South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, started 32 years ago as a music festival. This weekend it became a political confab, as nine Democratic presidential hopefuls descended on the central Texas city to make their pitch to convention-goers.
One by one, the candidates took the stage in Austin, most in one-on-one, hour-long interviews with journalists at a theatre better known for rollicking music concerts than high-minded political discussions.
How did they do? Here’s a look at the biggest ideas and biggest weaknesses of those who showed up – and how they were received.
In a large and growing Democratic presidential field, Amy Klobuchar is trying to lay claim to the moderate middle. But that can be a tough sell, particularly when many of her rivals are touting big-ticket progressive goals like universal healthcare, free college education and aggressive attempts to address income inequality.
“I’m being honest, and I think you want honesty,” she says.
If the goal for Democrats is to find a candidate who can win the Midwest swing states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 – places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – Ms Klobuchar may be an attractive choice. Her big idea: She offered a number of proposals during her time on stage – bringing broadband to rural areas, lowering prescription drug prices and some kind of transactional tax on technology companies that sell information about their users. When I asked her to name her top idea, she opted for one she hadn’t mentioned – passing a law automatically registering all citizens to vote when they turn 18.
Her biggest obstacle: Raising the massive amount of money to fund a presidential campaign was her biggest obstacle, she told me. Allegations that she has been verbally abusive towards her Senate staff have dogged the early days of her campaign, however, and threaten to become a recurring distraction. “I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for people who work for me, and most importantly I have high expectations for this country,” she said. “I can always do better.”
Reception: Moderation and practicality may eventually win support, but they didn’t get people out of their chairs here.
The Massachusetts senator arrived at the South by Southwest conference one day after announcing her plan to use the government’s antitrust powers to break up big technology companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple. Say what you will about her candidacy, but that took guts.
At the beginning of her panel, moderator Anand Giridharadas of Time magazine asked current and former employees of the aforementioned companies in the audience to stand up and face the senator as she explained her proposal.
She compared the current system to a baseball league where participants could either be an umpire or team – but not both. Companies like Amazon, which are marketplace platforms but also participants that use the information they glean from transactions to sell their own products, have an unfair, innovation-stifling advantage.
Her big idea: Ms Warren’s campaign sometimes seems fashioned entirely out of big ideas, with her tech-company break-up plan only being the latest. She’s also proposed a universal childcare programme and a tax on the wealth of multimillionaires. Personal assets over $50m would be subject to an annual 2% assessment, she says, while those over $1bn would be hit with a 3% tax.
Her biggest obstacle: Saturday’s hour-long interview was classic Warren – a mix of history lesson, economic theory and academic research. On the campaign stump it can be a bit clunky, but in a one-on-one format it shines. No one in the Democratic field can talk nuts-and-bolts of policy like her. If a campaign for president was a series of in-depth lectures on issues of importance, she might be running away with the nomination. The biggest obstacle for her is that it’s not.
Reception: Ms Warren came to Austin to bury big tech companies, not to praise them. Despite this, she had the best reception of any politician at South by Southwest not named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Washington governor launched his presidential campaign just over a week ago and has been focused laser-like on the issue of climate change ever since. “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change,” he said, “but we are the last generation that can do something about it.”
He noted that a recent Iowa poll showed that the environment was the top issue for Democratic voters, tied with healthcare. With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal helping to push the topic to centre stage, Mr Inslee could be in position to capitalise on the attention.
His big idea: Clearly environmental action is the central thrust of Mr Inslee’s campaign, although he says he has no one preferred policy “silver bullet”, but rather wants a multifaceted “silver buckshot” approach. One big idea he threw his weight behind in Austin was eliminating the legislative blocking tactic known as the filibuster in the US Senate.
“Anyone who says they want to do anything of any significance in the next several years has to be in favour of ending the filibuster or they’re not serious,” Mr Inslee told me. “So if you say you’re serious about climate change and believe that it’s an existential threat to the nation, but you’re not categorically against the filibuster, then you’re dooming the United States to failure.”
His biggest challenge: Mr Inslee is starting in the race as a little-known governor from a state in the far corner of America. If he succeeds in raising his visibility by pushing the environmental issue, his biggest challenge will be using that attention to sell Democratic voters on the rest of his progressive record in Washington – on issues like marijuana legalisation, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage, abolishing the death penalty and expanding healthcare coverage.
Reception: He had by far the worst time slot – a 9:30am start on the morning after clocks moved forward an hour. Talk of impending climate disaster kept those who did show up engaged in the conversation, however.
The former housing and urban development secretary was reportedly on Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential short list in 2016. He was passed over for Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, but now he’s angling for the top job. Or, perhaps, he’s trying to make a more compelling case for the second spot on the 2020 nominee’s ticket.
