Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks to a Des Moines Register political soapbox audience at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8, 2019. Credit: Lyle Muller / IowaWatch

DES MOINES — Former Vice President Joe Biden drew more people, but Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a presumptive long shot in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, still was able to rouse Democrats and generally curious Iowans who heard both men speak at the Iowa State Fair Thursday.

Iowa hosts the nation’s first precinct caucuses, on Feb. 3, 2020, where meaningful delegate support for the party’s 2020 presidential contenders is first gauged. In the ramp-up to that caucus, debut national candidates are vying with national figures more familiar to voters to build support. Iowa gets them all before the winnowing process begins in earnest.

Bullock told fairgoers the election must be about more than defeating Donald Trump.

“Look, I’m a pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat that won three elections in a red state, not by compromising our values but by getting stuff done,” he said.

Bullock and Biden kicked off the fair’s election season political soapbox, a Des Moines Register-sponsored feature that gives candidates time to make stump speeches at the fair’s main concourse. The fair started on Thursday. Biden, the summer 2019 opinion poll leader, hit on themes common to several Democratic candidates: preserve and improve the Affordable Care Act, support wages that reward workers, dedicate more federal dollars to public education, enact controls on the purchase of assault weapons and background checks for gun purchases, and repeal tax cuts enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress after Trump became president.

“We can afford to change this if we can get rid of that god-awful tax cut that was passed,” Biden said when talking about developing a strong economy that rewards workers.

The stakes are high for each of the more than 20 Democrats seeking the party’s nomination because voters have plenty of time to weigh their choices before caucusing in February. 

“I’m going to leave myself open for the next few months,” said Mary Madsen, 63, of Sioux City. Madsen said she is 75 percent sure she’ll support Biden, but wants to hear more.

“I’m listening for someone who can stand up against Trump. I’m listening for someone that looks presidential, for someone that sounds presidential,” she said.

Photo by Shawn Plank

Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock casts a kernel ballot in the WHO straw poll at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Credit: Photo by Shawn Plank

Tony Broeker cautioned Democrats against putting all their effort into opposing Trump. Broeker, 47, of Burlington, voted for Trump in 2016, but said he is undecided, for now, where he’ll put his support in 2020. He said he is weighing the Democratic candidates on whether they measure up to Trump.

“The Democrats, themselves, they need to not worry about the Trump thing, like he [Bullock] said,” Broeker said after Bullock’s stump speech. “Don’t chase Trump, because if you chase Trump, you’re going to fall into the same trap that they did last election.”

While Bullock touted his support for a public health care option, affordable college, fair wages, and a woman’s right to chose an abortion, he had choice words for Trump’s controversial and combative Twitter messages, bombastic attacks on opponents and sometimes allies, and frequent focus on himself.

“We expect more out of our preschoolers now than we do the president of the United States,” Bullock told the Des Moines audience.

Bullock also criticized Trump and Republicans for being unwilling to enact legislation that he said would lessen the influence of dark money — funds that are hard to trace to the donors who seek to influence public policy secretly — in political campaigns.

“We’ve got to change the money in our system,” he said.

Bullock said any of the Democratic candidates can expect to win party strongholds California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, but that he also could deliver Montana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — states that went for Trump in the 2016 Electoral College. Noting his underdog status in the nomination race, he urged voters to place him in the top three of their choices for the caucuses.

Here is what Bullock faces: He received less than 1% support from those questioned in the most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll reported in June. Biden led the field with 24% support, that poll showed. The poll was conducted June 2-5 with 600 likely 2020 Democratic caucus participants and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Bullock had raised $2.1 million and spent $581,000 as of June 30, Federal Elections Commission statistics show. That’s a far cry from the $22 million raised this year by Biden, who had spent $11.1 million this year through June 30. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic candidates in money raised and spent so far this year, with $46.4 million raised and $23.7 million spent as of June 30, FEC records show.

Donald Trump’s campaign had raised $56.8 million this year out of the $124.4 million his campaign has raised overall. It had spent $19.4 million in 2019, and $75.2 million overall since he announced the start of his campaign in January 2017 upon taking office.

Bullock is not alone in the underdog role. Plenty of candidates in the crowded field face the tough reality of early opinion polls showing them with scant support and relatively little money to compete with the heavier hitters. Democrats Seth Moulton, Bill de Blasio, Timothy Ryan, Henry Hewes, Hart Cunningham, and Maurice Gravel all had raised less than Bullock as of June 30. So had Trump’s Republican challengers William Weld and Joe Collins III, FEC records show.

Democrats Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet were less than $1 million ahead of Bullock in funds raised, FEC data show.

During Thursday’s soapbox event, Biden renewed his theme of being in a fight for the country’s soul. He said he is running for president to unite the country and push for policies that would restore the middle class as the country’s backbone.

“The idea that we don’t reward work as much as wealth is bizarre,” Biden said. “The middle class built this country. Wall Street didn’t build this country.”

That kind of talk appeals to people like Mazie Stilwell, 28, of Des Moines. Stilwell, a communications specialist with Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said she was interested in issues that connect with workers.

“He does a good job of connecting to working people,” she said about Biden, “and talking about those issues.”

Beto O’Rourke, who formerly represented El Paso in Congress canceled his scheduled appearance Friday in response to the mass murders in El Paso last weekend. President Trump is not scheduled to appear at the fair.

Lyle Muller is the executive director and editor of IowaWatch and the former editor of The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA). He has taught political reporting and editing at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication, served on Pulitzer Prize juries, and has edited two books, “Epic Surge: Eastern Iowa’s Unstoppable Flood of 2008” and “Ramblin: Reflections of Hidden Iowa.”