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On the Oratory Trail in Iowa

How candidates in the crowded 2020 Democratic field are honing the fine art of turning a phrase

Scott Olson/Getty Images

We have reached the stage in the Democratic race when the best candidates have buffed their stump speeches to a shine like a chauffeur polishing the front grill on a Rolls Royce. Every rambling anecdote has been dropped, every hand gesture has been syncopated with the rhetoric, and every laugh line has been blessed with the right emphasis.

Stump speeches have frequently been compared to a standup comic’s act. But that isn’t quite right—in part, because the crowds at political gatherings tend to be sober. Audiences at comedy clubs also know they are laughing at monologues that have been performed many times before. But a true political talent (like Bill Clinton in 1992) can make voters feel like the candidate is telling them something fresh and different that flows from the heart.

A stump speech can easily be expanded to add a local nugget or to react to the latest Trumpian outrage. But truncating the speech to a few minutes can be as brutal as seeing a literary masterpiece reduced to a few lines on an inspirational greeting card. Personal anecdotes lose their setups and applause lines become stripped of their context.

All the leading Democrats (save for Joe Biden) got a forced course Sunday in truncated tropes in Cedar Rapids, as they addressed an audience of 1,500 Iowa activists who chose to spend a sunny pre-summer afternoon in a hotel ballroom listening to speeches. What they learned from the 19 candidates who spoke is that brevity is not always the soul of wit.

The oratorical challenges of Sunday’s statewide Iowa Democratic event would have daunted William Jennings Bryan, the famed Nebraska “boy orator,” who harangued his way into the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination with his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech. The ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel is short and wide, which meant that most Democrats saw the distant speakers on giant TV screens. The time limits were as rigorously enforced as at the Oscars, right down to the event organizers bringing up the music as speakers hit the five-minute mark.

There were no real winners in Cedar Rapids. Even shooting-star candidates like Pete Buttigieg got more applause when he began speaking than when he finished. Only Elizabeth Warren (with her good-humored passion) and Amy Klobuchar (with her humor) appeared to master the room and its shaky acoustics.

The losers were all the struggling candidates who nurture the belief that one burst of stirring oratory could transform their fortunes. In truth, no rapid plan of action is going to lift any presidential hopeful to the summit of electoral success. The only way to rise above the 1-percenters (the trailing candidates in the polls, not the wealthy targets of Warren’s oratory) is to climb out of the crowded base camp one agonizing step at a time.

When 20 Democrats kick off the debate season in Miami at the end of the month, they may long for the unhurried pace of the Cedar Rapids forum. The details of the two ten-person debates are not yet known—and a respected figure like Montana Governor Steve Bullock appears likely to be pushed off the stage in favor of, gulp, Marianne Williamson. With each Democrat in Miami getting maybe a total of seven or eight minutes of speaking time (after allowing for introductions and questions), candidates will feel lucky each time they can utter a sentence with both a subject and a predicate.

Over four days rushing around Iowa like a traveling salesman trying to meet a monthly quota, I was struck by the candidates who have already mastered the art of delivering a reliable stump speech—particularly Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Warren.

My introduction to Buttigieg came during a Saturday morning backyard event in a leafy neighborhood near downtown Des Moines. More than any major candidate in the race, his oratorical style is conversational with few obvious flourishes. The power of his messaging instead lies in the shrewdness of his observations.

Standing on an elevated back porch, wearing a pristine white shirt and blue tie, the Indiana mayor declared, “I’m convinced that we’re living in one of those moments that come around only once or twice in a lifetime that really sets the tone for the coming years.... I think the dawn of the New Deal was a moment like that. I think the beginning of the Reagan era was a moment like that.... But it’s over and we don’t know what will come next.”

Watching the backyard audience as Buttigieg spoke, I felt like I was in the middle of a Frank Capra movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe. There was a rapt look on faces that I hadn’t seen in politics since—no kidding—Barack Obama spoke at former Senator Tom Harkin’s Iowa Steak Fry in 2006 on the cusp of his presidential campaign.

Booker, by contrast, is like an old-fashioned orator out of the 1960s civil rights movement. Dressed in a black polo shirt and dark jeans, the New Jersey senator spoke Saturday afternoon in Ames at a picnic organized by the Story County Democrats. And the mostly older, virtually all-white crowd unconsciously punctuated his passionate remarks with soft murmurs of “yes” and “that’s right” as if they were in a Baptist church.

There was nothing understated in Booker’s voice as he concluded in a near shout, “I am running for president because we need a revival of civic grace. We need a call in our politics for a new era of decency. We need to remind people that patriotism is about love.... When we stand together, when we work together, the demagogues and the hate-mongers will fade. But more importantly, this nation will rise.”

Afterwards, 89-year-old Louise Lex, who still works for the Iowa Department of Public Health, told me, “I actually cried. I was so moved by what he said. He’s struck the most important chord of any campaign.”

Following the Democratic forum in Cedar Rapids, Warren spoke to about 300 Democrats at an early evening backyard house party in a racially mixed, working class neighborhood in Waterloo. The atmosphere was festive, with free hamburgers and brats cooking on a grill, while a volunteer circulated with her own sugar cookies emblazoned with Warren’s signature word, “Persist.”

Warren’s stump speech offers striking juxtapositions—unlike anything I’ve seen in four decades covering politics.

Bernie Sanders might replicate Warren’s anger against America’s stacked-deck economy, with her lines like, “When you’ve got a government that works great for those with money and it’s not working so good for anyone else, that’s corruption pure and simple—and we need to call it out,” she said.

Other politicians like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the Harvard professor who added an academic veneer to the Senate for four terms) could make a speech sound like an Ivy League seminar. Heartrending personal stories, punctuated with a needed interjection of humor, are standard fare for presidential candidates like Warren with a hardscrabble background. And, of course, since Hillary Clinton’s first presidential race in 2008, a passionate feminist perspective comes with the territory for all Democratic women candidates.

But only Warren seamlessly combines all four aspects of her political persona into a single stump speech. Her political reward Sunday night: More than 150 Democrats lined up for selfies with the candidate in the fading daylight after her speech.

After four days in Iowa, it’s easy to forget that the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination becomes an impersonal flyover campaign following the South Carolina primary on February 29. A stump speech that works in an Iowa backyard may not translate well to a high school gym with 2,000 voters—let alone to the living-room wars of a television campaign.

But this halcyon period, before the campaigns become reduced to sound bites, is a great moment for Democratic oratory in the twenty-first century.