CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Iowa Democrats are kicking off the presidential primary Monday with 11 candidates vying for the party’s coronation in Milwaukee to challenge President Donald Trump this fall.
The Democratic primary has developed a reputation for turbulence with more than 20 candidates at one point all competing for Iowa’s blessing for the subsequent phases of the Democratic primary. Iowa Democrats are set to make their final decision tonight on who they think is best equipped to accomplish their unifying goal of toppling Trump after a divisive primary over whether the party ought to move left or farther left.
According to Real Clear Politics’ latest aggregate of polls, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders holds an edge over the rest of the field with nearly 24 percent support as the result of a late surge, despite the senator’s absence in Washington dealing with the Senate impeachment trial.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is holding onto a strong second place with just more than 20 percent support, while former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg comes next with nearly 16 percent and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnering nearly 15 percent.
The polls, however, merely provide a glimpse into what Iowans are thinking, as many remain undecided going into tonight’s caucuses. According to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, 54 percent of likely caucusgoers reported still being persuadable for one candidate or another just days before the state’s caucus.
The indecisive mood among voters was echoed throughout the state, where candidates drew crowds with seemingly just as many voters attending as reporters.
This is the second campaign event I’ve been to in as many days where there are as many members of the press as attendees. At Ritual Cafe in Des Moines now for an event w Jane Sanders, and the cameras keep pouring through the door. pic.twitter.com/FQbZwJ5UQu
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) January 31, 2020
While the polls saw one thing, the results may show something entirely different as caucusgoers’ second choice will play a role in determining the outcome.
Under the rules for Iowa Democratic Party caucuses, a candidate must secure at least 15 percent of the vote in any given caucus to be considered “viable” and continue to the second round of voting. That means as lower-tier candidates become non-viable after the first round of voting, their support will bolster some candidates more than others in a scenario likely to shake things up.
With 11 candidates still in the race, many voters said they felt paralyzed by the wide array of choices available. They are bombarded with ads appearing on their televisions and doorsteps.
“The problem is, at this point in time we do have a very good slate of candidates,” said pastor Paul Evans while attending a town hall for Buttigieg. “It’s hard to pick one that’s going to be the one that you want when you have that big a slate.”
John Deeth, the caucus organizer for the Johnson County Democratic Party that calls home to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, said Democrats were united behind one goal: “How to beat Trump. That’s it.”
“I’ll support whoever gets the nomination, whether it’s Biden, Sanders, Warren, whoever it may be,” Beckie McAreavy declared, despite planning on caucusing for Buttigieg on Monday. The race in Iowa then, remains a jump ball with multiple candidates expected to declare victory no matter who takes home a first-place finish.
Why Iowa Matters
Since Iowa became the critical first-in-the-nation nominating contest in 1972, the Hawkeye state has become a key predictor of choosing the Democratic presidential nominee.
There have been seven highly competitive Democratic primaries since Iowa became the first destination for votes cast in presidential elections. In each, the winner of the Iowa contest went on to clinch the party’s nomination. Jimmy Carter won the caucuses in 1976 and 1980, Walter Mondale won them in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
By comparison, Iowa’s sister nominating state that also plays a role in narrowing the early presidential field, New Hampshire, has only selected the winning candidate in five of the seven competitive primaries since 1972. The winner in Iowa scores not just delegates but glowing media coverage, which leads to higher fundraising numbers joined by a fresh surge of support in the states that follow.
Don’t Expect a Single Winner Tonight
This year’s Democratic primary has become particularly turbulent, with several high-powered candidates who were expected to do well dropping out of the race before the new year.
Hot off a competitive Senate race against Ted Cruz in Texas, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke once looked as if he had the star power to pull off an upset takeover of the Democratic Party. In April last year, O’Rourke was polling in third place above more than a dozen other candidates with nearly 10 percent support. But seven months later, O’Rourke dropped out on Nov. 1.
