WASHINGTON — How many ways can you measure the first quarter of the year? For Democratic presidential candidates, it’s 300-plus events, 26 states and hundreds of voter questions.
The Iowa caucus is still 10 months away, but the Democratic primary campaign is already an all-out sprint — passing eye-popping markers for campaign activity and voter engagement. Voters in Florida and Ohio may not see it, but weekends in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — not to mention a handful of select states — are a blitz of candidate rallies and local meet-and-greets.
It’s far from clear that the candidate who holds the most events, whether leaping onto tables or addressing big rallies, will emerge as the candidate with the most votes. Still, Democrats watching the display from a distance say the engagement, the activity and the enthusiasm bode well.
“Broad picture: This is incredibly good for the Democratic Party,” said Jim Messina, who managed President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
The Democrats’ contested 2008 primary and the GOP’s packed 2016 field showed “that enthusiasm in primaries becomes very important in a general election,” Messina said. That’s because engaged backers are “more likely to do two things you need them to do” in order to win, he said: donate money and help persuade their social networks to vote.
The 2020 Campaign so Far Shows Some Things Haven’t Changed
For all the recent upheaval in politics, the 2020 campaign so far shows some things haven’t changed. Retail campaign stops are still essential to breaking through in early-voting states that will play a central role in choosing the nominee. They are, perhaps, even more important in the social media era. One live-streamed rally that goes viral on social media can reach more voters than dozens of smaller events.
Even though no one metric can predict success, a look at the campaigns’ tallies of on-the-ground engagement shows how some of the busiest road warriors are faring at the end of the first quarter.
Warren and O’Rourke are logging mileage in areas their party hasn’t always traveled to early on and underscoring their appetite for grassroots interaction, a style Pete Buttigieg is also cultivating. Warren took more than 200 questions from voters and O’Rourke answered more than 350, according to their campaigns’ first-quarter estimates.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar logged 36 public events in 10 states since forming her campaign in February, according to her campaign’s tally.
Mixing up Their Number and Types of Public Events
California Sen. Kamala Harris has emerged as a top-tier contender despite fewer public events than some opponents, clocking in with 26 public first-quarter events in eight states since launching her campaign in January, according to an AP estimate. Harris’ campaign said Monday night that she took more than 100 voter questions during first-quarter events, where total estimated turnout has topped 37,000.
Other Democrats are consciously mixing up their number and types of public events. Booker is holding a bigger kickoff of a national tour soon after holding smaller events. The New Jersey senator’s campaign estimates that he has held more than 50 public events in seven states since he jumped into the race in February and taken more than 350 voter questions.
A handful of other candidates have lagged behind in their total number of first-quarter events. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s campaign has logged 16 events, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee held 12 events according to an AP tally. Former housing secretary Julian Castro has held more than a dozen of his own over the first quarter.
All of these candidates tend to fall behind Bernie Sanders in early polling of the Democratic field. Sanders, the runner-up in 2016, has held 17 major events in eight states and Washington, D.C., since declaring his candidacy in early March.
Veering off the Beaten Track
Not all of Sanders’ events — nor those of other candidates — feature the sort of real-time voter questions that are a fixture of Warren’s and O’Rourke’s appearances. But Sanders’ crowds illustrate his formidable ability to engage voters on his own terms: The Vermont senator’s campaign projects a total turnout of 74,000 people for all of his events so far.
President Donald Trump famously upended the traditional calculus of campaigning in 2016 by making fewer retail visits as he powered past more than a dozen GOP rivals. Whether anyone in the Democratic field can repeat that model remains to be seen.
“We want to fall in love like we did with Barack Obama,” Messina said of Democratic voters, “and to do that, you need to do the retail part of this.”
Several candidates have made a point of veering off the beaten track, hoping a stop outside the early states will earn them some extra media attention and voter good will.
When the Massachusetts senator touted her “not traditional” choice to visit Alabama during a rally there last month, a voice from the audience chimed in to note that “Obama did it.”