Anything Could Happen at the Iowa Caucuses

Anything Could Happen at the Iowa Caucuses

Anything Could Happen at the Iowa Caucuses

Talking to Iowans and parsing polls, it’s not only unclear who the winner will be—it’s unclear who will be in the top five.


Des Moines, Iowa—No one knows what’s going to happen here on Monday night at the 2020 caucuses, and there is no better symbol of the chaos than The Des Moines Register announcing it was unable to release its iconic final poll Saturday night. Few Iowans I talked to this weekend predicted the same order of the top three Democrats at the caucuses, or even the same in the top five. “It could be a five-way tie,” Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd told me Saturday afternoon, at a packed Elizabeth Warren rally, hours before the news of the skunked Register poll.

Like most people I’d talked to, Todd had been on a journey—from Senator Cory Booker, who dropped out last month, to Warren. “She’s got nerdy star power, and she’ll bring the party together,” he told me. An hour away, in Waterloo, I met Roger Leistad, a business services professional, who had moved from supporting former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg (who’s still in the race) to former vice president Joe Biden in just the last few days—and now he’s a precinct captain for Biden. “I was really behind Pete for a while, I felt like, ‘Man, he knows his stuff.’ But electability is most important to me, and I think that’s Biden,” he said. Leistad’s wife, who actually volunteered his services as precinct captain, will caucus for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, he thinks. “I like Amy too,” he admitted ruefully. “Anything can happen.”

Back in Cedar Rapids, Karen Knubb got picked from the crowd to ask Warren a question—and her issue was top of mind at the Warren and Biden events I attended Saturday, and with all the voters I talked with in between. “How are you going to unify the party?” she nearly beseeched the Massachusetts senator. “It’s been toxic.” Knubb had caucused for Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and had even been a convention delegate, but she decided “he’s not trying to reach anyone beyond his core group.” So she signed up early to be a precinct captain for Senator Kamala Harris, who dropped out in early December. Knubb said she’d been too “brokenhearted” by Harris’s departure to pick another candidate until just a few days ago. “I always liked Warren, but I didn’t know if she could win. But I like the way she’s reached beyond her supporters to build a coalition.”

Electability, and bringing the party together after what is becoming a bruising primary season: That’s what everyone wanted to talk about on the closing weekend of this long race. Nobody trusted their gut, even about how their own candidate would do; everybody was waiting for the Register poll, a 76-year Iowa tradition: and then, unbelievably, it wasn’t released.

Apparently, one Buttigieg supporter complained to poll administrators that the pollster who called did not read the candidate’s name from a list of choices. “Our campaign received a report from a recipient of the Iowa Poll call, raising concerns that not every candidate was named by the interviewer when asked who they support,” Buttigieg campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said. Although there is no evidence that this happened to more than one person, the Register and its polling partner, CNN, pulled the poll moments before it was to be released Saturday night. “We were unable to ascertain what happened during the respondent’s interview, and cannot determine if this was a single isolated incident,” CNN said in a statement. Longtime pollster Ann Selzer called the decision “heart-wrenching.”

Cue the conspiracy theories. All over Twitter wild ideas flew: Buttigieg is demonstrably sagging in the polls; his campaign didn’t want evidence it had sagged more, some suggested. Some Sanders supporters insisted the poll showed the Vermont socialist surging—and he is, in other polls—so the powers that be had it suppressed. Andrew Yang said it out loud himself: “One of the rumors that we’ve gotten is we did really, really well in that poll.” And Klobuchar officials were said to be quietly seething, convinced the poll would have shown her climbing in her bid to at least finish in the top three.

But as the cliché goes, the only poll that matters happens Monday night, when voters go to caucuses and voice their preference. On the campaign trail with Warren and Biden this weekend, I saw dramatically different campaigns, and candidates making dramatically different pitches.

Elizabeth Warren literally ran into her Saturday Cedar Rapids rally, ending up a bit winded when she got to the mic. She still radiates optimism and energy but, having traveled with her in May, I thought she seemed almost dazed that her year-long marathon had come down to a sprint to the four corners of Iowa this weekend, after the impeachment charade (thanks, corrupt GOP!) kept her, along with Klobuchar and Sanders, off the trail for crucial weeks. “All this year you’ve made me a better candidate,” she told the crowd almost wistfully, at the end of this marathon, “and you will make me a better president.”

