On The Trail: Anxious, excited Iowa Democrats face decision day

DES MOINES, Iowa — The line to get into former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt MORE’s last pre-caucus rally in Des Moines stretched hundreds of feet down the block and around a corner. Supporters of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Biden: 'More than one African American woman' being considered for VP Liberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record MORE stood in squelchy mud as they waited to get into a high school where he would make his final pitch. And Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-Mass.) took questions from an overflow room of supporters before she met the voters lucky enough to get tickets into a rally she held in tiny Indianola, a dozen miles south of the state capital.

“The bad news is there’s no more room inside,” Warren told the overflow crowd. “The good news is there’s no more room inside. Sounds like to me that Iowa is ready for some big structural change.”

Around the first-in-the-nation caucus state, tens of thousands of Democrats flocked to last-minute rallies in which the leading contenders made their cases to win over undecided voters and to fire up those who will serve as precinct captains, herding both supporters and potential backers into first- and second-round voting that will determine who comes out of Iowa with an early delegate lead.

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In interviews, dozens of those voters said they would cast their ballots in November for any Democrat who won their party’s nomination. But they are anxious about who the party’s nominee might be, at turns worrying about liberal extremism turning off centrist voters and status quo centrists giving liberals a reason to stay home in the general election.

“I believe a Democrat will be elected and I will support whoever’s our Democratic nominee. My concern is that we will lose people like we lost in the last election because we aren’t listening to all the people who are speaking. We aren’t listening to the working poor,” said Kelly Rennick, a mental health therapist from Des Moines who backs Warren. “The Democratic status quo is instilling fear within the Democrats, like we need to stick with the tried and true. But I believe there’s enough people who have been disheartened by the current president’s situation that they are ready to rise up and see changes.”

Deb Kahler, another Des Moines resident who works in the law department in one of the city’s financial firms, sees things differently. She thinks Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA MORE (I-Vt.) are too liberal for the sorts of voters who abandoned Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Van Jones: A 'white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter' can pose a greater threat to black Americans than the KKK Taylor Swift slams Trump tweet: 'You have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?' MORE in 2016 and who handed the election to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE.

“We need to bring some respect and dignity back to the White House, and I think Joe Biden’s the one to do it,” Kahler said at a Biden rally in Des Moines. “We need to go behind our strongest candidate, and I think he’s it.”

The final public polls have been largely inconclusive, showing the four leading contenders bunched near the head of the pack. Most Iowa Democrats expect Sanders to win, but many caution that both Warren and Buttigieg are on the rise in recent days. Even Biden’s fans hold out hope that the former vice president can score a surprise upset, though most are furiously downplaying their candidate’s expectations.

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The decision that faces about a quarter of Iowa Democratic voters who say they plan to attend the caucuses but who have yet to choose their first-choice candidate is a consequential one, one that reveals the schisms within a party that is ostensibly determined to unite itself ahead of November’s general election.

On one hand, Democratic voters are desperate to beat Trump, so much so that they tell pollsters they would happily vote against a candidate who shares their views in order to pick the contender who would replace Trump in the White House. On the other, the party is debating just what electability means and what skills a candidate needs to win the presidency.

“I’ve heard a lot of peer pressure from a lot of people that if you really want to get Trump out of office, you’ve got to vote for Biden,” said Kristin Toft, a marketing professional from West Des Moines who backs Buttigieg. “I think [Biden] probably has the best shot of winning the national election. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best reason to vote for someone.”

The final polls in the race show a tight battle between the top four contenders — Sanders, who leads most recent polls by a slim margin, followed by some combination of Buttigieg, Biden and Warren. A late surge by Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharLiberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record Klobuchar on defense as Floyd death puts spotlight on record Officer involved in George Floyd death charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter MORE (D-Minn.) seems likely to fall short, though she drew impressive crowds over the weekend and is likely to collect state-level delegates in more rural and conservative precincts where a centrist from a neighboring state makes a compelling candidate.

