The key questions facing top Democrats in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses appear headed for a photo finish.

Polls show a clear top four contenders in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is closing strong and is polling in the double-digits in the most recent polls.

With so many candidates in the race and a 15 percent threshold to win delegates, caucusgoers whose first choice fails to reach the minimum of support can realign behind a different candidate

That means voters’ second choices will play a huge role in determining who leaves Iowa on top. 

Here are the central questions facing each campaign as voters prepare to cast ballots.

Can Biden overcome the lack of enthusiasm for his campaign?

These are tense times for the former vice president, who has effectively gone wire-to-wire as the leader in national polls.

But as voting gets underway in Iowa, the biggest question facing Biden surrounds the intensity of that support.

Biden does not attract the biggest or the most enthusiastic crowds. His core argument — that he’s the most electable candidate in a head-to-head matchup against President Trump — resonates on a practical, rather than emotional level.

That may be enough: The most important quality Iowa Democrats are seeking in a candidate is the ability to defeat Trump in November.

Biden leads among older people who routinely show up to the polls. And he’s the runaway leader among Democrats who identify as moderates or centrists.

Still, the caucuses require enthusiasm from supporters, who must show up in the dead of winter and stay for long periods of time. Will Biden’s backers be there for him? 

Will young people and new voters turn out for Sanders?

Sanders has been surging into the finish.

The progressive independent has galvanized the left wing of the party. He’s built a grassroots fundraising and volunteer network that is second to none. Celebrities and artists bring a star wattage to the Sanders campaign that is the envy of his rivals. Sanders nearly won the Iowa caucuses in 2016 and he has a far superior organization this time around.

But the polls that have found Sanders in the lead have tended to survey more young people and first-time voters, while the polls that have found Biden in the lead have surveyed older people and traditional Democratic voters.

Sanders is betting that his base of young voters and people who have not participated in politics before will turn out for him at the caucuses. Some Iowa Democrats view that as a huge gamble.

All signs point to Sanders’s grassroots machine being a force on Election Day. But an underwhelming performance will raise serious questions about whether his support is more of an online phenomenon than a ballot box reality.

Can Warren’s ground game sustain her?

The final weeks of Warren’s once high-flying campaign have not gone how her supporters wanted.

Warren has fallen into fourth place in some recent polls and she will not enter the caucuses with much momentum.

However, Iowa Democrats agree that Warren’s early investment in staff and offices may be enough to carry her to a surprise showing on Monday.

“Warren probably has the best organization and has been at it for the longest period of time, and that matters in this contest,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa. “I think it’s sustaining for her, even if she doesn’t have wind in her sails. She has strong relationships and staff and has been good at building relationships over the past year.”

Will Iowans buy Buttigieg’s message of generational change?

Perhaps no candidate’s campaign has run as alternately hot and cold as Buttigieg’s, who has twice surged and twice fallen back into the pack.

Buttigieg has been pulling big crowds of enthusiastic supporters and the tens of millions of dollars he’s raised has helped him build a top notch organization.

But the 38-year-old has been unable to break out of Biden’s shadow in his bid to be the party’s centrist standard-bearer.

In the final days before the caucuses, Buttigieg has leaned into the idea that as a gay millennial and a military veteran whose primary executive experience came outside of Washington, it’s time for voters to pass the torch on to him.

“I hear Vice President Biden saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” Buttigieg said Thursday in Decorah, Iowa. “But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Donald Trump who is new in kind.” 

Is Klobuchar peaking at the right time?

The Minnesota senator has not reached the 15 percent mark in any polls of Iowa, but the trend is clearly in her favor.

The four latest polls of the Hawkeye State have found her in double digits, though below the 15 percent threshold for delegates, and she has nearly doubled her support in the past month. 

“There’s something going on there,” Link said. 

Klobuchar has run as a pragmatic centrist and has displayed a sharp sense of humor on the campaign trail.

She’s visited all 99 counties in the state and has touted her connection to rural Iowans as a senator from bordering Minnesota.

Border-state Democrats have a history of doing well in Iowa, notably sending former President Barack Obama, once a senator from Illinois, on his way to the nomination and the White House in 2008.

Where will supporters for the rest of the candidates line up?

The lower-polling candidates, such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, will have supporters lining up to caucus for them on Monday, but it’s unlikely to be enough to take home many delegates.

Their supporters will be free line up behind a viable candidate if they don’t meet the 15 percent threshold, and where those voters decide to go could become one of the biggest stories of the night.

Supporters of the outsiders, such as Yang and Gabbard, may gravitate toward Sanders.

If Klobuchar does not reach the benchmark, her supporters seem like natural allies of Biden or Buttigieg.

And if Warren falls short in some precincts, many of her supporters have vowed to back Sanders, the other progressive in the race.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Link said. “It’s up in the air right now and it’s going to be a wild finish.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Iowa caucuses Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg Tom Steyer Tulsi Gabbard

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