The first thing I notice as I arrive Wednesday at Lincoln High School in Des Moines is a group of about 20 Trump supporters holding signs along the sidewalk. There are some classic slogans: A man holds a sign that simply says “Benghazi” and a wheelchair-bound woman has one that says “Crooked Hillary.” A younger guy chants “Hillary lied, people died” and “lock her up!” through a bullhorn. They’re getting mixed reactions. A few passing cars give honks of approval, while the driver of one flips off the protesters and a passenger in another rolls down his window to yell, “Up your ass!”
Marlon Mormann, a 59-year-old Trump supporter from Des Moines, holds a sign that says “From Russia with Love #Wikileaks,” referring to the Russian hackers the U.S. government says stole emails from members of the Democratic National Committee that were turned over to the publisher of classified documents. (Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder, has suggested Russia might not be the real culprit.) “The Wikileaks really show that Bernie Sanders was probably cheated out of the nomination,” he says. “They were conspiring against him. The DNC should have been neutral in the deal, and instead they were out there promoting Hillary Clinton to get the status quo this time. The establishment rules. That’s what it’s all about.”
That’s not to say Mormann supported Sanders; he just wants outsider candidates to compete on a level field. But he sees reason for Sanders supporters to vote Trump. “Bernie was far too socialist, far too leftist, but he did understand that NAFTA’s a bad deal and, you know, there’s some commonality there between Trump and Bernie Sanders,” he says. “There’s a lot more in common with Bernie Sanders supporters and Trump supporters than there is apart.”
On the opposite side of the school building is the entrance to the first rally Clinton is holding in Iowa since her razor-thin victory on caucus night Feb. 1. The aftermath of the messy process left plenty of bad blood between the Clinton and Sanders camps in the state and, nationally, the email leak led to the resignation of the already unpopular Debbie Wasserman Schultz as Democratic National Committee chair, but none of that drama’s apparent here today. In recent days as Trump’s poll numbers continue to plunge, whatever divisions otherwise linger among Democrats appear to pale in comparison to those of Republicans, a point the lineup of speakers inside Lincoln High’s Bowen Roundhouse Arena is happy to emphasize.
Last Friday, freshman Congressman David Young, a Republican who represents the district that includes Des Moines, chose to steer clear of Trump’s return to the capital city, holding an event elsewhere to keep his distance from the volatile GOP nominee. His Democratic opponent, Iraq war vet Jim Mowrer, is at the Clinton rally, where he tells the audience that as a military guy, he knows Trump can’t be trusted. “His election would imperil the future of our country and the entire world,” Mowrer begins. “But almost as bad is the Republican Congress who find themselves meekly apologizing for him but continuing to support him. Just yesterday, our current representative, David Young, reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump for president.” The crowd boos before Mowrer lists off things Trump’s done which he says Young “stands with him” on: proposing that women be punished for getting abortions, criticizing a Mexican American judge and the parents of a fallen Muslim American soldier, mocking a disabled reporter.
“And yesterday, you saw the news. Donald Trump said one of the most horrible, dangerous, and divisive things I have ever heard said by a politician in our country. And David Young stands with him.”
Outside before the event, there is a hint of intra-party conflict. Kevin McCray, a 42-year-old T-shirt salesman from Ohio following the campaign, wants another Clinton in the White House and wears a shirt that says “Tag Team 2016” with black-and-white outlines of Bill and Hillary wearing shades. Business is “phenomenal,” he says (with 20 percent of the profits donated to the Clinton campaign) but he could use a couple additional helpers. “Eventually, I’ll be able to capitalize like I need to, because I’ve got some serious competitors up there,” he says, pointing to a spot up a hill and flight of concrete steps nearer to the rally entrance where another vendor’s set up.
As I wander around inside waiting for Clinton to arrive, I spot Keith Puntenney, a 69-year-old landowner along the route of the Bakken pipeline who’s running for the state Senate against Boone incumbent Jerry Behn. He’s angling for a good spot behind the podium in the center of the gymnasium so he can display his blue “Stop the Pipeline” shirt in view of the TV cameras. (The are also several orange shirts that read “LiUNA for Hillary: Feel the Power,” worn by members of the local Laborers’ International Union of North America, which supports the Bakken pipeline.)
Puntenney fills me in on the latest in his legal battle against Dakota Access LLC, the pipeline company, and then we discuss the presidential race. As in 2008, he’s backing Clinton; as a disabled Vietnam vet, he’s long approved of her work fighting for health care reform, and also likes what the candidate has to say about renewable energy. I ask him why he’s partial to Clinton over Sanders, who supports a single-payer system and was the only presidential candidate to publicly oppose the pipeline. “I’ve worked in the federal government for 32 years,” the former IRS attorney replies. “I know the limits of what you can get through Congress.”
The Clinton rally, unsurprisingly, is strikingly different from Friday’s Trump rally at the Iowa Events Center. The speeches are shouty and optimistic rather than shouty and pessimistic. The crowd’s a little larger and more diverse, and no one’s wearing a shirt calling a candidate a bitch. There are even more American flags here — 20, including several giant ones against the gymnasium walls — than at the Trump rally, where just three were flying from flagpoles on the stage. No one’s shying away from this event; there’s a full cast of speakers before Clinton, and other prominent Dems in the audience who never get on stage, including Attorney General Tom Miller, former Gov. Chet Culver, and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie.
