In politics, a public event at which a big group of political candidates all speak.
The term comes from the acting world, where a “cattle call” is a massive audition to fill a part in a movie or play. Merriam Webster notes that the term was first used in 1952.
The event serves as an audition for the part of presidential candidate. A cattle call allows all the candidates in a race to make their stump speech, to be heard, and to get the media exposure they so badly need. It’s also good practice for the advance team.
Typically, a cattle call takes place early in the election cycle, in a state with an early primary contest like New Hampshire or Iowa. Cattle calls are especially common in Iowa, where voters traditionally put a lot of value in being able to meet the candidates face to face. The events are usually organized by advocates of specific causes, or by political party organizations.
Tim Albrecht, a long-time GOP strategist in Iowa, explained the benefits of the cattle call this way: “You have a megaphone from the inside out. There’s no other place these candidates can go where they will see 200 media confined to one location. That’s potentially 200 stories they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. With these kinds of events, it’s a very low bar to participate and to even be invited.”
In theory, a cattle call gives candidates the chance to distinguish themselves from their rivals and stand out from the crowd. In practice, this can be trickier than expected. When the field is crowded, candidates can start to blur into one another, at least in the mind of the audience. The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich, a veteran of many Iowa cattle calls, has grumbled that the events tend to be “mind numbing,” with hours of speeches and little opportunity to get to know the candidates.
In June 2019, 19 Democratic candidates took the stage in Iowa to speak to prospective voters. As Time Magazine reported, most of the audience seemed to have trouble telling the candidates apart. “When are we going to start seeing some real contrast?” an Iowa Democratic operative reportedly complained, adding, “Somebody’s gotta throw a punch.”
Cattle call is often used in a slightly negative way, implying that an event is not very serious. During the 2019 primary season, for example, The Washington Times ran an op-ed describing one of the Democratic debates as little more than a cattle call. The piece argued that not only was the stage crowded, but the candidates failed to stand out from each other:
“The goal in a real debate is to arrive at a conclusion which best solves a problem. This is what is so frustrating about these badly constructed cattle calls; either no one proposes a workable solution to a real problem or the problem is ignored altogether.”
It’s worth noting that years before “cattle call” had its current political meaning, it was a hit song recorded by Eddy Arnold, full of nostalgia for the cowboy’s way of life. And before that, of course, it was just a way of calling in the cows.