With Elizabeth Warren Visit, Iowans Get the First Taste of 2020: ‘I’m Ready to Be Convinced’

DES MOINES — Allison Kipp is all in for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, but she was the exception.

Ben Miller, a 21-year-old student at Iowa State University, said he wants to vote for an economic populist, and if Senator Bernie Sanders runs again it will be a “tough choice” between him and Ms. Warren. Charles Miller, Ben’s father, said he expects to vote for Ms. Warren, but is also intrigued by a Democrat who could be described as her ideological opposite: Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

“As Democrats, we haven’t seen a big field like this in a long time,” said the elder Mr. Miller, a 47-year-old resident of Ankeny, Iowa. “And as long as they keep it positive, as long as there’s no personal attacks and they just share their views, it’s going to be a good thing.”

“I’m ready to be convinced.”

Such is the mood of Iowa Democrats, who are currently feeling somewhat spoiled after a visit by Ms. Warren this weekend — more than a year before a single vote is cast in the state’s caucuses — unofficially kicked off the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The party’s 2016 primary was defined by rigid and bitter lanes of Hillary Clinton and Mr. Sanders, but as the 2020 nomination process begins, the state’s voters are giddy at the prospect of a crowded field that could feature more than a dozen candidates across the ideological spectrum.

Angry at Wall Street? There’s Ms. Warren, the longtime critic of unrestrained markets and big corporations, but also Mr. Sanders or Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who are both mulling presidential runs. Those eager for a female candidate may be able to choose between Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is expected to announce a presidential campaign this month, and other potential candidates, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. At least five of the expected major candidates will support liberal wish-list policies such as Medicare for All.

“There’s no magic formula,” said Allison Kipp, 39, who brought her daughter to a rally for Ms. Warren in Des Moines on Saturday. “You can’t know what Trump will do or say. We need to find someone that inspires” Democrats.

The field of potential 2020 Democratic nominees will be perhaps the most wide open since 1992: with no obvious front-runner to challenge President Trump, and no broadly unifying political ideology as it moves away from decades of dominance by the Clintons and former President Barack Obama. The result is a robust debate about the party’s direction, which some voters believe is overdue.

Iowa, because of its first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, has long played in outsized role in determining the outcomes of such political fights. Though other, more diverse states have long complained of its influence, voters in Iowa take pride in being good adjudicators of political sensibilities.

Iowans like Ms. Kipp believe the Democratic Party must select the candidate with the boldest vision that energizes base voters, regardless of political constraints. Gary Himes, 70, prefers a more incremental approach. Mr. Himes voted for Mr. Trump in the 2016 general election after a lifetime as a Democrat, and said a candidate like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. can win over former Democrats the party may have lost.

“I wanted change,” Mr. Himes said, of his 2016 vote. He has now pledged to support the Democratic nominee in 2020 no matter who he or she is. “I went off track but now I’m back on,” he said.

[Joe Biden’s allies say he sees himself as Democrats’ best hope in 2020.]

Throughout Ms. Warren’s weekend tour of Iowa, the first for a declared major candidate, residents and Democratic primary voters said the prospect of a large field had already impacted their decision calculus. Instead of being deferential to a singular preferred candidate, many listed a top tier, considering they felt fondly about several members of the presumed field.

Cassandra Flomo, 69, said she expects to use most of 2019 to hear out different candidates, deciding even later in the process than usual.

Ms. Flomo said she enjoyed Ms. Warren’s Des Moines rally, but also was intrigued by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Ms. Flomo, who supported Mrs. Clinton, said Democrats were “too nasty” to each other in the 2016 presidential primary and that she hopes the large field will help damper tensions.

“I don’t want any of that in-house fighting,” said Ms. Flomo. “Old people and young people, they were too divided. There just needs to be more inclusion.”

“I’m looking for a vibe,” said Carolyn Briggs, a 63-year-old Iowan who works at Des Moines Area Community College. “I need to be in the same room as someone and just look into there eyes. There’s just some feeling you get.”

She was attending Ms. Warren’s Des Moines rally on Saturday with her husband, David, who had wanted to watch the speech on television. His wife said no.

“In this state, we’re political animals, and we want to get to know the candidates,” she said. “We want them to come to our homes and into our schools. Only then: you’ll know.”

During stops in her five-city Iowa tour, Ms. Warren laid several markers for the Democratic candidates who will soon join her on the trail. She repeatedly called for Democrats to disavow corporate money and self-funding candidates, a warning shot possibly aimed at Mr. Bloomberg. She also repeated several times that the country needs “systemic” and “structural” changes, a pointed response to the Democrats more focused on beating Mr. Trump than laying out a personal framework.

“I think that what our 2020 issue will be is how we talk about what we stand for,” Ms. Warren said Sunday in Ankeny. “Our affirmative vision of how we build a country that reflects our best values. That’s what I try to talk about every chance I get.”

“I want to put on the table an idea. And that is we need change — and not just one statute here or one law there,” she said. “We need big structural change.”

The ideas impressed Ms. Briggs, the Iowan who told her husband they needed to see Ms. Warren in person. In a text message sent after the rally, she said Ms. Warren gave her the elusive “vibe” she seeks in quality presidential candidates.

“She’s not pedantic. She assumes her audience is intelligent and doesn’t speak down to him,” Ms. Briggs said. “So far, she’s my number one,” she added — emphasizing “so far.”