The rules of the Iowa caucuses make polling as difficult as it is in the federal Electoral College. Any candidate who finishes with less than 15 percent support in any one of the state’s 1,700 precincts is deemed unviable, and thus wins no delegates in that precinct.

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The candidates have pursued different strategies meant to win enough of the vote to begin adding to their delegate totals: Warren has focused primarily on the seven largest counties in the state, where about three-quarters of Iowa’s delegates are awarded, while Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar and longer shots like entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangAndrew Yang discusses his universal basic income pilot program Andrew Yang on the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis McConnell challenger on how Yang endorsement could help him MORE have spent more time in rural areas that still carry a significant share of the delegate vote.

Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa who runs a nonprofit aimed at connecting his party’s politicians with rural voters, said ignoring rural counties would harm a candidate both in the run-up to the caucuses and in the general election. The fierce competition between four, five or six strong candidates in urban precincts in Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids will mean a close-fought battle, while candidates who ignore rural counties risk being shut out.

“If you get a bunch of zeros in these rural counties, you’re not going to get A's in the big cities,” Link said.

The candidates and their chief backers have begun to set expectations ahead of Monday’s caucuses, which will set the tempo for the rest of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. In interviews, Biden backers downplayed their candidate’s chances at winning outright on Monday, even though several polls showed the former vice president at or near the top of the pack.

“I don’t think he needs to win, I think he needs to have a strong showing, you know, be in the top tier. It’s competitive out there, and this is not his strength of a state, given South Carolina and where he is there,” said Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanCongress must fill the leadership void Pelosi pushes to unite party on coronavirus bill despite grumbling from left Democrats rally behind monthly ,000 relief checks MORE (D-Ohio), a former presidential candidate himself who endorsed Biden after leaving the race.

Sanders, leading in most recent polls, has leaned into his chances of capturing a state he almost won in 2016, during an insurgent campaign that nearly toppled Clinton and that now concerns more centrist and establishment Democrats across the country.

“To defeat Donald Trump, who will be a very formidable opponent for a number of reasons, we need to have the largest voter turnout in American history. That’s just a fact. If it is a low-turnout election, Trump will win. And I believe that our campaign is the campaign of energy, is the campaign of excitement, is the campaign that can bring millions of people into the political process who normally do not vote,” Sanders said Saturday in Indianola.

Other Democrats pleaded with Iowa voters to pick a nominee who would appeal to centrist voters — a nominee like Biden, who campaigned for dozens of promising candidates for Congress in 2018 in swing districts.

“We have got to make sure that we have somebody at the top of the ticket who will help down ballot,” said Rep. Cindy AxneCindy AxneGun control group rolls out House endorsements House Democrats make initial ad buys in battleground states Trump lends support to swing district Republicans MORE (D-Iowa), who defeated a Republican incumbent to win her seat in the midterm elections. “We know he’s the man who can win. We know he’s the person to take our country into a new future.”

As polls show a record number of voters are enthusiastic and excited about voting in this year’s presidential elections, Democrats are set to blast through the previous record for the highest number of attendees at the state's quadrennial caucuses. In 2008, almost 240,000 people showed up to choose between Clinton, Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe battle of two Cubas Obama on the death of George Floyd: 'This shouldn't be "normal" in 2020 America' Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA MORE (D-Ill.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

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Monday’s turnout is likely to put that number to shame, if Sunday’s turnout was any indicator. A Des Moines police officer confirmed more than 2,000 people attended Buttigieg’s event in Des Moines. The Warren campaign said more than a thousand attended her rally in Indianola, population 14,000. And Biden’s campaign said more than 1,100 people attended his Des Moines rally.

Biden captured the angst many Iowa Democrats feel, even if he did so unintentionally: “You’ve never had a greater responsibility than you do today, no matter how many caucuses you’ve been to,” he said Sunday.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.