As Caucus Night Nears, Viable Options Dwindle

Biden, Sanders, Booker, Steyer photos by Julie Fleming

By Pat Rynard

January 6, 2020

There was a time, back in late October, where it looked like we were headed toward an absolute cluster on caucus night. No less than 15 candidates had sizable field teams in the state and were visiting often, putting together bases of support across the state regardless of whether they were at 1% or 20% in the polls. Though many would end up non-viable in most precincts, they would still have a real presence almost everywhere.

That would have been a mess, if for no other reason the challenge of finding 15 corners in a room and the prospect of a truly wild realignment period.

The night of February 3 is still shaping up to be chaotic, just much less so now.

Along with several credible contenders departing the race in the past two months, a few more appear to be shifting their focus solely to New Hampshire. Other candidates remain despite their campaign’s full collapse.

Tulsi Gabbard has her contingent of anti-war, outsider-type voters everywhere in the country, including in Iowa. But she hasn’t appeared in Iowa since October, instead spending the vast majority of her time in New Hampshire, a place where the crossover independent vote could buoy her to a surprise showing.

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Michael Bennet did a big push in Iowa back in the mid-fall, but he too has diverted his focus to New Hampshire. He’s in the middle of a 50-town hall journey in the state, they’re fundraising specifically for New Hampshire advertising, and at least some of their Iowa staff have moved there. While Gabbard never built up a sizable Iowa operation, Bennet had over 20 people here at one point and was putting together some notable endorsement groups.

Meanwhile, Deval Patrick didn’t come back after his initial trip here, and Michael Bloomberg is skipping the first four states altogether.

There’s good reason to focus on New Hampshire at this point if you’re struggling with money or attention. The 15% viability threshold in most Iowa precincts could wipe out any underperforming candidate. In New Hampshire, a surprise 7% showing could get you some new media attention. It’s much harder to get that in Iowa.

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Marianne Williamson may actually would have found a few pockets in Iowa where she could hit 15% viability, mostly in Fairfield, but laying off her entire staff means her volunteers will have to manage themselves.

Add all that to the exits from Julian Castro, Steve Bullock, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, all of whom had bases of support and infrastructure in Iowa, and we’ve got a much more manageable caucus night.

By Starting Line’s count, just eight candidates remain with the following:

  • A serious Iowa ground game, with the ability to recruit precinct captains and caucus night volunteers.
  • Is still traveling to Iowa frequently.
  • Significant advertising investment on TV, online and in the mail.
  • Has enough grassroots interest and support.

Let’s take a look at how these remaining candidates break down.

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Fighting For First

For most of the past six months, only four candidates have consistently hit double-digit support in Iowa and have been in serious contention for first place: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The same remains true today, with the recent CBS News poll showing Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders tied for first at 23% each, with Warren not too far behind at 16%.

All four have assembled massive field organizations, with Sanders focused the most on producing huge turnout from first-time caucus-goers. Every precinct should have some manner of well-organized group for all four.

But if none of these candidates suddenly break away from the pack at the end, it’s very likely that none of them will be viable in every precinct around the state. Depending on where their strengths and weaknesses are among rural/urban/suburban and blue-collar/white-collar support, the key to coming in first will be who makes the most of precincts where they’re viable. As in, who brings the most people to their corner during realignment to stack delegates.

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Quickly Moving Up

The person with the most momentum in Iowa right now is Amy Klobuchar, making the most of recent candidate departures and appealing well to the still-undecided crowd. Her Midwest electability message and more-moderate positions are winning over Democrats looking for a reliable nominee that doesn’t have the drawbacks of some of the leading contenders. She’s also quickly expanding her already-experienced Iowa team.

But she was still only at 7% in the CBS News poll, with now less than a month to go until the caucus. Klobuchar is headed on the right track, the question is just if there’s enough time left to fully capitalize on it. She’ll benefit from being a part of the smaller debate stage in January. A Senate impeachment trail, however, could hinder her campaigning more than others.

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In Position To Strike

Time is very quickly running out for candidates who are still touting their “potential” for an upset. These candidates may have advertising dollars and decent-sized field teams, but they need an extra spark to not get wiped out on caucus night.

Cory Booker has had an inverse amount of endorsement and activist support compared to his polling numbers. He’ll have some of the most experienced caucus activists in the state leading his corners in many precincts, the question is just if there will be enough other supporters in the room to hit viability.

For everyone outside the top four, the strategy right now will be finding the precincts around the state where you’re most likely to reach viability, abandoning the ones where there’s no chance, and hoping for a last-minute moment to boost you statewide at the end. Booker’s Iowa team is probably the most skilled at doing that caucus math to figure out where their best targets are.


Meanwhile, Tom Steyer has quietly built up a rather large field team across the state, and he’s been drawing “still-in-it”-sized crowds at his events. He’s blanketed the state with non-stop advertising since the summer and is pitching an outsider persona to rank-and-file Democrats fed up with Trump. His self-financing will carry him into Super Tuesday, but he still needs a decent showing in the early states.

Andrew Yang is a big wild card. He has the money to heavily advertise, which he is, and has a unique pool of outsider/anti-establishment voters that could show up to caucus organically. His Iowa operation got built up much later than others, though, and it seems like his underlying base of support isn’t concentrated in obvious places to focus on for viability. But Yang himself has been campaigning extensively in Iowa lately, capitalizing on new interest in him after he stayed on the debate stage.

For all these candidates, watch for last-minute deals to send non-viable supporters to each other on caucus night.

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Looking To Get On The Board

Let’s add one more, in part to make the point of those who have left the Iowa campaign trail likely won’t get any support. Don’t be surprised if you see John Delaney’s face pop up on the results board on caucus night, even if it’s right at the end. His team is embarking on a hyper-focused push in small, rural precincts in January, the type of places where you only need maybe a dozen voters to reach viability. Although he hasn’t run any TV ads lately and lost a good chunk of his Iowa staff in the fall, he still built up enough good will during his long campaign and is continue to campaign in person here.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 1/6/19

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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