Warren was introduced by one of her most powerful surrogates, Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley. The first-term congresswoman, who recently went public with her struggle with alopecia, rocks her baldness the way she rocked her braids. You could feel the crowd surge forward to hear Pressley speak. She addressed them as “movement builders, agitators and resisters…making history every day.” She praised Warren as “empathetic and electable,” doing away with the debate over women’s unique political struggles with three words, and promised the campaign will win because it will “out-work, out-organize and out-last” the others.

Once onstage, Warren did a little of her standard stump bio, “for some who haven’t met me yet.” But she was interrupted by a prankster, part of a comedy duo, who jumped onto the riser and asked Warren to “be my candidate for president,” proffering a ring. He then introduced his comedy partner, out in the crowd, as “an incel” who “just wanted to say his first words to a woman.” An older woman to my left asked me “What’s an incel?” and I explained it was short for “involuntary celibate.” We both wondered if they were some kind of men’s rights hecklers (in fact, they had pranked Biden and Yang already that day). Bemused, Warren handled it well, announced she was keeping the ring, and got the guy quickly off the stage. I thought, not for the first time, that being a college professor is good training for the campaign trail.

With an impending rally in Iowa City, Warren kept her stump speech short but made time for at least eight questions. Her fluidity in policy always keeps crowds rapt, whether she’s discussing the mechanics of her wealth tax, multilevel marketing schemes, the bloated military budget, over-the-counter hearing aids—whatever the audience throws at her. But one part of her pitch is new since I saw her in May: She’s actively reaching out to the supporters of candidates who’ve departed. “I know some of you started out Booker supporters, Kamala supporters, Kirsten [Gillibrand] supporters,” she tells the crowd, noting that former HUD secretary Julián Castro, who also recently dropped out, is one of her best surrogates now.

“As the others had to leave, I was sad. The day Kamala left and said it’s over money we saw a billionaire [Tom Steyer] buy his way onto the debate stage, I was very sorry about that.” That pitch, Karen Knubb said, is why she sees Iowans like her, still mourning other candidates, breaking Warren’s way as the caucuses approach. “I like her passion,” she says, also noting how she deftly “defused” the situation with the prankster.

Off to Iowa City, Warren breaks into an awkward dance to Aretha’s “Respect” as she leaves the stage, proving that she won’t let the critics of her dancing get her down.

Four hours later, in Waterloo, Biden neither dances nor takes questions nor praises his departed rivals. Confronted by the same prankster as Warren, who asked for advice on getting his wife back, Biden insulted the guy. “I’m beginning to see why your wife left you,” he told him, to cheers. His supporters like that about him, the old-school willingness to pop off. Talking about Trump’s dismissing the traumatic brain injuries suffered by at least 50 soldiers following an Iranian attack on an Iraq base as “just headaches,” he gets worked up, citing his late son Beau’s military service. “I don’t know what I would have done if my son was still there,” Biden growls, insinuating he’d have gone after Trump, maybe “take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” the way he’s threatened to before.

We get other old-school Bidenisms in Waterloo, too. He introduces his four granddaughters as “the loves of my life,” which was very sweet, but embarrasses ninth-grader Natalie by saying “the reason I’m running for president is I want Secret Service back,” an apparent reference to deterring boys from chasing the adorable high schooler. OK, Obama once made a similar joke about his daughters and dating, but given Biden’s history, a lot of people chuckled awkwardly afterward—and this was a Biden crowd.

Biden is running on character, as the anti-Trump. He recycles his outrage at Trump’s saying there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the Charlottesville Nazipallooza, which he’s done effectively before—many times before—first, in an opinion piece, then in his campaign kickoff video, and umpteen times on the stump. Here, it just feels tired. Everybody feels tired, not just because the event starts more than an hour late and people are ready to go home for dinner, on this cold February night. This crowd is older and smaller and whiter than Warren’s, although Waterloo has Iowa’s largest black population (around 15 percent). The Union Missionary Baptist Church Crusaders drum line does its best to rev us up, but it only briefly works.

