CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — As Iowa Democrats begin to coalesce around a few front-running candidates, those who are still struggling to build support in this first-in-the-nation caucus state are facing growing pressure to gain momentum — or quit.
As the clock ticks toward the February 3 caucuses, a culling season has descended on the Democratic field. The candidates outside of the top tier are taking steps to preserve resources, redeploy staff and place their fates in the hands of Iowa voters, sacrificing the national organizations they had hoped to build in favor of a longer-odds bet on breaking out in a single state where voters have a reputation for carefully considering their choices.
And while the candidates who have left the race so far were largely little-known to begin with, some of the contenders who started off with hopes of being in the top tier are now feeling the heat. The urgency of the moment crystalized on Friday when one of those once-promising candidates, former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke says he raised record .2M since launching campaign for Texas governor Eleven interesting races to watch in 2022 Cruz bullish on his 2024 chances: 'The runner-up is almost always the next nominee' MORE (D-Texas), ended his campaign Friday.
"That's the job Iowa does, it winnows the field," said David Yepsen, the veteran commentator who hosts a weekly political affairs show on Iowa Public Television.
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMadame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures Democrats ponder Plan B strategy to circumvent voting rights filibuster Watch: Lawmakers, activists, family members call for voting rights legislation on MLK day MORE (D-Calif.), hemorrhaging campaign cash as her fundraising and poll numbers slump, has laid off some staff and dispatched others to Iowa. She said repeatedly this weekend she is "all-in" on Iowa, and on Friday, she offered a refreshed stump speech pitching herself as the fighter capable of taking on President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE.
"To win, we're going to need a nominee on that stage with Donald Trump who has the ability to go toe to toe with Donald Trump and Iowa — you're looking at her," Harris said Friday.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroDemocrats must not give in to self-fulfilling defeatism Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Biden calls on Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration MORE said his campaign needed to raise $800,000 in the final ten days of October to continue the race, a goal he met on Halloween. But Saturday Castro's top aides told staffers they were free to look for new jobs, and that layoffs were still possible.
Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerCNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee Barnes rakes in almost 0K after Johnson enters Wisconsin Senate race Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (D-N.J.), who reached his own do-or-die fundraising goal at the end of September, said Saturday he too would focus his energies on Iowa.
"This has been our major state from the very beginning," Booker told reporters Saturday at a candidate forum held by Rep. Abby FinkenauerAbby Lea FinkenauerIowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Democrat Mike Franken launches challenge to Grassley in Iowa Trump says Grassley has his 'complete and total endorsement' MORE (D-Iowa), comparing himself to Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterWhy our parties can't govern Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle MORE's 1976 campaign. "I'm going to be the nominee, and we are going to win here in Iowa."
Carter finished well ahead of every other candidate who ran in the 1976 caucuses, though he only managed a second-place showing — to the uncommitted delegates who could not settle on a candidate.
Recent polls have showed caucus voters, notoriously reluctant to settle on a candidate before the last possible moment, nonetheless coalescing around a group of four front-runners: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenLobbying world Sanders open to supporting primary challengers against Manchin and Sinema Warren dodges on whether Sinema, Manchin should be challenged in primaries MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he didn't 'overpromise' Finland PM pledges 'extremely tough' sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Schumer tees up doomed election reform vote Schumer prepares for Senate floor showdown with Manchin, Sinema White House to make 400 million N95 masks available for free MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegAirlines suspend US flights in response to 5G deployment AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports Top Democrats call on AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G rollouts near airports MORE.
The most recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa voters showed those top contenders in a tight contest for first place, with Warren at the top. Together, the candidates outside the top four drew a combined 18 percent — good enough to tie Buttigieg for third place.
The decisions to shed staff and focus on Iowa are a reflection of the dwindling number of opportunities any candidate has to make a major impression on voters and leap into the top tier.
No candidate has had a truly break-out moment in any of the televised debates that has sustained itself beyond a brief sugar high, and none have delivered the kind of race-altering performance that crystalizes their statuses like then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats make final plea for voting rights ahead of filibuster showdown Biden nominates Jane Hartley as ambassador to UK To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE at the 2007 Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner.
On Friday, at the Iowa Democratic Party's analogous Liberty and Justice Celebration, several candidates reached for the lofty rhetorical zeniths Obama achieved then. None moved the crowd of about 12,000 party activists and donors in the same way Obama brought down the house a dozen years ago.
Some of those in need of a big moment were victims of bad luck. Booker and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions Democrats make final plea for voting rights ahead of filibuster showdown Apple warns antitrust legislation could expose Americans to malware MORE (D-Minn.) each performed well, but they spoke well after their allotted time slots because of scheduling overruns, and their addresses fell on a largely empty hall.
Yepsen said some of the more traditional candidates are being boxed out, too, by the emergence of unexpected contenders. Entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangBottom line American elections are getting less predictable; there's a reason for that Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE has won a dedicated following among enthusiasts of his plan to remake American society through a universal basic income; his Yang Gang can recite much of their hero's stump speech verbatim. And hedge fund billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerYouth voting organization launches M registration effort in key battlegrounds Overnight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline MORE has spent $47 million on his own campaign in which he critiques the "corporate stranglehold that is controlling our government," as he said Friday.
For months, the pundit class within the Democratic Party has complained of an overly bloated field of candidates, one that has prevented the party from coalescing around a few choices who represent the various factions of the party. Now, voters seem to be taking the same attitude.
"There is a feeling that you'll find from caucus-goers that there are good people [in the field] but there are too many of them," Yepsen said. "The field's too crowded."