He said his goal is to make the US the smartest, healthiest, fairest and most prosperous nation on earth. Maybe it’s his response to “make America great again”, although it will be considerably harder to print on a hat.
His big idea: In an interview earlier in the day, he criticised fellow candidate Bernie Sanders for his willingness to write “big cheques” for things like healthcare or education, but being unwilling to consider reparations to African-Americans descended from slaves. The US constitution mandates that Americans be compensated if their property is taken, he noted, so why shouldn’t people who were treated as property themselves also receive compensation?
“I’ve long believed that the country should consider reparations because of the atrocity of slavery,” Mr Castro told me. “I believe that we’re never going to fully heal as a country from the racial divide until we’ve addressed the tremendous wrong that was done with slavery.”
He said that, as president, he would set up a commission to determine an inclusive way to address “the best path forward”. It will be up to those who support reparations to decide whether a “commission” is the kind of bold move they had in mind.
His biggest challenge: While Mr Castro is staking out a reparations position to the left of most of the Democratic field, he’s spent most of his political career talking and acting like a moderate. On Sunday he identified himself as a “progressive” – in favour of universal healthcare, universal pre-kindergarten and tuition-free college.
“I don’t think that with any one candidate you’re going to consistently find them in one place,” he said. That may not be enough to convince progressives he is legitimately one of their own.
Reception: Mr Castro had a bit of a home field advantage in Austin, as he is the former mayor of nearby San Antonio. He isn’t a lively public speaker, but was more than comfortable with the interview format.
The geologist turned brewpub owner turned politician turned up at South by Southwest just three days after he formally launched his presidential campaign with a speech in Denver. The former Colorado governor echoed similar themes in Austin on Saturday, preaching his ability to work with Republicans to advance progressive priorities like gun control, environmental regulation and healthcare coverage expansion.
His biggest idea: During his hour-long interview Mr Hickenlooper said that the 2020 presidential race would be a “campaign of ideas”.
So, after his talk, I asked him which ideas set him out from the crowd. “I think I’m the one person that demonstrates the idea of action, of actually accomplishing things,” he said.
“Action” isn’t really an idea, I said.
He went on to talk about healthcare, environmental regulation and workforce training. It wasn’t exactly stand-apart-from-the-crowd material.
His biggest challenge: Mr Hickenlooper’s focus on co-operation may have won him political success in Colorado, but it also made him some fierce critics. Some environmentalists, in particular, weren’t all that thrilled that the former oil industry scientist sat down with energy industry executives for friendly negotiations. In one particularly memorable instance, the governor drank a glass of fracking fluid to prove that it didn’t harm humans.
Mr Hickenlooper explained that he was trying to gain their trust – and that the talks led to real regulation of methane emissions. “They’re mad that I did stuff,” he said. “We actually did stuff. So sue me.” They won’t sue him, but they might not vote for him, either.
Reception: Mr Hickenlooper is an affable man, and that came across in his appearance. They have a saying about where nice guys finish, though.
If elected, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would achieve a number of presidential firsts – the youngest president, aged 37, the first mayor elected directly to the White House, the first Afghanistan War veteran and the first openly gay president.
On Sunday at a CNN event, he showed flashes of the charisma that turned heads in the party when he mounted an upstart, although ultimately unsuccessful, bid to be head of the Democratic National Committee in 2017.
In one line that has caught particular attention, he blasted Vice-President Mike Pence, the former governor of his home state.
“How can he allow himself to be the cheerleader for the porn star presidency?” he asked. “Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”
His big idea: Many of the Democrats in the presidential field have endorsed universal government-managed health insurance by expanding to everyone the Medicare programme that provides healthcare for the elderly. Mr Buttigieg didn’t go that far on Sunday night, instead opting for what he called “Medicare for all who want it”. The way he described it, “you take some flavour of Medicare, you make it available on the exchange as a kind of public option, and you invite people to buy into it”.
His biggest obstacle: The possible “first” are also obstacles. He’s young. And the mayor’s office of a small Indiana town, with its small constituency, is an unlikely seat from which to launch a presidential campaign. Mr Buttigieg will be hard-pressed to break through against better-funded, more experienced candidates. Chances are, however, he’ll still be around in politics long after many of them are gone and he thinks his age is a plus. “It allows me to communicate to the country a vision about what our country is going to look like in 2054,” he said. “That’s the year I get to the current age of the current president.”
Reception: “I have rarely seen a candidate make better use of televised town hall,” said former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod. “Crisp, thoughtful and relatable. He’ll be a little less of a long shot tomorrow.”
