Drake Democratic debate highlights and discussion thread

The second Democratic presidential debate kicks off in a few minutes at Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium. Why Democratic National Committee leaders scheduled this event on a Saturday night is beyond me; but then, their whole approach to debates this year has been idiotic. I wonder how many politically-engaged Iowans who would normally tune in for a debate will watch the Iowa Hawkeyes football game against Minnesota tonight.

I’m not a fan of curtain-raisers such as lists of "things to watch for" or mistakes candidates might make. I will update this post later with thoughts on each contender’s performance.

Any comments about tonight’s debate or the Democratic presidential race generally are welcome in this thread. I enclose below the latest commercials Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been running in Iowa. The new 30-second Sanders spot mostly uses images and phrases pulled from his strong introductory commercial. Clinton’s ad-maker this year is putting out much better material than I remember from her 2007 Iowa caucus campaign. To my knowledge, Martin O’Malley has not aired any television commercials in Iowa yet, but the Generation Forward super-PAC has run at least one spot promoting his candidacy, which Bleeding Heartland posted here.

UPDATE: My first take on the debate is after the jump.

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Latest polls show larger Clinton leads in Iowa, but who are the likely caucus-goers?

Hillary Clinton has gained ground in polls of Iowa Democrats since the first debate on October 13 and her marathon questioning by a hostile U.S. House select committee on October 22. The four most recent surveys here, all released in the last two weeks, put her ahead of Bernie Sanders by disparate margins. I enclose below highlights from polls released by Loras College, Monmouth College, Monmouth University, and Public Policy Polling, which has the newest Iowa poll out.

The big question is which pollster, if any, has a handle on distinguishing likely caucus-goers from others who will pick up the phone for an unknown number and agree to take a survey. Clinton leads by 14 points in Monmouth College/KBUR/Douglas Fulmer & Associates but by 32 points in Public Policy Polling and by a very-hard-to-believe 41 points in Monmouth University. One or more of those polls has to be off by much more than the mathematical margin of error, which assumes a respondent pool that perfectly represents the target population.

How many Iowans will come to their Democratic precinct caucuses on February 1 is anyone’s guess. No one seems to expect turnout close to the record-shattering level of nearly 240,000 in January 2008. If it’s much lower than that, who benefits: Clinton, by virtue of a superior campaign organization, or Sanders, whose supporters appear to be much more excited about their candidate? Former Senator Tom Harkin, who is backing Clinton, told the New York Times after the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, "This is not a slam dunk for her," citing the tremendous enthusiasm for Sanders. With just a fraction of the mainstream media coverage Obama was receiving at similar stages of the campaign in 2007, Sanders has been drawing huge crowds in Iowa. His campaign is just starting to draw explicit contrasts with Clinton and only began running television commercials this week.

On a related note, Shane Goldmacher reports for Politico today on speculation about turnout for the 2016 Republican caucuses. Some Iowa GOP insiders predict 150,000 caucus-goers or more, while others think turnout will be only slightly higher than the record of 121,501, set in 2012. Bleeding Heartland will cover the latest Republican polling in Iowa in a future post; Ben Carson has led in most surveys conducted during the past month.

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Sounds like Jim Webb is leaning toward an independent presidential bid

Jim Webb photo 220px-Jim_Webb_official_110th_Congress_photo_zpsfr9dwbml.jpg

Ten days after ending his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator Jim Webb appears to be leaning toward an independent candidacy. His guest editorial in today’s Washington Post is titled, "America needs an independent presidential candidate." Excerpt:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) notwithstanding, the Democratic Party has coalesced around a member of a powerful, moneyed dynasty whom at this point most Americans do not trust and half do not like. If successful, she would guarantee further gridlock; if unsuccessful, she could lead the Democratic Party to the same dismal results it experienced in the elections in 2010 and 2014.

Tectonic shifts occur slowly but eventually they produce earthquakes. It is becoming ever clearer that we are on the cusp of a new era in U.S. politics, driven by the reality that a large percentage of Americans really do dislike both political parties and their leaders. They want and deserve something different, and nowhere is that reality more clearly seen than in the presidential race, in which the extremes that have taken over the nominating process have become glaringly obvious.

There can be no better answer to these developments than electing as president a tested, common-sense independent who can bring to Washington a bipartisan administration to break the gridlock paralyzing our political debates and restore the faith of our people in their leaders.

