100 days to Iowa: Uncertainty reigns over fluid race

With just 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic race for the White House is clouded in uncertainty.

What had once looked like a three-person race is showing signs of widening as Iowa voters debate the electability question that has dominated the battle since its beginning: Which of their candidates is most likely to defeat President Trump?

Recent polls of likely Democratic caucus-goers show Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) either leading or keeping pace with the longtime front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

{mosads}Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is seen by many as a step behind the two front-runners, though no one is counting him out after the endorsement last week of rising progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Biden has been resilient in polls while looking at times like a weak front-runner, which might help explain the recent rise of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who surged past Sanders in a USA Today/Suffolk University Iowa poll released this week and now finds himself within striking distance of the race’s top two candidates.

Another survey conducted by the polling firm Civiqs for Iowa State University and released this week showed an even more drastic shakeup in the primary field’s top tier. Warren held an 8-point lead in that poll, followed by Buttigieg. Sanders and Biden, who once topped surveys of the state, placed third and fourth in the survey, respectively.

Buttigieg and another centrist candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), were both seen as having good performances in the last Democratic debate. Both attacked Warren, who has increasingly looked like the front-runner in Iowa, arguing her policies were too expensive.

Klobuchar, who just wrapped up a three-day, 11-county bus tour of Iowa, hasn’t seen much improvement in polls. The USA Today survey placed her in a three-way tie for sixth with just under 3 percent. Yet she is increasingly optimistic about her chances in Iowa, according to an Iowa Democratic official who recently spoke with her.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has seen her top-tier status slip in recent months, but is trying to keep her stock up in the Hawkeye State. By the end of October, she will have visited the state as many times as the first six months of her presidential campaign, according to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker.

The race is fluid because so many voters have yet to land on a candidate.

According to the USA Today/Suffolk poll, 29 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers are still undecided on which candidate to support — 8 points higher than in a similar poll conducted in June. Even among those who have a preferred candidate, 63 percent said they could still change their minds.

“I still think there’s still plenty of room in this race,” Troy Price, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said. “Caucuses tend to break late. We tend to see surprises in the last few weeks of the race.”

“What I’m telling the candidates is: just keep your heads down, execute your plan, make sure you’re getting out as far and as deep as you can.”

For the time being, any candidate looking to make gains in Iowa will have to compete with Warren, who multiple Iowa Democratic officials and operatives overwhelmingly said had built out the most impressive campaign operation in the state.

She has more than 100 paid staffers and 19 field offices in Iowa and has developed a vast network of organizers and volunteers that few other candidates have rivaled.

“For Warren, she came in here early and scooped up really good staff,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democratic Party. “I think a lot of people were critical about whether that would pay off, at first, but it was really smart in retrospect. She created a machine that she was able to pay for and that has really settled in with the grassroots, and you’re starting to see an operation that no one else is really close to.”

{mossecondads}Warren has emerged as the top rival to Biden, both nationally and in Iowa. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll released last month showed her narrowly leading the former vice president among likely Democratic caucusgoers for the first time this year. And the USA Today/Suffolk University poll this week showed the two candidates in a statistical tie for first place.

But Warren has begun facing headwinds in recent weeks, particularly over her refusal to say whether she would raise taxes on the middle class to help pay for her Medicare for All proposal.

And while she has said she will soon release a plan for financing a single-payer health care system, she has also come under increasingly aggressive fire from moderates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who have sought to cast themselves in recent weeks as more pragmatic than progressives like Warren and Sanders, but just as bold in their ideas.

“There are people that are tired of the noise and nonsense and the extremes, and they are looking for someone who has their back. And they have a home with me,” Klobuchar told CBS News in an interview last week. “I believe my ideas are better ideas. They’re different ideas, but they’re better ideas.”

By mounting more aggressive attacks on their progressive rivals and playing up their moderate credentials, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are hoping to cut into Biden’s support base at a time when the former vice president’s polling numbers in Iowa have weakened.

While Biden has assembled a large campaign operation in Iowa — he has 110 paid staffers on the ground and 17 field offices — he has suffered in recent months from lackluster debate performances and questions about whether he is out of step with a modern Democratic Party that increasingly embraced progressive voices.

Sanders, who is among the most notable progressives in the race, has seen his polling numbers stagnate in Iowa. The latest USA Today/Suffolk poll found him with 9 percent support in the state, unchanged from where he was in the June survey.

But Sanders has also assembled a robust campaign operation in Iowa. He has 112 staffers on the ground and 13 field offices. Bill Neidhardt, the deputy state director for Sanders’s campaign in Iowa, also noted the senator’s “wide lead in building a grassroots volunteer base.”

Sanders took out a $1.3 million television ad buy, his first of the 2020 cycle, earlier this month and unveiled its latest TV spot on Monday. The campaign is also planning to bring on additional field organizers and open more offices in Iowa in the coming months, Neidhardt said.

“I don’t know what other campaigns are saying, but our campaign’s goal is to win,” Neidhardt said. “We want to win and we think we can. We think we have the infrastructure, the strategy and the investments that it will take to win.”

–Julia Manchester contributed.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Democratic presidential primary Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Iowa Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg

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