Campaigns attempt to show strength in numbers at Polk County Steak Fry

12,000 Democrats from across the state and beyond gathered in Des Moines to hear 17 presidential candidates give their pitch for the Oval Office.


Katie Goodale

Signs sit outside the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines on Saturday Sept. 21, 2019. 17 democratic candidates gave speeches and grilled steaks.

Julia Shanahan and Caleb McCullough

Seventeen Democratic presidential hopefuls stuck to their stump speeches in Des Moines at the Polk County Steak Fry, despite large organizing efforts from the campaigns. 

With a large field of Democrats remaining in September, many of the campaigns attempted to stand out among the crowded ballot by showing off organizing efforts and their number of supporters. Campaigns made loud entrances, sporting matching, bright colored T-shirts and colorful signs. Volunteers set up 18,000 campaign signs early in the morning along the roads close to the event. 

Candidates stuck to a message of unity and most condemned President Trump for his divisive rhetoric and betrayal of working class families and Iowa farmers during speeches at the Steak Fry. Many candidates also talked about election security and accused Trump of working with foreign governments to manipulate U.S. elections.

“President Trump has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” former Vice President Joe Biden said.

Over 12,000 Iowa and international Democrats attended the event — the largest Steak Fry event yet. The Polk County Steak Fry is an annual picnic, started in 2017, that works as a Democratic fundraiser. The Polk County Democrats started putting on the event after former Democratic U.S. Senator from Iowa Tom Harkin retired in 2014 and stopped holding his own steak fundraiser, called the Harkin Steak Fry.

Candidates have gathered together at multiple events throughout the summer, like the Hall of Fame Celebration, the Iowa Corn Feed, and the Iowa State Fair. The field of Democrats seeking the presidential nomination remains in the double digits even though some candidates have not met debate qualifications.

Grace Tracy, 17, said Buttigieg volunteers and organizers showed up to the venue at 5 a.m. to start setting up. She said the campaign made phone calls days before the event to encourage supporters to show up, and said they provided them with free T-shirts and tickets.

Tracy said with the large field of candidates, it was important that people know that Buttigieg “is not a lost cause,” and making the campaign as visible as possible was the best way to do that. 

Katie Goodale
Supporters cheer for Mayor of South Bend Ind. Pete Buttigieg during the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines on Saturday Sept. 21, 2019. 17 democratic candidates gave speeches and grilled steaks.

When Buttigieg took the stage, the audience was crowded with gold Mayor Pete T-shirts and posters. Darla Connell, a Clear Lake resident of 25 years, said she thinks Buttigieg is going to win the Iowa caucuses because of his supporters’ dedication and appeal in Iowa.

Connell said she was a registered Republican for most of her life, but when Trump was elected in 2016, she said she changed her party affiliation to ‘independent’. The Steak Fry was the largest event she’s attended, and said she thinks the candidates are doing better at setting themselves apart from each other.

“I watch all the candidates, from Joe Biden to Steve Bullock,” Connell said. “It helps me get an idea for how other people in the Democratic Party feel.”

Biden’s campaign also had a large number of supporters present — slightly less than the Buttigieg campaign. The campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., showed a large number of support as well, led by the drumline Isiserettes.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did not parade into the venue with supporters like the other candidates. In a statement from her Iowa communications director, Jason Noble, he said the Warren team was using the Steak Fry as an opportunity to have personal conversations with caucusgoers.

“Our focus here, unlike the Hall of Fame and Wing Ding earlier this summer, is less about bright T-shirts, chants and making lots of noise,” Noble said in the statement.

Warren organizers wore “liberty green” balloons tied to themselves while they walked around and talked with likely caucusgoers.

Rosie Thierer, a member of the Polk County Democrats Central Committee, said she’s thrilled to see the high number of candidates in the field. She said she doesn’t want voters to rush to choose a candidate. 

“I hear some people say, ‘oh, I just want it to be done,’ she said. “But there are folks like me who say, ‘I’m in no hurry.’ There’s such a wealth of candidates.”

Thierer said the field of candidates will likely thin out in the months leading up to the caucus, as campaigns start to see funding and donations dry up, and subsequently drop out. 

Thierer said organizing and outreach will be important to generate support for candidates, and popular opinion in Iowa could change between now and February. She said Buttigieg’s presence at the event was a good example. 

“It was really interesting to see Pete’s folks here, and I know he’s opened up a bunch of offices,” she said. “…and the ground game in Iowa will make a big difference.”

The only candidates who did not make an appearance were former Maryland Congressman John Delaney and Mayor of Miramar, Florida, Wayne Messam.


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