As the old Iowa Caucus saying goes, once the Pumpkin Spice Lattes go on sale, it’s decision time for Iowans. Or, wait, is the traditional dividing line Labor Day?
Well, anyway, the point is that we’ve clearly moved into a new, more serious phase of the presidential race. We’re well past the “early” stage, voters have tuned in, many of the most engaged activists have already chosen a side and time has very nearly run out for any candidate who hasn’t “broken out” yet.
About half of Iowans may yet wait to make their decision until a month or two out from caucus night, but if you haven’t established yourself as a formidable Iowa contender by now, you won’t even be in the discussion then.
Just who ends up with those top three tickets out of Iowa come February 3 is still completely up in the air right now. Here’s the key dynamics to watch as we move forward into the fall.
Who Dare Attack Warren?
Though only a few polls may show her with an Iowa lead, Elizabeth Warren is very clearly barreling her way to the top of the pack here. Her superior ground game, extensive travel in the state and broad appeal has most political watchers in Iowa viewing her as the real front-runner here — for now.
At some point, other candidates will need to slow Warren down lest they want to watch her run away with the first two states. But while Warren took some hits last year before she even announced, she’s largely gone unscathed for months this year as most other candidates focus their fire on Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. Others who started to rise, like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, got their fair share of criticism too.
When you look at the underlying numbers in many polls, Warren’s personal positive ratings tower above the rest of the field. That will put her competitors in a very tricky situation once they feel the need to stall her momentum.
Of note: the barrage of negative TV ads from conservative groups attacking Medicare for All appears to be having some effect, even among Democratic caucus-goers, so there’s an avenue there on Warren.
For That Matter, Will Negative Ads Backfire In This Cycle?
In past caucuses, going nuclear on your opponent in Iowa was a risky gamble. During the 2004 caucus, front-runners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt blasted each other into oblivion on the airwaves, allowing John Kerry and John Edwards to rise up and take first and second place.
But there’s two reasons the dynamics may be different this time.
For one, Democrats are looking for someone tough enough to defeat Donald Trump. Showing that you can draw blood, even from your fellow Democrats, may be a positive sign of strength, not an intra-party turn-off. For another, if it’s multiple people going after the Democratic front-runner, rather than a personally nasty, one-on-one back-and-forth, it may not be as individually distasteful. As with everything this cycle, this huge field really confounds predictions.
Can Sanders Turn Out An Army?
Sanders is locked into a my-way-or-the-highway approach in his 2020 campaign. Unlike fellow progressive Warren, who has focused on appealing to a broader swath of the party, Sanders seems happy with his far-left base. The only way to win in that situation, then, is to bring out a lot of new people into the process.
He did that to a good extent in 2016 when he caught fire about a month out from the caucus, though he was also boosted by many anti-Clinton voters. Sanders’ campaign has a lot more time, money and preparation to figure out how to boost the outsider vote ever higher this year.
We won’t know if it’s successful until caucus night, but how large his crowd sizes look in the months ahead will tell us something.
Do Candidates Reassess Their Investment After The Virtual Caucus Fail?
The Iowa Democratic Party pledged last week to still work on a way to allow for non-present participation at the caucus after the DNC nixed their phone-in virtual idea. But it’s very hard to imagine how they can create a whole new process, get approval, build it out and give the campaigns enough heads-up so they can strategize around it.
Although the IDP has made strides in making the in-person caucus experience easier and simpler, if there’s no way to turn out people who simply can’t attend that way, some campaigns may reassess their investments in the state. Candidates who aim to expand the electorate made real financial decisions with the early states based on the idea there’d be a non-present option. They could make new decisions with these rules.
More importantly than that, it gives candidates an on-message excuse if they come up short here. “There were a lot of people who couldn’t caucus tonight, despite the very large turnout,” Hillary Clinton said on caucus night in 2008. Obviously, you still have to win somewhere, but the embarrassment of performing poorly in Iowa could be lessened ever so slightly now.
Which Of The Front-Runners Barnstorm The State?
Warren traveled extensively through Iowa early in the year. Pete Buttigieg has ramped up his travel here lately. But we’ve yet to see anyone in the upper tier of candidates commit so fully to Iowa that they’re barnstorming every rural county they can, spending nearly half their time in any given month here, as other candidates have done in past caucus cycles.
That kind of investment can really pay off when you’ve got national and grassroots excitement behind you, but it also essentially means you’re putting all your eggs into the Iowa basket. How intensely will Joe Biden fight for his lead in Iowa after acknowledging these past few days he may lose here? Will Buttigieg go all-out in the early Midwest state? Basically, who needs Iowa more than the other early states to maintain their chances?
Does Buttigieg Pair Caucus Veterans With The Enthusiasm?
Buttigieg is drawing incredible crowd sizes in Iowa, pulling in about 800 in Iowa City for an office opening just yesterday. The organic support for him is very real, but what he lacks — publicly, anyway — is the kind of long endorsement lists of experienced Iowa activists and leaders that other Democrats have racked up. You still need veteran Iowa volunteers in the room on caucus night to organize your supporters, so it’ll be interesting to see how Buttigieg’s newly-expanded field team builds that organization up.
What Happens When That Booker Breakout Occurs?
Cory Booker has several chances to really break out, as most expect him to — at the Steak Fry, Fall Dinner or any of the remaining debates this year. His ground game is ready to capitalize on it, but how much time will Booker himself spend in Iowa once it happens? Just how high does he need to finish in the Iowa Caucus to propel him on to a South Carolina win?
Do We Get Another Big Round Of Dropouts? And Who Benefits?
It’s a little surprising that we did not get more dropouts after it was clear who wasn’t making the second debates. Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard may yet get into the October debate, but the other candidates who missed them need a huge organic moment to launch themselves onto the debate stage.
The lack of a mass drop-out is damaging to those candidates who have a real Iowa operation, are currently polling very low and have some money to spend, like Steve Bullock, Julian Castro and John Delaney. That collection of 1%s could combine to put someone into a noteworthy 3% or 4%. But as long as news stories and polling surveys still list out 20 names, it makes it difficult for caucus-goers to consider the lesser-known candidates.
When Do Iowans Stop Showing Up For Struggling Candidates?
Grinding it out in Iowa to a victory is one of those easier said than done things. Without at least some momentum nationally this late into the game, it eventually gets difficult to draw respectable crowds for some of the struggling candidates. When you only have a small handful of people showing up at events, it’s harder for a candidate to convince themselves in their own head that, no, we’re going to turn this campaign around any moment now. That’s when you should really start to see the mass drop-outs.
by Pat Rynard