The fire marshal in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ordered the campaign to close the doors. Sen. Kamala Harris’ town hall at a historic church was at capacity – from basement to sanctuary to balconies. Harris made her way outside to the crowd that refused to leave the church steps, even as heavy snow blanketed them. “We’re going to have many opportunities for us to spend time together,” she said to cheers.
In Des Moines, Iowans greeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren with a similar scene. She stood before her overflow crowd, stuck outside her political event. “There’s not enough room for everyone to get inside,” she said.
In Charleston, South Carolina, the gymnasium for Harris’ town hall quickly filled. People climbed the closed bleachers, hunting for seats. Organizers opened up the second-floor balcony and Democrats filled the entire area circling the gym floor.
In these first weeks of the 2020 campaign in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, crowds of voters have packed large venues like gyms and 1,000-seat church halls. The large number of Democratic presidential candidates has not thinned the packs of the base, but has seemingly produced the opposite effect.
“There is something different in the energy this time around,” said Meghann Foster, of Coralville, Iowa. “I think we have such an exciting field. 2018 was just the warm-up for the main event.”
Foster, 43, could be the Democratic Party’s poster child for that warm-up act of the midterms. After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Foster recalled, she was “in so much shock after Hillary Clinton’s loss. But after I got over the shock, I decided it was time. No more sitting on the sidelines.”
Foster, like many women in 2018’s so-called Year of the Woman, decided to run for office. The married mother of five and educator at the University of Iowa wanted to fight for what she felt was needed in America’s democracy. A seat in local government, the Coralville City Council, was open. She ran and won.
Her local win and the national Democratic gains in Congress fuel Foster for 2020. She has met Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. And on an hourlong drive to Bettendorf, Iowa, to meet Harris, she told CNN why she was making such an effort to meet candidates.
“There’s an urgency. I think a lot of people realize that we absolutely have to get this right,” Foster said.
The goal, she said, of all the people at the crowded events she’s seen this year is to find someone to beat Trump.
“I think there are a lot of Democrats really doing their homework. What I’m hearing a lot of people say is, ‘I haven’t decided yet, I want to hear from as many people as I can.’” Foster counts herself in that group, saying it’s far too early to decide which candidate she’ll caucus for in Iowa.
An earlier start
Iowa feels different this year, said Penny Rosfjord, a longtime Iowa state party Democrat from Sioux City. “They are coming out in numbers and they’re asking questions like never before,” said Rosfjord of voters. “It harkens back to 2007,” the year candidate Barack Obama packed restaurants, diners and churches across Iowa. Except in 2019, many of the top tier candidates, especially Harris, are seeing large, energetic crowds.
Asked about her own crowd, Harris told CNN, “The American public has rightly embraced the fact that this is their government and their future is in their hands. They’re going to speak out. They’ll require that they be seen and that their concerns and their issues be heard and so we’re seeing this level of vigorous participation. And I think it’s good for us. It’s the sign of a healthy democracy.”
When Rosfjord looks at the 2019 crowds, she notes that it’s not just the typical political hacks or activists, as they typically are early in the cycle. She’s seeing Iowa voters who are engaging earlier than the last cycle.
“It wasn’t like this in 2015,” said Rosfjord. “In the beginning, you’re not expecting big crowds. It’s normally an evolution. But this year, everyone is in tune.”
Foster is one of those “in tune” voters. She and her family pulled up to Harris’ Bettendorf town hall more than an hour early, but the parking lot was filling up on a below-freezing day in Iowa. Inside the convention center, a crowd of expectant attendees filled the foyer.
“It’s quite a while before the doors open,” said Foster. “I’m excited. This is great. I really can’t wait!”
Trump is noting the Democratic crowds, especially at the launch rallies of the contenders. The President, attuned to the size of his own crowds, acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times that Harris’ launch rally in Oakland, California, last month had “a better crowd” than those of her fellow candidates.
“I just think she seemed to have a little better opening act than others. I think,” said the President. “A better crowd – better crowd, better enthusiasm.”
Trump, who has sparred with the media about portrayals of his rally crowds, is the very reason Democrats are filling town halls for the candidates who want to unseat him, many Democrats have told CNN.
“Get him out of office!” urged Rachel Hamilton, as she spoke into the mic at Harris’ Bettendorf town hall. The audience erupted in applause.
Hamilton was emotional as she spoke about the urgency felt among Democrats in the 2020 election, still stinging from the 2016 Trump victory. “I think a lot of Democrats sat it out or were not excited just because they didn’t like Hillary,” Hamilton said. “I think they realize that’s not a good choice now. We need to vote whether we like them or not, because we need to get him out of office.”
Fears of fracturing
That common purpose among Democrats appears to be an early unifier, but in the same way 2016 ignites enthusiasm for 2020, it also raises concerns of an over-passionate Democratic base. The early fear is splintering the vote among so many candidates.
“I’m nervous. I’m obviously nervous,” said Foster, who saw the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders split alliances across Iowa. “I have a little bit of PTSD over what happened in 2016. And I think a lot of us are afraid it’s going to happen again.”
Rojsford said Iowa party workers had focused on closing rifts so that scenario would not happen. “I’m less worried about fracturing this time than last time. We have a year to weigh the pros and cons on every candidate. I feel right now, people are getting in and listening to everyone.”
Rojsford paused. “Who knows. This could end up being the opposite. But I truly believe we can harness the enthusiasm. I don’t think it will tear us down.”
As Harris took the stage, Foster and her family nodded, cheered and joined in standing ovations as the senator made her case for why she deserved their votes. “I loved this!” gushed Foster, even if she was unable to break through the throngs of supporters who surrounded Harris.
She left this event without another selfie to add to her 2019 collection. But hearing Harris speak reminded her to stay energized and engaged. “It is very real to a lot of people,” said Foster. “We’re all feeling this on a very personal level.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Penny Rosfjord’s last name.