DES MOINES, IOWA – Bernie Sanders has been selling "Bernie Beats Trump" swag for months. Joe Biden's final ads close with four words: "Vote Biden, Beat Trump." Amy Klobuchar's caucus night T-shirts take a little longer to say it: "Amy Klobuchar will defeat Donald Trump."
And Andrew Yang makes his closing pitch with math.
"I am the heaviest betting favorite to defeat Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup of anyone in the field," Yang said at a Saturday night rally that packed more than a thousand voters and canvassers into the Des Moines Marriott. "I am at 3-to-2 as a head-to-head favorite against Donald Trump. The next-best candidate is even money. I'm not much of a gambler myself, despite the Asian-ness."
In the final hours before caucus doors open, the seven Democrats actively campaigning in Iowa here have started to converge on one theme — electability — while putting together very different closing arguments.
Their advertising, which ignored the president for most of last year, now puts him or his voters front and center. Their rallies, where voters jostle for space with tourists and journalists, sketch out the reasons they could put together a coalition that unseats the president. Here's what it looks like inside the final campaign events before the caucuses, with the candidates listed by the irresistible (and sometimes deceiving) metric of crowd size.
Visibly frustrated at how the impeachment trial grounded him in Washington, Sanders has filled his schedule with rallies before a few hundred people and with hours-long concert/teach-in events that have pulled out at least 5,000 people in total, easily the biggest crowds of the caucuses.
At a Friday night concert in Des Moines with Bon Iver, Sanders called in with a version of his stump speech; at a Saturday night concert in Cedar Rapids, he delivered it live. "The reason we are going to win the Democratic nomination is because we are a campaign of us, not me," he said, starting in on the agenda he'd run on since 2015: "single-payer Medicare-for-all," tuition-free public college, criminal justice reform, an end to the drug war, and the rest.
Sanders hardly mentions Trump at all, referring briefly to the president as a "pathological liar" who can be defeated with "high voter turnout." The only reference to the issues around the impeachment is a quick condemnation of a president who "does not believe in the separation of powers." Trump returns to the stump only when Sanders needs to make a point about how affordable a democratic socialist agenda would be.
"If Donald Trump and his friends can give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to large corporations and the top 1%, we can cancel all student debt in America," he said in Cedar Rapids. The message: He can win the election in a walk so long as he gets the nomination.
The phenom from South Bend, Indiana, has consistently portrayed the president as a "symptom" of America's problems; as a result, Trump gets only some cameo roles at Buttigieg events. Buttigieg still asks crowds to imagine the day when Trump is finally gone (an instant applause line) but spends more time arguing against the Democrats polling closest to him, with Joe Biden "trying to meet fundamentally new challenges with a familiar playbook" and Sanders promising "revolution" without a Plan B.
Buttigieg describes a country that is moving inexorably toward liberalism and progress and gets some of his loudest applause when he thanks Iowa for making it possible for him to wear a wedding ring, evoking the state Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage. Democrats win, he says, when they roll the dice and go for what they actually want.
"Every single time my party has won the White House in the last half-century, it's been with a candidate who was looking to the future, who was not associated with Washington, either didn't have an office there or hadn't had one for very long, and was opening a door to a new generation," Buttigieg said on CBS on Sunday morning.
In November, Warren changed her stump speech, slicing it down and leaving more time for questions. In January, she changed her ad campaign, emphasizing her support from former Republicans and from Democrats who backed either Sanders or Hillary Clinton in 2016. Over the weekend, signs that read "Unite the Party" materialized at Warren's events, turning her subtext into … well, text.
But Warren speaks even less about Trump than Buttigieg or Sanders, spending most of her time using questions to accentuate the agenda she'd bring to the executive branch. There's an increased emphasis on how electing her could make history, the first female president, finishing the business Democrats thought they were finishing in November 2016.
"I will do everything a president can do — I love saying this! — all by herself on her very first day," Warren said on Sunday in Cedar Rapids.
Warren does not mention specific polling unless pressed, when she will point out that the wealth tax, the idea that powered her rise, is popular with Republicans.
