The Memo: Iowa caucuses stoke Democratic anxiety

Democratic anxiety about the 2020 presidential election is edging upward after a bad few days for the party.

Monday’s Iowa caucuses, expected to be a showpiece for Democrats, turned into a debacle. Results were badly delayed, and the final outcome was still not known late Wednesday afternoon.

The months-long impeachment process came to an end on Wednesday, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE’s acquittal by the Senate.

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Democrats can take some measure of comfort from the fact that Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat MORE (R-Utah) crossed party lines to vote to convict Trump on one of the two articles of impeachment. But the president is sure to trumpet his exoneration in a public appearance at the White House set for noon Thursday.

Earlier in the week, Trump used his third State of the Union address on Tuesday night to lay out his case for reelection. On the same day, his job approval rating hit its highest-ever mark in a Gallup poll.

Put it all together, and the clouds are darkening for the opposition party.

The results that have trickled out from Iowa increase the chances of a prolonged battle for the Democratic presidential nomination — something that has the potential to be divisive and damaging.

One Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to talk candidly described the delay in releasing results from the caucuses as a “biblical clusterf---.”

The strategist added, “It confirms the Republican talking point that we can’t get our act together. The bottom line is, if you can’t run a caucus well, how can you run a government?”

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At least Democrats will soon get the chance to put the caucuses in the rearview mirror. The New Hampshire primary takes place on Tuesday and will be preceded by a televised debate on Friday.

But the party’s internal divides could become even starker in New Hampshire. The two leaders in Iowa — former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE (D) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE (I-Vt.) — represent very different wings of the party.

Democratic strategist Joel Payne told The Hill, “I think there is certainly some discomfort within the ranks of the Democratic establishment. Trump is coming off some good news for him — he was just acquitted, even with one Republican defection. I think a lot of Democrats feel unsettled because there is no obvious Democratic standard-bearer.”

The progressives who have flocked to Sanders believe the nation needs fundamental change — and they worry the party apparatus has been too slow and unreceptive to this desire.

But Buttigieg, and other centrist voices within Democratic ranks, fret that left-wing candidates like Sanders could hand reelection to Trump in November.

James Carville, best known for his prominent role in former President Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign, argued during an MSNBC appearance on Tuesday that a party that moved to the left risked suffering the same fate as the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, which suffered a catastrophic defeat under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn in December.

“I am scared to death. Let’s get relevant here, people,” Carville said. “Do we want to be an ideological cult, or do we want to have a majoritarian instinct to be a majority party?”

The former Clinton strategist also expressed alarm at Trump’s standing in the polls.

“Frankly, we got to snap back and get this thing going,” he said. “Think about what would happen if we had four more years of Trump? This is, so far, not so good.”

Other prominent liberal voices have also sounded the alarm.

Van Jones acknowledged on CNN Tuesday night that Trump’s State of the Union address was “a very strong speech” in terms of laying out the president’s case.

Jones added that “the last 24 hours have been a big wake-up call for Democrats.”

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Trump is seen by some Democrats as an existential threat to American democracy, so the possibility of him winning a second term sparks horror.

But the scenario is by no means implausible.

In the Gallup poll released Tuesday morning, Trump’s job approval rating was 49 percent. He is competitive in hypothetical match-ups with Democratic candidates in the battleground states that paved his way to victory in 2016, especially in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest.

There are, to be sure, reasons for Democrats to take heart. Trump’s poll ratings have been historically poor for much of his presidency. Much of the nation loathes him. He loses in most national polls to all the leading Democrats.

Perhaps most importantly, Democrats believe they have time.

The Iowa mess looms large now, but no one really believes it will decide any votes come November.

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Payne said that he was “not as crestfallen as other Democrats. There is a long time until November. Democrats have a long time to identify a candidate and a message and unify and mobilize for Election Day.”

Veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum emphasized that, since the start of the 2020 campaign, “the field of likely nominees has shrunk dramatically, which it should have” — and that the process would continue to play out organically.

There was no cause for real alarm, he said. But there was certainly reason to guard against complacency.

“I think Trump cannot win — but the Democrats can lose,” Shrum warned.

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