The Memo: Impeachment dominates final Iowa sprint

The Memo: Impeachment dominates final Iowa sprint
© Getty Images

The battle to win Iowa is wide open with only a week left before the Democratic caucuses.

There is no clear front-runner, and at least four candidates have a plausible chance of winning: Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate Young Turks host says Elizabeth Warren should be Biden's VP pick MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHouse Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign raised M more than Trump in the month of June RNC, Trump campaign raised 1M in June Michigan shuts down most indoor bar service in bid to prevent virus resurgence MORE and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems, GOP dig in on police reform ahead of House vote MORE (D).

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources MORE (D-Minn.) has always lagged that quartet but she has been showing some signs of advancing in recent polls. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Sanders got a boost on Saturday with the release of a New York Times/Siena College poll showing him seven points ahead of his nearest rival, Buttigieg. But other recent polls have shown a tighter race, with some putting Biden in the lead.

Whoever emerges the winner next Monday night — in caucuses that are widely expected to draw more participants than ever before — will reshape the Democratic race in an instant.

But the various permutations of where exactly the candidates place will also be crucial.

If Sanders were to defeat Warren heavily or vice versa, the victor in that struggle would be able to make a strong case that he or she was becoming the standard-bearer of the left — and that progressive voters should rally around them in New Hampshire and beyond.

Biden, the national front-runner, would not be fatally damaged by a failure to win Iowa, where progressives and insurgents have a history of doing well. But if he fell to third, or was bested by centrist rivals such as Buttigieg or Klobuchar, that could spell serious trouble.

The campaigns are already setting expectations for the Feb. 3 contests. In a Friday memo, Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau emphasized that “the four early states contests are just the beginning,” and that the Massachusetts senator was in for the long haul.

ADVERTISEMENT

That seemed to suggest Warren’s team was preparing the ground in the event of a defeat in Iowa. 

She has slipped from her polling peak back in the fall. The furor between her and Sanders over whether he did or did not tell her during a private December 2018 dinner that a woman could not be elected president does not appear to have helped her significantly.

Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar also have another wild card to contend with. The Senate trial of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE is keeping them in Washington at a time when they would surely prefer to be hitting the trail in earnest in Iowa.

Even if the trial were to wrap up this week — by no means a certainty — they would be left with only a couple of days of campaigning in full.

The senators have done their best to ameliorate the effects by having high-profile surrogates appear in their stead. 

Sanders has benefitted from the endorsement of progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Nadler wins Democratic primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue MORE (D-N.Y.), who is appearing for him in Iowa alongside filmmaker Michael Moore. 

Warren can call on Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who dropped out of the presidential race before endorsing her, to boost her candidacy. 

Some political insiders argue that the likely impact of the impeachment trial — and the resulting curtailment of the senators’ campaigning activities — is being exaggerated, however.

“I think that is overstated a little bit,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini, who is supporting Sanders but has no formal role with his campaign.

Tasini pointed to the value of surrogates but also noted: “At this point, if you have not developed a ground operation to turn out your people … it doesn’t matter if you are there 24/7.”

The flipside is that a candidate such as Buttigieg, who is drawing large crowds, could struggle to convert that box-office appeal into a caucus win if his organization is lacking.

The idiosyncratic nature of the caucus adds yet more volatility to the picture. 

Because caucusing is more time-consuming than simply casting a ballot, it tends to favor candidates whose supporters are the most committed.

On one hand, that would seem to favor the most progressive candidates. But older Iowans are among the most reliable attenders of caucuses — something that could help Biden, whose support skews older.

Similarly, under the complex rules of the process, any candidate who fails to get 15 percent support at any given caucus site is considered not to have passed a viability threshold. Their supporters can then join those backing more popular candidates or sit out the rest of the process.

The most recent polling underlines just how open the race is. 

The Des Moines Register poll has long been considered the gold standard in the state. Its most recent findings had Sanders leading with 20 percent, but Warren, Buttigieg and Biden all close behind at 17, 16 and 15 percent respectively.

The final Register poll will appear on Feb. 1.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even on caucus night itself, there will be huge uncertainty, in part because Democrats prize the ability to beat President Trump above all else.

How they will balance the desires of head and heart, if they don’t point to the same candidate, is anyone’s guess.

“Electability is more of an issue this year than ever before,” said David Yepsen, who covered the caucuses across decades for the Des Moines Register and now hosts a TV show, “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS.

“For Democrats there is one question above the others — ‘Who can beat this awful Trump?’"

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.