Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race

Democrats are on edge less than three months out from the Iowa caucuses, as a four-candidate pileup and Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg Bloomberg unveils proposal to increase earned income tax credit, federal funding for housing programs MORE’s potential candidacy injects a new level of uncertainty into an already chaotic race.

The crowded field of contenders has made it difficult for any one candidate to pull away.

The latest Quinnipiac University survey of Iowa underscores the up-for-grabs nature of the race, finding a three-way statistical tie for first place, with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (D-Mass.) at 20 percent, followed by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg MORE (D) at 19 percent, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (I-Vt.) at 17 percent and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE at 15 percent.

ADVERTISEMENT

Those figures are mirrored almost exactly in the latest New York Times–Siena College survey of Iowa.

Perhaps most importantly, more than half of likely caucusgoers in Iowa haven’t made a final decision on who to support.

All of the top-tier candidates have reason to believe they could be the one to win the Iowa caucuses and get the subsequent jolt of momentum that could carry them to the nomination.

“Historically, when two or more people are vying for the nomination, the leader will change in the final weeks before the caucuses,” said Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer, whose surveys and methods are viewed as the gold standard in the Hawkeye State.

“People are excited about the idea of a leader in the race and there’s an urge for a true front-runner to rise to the top, but that’s not how it works with a field like this.”

It appeared for a while that Warren might run away with the nomination, but her national poll numbers have dipped in recent weeks amid sustained attacks from Biden and Buttigieg and new scrutiny of her "Medicare for All" plan.

Still, many Democrats view Warren as the front-runner in Iowa, where she leads the next closest contender by 4.5 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

Warren invested early in a ground game and is in a strong position financially.

She appears to have the broadest base of support in the state, with the Quinnipiac poll finding her a close second to Sanders among “very liberal” voters and leading the field among those who consider themselves only “somewhat liberal.”

Warren is tied with Buttigieg as the candidate that voters list as their backup choice in the Quinnipiac survey.

In Selzer’s June poll, Biden and Warren were tied at 61 percent when voters were asked who they’re actively considering as either a first or second choice.

But Biden held steady at 60 percent in Selzer's poll from September, while Warren jumped 10 points, to 71 percent.

“That was an early indicator for us that there is something going on around her campaign,” Selzer said.

Buttigieg is perhaps the biggest surprise of the cycle, surging 10 points in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls over the past month and moving into second place in recent surveys.

Buttigieg is a fundraising force, and he's crowding into Biden’s center-left base of support in Iowa. The Quinnipiac survey finds him slightly ahead of Biden for self-described “moderate and conservative” voters in the state.

He also leads among white voters with a college education and is the top second choice for voters currently supporting a candidate polling at under 15 percent, which could come into play if low-polling candidates drop out of the race before voting begins.

Buttigieg is expanding his staff in Iowa from 100 to 130 people and now has 21 offices open across the state.

“He’s definitely surging,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. “The question is whether he can continue that, particularly now that he’s more likely to be the focus of attacks on the debate stage.”

Sanders has been overlooked by many in the political class and has faced questions about whether he would drop out after recently suffering a heart attack.

But Sanders has seen his poll numbers rise in recent weeks amid renewed enthusiasm from the thousands of supporters attending his rallies and the endorsements from three members of “the squad," a group of prominent progressive congresswomen. 

In the Quinnipiac survey, Sanders is the top choice among “very liberal” voters and with white voters who do not have a college education, highlighting his blue-collar appeal in the Midwest state.

Sanders’s base is the most committed, with 61 percent of his supporters saying they will definitely vote for him, a far greater figure than Biden’s 48 percent or Warren’s 44 percent.

The Vermont senator’s supporters are also the most energized, with 52 percent in the Quinnipiac survey saying they’re extremely excited to caucus — a 20-point lead over Buttigieg, who is a distant second place on that question. 

“In the end, he’s got that Bernie ride-or-die vote,” said one Democratic fundraiser who backs Biden.

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, political analysts have been bracing for months for the floor to fall out from underneath Biden, but his national standing remains strong and his firewall among black voters in South Carolina is holding firm.

Biden’s team has sought to downplay the importance of Iowa, but he’s still in the thick of things there, buoyed by 35 percent support among voters aged 65 and older, who are likelier than young people to show up on caucus day, according to Selzer’s September poll.

Biden’s money woes and perceived weakness as a front-runner may be nudging former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the race, but even with all the questions swirling around his campaign, the former vice president has stayed within the margin of error in most polls of Iowa.

Some Democrats say the close race is good for Democrats — noting that a spirited contest to the end will keep grassroots voters engaged and ensure a big turnout for the general election against President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE one year from now.

“It’s good for us to have an exciting final sprint, rather than a sleepy race,” said Feldman. “It keeps our grassroots energized and engaged, and we’re going to need that all the way through 2020 to beat Trump.”

But others are despairing, worried that Trump is stockpiling an unparalleled campaign bank account and that the divisive primary will depress Democratic turnout at the end of it.

“Nobody is running away with this thing and there are so many undecideds, it really will come down to the last two weeks before,” said the Democratic fundraiser. “It’s the worst thing that could happen for us right now. The media loves to focus on the whole ‘Dems in disarray’ thing. This is a prime example of us not getting our shit together and getting behind a candidate, let alone the right candidate. We just love the circular firing squad.”