Warren's rise shakes up Democratic field

A new poll showing Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE (D-Mass.) leading former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers MORE in Iowa has shaken up the Democratic nomination battle — and insiders across the party are gaming out what it all means.

Warren currently has 22 percent support to Biden’s 20 percent, according to the well-respected Des Moines Register–CNN–Mediacom poll, released Saturday night. The two are well clear of the rest of the field, with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Reject National Defense Authorization Act, save Yemen instead MORE (I-Vt.) in third place with 11 percent support.

Biden’s team had already been playing down expectations in the Hawkeye State before the poll came out. An unnamed senior adviser told reporters earlier this month that the former vice president did not need to win the state, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 3.

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But a loss in the first contest would be a grave problem for Biden, not least because it would reinforce the sense that he is an unusually weak front-runner. 

The nature of the primary calendar also makes it unlikely that the former vice president could right his ship immediately. The next contest is in New Hampshire, adjacent both to Warren’s Massachusetts and Sanders’s Vermont.

In such a scenario, Biden would likely be looking to South Carolina, the fourth contest, as a potential firewall, given his strength with African American voters and the centrality of those voters to the outcome in the Palmetto State.

One Biden ally seemed to be preparing the ground for such an outcome on Monday, telling The Hill that “his coalition can’t be shown in states that are primarily white.” 

The ally also insisted, however, that “there’s always going to be an alternative candidate, but we’re feeling good about where we are.”

Another ally concluded, “It’ll be a battle for delegates, and we’re feeling good about where we are in the early states.”

Others who are unaligned with any campaign think the picture is bleaker for Biden.

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said Biden is “already skating on thin ice as it is.”

“Defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both battleground states next fall, would highlight questions about electability, which is his key selling point. Biden can’t afford to play the long game. Losses in both early states could bring the entire shaky structure down,” Bannon said.

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For Biden, there is also the danger that a loss in Iowa would change the shape of the race in an instant. There are precedents, albeit inexact ones, for such a scenario. 

When then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE (D-Ill.) beat then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE (D-N.Y.) in Iowa in 2008, it was a shock from which her campaign never truly recovered — and it persuaded black voters that Obama was electable even in states that seemed demographically challenging. Although Clinton came back to win a surprise victory in New Hampshire, Obama thrashed her in South Carolina.

Referring to the position of the Biden campaign in this election cycle, Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said, “If they get blown out in both [Iowa and New Hampshire], as we’ve seen in primaries on both sides of the aisle, enthusiasm and polling can swing quickly, along with the earned media attention, and having firewall states like candidates used to rely on in the past isn’t really a viable strategy anymore.”

Warren can take heart from Iowa’s favorable history with insurgent candidates, at least in the recent past. 

In addition to Obama’s 2008 victory, Sanders came within a whisker of beating Clinton in 2016. If the Vermont senator fades this time around — a plausible outcome but not a guaranteed one — Warren could emerge as the left’s standard-bearer against the more establishment-friendly Biden. In caucuses that tend to attract the most committed party activists, that is a good spot to be in.

Still, positioning oneself against the party establishment is far from a sure-fire guarantee of success, even in Iowa. 

In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ignited enormous excitement among young progressives — only to fall to a third-place showing in Iowa behind then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryUN chief warns unchecked climate change will mean 'survival of the richest' Conservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' Live coverage: DOJ inspector general testifies on Capitol Hill MORE (D-Mass.), the winner and eventual nominee, as well as then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). 

Back in 2000, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore says Democrats should run on the Green New Deal Charlotte Pence to hold wedding reception at vice president's residence Impeachment can't wait MORE vanquished progressive challenger Bill Bradley in Iowa by almost 30 points.

“The secret, whether progressive or centrist, is whether a candidate is able to rally their respective forces,” said David Yepsen, who covered presidential campaigns in the state for several decades with the Des Moines Register. “Warren could win if moderates are fractured among other candidates, or Biden could win if Warren and Sanders split progressives.”

Yepsen also noted that Warren has vaulted into the leading position in the state very early, which is good on its face but will also inevitably bring sharper attacks from her rivals. At televised debates so far, Warren has neither faced nor launched especially aggressive jabs.

“The goal here is to peak at the right time,” Yepsen said. “The downside for Warren is that there is going to be more scrutiny of her.”

But Warren also has another advantage, at least for now, in that she began organizing in the state early. Biden is now making more of an effort in that department, according to Pat Rynard, who runs the political website IowaStartingLine.

“Warren certainly had a head start, but Biden seems to have caught up enough in recent months,” Rynard said.

Still, he added that Warren has been drawing bigger crowds in the state and has made a name for herself.

“Iowa is a place where, if you spend the time and organize and build a good campaign, you can become the front-runner. Elizabeth Warren combines her star power with a good campaign organization, and that’s put her in a great position,” he said.

With more than four months to go, the experts all agree that it’s too early to make solid predictions. But the battle for Iowa is heating up by the day.

“I don’t think anyone is taking any of the states, particularly the early states, for granted,” the first Biden ally said. “I think the last couple of presidential races taught us that.”