Iowa Caucus Race Comes Into Focus After Exhausting Week

As the dust starts to settle following a grueling, 20-plus candidate week in Iowa, let’s take an overdue look at the interesting lessons learned from all the activity. The State Fair gauntlet began with Joe Biden’s visit last Thursday and ended with Pete Buttigieg’s trip yesterday (though Seth Moulton still remains for Saturday).

It’s Not If Cory Booker Breaks Out In Iowa, It’s When

Anyone who’s seen the reception that Cory Booker receives on the campaign trail in Iowa has wondered why on earth he’s still at 1% in most polls. Like several other candidates, he seems to suffer from the big problem with such a crowded field: voters really, really like him, they just happen to really, really like someone else a little bit more.

That may soon change, however.

It was striking to see Booker draw one of the largest crowds at the Iowa State Fair, surpassed only by those for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. His somber yet hopeful speech on gun violence and hatred that ended in a rallying cry at the Wing Ding was a standout moment, adding to his recent Charlestown address that drew national praise.

Iowa politics watchers have been expecting Booker to break out for many months now, though it’s important to see that the enthusiasm and interest is still there this much time later. Sometimes potential comes and go without a major moment, but Booker’s underlying momentum appears to only be growing. Recent polling in early states shows him starting to climb solidly into the middle tier of candidates.

Most importantly, Booker has a talented Iowa Caucus operation that got organized on the ground early on, so he can fully capitalize on any movement. They already have an extensive list of Iowa endorsers, including the most legislators and many of the best local activists who know how to organize their neighbors.

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Kamala Harris Touts Her Commitment To Iowa

It’s always amusing when the national analysis catches up to the state news. Kamala Harris went all-in for the Iowa Caucus back in early July when she bulked up her Iowa field staff to one of the largest in the field. This week was the big, public celebration of that investment, with Harris criss-crossing the state in a gigantic campaign bus for five days, telling anyone who’d listen how important Iowa is to her plans (we wrote that up, too, though we also asked the more intriguing question: if she’ll do the same in the general — she said yes).

Harris’ Iowa team now numbers around 65 paid staffers, putting her in the top three largest organizations in the state. She’s got some ground to make up on Elizabeth Warren and Booker’s operation, but she probably doesn’t need a first-place finish in February to give her the boost needed as she heads into South Carolina. A top three showing may suffice.

Cooling In The Polls, Still Hot On The Trail

Pete Buttigieg may have fallen off of his polling highs from the Spring, but it certainly doesn’t look that way out on the campaign trail. The Sound Bend mayor received some of the loudest cheers as he took the stage last Friday night, and he turned out about 500 people in Burlington just this evening. His State Fair visit was one of the most successful of the field, one where he looked very much at ease and enjoying the retail politicking that makes the Iowa Caucus what it is. Buttigieg seems like one of the best candidates at locking in support when he meets people in person, so if he commits a larger percentage of this time in the last half of the caucus race to Iowa visits, he should do well.

He spent a good part of the first half of the year on fundraising (something which limited his days in Iowa), creating some eye-popping totals in the 2nd Quarter report. He has more than enough money to match or outspend anyone in the field in paid communications this Fall and Winter. Combine that with an excited base of support, and Buttigieg should remain a top contender no matter where he stands in the horserace polls.

Still, Everything’s Wide Open

No matter who’s rising and falling here, the entire caucus race still feels very fluid. The only limiting factor to any other candidate’s potential is whether they have the field game in place now to take advantage of any momentum. We covered the numbers of everyone’s field operation here, and you can see that the candidates with sizable Iowa staffs are: Biden, Harris, Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders, Booker, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Bullock and Delaney.

Tom Steyer may yet hire up fully here, but if you don’t have a few dozen organizers in Iowa by Labor Day, it’s going to be difficult to build the precinct-by-precinct organization needed to win or do well.

Keep An Eye On Those Who Pull In New People

There’s several ways to over-perform and surprise on caucus night: 1) Have a great ground game that boosts your result several percentage points above your polling, 2) Turn out a lot of new people who aren’t registering in polls (this can be a result of the ground game, but can also be organic momentum), and/or 3) Catch fire right at the end.

Bernie Sanders’ national and early state polling has declined lately, but writing him off based on that would be foolish. He had possibly the largest crowd of all at the Iowa State Fair (or at least very close in size to Warren’s). Looking around, you could spot a lot of Iowans who are not normally engaged in the political process.

Tulsi Gabbard also drew a lot of interest at the Fair. She’s very unlikely to end up in the top five on caucus night, but she could perform better than expected.

The Press Will Savage Biden (And Any Democrat, Really)

When you get too many national reporters in the same room, it’s almost like they lose their collective minds. Joe Biden had a rough week in the news after a verbal screw-up at the Asian & Latino Coalition event where he said, “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He corrected it, and several people in the room told Starting Line they knew what he was attempting to say and weren’t offended.

How the media handled the headlines of his gaffe, however, was downright unprofessional.

“Joe Biden: Poor kids are just as bright as white kids,” read the CNN headline.

“Biden says ‘poor kids’ are as bright as ‘white kids,'” blared the Washington Post.

If you did not know any context of what happened, you might see that headline come up in your social media news feed and assume that Biden literally meant to say that and views the world in a way where he associates poor with non-white.

Now, it is most certainly a problem that Biden screwed the line up, adding to the sense that he commits too many unforced errors on the campaign trail. But news outlets should describe it as such.

A more accurate headline came from Vox: “Joe Biden accidentally said ‘poor kids’ are just as bright as ‘white kids.'” Here, it explains that Biden did something foolish, but it also makes clear it wasn’t what he meant to say.

Meanwhile, we’re dealing with controversies with papers like the New York Times headlining what Donald Trump says in an official statement that completely ignores what he really means on the subject from his incendiary tweets.

It was all a reminder that the press just plain treats Democratic candidates differently than Trump. That’s especially the case with Biden’s verbal miscues, and will probably be no different with any other Democrat who becomes the front-runner at some point.

Warren Still Most Likely To Win

Even with all the tantalizing new developments and the subtle, behind-the-scenes momentum changes, Elizabeth Warren remains the candidate most likely to win the Iowa Caucus. There’s not really much more to say about it than that.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 8/14/19

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