Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.
Four days. Twenty candidates. More calories than anyone should count.
The Democrats descended on the Iowa State Fair this past weekend in a blur of fried food, handshakes and sweat. They stopped by all the usual haunts: a speech at the soapbox, voting in a presidential “poll” by placing a corn kernel in a Mason jar, a visit to the Butter Cow (a 600-pound cow made of butter), flipping pork chops on a grill and engaging in every politician’s least favorite pastime — eating on camera.
For some, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, this was a nearly nine-hour event. For others, like Senator Bernie Sanders, who is less interested in stop-and-chats with voters, it took 45 minutes or so.
Over the course of the weekend, my colleagues and I spoke to dozens of voters, activists and officials, and so many candidates.
Here’s what we learned about the state of the Democratic primary contest:
• The race has firmly separated into tiers. Tier one: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Mr. Sanders. Tier two: Ms. Klobuchar, Cory Booker and (maybe) Pete Buttigieg. Then, there’s everyone else. Here’s how Sue Dvorsky, an influential Democratic activist who endorsed Ms. Harris this weekend, put it: “There’s a tier of likely. There’s a tier of possibles. And then there’s a tier of unlikely.” Does that mean no one can climb the ranks? Of course not. But in such a crowded field, it won’t be easy.
• Ms. Warren is having a moment. In our discussions with voters, nearly everyone said they were considering backing Ms. Warren. She got the biggest crowd at the state fair and huge applause at a party fund-raising dinner on Friday night, and attracted hundreds to her events across the state. Of course, a summer surge doesn’t necessarily mean a winter win. Just ask Howard Dean.
• Mr. Biden leads the polls. But that may be shifting. As Allison Engel, a former Democratic aide in the state who now volunteers for the party, told me: “He’s the candidate that people think other people are going to vote for.” An informal survey of county chairs found plenty of concerns about his age and agility. Many Democratic insiders attribute his lead to name identification. They suspect his candidacy could fade, particularly if he keeps misspeaking, as he did several times this weekend.
• Mr. Sanders is learning that 2020 is not 2016. Four years ago, Mr. Sanders was the insurgent candidate. This time, he’s one of a number of progressives running. As my colleague Sydney Ember wrote today, there are plenty of signs — in polls and in conversations with voters and local activists — that Mr. Sanders may be sliding. Aides to Mr. Sanders say their voters are generally lower-income, lower-education and lower-information, and are not yet paying close attention to the race. But the question is whether, once they do tune in, they’ll still Feel The Bern.
More of our coverage from Iowa this weekend:
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On the Ferris wheel with Cory Booker
We are very excited to inaugurate a new feature in the newsletter today: Candidates on Rides in Iowa.
First up, Senator Cory Booker, who joined me and two of my colleagues, Sydney Ember and Reid Epstein, for a spin around the Grand Wheel. Riding with the senator, I must say, is not for the fainthearted. He rocks the car! And takes so many selfies! And videos!
Here’s our conversation:
Cory Booker: (Into his phone) O.K., so we’re about to go up on a Ferris wheel. This is not like my childhood. The members of the media before did not want to go up with me then. But we’re going to get this great view very soon. Look at everybody here. We’re now going up. Now I am looking at the eyes, the faces of everybody in this car, and I see one person looks a little frightened, a little bit afraid. It’s a scary thing. I promise you I won’t rock it too much.
Booker: Too real, too real, too real.
Lisa Lerer: O.K., O.K., O.K. Senator, your favorite thing about the Iowa State Fair?
Booker: Well, I’m dying to have the fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve never had that before. Hold on, this is amazing. We’re not even halfway up yet, and you’re not even halfway terrified.
Sydney Ember: My eyes are closed.
Booker: Now, what will you do if I shake it a little bit?
Sydney: I don’t know.
Booker: Look at this. Oh my God, this is amazing. I’m a big lover of roller coasters and all kind of rides. I want to go on that. You see that one over there? I know that’s not in the plan, Tom [an aide to Mr. Booker]. But we’re from Jersey. We’re Great Adventure pros.
Lisa: Senator, we need to ask you questions now.
Booker: (Into his phone) O.K., they’re going to do their job. O.K., hold on. Signing off.
Lisa: We have seven minutes.
Booker: How could you not stop and smell the roses?
Reid Epstein: Because we have seven minutes.
Booker: O.K., I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Lisa: This is a serious interview on the Ferris wheel. Is the field too big? That’s what I hear from voters. A lot of people are worried about that.
Booker: I think the field is going to start to shrink. I think that it will naturally. I think that it will be good for voters.
Lisa: Is there a path for candidates that don’t qualify for that September debate?
Booker: I think it’s hard. I don’t see it. I’m sure there is. But I think it’s going to be very hard for somebody that’s not at the debate.
Lisa: Is this the most humiliating thing you’ve done as a presidential candidate?
Booker: No, not by far.
Lisa: What is?
Booker: I’m not going to tell you because it will bring back humiliation. No, look, I love this. Honestly, this has really been one of the greater experience of my life. Because you are able to pick up a national platform to connect with people you’d never be able to connect with.
We shifted a debate by coming out, for example, on an issue of gun licensing. I think that helped to change the debate. By talking about that we have 17,000 people that we can identify that are unjustly incarcerated right now, that we’re going to put on the way to clemency, that helps to shift the debate and bring attention to issues that don’t normally get it. So this is an incredible privilege. I am so grateful to be running for president right now.
Lisa: When you came into the race there was a lot of love, lots of love —
Booker: Yeah, I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this. I know exactly where you’re going to go, and I’ve heard this before, but go ahead. Hey, guys. (He waves to photographers in the car above.) This is just amazing. I’m sorry. It’s fabulous. I got to take some selfies here. Hey guys, smile for a selfie.
Lisa: Is this the weirdest place you’ve ever selfied?
Booker: This is unbelievable, that we literally have a team of photographers behind us on a Ferris wheel in Iowa. This is really one of the more surreal moments of my life and — I’m glad we’re sharing, you as a reporter, me as a candidate, the surrealness of this moment.
Lisa: O.K., so did you change your message in the second debate?
Booker: No, no, no. Well, if you know me, first of all, we didn’t, like, sucker-punch. We didn’t, like, suddenly spring and attack. Criminal justice reform is an issue so personal to my journey. I’ve been talking about it since I was a law student and been working to overcome those crime bills from the ’80s and ’90s. And I was disappointed that he [Joe Biden] didn’t come out with a true speaking toward Three Strikes You’re Out, money to build prisons, change laws, didn’t talk to that, didn’t own the mistakes, and then didn’t put out a vision out for rolling back those things.
Lisa: Do you think you got a boost from that second debate?
Booker: I don’t really think about it in that terms. I think the second debate, generally, we definitely got a boost. But look, the way I did it, I think Vice President Biden and I were smiling. We were laughing. We were cordial — not even cordial. We were warm. He’s a person I respect and love, and I showed that.
Can we rock this? Do you think we can rock it? Can we do the roller coaster?
Lisa: All right. All right. Thank you for indulging us, Senator.
What to read tonight
• The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied. The changes significantly weaken the law, which is credited with rescuing the bald eagle and the grizzly bear from extinction.
• Robert Ballard found the Titanic beneath the Atlantic Ocean in 1985, but he’d given up on ever finding Amelia Earhart’s plane. Then one day, an old friend presented him with a startling clue.
• The Los Angeles Times recounts the story of how a journalist reunited identical twins: one stolen from China and raised in America, the other left with her birth family.
We didn’t get to ride any rides with Andrew Yang, but we did spot him indulging in another tradition: eating the giant turkey leg.
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