sanders, with Amy Klobuchar in 5th place (with 7%). No other candidate gets more than one percent.
Warren said, “This election matters not for the next four years, or the next eight years, but for generations to come. And what that does is it creates opportunity, to lay out a different vision.”
Biden said, “I think eight years of Donald Trump will fundamentally change who we are as a country, how we’re viewed.”
Klobuchar said, “What I always tell groups of Democrats in whatever state I’m in: We better not screw this up!”
Thompson asked, “So, how do you think the Democrats are most likely to screw this up?”
“First of all, if we put a candidate whose views are so contrary to a lot of people in our country,” she replied.
The fundamental question for the Democratic Party is, if the nominee is a moderate, will progressive voters get on board, or sit the election out? Or vice-versa: If it’s a progressive nominee, will moderates stay home?
“All the candidates are trying to appeal to the sense that the country wants to be united,” said Waleed Shahid, the spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive group which help elect New York progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. “But united for what? United only to defeat Donald Trump, or united for a vision?
“It’s all about motivation. And you know, we’ve been told time and time again that the ‘electable’ candidate is the one who can win. And then the electable candidate, whether it’s Al Gore or John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, lose.”
That’s the argument that Warren and Sanders have been making, filled with details about Medicare for All and increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Sanders told a rally, “I believe that health care is a human right, not a privilege.”
“It’s time for a wealth tax,” Warren told the crowd.
Thompson asked, “There are a lot of Democrats who say, I just need the next president to calm things down, make life normal again.’ What do you say to them?”
“I think that we have to ask, what was broken in this country that got Donald Trump elected to begin with?” said Warren. “And I think anyone who is saying, in this presidential primary, ‘All we need is business as usual. We just need an America that was like it was before Donald Trump got elected,’ is not gonna be able to win this election, and not gonna be able to heal the problems in this country.”
But consider: When it comes to– who could vote either Democratic or Republican – Iowa Democrats put all the moderates’ chances at above 50%, while the progressives are below 50%.
Poll results: About right to win over swing voters:
The former governor of Pennsylvania and former mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell (who has endorsed Biden), said, “The song that I would urge everyone in politics to remember is the Rolling Stones song, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ Because what’s the second line of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want?’ If you try sometimes, you just might get what you need. That’s it. We don’t need the most progressive Democrat to be president. We need someone who is progressive compared to the crew that’s in there now.”
So, a funny thing happened as we asked the so-called moderates about their opponents. They all wanted to claim the progressive label. Like Buttigieg, with his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan, which leaves private health insurance in place.
Thompson asked, “In the debate the other night here in Iowa, you said, ‘The boldness of a plan should not be measured by the number of people it alienates.’ What did you mean there?”
“Well, for example, if somebody characterizes my health care plan as small, I gotta remind them that this would be the biggest thing we’ve done to American health care in a half-century,” Buttigieg replied. “So, when somebody says it’s not bold, it makes me wonder: are you defining boldness by something other than the impact it’s going to have in our lives, not how much controversy can it generate online?”
Klobuchar sells herself as a pragmatist. “I think that maybe you should build a bridge rather than blowing one up,” she told one crowd.
Thompson asked, “So, a lot of pundits break their race down as saying there are progressives and there are moderates. Do you feel like that’s a fair way of putting it?”
“No, no, I do not,” Klobuchar replied. “Because I think that if you’re a progressive, you have to make progress. And I am the one that, again, that brings the receipts versus some of my opponents up there on the stage. I’m the one that’s passed over 100 bills.”
Biden is running hard on electability. He told Iowans, “We’re gonna need a president who can bring us together, on Day One.”
Thompson asked him, “Do you think that some of the other candidates who’ve taken more progressive stands, stands that may not be as appealing to liberal Republicans and independents, will be able to win in November?”
“Look, one of the things that I reject [is] the notion that they’re the most progressive plans,” Biden said. “I promise you, if my position on climate change, on health care, on immigration, on education, in fact, were to come to fruition, your son’s gonna be writing about that Biden administration being the most progressive administration in American history. Look, I think the first thing we have to do to win, and I’m not being a wise guy when I say this, you gotta be authentic. You gotta tell people the truth. And the idea that a couple of the candidates say, ‘Well, I’m not gonna say how much Medicare for All is gonna cost, because it’s too complicated’ … say that again?”
Here’s how progressive activist Waleed Shahid sees it: “I think one of the biggest achievements of the progressive movement of the past ten years is that whoever the nominee is will be the most progressive candidate ever nominated perhaps since maybe LBJ or FDR in terms of their dedication to, you know, record levels of government investment in promoting health care and jobs and tackling the climate crisis, things like that.”
Buttigieg said, “We have an opportunity to broaden this coalition to get as many people as possible in this effort. Look, you don’t have to be a die-hard Democrat to see what’s wrong with the Trump presidency.”
Biden said, “I’ve always been labeled a liberal Democrat. I refuse to accept the label that the proposals I have and so others have are not significantly progressive, compared to where we are.”
Thompson said, “I thought you were labeled the ‘sensible center,’ if I remember correctly from my childhood, when you ran for office when I was in eighth grade.”
“Well, I wish that were true,” Biden laughed. “If you notice, they ran against me as, ‘Biden’s a flaming liberal.'”
“Are you a flaming liberal?”
“No, I think I’m a traditional Democratic liberal!”
According to Klobuchar, “I think that I dream big. And I think part of dreaming big is actually getting things done. And I think that is where the citizens are right now.”
Warren said, “I believe that the way we’re gonna win is to shake the table. It’s to look at this differently, and it’s to be absolutely clear about who we’re fighting for, and what we’re fighting for.”
At the end of the day, Rendell said it all comes down to one thing: “How much does a wildly enthusiastic vote for president count? One vote. How much does a tepidly enthusiastic vote for president count? One vote. Come on out. You’ve gotta vote. You’ve gotta vote.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds.