Editor’s note: All day Monday The Root will be publishing short dispatches from our politics editor, Jason Johnson, in Iowa, where he is following the action ahead of tonight’s caucus. Follow this story for updates. You can also follow his caucus reporting on Twitter.
Des Moines, Iowa, Sun., Jan. 31:
Different Faces, Different Views, Same Opponent
That’s the tone in Iowa, where a dozen candidates were still running campaign operations throughout the state as of Sunday night. Everyone is making the big play, but in the capital city of Des Moines, it’s those running in second place who seem to be taking up the most space. Sunday night, big rallies by Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz bookended a rally with Hillary Clinton, and while the words and thoughts of every candidate couldn’t be more divergent, in many respects you feel as if they are all, Republican and Democrat, running against the same person: Donald Trump.
Bernie Sanders Is the Mockingjay
The Sanders campaign held an event at Grand Valley College in central Des Moines, and the building was packed to the rafters with college students and other members of the progressive left. You had to literally park three buildings over on a cold night and traverse melting snowbanks to get into the small gym filled with red-white-and-blue Sanders signs. The theme of political revolution and change was coming out of the mouths of everyone walking in and out of the building.
The amount of press there, especially foreign press, was extensive. Japanese, Korean and several European newscasters bustled around trying to get the perfect angle of the candidate, who took his sweet time coming onto the stage. Sanders, almost as if brandishing his millennial street cred, had a series of pop stars and garage-band types stump for him onstage. A journalist jokingly turned to me and said, “Sanders will definitely win the 20-and-under crowd with all these stars. I wouldn’t know any of these people if it weren’t for my 13-year-old daughter.”
Almost as if on cue, Josh Hutcherson (known to most of the world as Peeta Mellark from the Hunger Games films) hopped onstage with a beard and plaid workman’s shirt to say how Sanders was going to create change. (Just to make sure there was Hunger Games balance, apparently Effie supports Hillary. I guess Bernie is the Mockingjay and Hillary is Coriolanus Snow.) Also in attendance was Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Overall, the crowd was very enthusiastic, and when Sanders said, “You look like you want to start a political revolution,” the room cheered with abandon.
Sanders spent most of his speech speaking in detail about the bought-and-paid-for corporate media, how his campaign announced that it has zero money in its super PAC (compared with the millions Clinton has in hers) and the need for change in Washington, D.C., that can’t just start and end with him.
Interestingly, Sanders mentioned Trump several times as an example of the extremism that would ruin this country. Clinton, on the other hand, was only referred to as “my opponent.” As exciting as the rally was, a fellow commentator in the crowd noted, “This is a great crowd. But I was here for Obama in 2008 … and this Bernie group is about a third the size of what Obama used to pull.”
Everybody Loves Ted
Across town, the Ted Cruz event was in marked contrast to the loud, screaming-concert feeling of the Sanders rally. Cruz’s 9:15 p.m. event was in a large meeting space at the state fairgrounds just outside of downtown Des Moines. The parking lot was filled with cars emblazoned with the Cruz flame logo and various flags noting the importance of liberty and freedom.
The room itself had just as much press, but fewer foreign reporters, and the crowd itself was much more diverse, agewise, than the Sanders campaign event. There were seniors, baby boomers, high schoolers and even some Generation Xers all sitting in their seats listening to a slew of speakers. The run-up to Cruz included his wife, Heidi, who spoke at length about her love for the man she believes will be president, and how Cruz’s ability to stand up to authority is what the country needs to succeed.
Before Cruz came out onstage, a short video played reinforcing the idea that he was a candidate “nobody believed” in. It featured quotes from NBC, the Washington Post and other news outlets saying that Cruz had no chance. By the time the video ended, he was being called the key challenger to Trump and a legitimate contender.
While Sanders brandished his teen and tween endorsements, Cruz had a different set of stars to legitimize his upstart status. As his promotional video ran, quotes from conservative television and radio hosts Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh flashed across the screen. This was capped off by local syndicated radio talker Steve Deuce coming onstage to say that Iowa was the only way they could support Cruz and stop Trump. "This is our last chance to take out the Death Star," he said.
Cruz’s speech was a mixture of his personal faith, his main policies and his two-pronged attack. Interestingly, both Cruz and Sanders spent an equal amount of time criticizing Trump, albeit for different reasons. Cruz also attacked Republican opponent Marco Rubio, who he insists has no political spine, noting his flip-flopping on immigration. Then Cruz stated that Trump has no experience and couldn’t actually get anything done in Washington.
Cruz’s audience wasn’t as loud or as boisterous as Sanders’, but that doesn’t mean the enthusiasm wasn’t there. The scrum to take pictures with him once his speech was over was like a wave of bodies. He took it all in stride and seemed at home portraying himself as the only man who could beat Clinton, while at the same time the only man who had any chance against Trump.
As I stood behind the stage with a hundred people lining up to take selfies with the candidate, I spoke with a longtime journalist who had been in Iowa watching the campaigns for a week. His view? “I think Cruz is going to win this thing. He’s got the most organization on the ground. Trump has more people, but that’s not the same thing as organization. If Trump wins, he’s only going to squeak by.”
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.