About 4 1/2 months before Iowans caucus together one night in February, the candidates who want their votes hosted dozens of events around the state as a new poll showed a race in flux.
Here are seven things we learned from a busy weekend in Iowa:
Warren is the front-runner
A new Des Moines Register–CNN poll conducted by Iowa polling guru Ann Selzer shows Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenArizona Democratic Party executive board censures Sinema Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service MORE (D-Mass.) leading the Democratic presidential primary field, the first time one of Selzer's polls has shown anyone ahead of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE.
But Warren is more than just the front-runner in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. She's positioned to be the front-runner in the whole race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
What made Warren the leading contender in Iowa, even before Selzer's poll, was her slow and steady rise — and the room she has left to grow. Momentum matters in politics, and Warren has spent nine uninterrupted months building hers.
Look beyond the top-line numbers, which have Warren leading Biden by a statistically insignificant 2 percentage point margin: Seventy-one percent of Iowa Democrats say Warren is either their first or second choice or that they are actively considering supporting her. That's 11 points higher than Biden, 16 points higher than South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Airlines suspend US flights in response to 5G deployment AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports MORE (D) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTo stabilize Central America, the US must craft better incentives for trade Majority in new poll say US headed in wrong direction Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE (D-Calif.), and, crucially, 21 points higher than Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates Sanders says Biden can't count on him to support 'almost any' spending package compromise Sanders says Republicans are 'laughing all the way to Election Day' MORE (I-Vt.), Warren's biggest rival in the progressive lane.
Selzer calls that combination — first choice, second choice plus actively considering — the "candidate footprint," a way to measure support that reflects the fluid nature of a caucus in which voters can pick different candidates in different rounds. That Warren has the largest footprint is important at this stage of the race, she said.
"The footprint signals upside potential," Selzer said in an email.
It might seem premature to call Warren the race's overall front-runner, but history is on her side. The last four winners of the Iowa Democratic caucuses won the party's presidential nomination.
Iowa is make-or-break for a growing number of candidates
Kamala Harris has joked about moving to Iowa. Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D) pretty much has moved there. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyLobbying world Maryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you MORE (D-Md.) has camped out there for more than a year.
For all the talk of a nationalized election and a long, drawn-out fight for the Democratic nomination, Iowa is becoming a make-or-break state for a significant number of candidates.
Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharWicker: Biden comments on Ukraine caused 'distress' for both parties Effort to overhaul archaic election law wins new momentum Hillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill MORE (D-Minn.) has to do something in her neighboring state. Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Overnight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs MORE (D-Colo.) has already spent much of his campaign's funds on television spots in Iowa, apparently to little effect. And Bullock is clear his chances rest on a strong Iowa showing.
Iowa can launch a president. It can also end a bunch of dreams. This year, more than any previous year, Iowans are going to severely narrow a record-size Democratic field.
Warren is still growing, others aren't
At this weekend's Polk County Democratic Party Steak Fry, a massive picnic that drew every major candidate and thousands of Democratic activists, Warren was one of the few contenders who didn't lead a massive parade onto the pitch. Instead, her team spent time organizing some of the 12,000 attendees who showed up — and, of course, she took selfies. More than a thousand, according to her campaign.
Selzer's poll showed Warren is seen favorably by 75 percent of the Democratic electorate, a larger slice than anyone else in the field. Almost 70 percent see Buttigieg in a favorable light, two-thirds see Biden favorably, and both Harris and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDespite Senate setbacks, the fight for voting rights is far from over Small ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.J.) crack the 60 percent mark.
But Warren was one of the few candidates who saw her favorable ratings rise, up 12 points since March.
Biden's favorable ratings have dropped 15 points since March, when he first announced his campaign. The number of Iowa Democrats who see him unfavorably has doubled to 29 percent.
Sanders has fallen too, from a 70 percent favorable rating in June to 58 percent today. His unfavorable ratings, 36 percent, are the highest numbers of any of the top-tier candidates.
Several contenders haven't seen their reputations grow over the crucial summer months. Harris, Bullock, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke says he raised record .2M since launching campaign for Texas governor Eleven interesting races to watch in 2022 Cruz bullish on his 2024 chances: 'The runner-up is almost always the next nominee' MORE (D-Texas) all saw little movement in their favorable ratings over the summer.
Biden's biggest rival isn't Warren, it's Buttigieg
Several candidates have staked their campaigns on the hope that Biden collapses, putting a tranche of moderate Democrats suddenly up for grabs. Bullock, Klobuchar, Bennet and Delaney are circling like buzzards.
But they haven't caught on. Buttigieg has, and he's now the most pressing threat to Biden's campaign.