There’s almost no policy in Biden’s speech; at one point, he rattles off “climate change, civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, health care, gun policy,” as a list, with almost no detail about what he’d do on any of them (though he does detail his role in passing Obamacare). Essentially, his pitch comes down to: “Trump knows if I’m the nominee I will beat him like a drum.” And one other thing, his many losses: Biden himself doesn’t dwell on it, though he mentions Beau several times. But Representative Abby Finkenauer does, introducing him, and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack does too, closing out the night.

“He lost his wife and baby daughter to a car crash” just after being elected to the Senate, Finkenauer reminds us. He took office anyway, “knowing he still owed something to his country, community and to his family. That’s the character, those are the values that the current president can’t contend with, and is terrified to face.”

Vilsack makes Biden’s losses personal, talking about the former vice president’s deep kindness when he lost a granddaughter not long ago. He tells us to imagine Biden consoling gun violence victims, or the families of fallen soldiers. He pitches Biden as the consoler in chief. The crowd gets very quiet when Vilsack speaks of all that loss. Even a Biden skeptic has to feel the gulf in character between him and Trump, and feel more warmly toward him for all he has had to endure.

But the former Iowa governor closes oddly, seeming to look past his own state, telling us to remember Biden’s strong (though diminishing) polling lead in places like Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. It’s not necessarily the best case to make in Iowa, as it seems to diminish the state’s role (Iowans tend to hate that), but since electability is on everyone’s minds, maybe it will work.

No one knows. Most people believe the following: Sanders is surging, with the largest crowds of anyone. He won 49.6 percent of caucuses in 2016, and he’s got a stronger organization now. He’s probably the front-runner. Warren has dipped in recent polls, but she benefited from the Register endorsement last week, and she’s got the most meticulous ground game (though maybe not the largest). Everyone who thinks Warren can win chants “ground game” like a mantra.

Biden doesn’t have much of a visible ground game (demonstrated by the almost accidental precinct captain I met in Waterloo on Saturday), but some people believe there are many quiet Biden supporters, loyal older Democrats, who’ll come out for him Monday night. But I was here I was here in 2008, when Hillary Clinton staffers boasted about the shiny new snow shovels they’d purchased to dig out elderly pro-Clinton caucus voters. It was a beautiful day and the shovels stayed in storage; Barack Obama turned out shiny new voters instead.

Klobuchar has come on in recent weeks, but maybe too late to have the money and field organization to do much with a slight, late surge. There’s no doubt Buttigieg is falling, some, although he has a decent organization and the money to stay the course. Despite Yang’s hopes, he’s not expected in the top three, although some people said he could be in the top five. Tom Steyer is hanging around, with money and TV ads and billboards, but isn’t expected to be a factor here.

One more twist could complicate calling a winner even after the caucuses close on Monday night: For the first time, Iowa will release not just the ultimate winners in delegate count—the only measure of winning that matters—but also the raw vote totals from each round of caucusing. (If you’re a caucus newbie: Iowa Democrats come together in classrooms and gymnasiums and even Des Moines’s Wells Fargo Arena and publicly declare support for their candidate. If, after a first tally, their chosen candidate doesn’t meet the 15 percent viability threshold, they can leave, or they can move to support a candidate who is viable. It can take several rounds of that before everyone is sorted and a winner is chosen.)

The new rules create new opportunities for chaos: Say, a campaign mobilizes historic caucus turnout at a small location, but only a predetermined number of delegates will be rewarded regardless. Meaning you could have a popular-vote winner who is not the official caucus winner. Politico ran with some clickbait Sunday morning claiming that the Sanders team is promising to release early raw vote tallies, before the caucuses conclude, if he’s winning on that front, which could impact the outcome. But since Sanders folks seem to count on their guy winning, that doesn’t make sense either.

The media, as always, seems invested in ginning up intra-Dem squabbling. But to be fair, there’s plenty of that already, so it shouldn’t try so hard.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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