100 Dems at Iowa State fair offer thoughts on presidential hopefuls

Des Moines, Iowa — As a seemingly endless parade of Democratic presidential candidates filtered through the Iowa State Fair this past weekend they were faced with many choices: Which fried foods should be eaten in front of the camera? Whose hands must be shaken? What’s the best way to win over this narrow yet deeply important slice of the the party’s electorate? 

But with two dozen candidates competing for their vote, the Democratic faithful at the fair were also struggling with an abundance of options. 

CBS News interviewed 100 Democratic voters here who say they are likely to participate in the February 2020 caucus to find out whose candidacy is connecting with Iowans as of now. And the most popular answer was TBD. 

A plurality of Democrats — 40 in total — said they were not yet settled on a candidate. As summer came to a close, however, nearly every Democrat said they were starting to give the field a closer look. 

“It’s kind of hard to figure out who I want to support because there’s so many candidates,” Alicia Elliott, a 40-year-old Des Moines server, said. “One of the reasons I’m at the fair today is actually because there’s a lot of Democratic candidates and I want to hear what they’re saying.”

“It’s too hard to make a decision,” Frank Gale, 74, said. “I’m not too sure why a few candidates threw their name in the first place ’cause I think they really had no chance of going anywhere.”

Other Iowans came to the fair with their favorite presidential hopeful in mind. Former Vice President Joe Biden led the class with 23 Democrats saying they would like to see him take on President Donald Trump next year.

Some Biden backers cited his time as vice president as reason enough to support him. Anna Jackson-Morris, 66, summed up her support as “ride or die Biden” because “President Obama trusted him, therefore I trust him.”

Others say pragmatism is pushing them towards Biden.

“I’m interesting because my favorite candidate is not who I am gonna vote for,” Ellen Pirro, 70, said as she sat knitting with her local wool spinning guild. “At the moment it seems to be Biden and if that’s the case I will definitely vote for him because I want Trump beaten more than a particular candidate.”

But Pirro said her second choice is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who 13 others at the fair said was their top choice.

Married couple Marla Johnson, 61, and Marla Rigby, 66, from Prairie City, Iowa, said even though they are not innately familiar with the details of Warren’s plans, they know she has them and trust her as “knowledgeable.” Similarly, a group of bandana-clad Des Moines University medical students agreed and said her focus on student loans could benefit the debt-saddled future doctors. 

Nine Democrats said they favor Sen. Bernie Sanders because they say he led the way on several progressive policies. Emmanuel Hidalgo-Wohelen, 20, credited the senator for popularizing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and opposition to the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen. Sanders’ supporters were also adamant that he has the guts to see through his agenda despite opposition from corporate interests. 

Five Democrats said they were backing Sen. Kamala Harris, while another four said they were backin Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Both Harris and Buttigieg were also frequently mentioned as second-choice alternatives, as was Sen. Cory Booker. 

Three Democrats said they are supporting businessman Tom Steyer after watching his television ads in Iowa. One Democrat is backing Gov. Jay Inslee for his climate-centered campaign. 

Another is supporting former Rep. John Delaney after watching his second debate performance when he criticized the idea of replacing private insurance with a taxpayer-funded alternative. And a truck driver told CBS News he was supporting Rep. Tim Ryan because of the congressman’s emphasis on protecting factory jobs. 

No other Democratic presidential candidates were mentioned by voters as their current top choice but these hot days of fair political pageantry is only an early snapshot of who voters may ultimately support.

John Edwards was leading Democratic Iowa caucus polling at state fair time in August 2007 by five points, but would eventually lose to Barack Obama.  In August 2015, Hillary Clinton’s 19-point lead over Sanders crumbled into a 0.3% win for her on caucus day. 

 “It’s a big snowballing effect that happens here over the next few months,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told CBS News. “There isn’t one point where everyone will have made up their mind and honestly given the nature of the field right now I don’t know if there will be a point where it locks in.”

The latest Iowa caucus poll by Monmouth University indicates similar candidate popularity as these fair interviews with Biden and Warren amassing the most support. 

On the economy

A large majority of Democrats interviewed said they are worried about the future of the economy in Iowa. Democrats indicated while the economy may be working for them personally, the trade war with China is threatening the state’s agriculture sector. 

“For the country, there is a lot of wealth on the coasts but it’s not here,” Andy Argenbright, 52, said. “It’s really weird here because you have a lot of people in the small towns that are making almost nothing but then you come to Des Moines and the salaries are two to three times more.”

Others believe the impact from the tariffs will come to bear in the future.

“Right now the economy is good but I think we have some warning signs here,” Robert Head, 80, a farmer who rents his land, said. “We’re actually paying for these tariffs — not China.”

Asked to rate the economy on a scale of 1 to 10, with higher numbers meaning more strength, the Democrats CBS News interviewed gave it a 5.4 on average. 

The big split: Health care

Fixing the holes in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was the preferred plan among the undecided Democrats interviewed on how to best increase healthcare access. Many endorsed a “public option” and were able to talk in specifics on how allowing them to buy into a Medicare-like program could help both their families’ well-being and wallets. 

Alternatively, a handful of undecided voters also spoke favorably about a single-payer healthcare system like Medicare for All.

While visiting the horse barn with their two young sons, Christi and Jenniffer Bethards-Welch, who are both undecided but are leaning toward supporting Harris or Sanders, said they hoped the as the caucus creeps closer the candidates’ healthcare plans become more clear.

“We are adoptive parents and we deal with a lot with medical issues and learning disabilities that are not covered by private insurance that we struggle to get help with,” Christi said while admitting private insurance right now is a “great thing to keep.”

“But I do love the idea of Medicare for all,” she added.

Other healthcare issues like mental health funding and high prescription drug prices were also overwhelmingly mentioned as a problem affecting the lives of the Democrats interviewed. Jackie Osam, 39, complained that there were too many candidates in the race, but that she’s leaning toward Sanders for his tough talk against pharmaceutical companies.

What the Republicans say

In dozens of additional interviews with Republicans at the fair, only one woman explicitly voiced her displeasure with President Trump, while still insisting she would “never” vote for a Democrat.

When asked about their feelings toward the Democrats, one word in particular kept coming up: socialism. 

“They are all disguised socialism,” Dave Dickey, 72, said.

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