David Siders reports:
LAS VEGAS — With two sets of debates and six months of fundraising finished, a new stage is opening in the Democratic presidential primary: The summer slog.
For six weeks until the next debate, in mid-September, candidates will shift their focus more completely to the early primary states, grinding through a ritualistic run of picnics, forums, and party fundraisers: The Wing Ding, the Iowa State Fair, the Summer Sizzler, Londonderry’s Old Home Days.
For the frontrunners, the rigors of a month full of intimate, often less scripted public appearances will present a significant test. But the weaker contenders will also come under considerable pressure. Some will likely begin running out of money or will fail to qualify for the next set of debates, culling the now-sprawling field.
It was at the Iowa State Fair in 2011 that Mitt Romney perilously told a heckler: “Corporations are people.” Republicans Tommy Thompson and Tim Pawlenty abandoned their presidential campaigns that year after a weak showing in the Ames Straw Poll, before the GOP discontinued the tradition.
Four years later in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton welcomed summer with her moving rope line to keep reporters at bay, reinforcing her campaign’s imperious image.
“The political landscape in Iowa is full of corn, soybeans and landmines,” said Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman and state Democratic party chairman. “An offhanded comment when a candidate is tired, a flippant remark can be blown way out of proportion and put a candidate significantly behind.”
Or as the progressive consultant Rebecca Katz put it, “There’s plenty of chances to fuck this all up.”
“All of these moments with candidates have been pretty controlled” so far in the campaign, said Katz, who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. “But now we’re getting into the quote, unquote fun part, and you’re going to see them out there with people really talking, and who knows what will happen.”
The campaign’s summer push began in 108-degree heat over the weekend in Las Vegas, where 19 candidates were drawn to a labor forum, then held competing rallies and events at senior centers, restaurants and churches in the city and suburban Henderson.
The herd will migrate this week to Iowa and its Wing Ding dinner and state fair — speaking to raucous crowds and meeting with supporters, but also contending with fried food and hecklers.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign will focus much of its effort over the next six weeks building its organization in the four early primary states, with the candidate planning a spate of public appearances. Such in-person visits are vital to locking in support reflected in current polls, while also allowing Biden to road test and fine tune his campaign messages before public attention turns more completely to 2020 after Labor Day, a Biden adviser told POLITICO.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who has been slower than some candidates to establish a presence in Iowa, is planning a five-day bus tour through the state to assert herself there. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both planning to aggressively campaign in Iowa and other early primary states. Several campaigns are beginning to internally discuss television advertising, after President Donald Trump aired a 30-second ad during the Democratic debates last week criticizing Democrats for “proposing a free taxpayer-funded healthcare for illegal immigrants.”
“Somehow these debates sort of stultified the race in some ways,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster. “We’re in the middle of summer, and starting to get into late summer, and I don’t think any major candidate … has start to spend serious money in Iowa yet, or South Carolina or New Hampshire for that matter.”
He said, “I think these debates were a weird kind of death trap for most of these [campaigns] … I think now it’s going to start becoming much more of a fight about Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Initial polling following the second round of debates suggested little movement in public opinion polls. And most observers — including advisers to several campaigns — do not expect significant swings in public opinion before the next debates.
It is not impossible, however, and candidates will try. Twenty years ago, Bill Bradley used a furious summer of campaigning in New Hampshire to pull even with or overtake Al Gore in state polls, putting a scare into Gore’s campaign. Mark Longabaugh, who ran Bradley’s campaign in the state, called August “a dynamite time to gain ground in Iowa and New Hampshire … It’s a good opportunity to connect to some of those voters.”
In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama used the summer of the off-election year to add policy heft to his campaign, proposing tax cuts for the middle class and announcing a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. But it was still a slog for the future president, who entered August 2007 about 15 percentage points behind Clinton.
In the “dog days of summer,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist who worked for Obama in New Hampshire in 2007, “It was a slog. We had trouble getting people to show up.”
“You’ve got people focused on vacation, and in Iowa they’re going to the state fair. And I guarantee you they’re not going because of the Soapbox,” he said. “There’s opportunity for stealth, under the radar movement. But it’s going to be because you’re organizing, and you’re doing it at a retail level.”
Free of debate preparation, candidates can focus on staffing, fundraising and on messaging that is not dictated by confrontation with other candidates. Michael Ceraso, who was South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s New Hampshire director before leaving the campaign last week, called August “a good month to get the house in order, scale, hire, put their efficiencies in place.”
Ceraso, who said he is leaving presidential politics to focus on advocacy work around mental health, said what a candidate accomplishes in August “is a huge part of the campaign’s DNA.”
In Las Vegas on Saturday, Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet secretary and former mayor of San Antonio, said his campaign is “keeping our head down and just getting stronger and stronger and stronger in this race.”
For many candidates, August will remain a rush to qualify for the September debates. On Friday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar became the eighth candidate to announce that she had met the polling and donor thresholds required ahead of an Aug. 28 deadline.
Marc Farinella, who ran Obama’s North Carolina campaign in 2008, said, “The way most campaigns end is your accountant calls you and says you’re out of money. So, the second-tier candidates need to find a way to hold on … The summer is likely to be a tough time. It’s often a slow fundraising time anyway.”
He said, “The whole environment is such that there’s likely going to be a lot of stasis. Things are likely frozen for a bit.”
Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former South Carolina state party chair, said, “The question is whether dollars start to dry up … and you get folks who drop out before the official announcement of the next debate [qualifiers] in order to save face.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, one of many candidates who has not yet qualified for the September debate, joked to reporters over the weekend at an event in Las Vegas, “As soon as all of you put SteveBullock.com as part of the story, I’m sure we’ll get the donors.”
But he downplayed the significance of qualifying, saying it is voters in early primary states — “like here in Nevada” — who winnow the field.
In his answer, Bullock avoided a common gaffe.
As Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said when asked what advice he would give to candidates about campaigning in his early primary state, “The first thing they need to do to appeal to the people of Nevada is understand that it’s pronounced Nev-AD-a.”