The same story was repeated with other candidates. California Sen. Kamala Harris entered the race as a force to be reckoned with, skyrocketing in the polls following the first debate in June after blasting Biden over forced busing. In July, Harris eclipsed Sanders for second place behind Biden, only to see her support steadily fade for the remainder of her time in the primary. By December, Harris was out of the race.
The same routine was repeated with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who for years had groomed their presidential ambitions in the Senate. Gillibrand ended her presidential bid in August and Booker made his exit earlier this month. Seventeen Democratic candidates have now already dropped out of the primary.
With 11 candidates still remaining, a top place finish will land any candidate an avalanche of positive press coverage to bolster his or her campaign with the necessary support and resources. If Biden wins, the primary could begin to wrap up quicker than expected, but if another candidate is able to pull an upset in a state known for its unpredictability in its caucuses, the primary is likely to remain competitive for the months to come.
Michael Bloomberg Could Still Shake Things Up
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a late entrance into the race in December, vowing to skip the early nominating contest and pivoting his focus to the 16 states holding their primaries on March 3 dubbed “Super Tuesday.”
The billionaire businessman with a Forbes-estimated net worth of $61.5 billion is self-financing his campaign, and already poured $466 million on his presidential ambitions. In other words, Bloomberg’s campaign is operating on unlimited resources, allowing the financier to bypass Iowa and New Hampshire altogether.
Bloomberg is now polling in fourth place at more than 8 percent nationwide, according to Real Clear Politics’ latest aggregate, and is drawing prominent endorsements from mayors and celebrities such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and “Judge Judy.” Yet the former New York City mayor has been absent from the debate stage, leaving Bloomberg protected from criticism as the other candidates take aim at their fellow Democratic rivals performing well in Iowa.
Once the focus of the primary enters Super Tuesday, states forcing candidates to compete with Bloomberg, the billionaire’s strength in the contest is likely to be tested.
Candidates Make Final Pitch to Undecided Electorate
The Senate impeachment trial trapped leading Sens. Sanders, Warren, and Amy Klobuchar in Washington, leaving Iowa wide open for Biden, Buttigieg, and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang to make their closing arguments to caucusgoers in person.
At a Buttigieg town hall an hour’s drive north of Cedar Rapids, approximately a dozen attendees told The Federalist they were still unsure of who they were planning to support. After all, Buttigieg’s poll numbers have fallen from a first-place frontrunner status just a month ago to a distant third behind Biden and Sanders.
Buttigieg’s short remarks given to about 150 Iowans gathered in Independence, Iowa stuck to the former mayor’s talking points: criticizing the Trump administration’s aggressive policy towards Iran and calling for bipartisanship while charging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos with not believing in public education.
“The next Secretary of Education ought to be someone who believes in public education,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg also touted his commitment to combat climate change and call for stricter gun laws, and refrained from attacking his opponents.
“We also have to turn [climate change solution] into a national project. Climate is too important for it to be just a political, partisan football. It’d be like if the two parties couldn’t agree on whether it was a good idea to treat cancer,” Buttigieg said.
Yang continued reaching out to voters in his signature style, cracking just as many jokes as references to complex policy solutions with his town hall audiences. Yang paraded his plan for a universal basic income and preached campaign finance reform with “democracy dollars,” which would allow voters to donate to campaigns with government subsidies.
“My plan is to give every American voter 100 ‘Democracy Dollars,’ that you can use on any candidate or campaign you want. Essentially you think of it like a voucher,” Yang said.
Yang also explained his vision for a bureaucracy closer connected with American society by moving agency headquarters outside of the D.C. beltway. Yang’s plan to “distribute the swamp” has also been proposed by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
“Donald Trump said he wanted to ‘drain the swamp,’ I wanna do something a little bit different. I want to distribute the swamp,” Yang said. “Why would you employ hundreds of thousands of government workers in the most expensive city in your country? Why wouldn’t you move some of those jobs to Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa? You would save billions of dollars immediately.”