Political opinion surveys show that most Americans don’t know who Andrew Yang is. Those are the polls that ask about Mr Yang at all, which are few in number.
The technology entrepreneur had a small room in Austin but filled it. And, due to his moderator’s cancelled flight, he had to interview himself. That he managed to pull it off was a testament to his ease at public speaking, which if he manages to make it onto a Democratic debate stage later this year, may turn some heads. He’s developed a loyal online following and has garnered more than 57,000 individual donations – on a pace to hit the 65,000 mark that is one of the Democratic Party’s criteria for qualifying for the first debate.
His big idea: Mr Yang’s entire campaign is centred around one big idea -a universal basic income. He proposes guaranteeing every American a $1,000 monthly payment funded by a value-added tax, which he calls the “freedom dividend.” He says it is necessary to cushion the American public for the coming upheaval created by automation and artificial intelligence.
“This economy is going to go from punitive to savage very quickly,” he says. “The next downturn, the knives are going to come out.” Everyone from call centre operators to truck drivers will be on the chopping block. “There’s no magical realignment that’s going to happen,” he says. A basic income will ease the blow.
His biggest obstacle: To a man with a hammer, every problem can look like a nail. For a one-issue candidate like Mr Yang, the basic income is a salve for all ills. Climate change? A basic income would free people to focus on the environment instead of making ends meet. Small-town decay? The money would let people move back and start businesses. Mr Yang says critics who call his plan socialism get it wrong. The reality, however, is Mr Yang is never going to be elected president. His obstacle is finding a way to get enough attention to inject his income proposal into the conversation. It’s not an impossible goal.
Reception: Yes, we’re grading on a curve here, but the people who showed up for Mr Yang’s event were buying what he was selling. (He was selling free money, of course.)
Former Maryland congressman John Delaney has been running for president since July 2017, but Sunday night – in a cable-televised town hall with audience questions – was his first opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
He did… not bad. He sounded like a polished politician who knew the key to success in this type of forum is to look the questioner in the eye and make a connection. The former technology executive did what he had to make his pitch for moderation and accord. “I don’t think bipartisanship is a dirty word,” he said.
He ticked off six possible areas of common ground he thinks both parties could find if he’s president – a carbon tax; infrastructure spending; criminal justice reform; immigration reform; digital privacy and a new national service programme.
You have to admit, he’s an optimist.
His big idea: As part of his effort to find common ground with political opponents, Mr Delaney promises that as president he would hold nationally televised debates with Congress once every three months. Think of it like question time in the British Parliament, but not as often and (probably) with less creative insults.
His biggest obstacle: Mr Delaney has been campaigning in Iowa for 20 months and still barely registers as a blip in presidential preference polls there. He joked that he was unable to clear the presidential field despite his long head start. Chances are, the field will soon leave him in the dust.
Reception: For an hour on Sunday, Mr Delaney was the star. He got real questions from real voters who treated him like a real contender. No matter what happens from here, he’ll always have Austin.
The 37-year-old Hawaii congresswoman was one of the few congressional supporters of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, but now she’s running against him.
Perhaps the most interesting moment in Ms Gabbard’s Sunday evening town hall was when she was asked whether she is a capitalist. It’s the kind of question every Democratic candidate has faced in the past few days, with varying degrees of success.
“So many of these labels are misused, misunderstood to the point where people don’t have any idea what they mean anymore,” Ms Gabbard said.
The audience applauded. Perhaps they sympathised. Just a day earlier, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a South by Southwest audience that capitalism was “irredeemable”, while elsewhere possible independent candidate Howard Schultz praised capitalism and said to understand socialism you should “look at Venezuela”.
When the terms of the debate can’t even be agreed upon, what’s the chance of a useful answer? Democrats might want to follow the Hawaiian’s lead and avoid trying to answer.
Her big idea: A central part of Ms Gabbard’s campaign has been her call for an end to US-led “regime change wars” – in Syria and Afghanistan. She also condemns runaway military spending as a “new arms race”. As a major in the US Army reserve and a veteran of the Iraq War, Ms Gabbard has a unique perch from which to launch her critique.
Her biggest obstacle: Her foreign policy has also been a source of controversy. In 2017 she met President Bashar Assad in Syria and has questioned the international consensus that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own citizens.
“I served in a war in Iraq, a war that was based on lies,” she said. “I think that the evidence needs to be gathered.” She refused to label Mr Assad as a “war criminal” – a position that sets her well apart from the majority of US politicians and the American people.
Reception: Ms Gabbard had the toughest questions from the town hall audience, which she often dodged despite moderator follow-ups. She had her supporters in the crowd, but many of those present didn’t seem to warm to her.