I am in the process of deciding whether to mount such a campaign. Clearly, the need for another option grows stronger and more apparent by the day.

Disenchantment with the major political parties is nothing new. But if the much better-known independent candidate Ross Perot couldn’t win a single state after spending some $60 million on his 1992 presidential bid, how on earth does Webb think he could be elected next year? He’d need to raise an estimated $8 million just to get on the ballot in all 50 states. In his last fundraising quarter as a Democratic candidate, Webb raised less than $700,000.

For a fraction of the expense of running for president, Webb could become an influential nationwide advocate for criminal justice reform. I remain hopeful that after weighing the costs and benefits, Webb will reject a hopeless vanity bid in favor of an issue-based campaign to change this country for the better.

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Iowa Senate district 26 preview: Mary Jo Wilhelm vs. Waylon Brown

After several months of recruiting efforts, Republicans finally have a candidate willing to run against two-term State Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm in Iowa Senate district 26. This race is among a half-dozen or so contests that will determine control of the upper chamber after the 2016 elections. Since Iowans elected Governor Terry Branstad and a GOP-controlled state House in 2010, the 26 to 24 Democratic majority in the state Senate has spared Iowa from various disastrous policies adopted in states like Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Of the senators who make up that one-seat majority caucus, Wilhelm was re-elected by the narrowest margin: 126 votes out of nearly 31,000 cast in 2012.

I enclose below a map of Senate district 26, a review of its voter registration numbers and recent voting history, and background on Wilhelm and challenger Waylon Brown. Cautionary note: although Brown is the establishment’s pick here, he is not guaranteed to win the nomination. "Tea party" candidates won some upset victories in the 2012 Iowa Senate Republican primaries, notably Jane Jech against former State Senator Larry McKibben in Senate district 36 and Dennis Guth against former State Senator James Black in Senate district 4.

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Thoughts on the Iowa Democratic Party's final Jefferson-Jackson dinner

The Iowa Democratic Party held its final Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night, drawing some 6,000 activists to hear three presidential candidates speak in Des Moines. Last night’s spectacle won’t loom as large over the Iowa caucus campaign as the JJ did in 2007, when it took place in November and the caucuses were scheduled for early January, rather than February. But some new tactics emerged during the speeches by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton. My thoughts on the evening’s highlights are after the jump.

I am a sucker for hand-made political signs, so I also enclose below my favorite pictures from the crowds in the bleachers. I put "Feel the Bern" in lights up top because I’ve never seen electrified signs at the JJ before.

While I see the value in supporters waving signs (or glow sticks, as many did last night) at a big rally, the "sign wars" some campaigns stage before multi-candidate events have always struck me as pointless. How does it demonstrate "organizational strength" to send a few staffers to put up printed materials in windows or along a road? Why would anyone want their volunteers to stand around yelling for hours before the dinner, rather than saving their energy and voices to show that enthusiasm inside the hall? For those who disagree with me and love the show, Pat Rynard chronicled the morning and afternoon activities by all three campaigns at Iowa Starting Line.

As for why I called it the "final" JJ, the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fall fundraiser will continue under a to-be-determined name honoring icons considered more inclusive. You can send your suggestion to the state party using this form through February 15, 2016.

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Lincoln Chafee exits Democratic race

Former Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island ended his presidential campaign today, saying to a conference of the Women’s Leadership Forum that "the Republican agenda sets back women’s rights and I pledge all my energy towards a big 2016 victory for Democrats across the country." Chafee was getting no traction in national or Iowa polls of Democrats, nor did he perform well in last week’s televised debate.

With Vice President Joe Biden ruling out a third presidential bid and Jim Webb ending his quest for the Democratic nomination this week, the primaries are shaping up to be a straightforward choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Martin O’Malley won’t have to fight with other second-tier candidates for attention anymore, but he has a lot of work to do to present himself as a viable alternative to the front-runners.

Chafee had been scheduled to speak last at tomorrow night’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, and I was dreading the prospect of hundreds of people leaving the hall during his remarks. Way too many Iowa Democrats did that during Chafee’s speech to the "Wing Ding" in August and during Webb’s speech to the IDP’s Hall of Fame dinner in July. Such poor form not to hear out all the candidates, even marginal ones.

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