For decades, the state party’s annual fall fundraiser was known as the Jefferson-Jackson Day or “JJ” Dinner. Tommy Vietor was the communications director for Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign. He recently told Radio Iowa said the aim during the 2007 “JJ” Dinner was to show Obama’s organization was “for real.”
“I think it might have been the single most important night of the entire campaign,” Vietor said. “…Our supporters sat around for four or five hours and then, when Obama finally spoke, the place just came alive.”
Obama was the evening’s final speaker. Earlier that afternoon, Obama had marched up the street to the venue with hundreds of supporters, then Obama addressed a few thousand at a nearby rally indoors — after John Legend performed for the crowd. Once inside Veteran’s Memorial Auditorum for the party fundraiser, Vietor remembers the rush to get everything into position.
“Months of preparation went into the chants and the slogans that night as well as the placement of the Obama supporters in the middle of the venue,” Vietor told Radio Iowa, “and there was sort of a coordinated ‘call and response’ chant that went back and forth.”
One of the hallmarks of these annual party functions is referred to as the “sign wars,” with campaign volunteers rushing to plaster the venue with the name of their candidate. In 2003, Howard Dean’s Iowa campaign manager Jeani Murray was part of one of the most spectacular feats in Iowa sign war history. Three massive banners were unfurled from the top to the bottom of the balcony in Vet’s Auditorium.
“One said, ‘WIN.’ One said, ‘WITH.’ And one said, “DEAN,” Murray explained during an interview with Radio Iowa. “When he spoke, we rolled them out over the full sections.”
Murray said, as it was back in 2003, this year’s event is the last big “hurrah” before the Caucuses.
“All of these candidates can get together and show their organizational ‘oomph’ before the final push,” Murray said. “It can really put some people in the spotlight of their organization (and) candidate’s skills and the campaign they’re running and it can also be a spot where people start to see the steam really coming out of folks’ balloons.”
During the 1987 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Al Gore used his speech to criticize the Caucuses as too tilted to the party’s liberal wing. Phil Roeder was the Iowa Democratic Party’s communications director in 1987.
“He was never doing particularly well in Iowa back then anyway,” Roeder told Radio Iowa, “and so he was kind of looking for an excuse to get out (of Iowa) and try the ‘Super Tuesday’ strategy in the south.”
Gore won Iowa’s Caucuses in his second campaign for the White House. Murray, who was working for Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell at the time, remembers Gore’s “stay and fight” mantra during Gore’s 1999 “JJ” dinner speech.
“(Gore) walked away from the podium and he gave kind of kind of a ‘pep talk’ style speech before those were popular,” Murray said. “It kind of humanized Vice President Gore.”
Another former vice president, Walter Mondale, holds the distinction of winning the last Iowa Democratic Party “straw poll.”
“Democrats used to have straw polls at these big events and after the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner of 1983, the DNC outlawed, if you, straw polls as a waste of time and resources,” Joe Shannahan, a Democrat who attended the 1983 event, told Radio Iowa.
Eight years later, Shannahan was the Iowa Democratic Party’s communications director when a blizzard thinned the crowd for the 1991 JJ Dinner.
“We ended up giving away thousands of meals to local homeless shelters,” Shannahan said.
The 1991 Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner was the only time all the Democratic Party’s candidates attended an Iowa event. Iowa native and then U.S. Senator Tom Harkin was running for president at the time and Harkin handily won the 1992 Iowa Caucuses.