Democrats race across country to woo activists

Democrats race across country to woo activists
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DES MOINES, Iowa Over the course of a week in June, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.) spent hours backstage in green rooms, waiting her turn to speak to interest groups eager to hear from Democratic presidential candidates on their own terms.

Warren began in Charleston, S.C., where she addressed the Black Economic Alliance along with eight other hopefuls. Two days later, she was in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People's Campaign presidential forum at Trinity Washington University.

Then she flew to Miami for a forum sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at the Telemundo Center. And then back to the South Carolina Democratic Party convention in Columbia and a Planned Parenthood forum at the University of South Carolina. She capped her day on stage alongside House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) at the longtime congressman's fish fry fundraiser.


The frenetic schedule of forums put on by interest groups that make up the core of the Democratic base presents a vexing challenge for the two dozen candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Those candidates are asked to attend events aimed at distinct slices of the Democratic base — progressive activists, or environmental advocates, or labor unions — and attendance is strongly encouraged, if not mandatory.

At the same time, those candidates are trying to introduce themselves to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to allocate their delegates. The forums, some held in cities like Detroit or Houston or Philadelphia, vie with early states for time and attention on a candidate's limited schedule.

Candidates can always raise another dollar. They cannot add more time to their days.

"None of the [Democrats] want to piss off advocates for the environment, choice, labor, Latinos, African Americans," said one senior strategist to a front-running contender. "But candidate time is the one true immutably limiting factor for all campaigns."

Since March, there have been nearly two dozen candidate forums of some variety or another. At least 10 more have been scheduled in the final four months of the year, including a forum on Native American issues in Sioux City, Iowa, a town hall focused on climate change in New York, an LGBTQ forum in Los Angeles and a forum on gun safety in Las Vegas, the day after the two-year anniversary of a mass shooting attack on a country music festival.

That number will grow. One senior adviser to a different campaign said his staff is fielding three to four invites a week.

At every one, endless parades of candidates sit on stage or stand behind a podium before audiences eager to hear their specific concerns addressed — concerns that do not always jibe with a campaign's mission to drive a specific message that will distinguish them from their rivals.

On Friday and Saturday, Warren will participate in three cattle call events: She will be one of 21 candidates appearing at the Wing Ding, an annual fundraiser for northern Iowa Democrats; she will speak at a forum sponsored by EveryTown, the gun safety group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Bloomberg unveils plan to combat climate change, cut emissions by 50 percent in 10 years Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE; and she will take the stage at the Iowa State Fair, where the Des Moines Register features candidates on their Soapbox stage.


"The cattle call forums are difficult for campaigns because politically there are good reasons to attend, but the forum may take the candidate off message," said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist who has worked for three presidential candidates, but who is unaligned this year.

"Keeping your campaign laser focused on a message and a lane is critical in a primary with such a large field. Campaigns and candidates must be very creative to utilize forums to emphasize their own message rather than that of the organizer."

But the forums can be a boost to candidates, especially those who need attention from donors in order to qualify for debates later this year. And the hosts know it.

"Everything about how this cycle has shaken out, from fundraising to debate inclusion, has depended on having a strong online machine," said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the DailyKos blog and the host of the progressive Netroots Nation event in Philadelphia. "A campaign of this scale is a chess match. You have to look at your pieces on the table, and deploy the ones you think will be most advantageous."

At times, candidates can hit two events in the same day. In early June, Warren, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAdvocacy groups decry Trump's 'anti-family policies' ahead of White House summit This bipartisan plan is the most progressive approach to paid parental leave Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' MORE (D-N.Y.), and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro all appeared at a Big Ideas forum sponsored by MoveOn, just down the street from the stage where they addressed delegates to the California Democratic Party convention.

Twenty candidates attended both the South Carolina Democratic Party's convention and the Planned Parenthood forum in Columbia, before stopping by Clyburn's fish fry later that night.

But at other times, the physical demands of flying across the country at relatively short notice just isn't possible. Campaigns routinely set their schedules two or three months in advance, long before they get invites to attend forums.

It's "not humanly possible to do them all," said a campaign manager to one candidate who has already qualified for the September debates. "So you have to pick based on both priorities and, frankly, travel logistics. You'd be shocked at how much is determined by flight schedules."

Nine candidates appeared at the Poor People's forum in Washington; nine showed up in Miami for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials forum. Only three candidates — Sanders, Warren and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellLive coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Lawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests MORE (D-Calif.), who has since dropped out — managed to hit both.

As the invitations flow in, each campaign must strike a balance between pleasing the groups that make up the Democratic coalition and winning over the voters who will select a Democratic nominee, beginning with Iowa caucusgoers.

Appearing at a forum may bolster a candidate's credentials with a key segment of the base, but choosing to show up in Detroit, Houston or Philadelphia means a day not spent in Iowa, Des Moines, Harlan or Pella.

"There are general goals for how many days you want to spend per month in a state or market," the senior strategist said. "But then the friends just keep asking you to attend their events."