The candidate with the least political experience in this race has become one of its most consistent political speakers, with jokes that falter only if the crowd is too familiar with him. Yang used to be able to ask crowds whether they had ever "heard a politician talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution," but at this point, they have. (The punchline was: "Just now, and I'm barely a politician.")
Yang is exuberant, describing a coming Iowa victory that no pollster sees as possible and reciting poll numbers about his crossover appeal to say that he can win more Trump voters than any Democratic rival. Yang is also perhaps the grimmest candidate, describing the economic problems that enabled a Trump win in the first place.
"We're being told how great things are all of the time," Yang said in Des Moines on Saturday. "Record high GDP, record high stock market prices, record low unemployment. But we're looking around and thinking, I'm not sure things are actually that great. And we are right. We have record high corporate profits in this country, yes, but what else are at record highs in the United States of America right now? Suicides. Depression. Overdoses. Income inequality. Homelessness. Debt, student loan debt, medical debt. Anxiety."
There are two types of Biden speeches: the ones that rely on a script and the ones in which he largely wings it. The closing days have relied on a more spontaneous Biden, who talks more and more about Trump's outrages and implies that if voters select another Democratic candidate, they would risk reelecting the president.
"I don't think you've ever had a greater responsibility than you have this time, not because I'm on the ballot," Biden said on Saturday in Cedar Rapids. "You owe it to the country to make sure that Donald Trump is not the next president of the United States."
No Democrat spends more time on the stump warning about Trump as the only impediment to a Democratic Party agenda. There are mournful Trump references, as when Biden recalls the scenes from the 2017 "Unite the Right" march of white supremacists on Charlottesville, Virginia. "Close your eyes and remember what you saw on television," Biden says. There are fiery Trump references, such as when Biden refers to a card he carries, detailing the total of military casualties in Afghanistan ("Not roughly 6,000, but 6,095!"), a way of calling the president callow.
The senator from Minnesota is getting the biggest crowds of her year-long campaign, and she will say so, taking her time on the way to her microphone to work the audience, before being introduced as the Republican-slayer from up north.
"All she does is win," said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, one of the surrogates who had campaigned for Klobuchar during the bulk of the Senate trial, then rejoined her on the trail.
The Klobuchar stump is long, usually running to 35 minutes, and starts with a rundown of her many legislative endorsements and often ends by detailing just how she won her races.
"I am someone that has won every race, every place, every time," she said Saturday in Cedar Falls. "I have won in the most rural districts, including the one bordering Iowa, by big margins. I have won the one bordering North and South Dakota in big margins. I have won in the north part of Minnesota, where there's currently a Republican congressman, and I have won in Michele Bachmann's district."
Klobuchar makes no references to her rivals and only gently refers to how some of them have plans that might not ever get passed. Trump appears intermittently, and Klobuchar finishes talking about him by warning that the Democrats of 2016 "had a great message but chased him down every rabbit hole." One year after declaring her candidacy during a snowstorm, she still recalls her Twitter comeback to Trump: "I'd like to see how your hair fares in a blizzard."
An underappreciated irony of the caucuses is that Steyer, who spent years campaigning for Trump's impeachment, saw it unfold just in time to bury presidential campaigns — his included. He, too, has "Beat Trump" signs, leading the field in conciseness. He, too, has a campaign bus, which has crisscrossed the state even as polls show him doing much better in Nevada and South Carolina.
Steyer draws the smallest crowds of the candidates still in Iowa, but voters do show up and settle in for town halls that stretch to an hour long. On Sunday night, in Waterloo, he took questions about climate change (his "number one priority"), the electoral college, infrastructure and student loan debt. That last question led him into a story about lobbying in California for a bill to crack down on companies that exploit students with debt and finding that legislators viewed it cynically.
"I walked in for a meeting, and I said, I'm here for a Bill of Rights for students," Steyer says. "And this senator goes: 'Do you care about this?' " Steyer re-created his dumbfounded look. "Do I care about giving my students far more money so that they can get an education and be more productive people and better citizens? Come on! Who doesn't care about that?"
Steyer's electability pitch is unique, an argument that only a candidate who has succeeded in business and never been tied to Washington can effectively compete with him. Iowa might not be the state where he proves that.