One who does speak is former ag secretary Patty Judge, who’s challenging Sen. Chuck Grassley, a respected relative moderate who’s never lost an election since he was voted into the state Senate in 1958. Judge is 10 points down in the polls but Democrats are hopeful that Grassley’s stubborn refusal to allow hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, coupled with his support of Trump, will make him sufficiently vulnerable this time. “Now some of you in this room, if you’re willing enough to admit it, may have even voted for Chuck Grassley,” Judge says. “Never!” someone shouts through a chorus of boos. “Even if we are not as smart as Donald Trump thinks he is, the fact is clear, and the fact is Chuck Grassley is not the same [as Trump]. He is putting partisan politics ahead of what is best for Iowa.”
Campaign staffers dart through the crowd, passing out mini-American flags for people to wave at Clinton and instructing them to begin chanting “Hillary! Hillary!” if a protester tries to disrupt the event. Half an hour after she is scheduled to appear, former Sen. Tom Harkin and his wife Ruth come on stage instead to do an eyeroll-inducing routine that they read from cue cards on the lectern. “I’ve known Hillary for a very long time, and I was proud to endorse her nearly a year ago at the Iowa State Fair,” Tom says, to which Ruth replies, “A year ago, at the Iowa State Fair? I endorsed her in 2007.” The crowd eats it up.
“Again, for the third time in my life, I’m voting against the shitty candidate.”
Then Clinton arrives, following a campaign swing through Raygun, a clothing company in downtown Des Moines that prints shirts with slogans like “America: Hill Yes,” “America! 1776-2016: From Democracy to Idiocracy,” and “Dear America, Sorry about Steve King. Sincerely, Iowa.” There she reportedly encountered the 2-year-old son of owner Mike Draper, who told her, “I want to go home!” She replied, “I don’t blame you.”
Clinton speaks for 17 minutes, less than a third of the time Trump took with his speech last Friday. She hits the big themes: support for the middle class and collective bargaining rights, opposition to trickle-down Reaganomics, a shoutout to Iowa’s renewable fuels industry, a plan to give college grads who start a small business a three-year moratorium on student debt interest charges and repayments.
She also revisits the statement Trump made the previous day, the one Jim Mowrer called “horrible, dangerous, and divisive” — that if she were to pick Antonin Scalia’s successor on the Supreme Court, there would be “nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” “If you are running to be president, or you are president of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences,” Clinton says. “Yesterday, we witnessed the latest in a long line of casual comments from Donald Trump that cross the line: his casual cruelty to a Gold Star family, his casual suggestion that more countries should have nuclear weapons, and now, his casual inciting of violence. Every single one of these incidents shows us that Donald Trump simply does not have the temperament to be president and commander-in-chief of the United States.”
None of the pro-Trump protesters from around the corner interrupt Clinton’s speech, but midway through two Secret Service agents get on stage and point at something before stepping back down. The speech continues. An animal rights protester with the group Direct Action Everywhere had attempted to rush the stage and was arrested instead. (The incident allows for a bit of peripheral drama for former state Sen. Tom Fiegen, the also-ran #BernieOrBust-er in the Senate primary won by Patty Judge who has since forsaken the Democratic Party and tweeted, “How about a barricade hop-a-thon at the next Hillary event? At 5 SS per tackled protestor, they could run out of agents quickly. Then what?”)
After the event, I scan the crowd looking for someone to interview. Des Moines friends Kelly Boon and Kim Weeks, both 57, are sitting in the bleachers wearing clown noses, so they seem like an interesting option. They’re both big Clinton supporters. Boon is a motivational speaker who runs a company called CHAOS (short for Creativity, Humor, And Other Stuff). Years ago, she was waiting in line at Barnes and Noble to have the candidate sign a copy of her autobiography, Living History. “I was the last person in line; I had my red nose on and I handed her a red nose, and she looked up from signing and went, ‘I love it!’” she recalls, breaking into a competent Clinton impression. “And I told her, ‘Here, I’m here to help you save the world.’”
On my way out, I overhear a woman in one of the orange LiUNA shirts chatting with a mother and her two young children, a boy and a girl. “He should have been arrested for treason weeks ago,” the woman says. The mom bends over and says to her son, “She’s talking about your favorite person.” “Who?” “Trump.”
Outside, the political rhetoric is even more over-the-top. The animal rights protesters are on the sidewalk in front of a KCCI news van, holding a large black banner that reads “Animal Liberation Now” and discussing something with a couple passersby. I get closer to hear. A woman here to support Clinton, who wears a shirt that says “Pro-choice, Pro-feminism, Pro-cat,” is arguing with a woman protesting who claims drinking cow milk perpetuates rape culture. Juan Gutierrez, another protester in his late 20s from Chicago, is acting more chill. “What happens to animals puts a big imbalance on humanity and our planet, and so with someone with as much power as Hillary, we want her to help animals across the board,” he tells me. He’s a Clinton supporter already but wants to her to focus more on this issue. A couple minutes later, our conversation is cut short by another protester, who cautions Gutierrez not to stray from Direct Action Everywhere talking points.
“He was having a conversation about, I guess, their holistic approach to medicine and how if they get cancer they’re not going to take any drugs,” explains Jane, the Clinton supporter, a 24-year-old Des Moines resident who doesn’t want to give her real name because it’s gotten her in trouble in the past. “They’re going to eat a raw fruit diet and fast. And I think that’s insane.”
“That is insane,” says the guy she’s with, a 27-year-old who’s also from Des Moines and says his name is John but not really. The two of them caucused for Sanders but are supporting Clinton now. “I’m not excited about Hillary Clinton; however, I am excited to not have Trump as our president,” he says. “Again, for the third time in my life, I’m voting against the shitty candidate.”