30 days from Iowa: It’s anybody’s ballgame
The Iowa caucuses are 30 days away and it’s anybody’s ballgame, with a half dozen candidates having reason to believe that the Hawkeye State will set them on the path to the nomination.
The campaigns are on edge and political analysts are flying blind, as a drought of public polling has produced uncertainty about the state of the race ahead of the Feb. 3 contest.
Political operatives on the ground are buzzing about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) ascendant campaign after he posted blowout fourth-quarter fundraising numbers, but former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is matching Sanders in attracting large crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
Joe Biden continues to be a daunting figure in the field and has been the leader in national polls for more than a year. The former vice president’s case that he’s best positioned to defeat President Trump in a head-to-head matchup is appealing to many Democrats and could set him up for an unexpectedly strong finish.
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is hoping to recapture the magic that made her the front-runner in the fall. Operatives in Iowa say she has the staff and infrastructure to pull it off.
Meanwhile, two candidates on the margins of the polls — Sen. Amy Klobuchar from bordering Minnesota and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang — are fresh off their best debate performances. Both posted big fundraising hauls in the fourth quarter and are generating excitement on the ground.
Iowa Democrats say there is no true favorite and that unless someone unexpectedly breaks out in the final stretch run, they’re bracing for a candidate pile-up near the top, with no one receiving a clear plurality of the vote.
“You could see the field being split so many ways and the contest getting pushed out to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday,” said Peter Leo, a Warren supporter and the chairman of the Carroll County Democrats in Western Iowa. “It’s hard to see someone pulling away and getting 30 or 40 percent and emerging as the clear front-runner out of Iowa. It’s really wild.”
The dearth of polling between Thanksgiving and the new year is adding to the murky picture.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls in Iowa finds Buttigieg with a narrow lead at the top with 22 percent support, followed closely by Sanders at 20, Biden at 19 and Warren at 16.
There were no early-state polls released in December that count toward the Democratic National Committee’s debate qualifying threshold. The last qualifying poll of Iowa was in the field on Nov. 13, more than a month before the Dec. 20 debate in Los Angeles.
The polling void has political analysts searching for other clues about who is on the right trajectory.
Sanders has reasserted his strength in the race in recent weeks, underscored by his massive fundraising haul of $34.5 million in the fourth quarter, nearly $10 million more than Buttigieg, his closest fundraising competitor.
Iowa Democrats say Sanders is drawing big crowds and that the heart attack he suffered in October has made him more personally endearing and relatable.
The Vermont senator finished a close second to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucuses and he boasts an unmatched network of young volunteers. Some Iowa Democrats say the political press has been sleeping on Sanders.
“The media doesn’t talk nearly enough about Bernie,” said JoAnn Hardy, the chairwoman of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats, who is unaffiliated. “He’s got the money and the crowds and the youth vote. He’s changed the way that we talk about politics and how we should deal with the middle class and the poor.”
The Biden campaign has tried to set expectations low in Iowa, as he’s seen as having a firewall in South Carolina, where black voters support him in large numbers.
Still, Biden’s enduring national strength has been overlooked at times and he remains in the thick of the contest in Iowa, according to the most recent polls.
Biden needs a strong showing to blunt the momentum of his rivals, such as Buttigieg, who is making the case for generational change.
Buttigieg finished second behind Sanders in fundraising in the fourth quarter and has been a draw on the campaign trail. The former mayor has plowed a lot of money back into Iowa, where he has more field offices than any other candidate.
This week, Pat Rynard, the managing editor of the influential website Iowa Starting Line, declared Buttigieg the favorite to win on Caucus Day, citing the packed crowds he’s attracting across the state.
“Pete Buttigieg is barreling toward an Iowa Caucus victory and there’s not a damn thing anyone’s tweets can do about it,” Rynard wrote.
But Warren is still very much in the hunt, despite an up-and-down primary cycle. After briefly making a run to the top of the polls, she has fallen back some and was the only top tier candidate to see her fundraising go down in the fourth quarter.
When Iowa Democrats talk about Warren, they usually point to her strong ground game, saying that she smartly invested in staff before most campaigns were up and running in the Hawkeye State.
“She has the strongest field organization,” said Leo, who will caucus for Warren. “And she’s trying a sales pitch no one has tried before, asking people to imagine their lives under a Warren presidency. She’s an effective communicator, more positive than anyone else and comfortable advocating for herself. That gives her a chance for a comeback.”
The lack of recent polling in Iowa has been frustrating for candidates like Klobuchar, who has languished in the polls but raised $11.4 million in the fourth quarter, up from $4.8 million in the third quarter, and is hoping for a burst of momentum after a strong debate in December.
Klobuchar just completed a tour of all 99 Iowa counties and the campaign is up with a new ad this week about how she’ll defeat Trump and unite the country.
“Amy resonates with those of us in Midwest,” said Marjie Foster, the chairwoman of the Decatur County Democrats who will caucus for Klobuchar. “She’s down to earth and understands the challenges farmers face. If Amy has a good showing in Iowa, the rest of the country will take notice.”
And Yang has been sharply critical of the DNC for not commissioning its own polls to fill the void.
Yang, a political outsider who raised an astonishing $16.5 million in the fourth quarter, has only reached the polling threshold in one of five surveys that he needs to qualify for the January debate at Drake University in Des Moines on Jan. 14.
That debate will be the last chance the candidates have to make their case before a national audience ahead of the caucuses.