All the frontrunners could survive initial Iowa test

All the frontrunners could survive initial Iowa test
© Getty Images

The Iowa caucuses haven't always voted for the ultimate nominee, but this time they may fail to even winnow out all but the very top candidates.

Based on surveys, especially Ann Selzer's legendary Iowa poll, four aspirants are bunched together less than one month out: Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPresident Trump faces Herculean task in first debate The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (I-Vt.) with 20 percent, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' MORE (D-Mass.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Billionaire 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 MORE and Joe BidenJoe BidenTop House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for Trump's TikTok ban Harris says she hasn't 'made a plan one way or another' on meeting Supreme Court nominee MORE. No one else is in double digits.

Last night's Iowa debate was predictable, even pedestrian.

ADVERTISEMENT

Warren had arguably the strongest night, but I doubt whether it was enough to change the dynamics.

If the close contest persists, that probably keeps all four top candidates politically alive for subsequent races in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina next month. That could suggest a more protracted and unpredictable race ahead.

Going back to 1976, any candidate, Democratic or Republican, who didn't finish first or second in Iowa was a political dead man, even if some didn't realize it.

The only exception was 1988 when eventual nominees Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis finished a reasonably close third; both, however, were well-positioned to bounce back shortly and win in their neighboring New Hampshire.

Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonChanging the climate of presidential debates Davis: My advice to Joe Biden on eve of the debate — be Joe Biden Is Congress reasserting itself? MORE and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Meet the first woman to run for president Jill Biden shuts down Jake Tapper's question about husband's 'occasional gaffe' MORE skipped the Iowa caucuses.

ADVERTISEMENT

Among the heavyweights in the Iowa political graveyards are Sens. Howard Baker, Joe Biden, Richard Lugar and Birch Bayh; top-rated Republicans Jack Kemp and John Connally. Democratic Gov. Howard Dean — with big name endorsements and topping the polls — cratered in the Hawkeye state; four years ago, the highly-hyped Gov. Chris Christie finished a dismal tenth.

This time also-rans like Andrew YangAndrew YangThe shape of guaranteed income Biden's latest small business outreach is just ... awful Doctor who allegedly assaulted Evelyn Yang arrested on federal charges MORE and Tom SteyerTom SteyerTV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration finalizes plan to open up Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling | California finalizes fuel efficiency deal with five automakers, undercutting Trump | Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment MORE will barely register; it may also mark the end of Sen. Amy Kloubachar of Minnesota whose entire campaign rests on doing well next door in Iowa. A respectable fifth is an oxymoron.

All the top four have tests to meet in two and half weeks. Bernie Sanders, with the most committed supporters, is best positioned for the long haul. The 78-year-old Vermont socialist, who had a heart attack months ago, remarkably dominates with voters under 35, with 36 percent support; former Vice President Biden gets only 4 percent.

Still, Sanders is considered an unlikely nominee. A win in Iowa, barely denied him four years ago by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Voters split on whether Trump, Biden will win first debate: poll New Monmouth poll finds Biden with 6-point lead MORE, and another the following week in New Hampshire would assure that he'll be one of the finalists.

Both Warren and Buttigieg, who led in earlier Selzer polls, need a strong showing — a win or solid second — to avoid a sense they have peaked, hurting subsequent support and fund-raising.

Biden may have the most at stake. If he scores a victory in Iowa, that would solidify his front-running status. But if he finishes back in the pack, fourth, it'll reinforce the notion that Joe is “yesterday.”

There are a few intervening questions. Most critical may be how well the candidates navigate the complexities of the caucus system. On a cold snowy night hundreds of thousands of Iowans go to different gymnasiums, YMCAs and private homes to caucus for their first choice. Any that don't meet a threshold can join another that does.

It's tougher than it sounds.

In the Republican contest last time, after the initial votes, supporters of Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSupreme Court fight should drive Democrats and help Biden Fears grow of chaotic election Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election MORE “swarmed the room,” enlisting backers of those that didn't meet the threshold. This enabled him to edge out Donald Trump, who failed to master that system.

All the Democrats say they're well-positioned for caucus night; Sanders has done it before; Buttigieg and Warren have swarms of aides and volunteers. Democrats aren't as sure about the Biden operation.

Another probably less important variable is the Senate taking up impeachment next week. That means Sens. Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar will be tied up in Washington for six days a week through the caucus date. But with surrogates, video conferences and having worked the state so much, this may not make much difference.

If all four leading contenders emerge from the four February contests, attention will shift to former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida MORE who is skipping the initial races to spend hundreds of millions of dollars — literally — in the big Super Tuesday March 3 primaries, which include the delegate-rich and expensive media-centric states of California and Texas.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.