JJ Dinner ‘In The Round’
Walking into this year’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, I noticed how remarkably different the energy was compared to previous years’ dinners, and how the room set-up contributed to that. When I attended the JJ Dinner last year, there were around 100 tables arranged in a standard grid with a stage and podium at one end of the room, leaving a significant portion of the room empty. Whereas this year, the room was packed wall-to-wall with Democratic supporters in a capitalistic manner with the high donor tables toward the middle and seating for cheaper tickets getting closer and closer to the perimeter of the room. In the middle of all of this was the open stage, placed almost as a boxing ring in the center of all of the attention. While there was a physically podium on the stage, it was rarely used as speakers attempted to address all corners of the room. While I wonder if this was by chance or if the candidates were told to do so, a few things stood out to me while the candidates addressed the crowd.
Entering from one end of the hall with the most enthusiastic support section at the opposite end (though it was only the second largest behind Hillary Clinton’s section), Sanders controlled the whole room. Once on stage, Sanders preached right to his people, giving them what they wanted. With a campaign like Sanders’, the more passionate the supporters, the more likely that the energy will transfer past the event, and that’s just what Sanders did. As was seen with the early departure of the majority of the Sanders supporters, Sanders used the stage as a message that there is a clear divide in supporters between his campaign and Clinton’s campaign. He did this by very rarely facing the Clinton section, leaving them with a nice view of his back for the majority of his 25-minute speech. Whether this was political or coincidental, it sent a message that Sanders is putting his faith in his supporters to make his campaign successful. When he wasn’t facing his own section, Sanders was facing the O’Malley section, perhaps in an attempt to win those supporters over in the event of O’Malley’s campaign coming to a close. Nevertheless, Sanders wasn’t allowing the Clinton section to feel the Bern.
Coming with the smallest set of bleachers, O’Malley essentially ignored them during his speech, instead redirecting himself toward the Clinton and Sanders bleachers. This isn’t to say they didn’t receive any love from the former Maryland governor (who spent his fair share of time physically in the bleachers with some of his supporters), but O’Malley focused himself on appealing to those who weren’t on his bandwagon yet. In true Iowa politics, this was perhaps a strong strategy for O’Malley to deploy; for the more support he can steal from Clinton and Sanders now, the stronger he’ll be come February, potentially leading him to get some news coverage over the number of delegates he receives. Current O’Malley supporters, while few in number, aren’t likely to jump ship until the ship officially sinks, so O’Malley doesn’t need to spend time on them. Also, by facing away from his section most of the time, it gave the greatest opportunity to get a killer shot of him in front of the sea of red and blue glow sticks.
With a majority of the bleachers filled by Clinton supporters, there weren’t too many directions that Clinton could face and not get a quality shot with the large blue glow sticks in the background. In the course of her 25-minute speech, Clinton did not focus on one specific section of bleachers for too long, rather looking toward the front of the room right at the divide of the Clinton and Sanders sections. She utilized the whole stage, going from speaking to O’Malley’s section to the other end to point out Katy Perry at a nearby table. One word to describe Clinton’s approach to the “in the round” set-up: presidential.
The Iowa Democratic Party provided the same opportunity to all three candidates to utilize the lack of a podium to accelerate their campaign. While all three candidates took different approaches, they proved to be consistent with the overall themes of their campaign. As the field gets narrower, it seems that every detail can be incorporated into campaign strategy, even if it’s something as simple as a stage.
Blevins is a junior politics and strategic political communications double major at Drake. He avidly follows Postmodern Jukebox, is a strong proponent of the color orange, and can often be found relaxing in a hammock if it’s a nice day out. Follow him on Twitter.