"Mayor Pete has become the mainstream alternative to Biden," said Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa Democratic strategist who is unaligned this year.
The young mayor is one of only two candidates, along with Warren, whose favorable ratings are higher than Biden's. More than half of Iowa Democrats, 57 percent, say they think someone who represents a new generation of leadership would make a more electable candidate than someone with a long history of serving in government.
And Buttigieg has grown as a candidate more than just about anyone else running this year. At this weekend's Steak Fry, Buttigieg drew some of the loudest and most sustained applause of any candidate, rivaled only by Warren.
Nationally, Biden has the largest share of the Democratic vote. If he falters, and his supporters look elsewhere, he need not fear Warren — he has to worry about Buttigieg, especially if Democratic voters are hungry for the generational change that the first post–baby boomer president would represent.
Warning signs for anyone planning to attack Warren
One sign that Buttigieg increasingly likes his own odds is that he's slowly straying out of his lane and engaging his more liberal rivals.
At this month's debate, he asked why candidates like Warren and Sanders, who back "Medicare for All" and an end to private insurance, don't trust voters to make their own decisions. He repeated that veiled jab at the Steak Fry in Des Moines.
But at a time when Democratic voters are desperate to nominate someone who can beat President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE, they have showed little interest in rewarding candidates who attack each other. Buttigieg need look no farther than Harris and Castro, the candidates who have gone most aggressively on the attack on debate stages so far.
Castro launched a blistering broadside against Biden, suggesting Biden had forgotten elements of his own policy proposals in a thinly veiled shot at the 76-year-old's age. Castro's attack was factually wrong, and politically costly.
Between Selzer's June poll and her September poll, Castro's unfavorable rating shot up from 13 percent to 36 percent. More than half of those who watched the last debate said they had an unfavorable impression of the former San Antonio mayor.
Harris was the first to attack Biden, during the first Democratic debate, about four weeks after Selzer's June poll was conducted. Since that debate, Harris's unfavorable ratings have risen 11 percentage points.
Buttigieg, Biden or anyone lining up an attack on Warren or any other front-runner needs to be wary. No candidate has gotten away with an attack on another candidate without seeing their own numbers suffer as a result.
Democrats are fired up
In the week leading up to the Steak Fry, the most pressing concern was the weather. The forecast called for rain, and threatening clouds sat ominously over Des Moines on Saturday.
But Democrats showed up, in droves. Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats, said the party had sold more than 12,000 tickets at $35 a piece, and they ordered more than 10,000 steaks from Hy-Vee (they also, for the first time, had alternative options on the menu for Booker and Gabbard, the two vegans in the race).
Democratic voters are motivated in the age of Trump. The party won back control of the House of Representatives on the strength of higher-than-expected enthusiasm in 2018. More than 3.3 million small-dollar donors have given a record amount of money to Democratic candidates in the first half of the year, and polls show historic levels of excitement.
The latest CNN survey, conducted by SSRS earlier this month, showed 71 percent of voters are either extremely or very enthusiastic about next year's elections. That's higher than the excitement levels the same poll found just before the 2016, and even just before the 2012 and 2008 elections.
An important caveat to those numbers: About equal numbers of Republicans (51 percent) as Democrats (47 percent) say they are extremely enthusiastic, suggesting the potential for a huge turnout in 2020.
But more immediately, Iowa Democrats are taking heed of turnout at events like the Steak Fry. The party is already planning for the largest-ever caucus turnout. They might want to plan for even more people to show up.
The unanswered questions
No wonder New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioHochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign De Blasio says he won't run for New York governor Watershed moment in NYC: New law allows noncitizens to vote MORE (D) ended his campaign on Friday. Not a single person told Selzer's pollsters they backed him as their first or second choice, and an incredible 54 percent of Iowa Democrats see him unfavorably.
Where's Booker's surge? The New Jersey senator has 50 staffers on the ground in Iowa, he gets consistently strong reviews for his rousing stump speech and his favorable rating is higher than all but four others. But he's yet to have a moment on par with Buttigieg's CNN town hall, or Harris's confrontation with Biden, or even Klobuchar's announcement in the snow. And he's running out of time: Booker's campaign took the unprecedented step this weekend of suggesting he could drop out of the race if his numbers don't improve quickly.
Speaking of Klobuchar, is she popping or not? Selzer's poll found the Minnesota senator clocking in at 3 percent of the vote, while a survey conducted for Focus on Rural America, a group Link runs, found her at 8 percent of the vote. Given another moment or two in the sun, Klobuchar has showed hints that she could become a serious thorn in Biden's side.