All the frontrunners could survive initial Iowa test

All the frontrunners could survive initial Iowa test
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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 SandersEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (I-Vt.) with 20 percent, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (D-Mass.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFormer insurance executive: 'Medicare for all' would eliminate jobs that are 'not needed' Buttigieg says he's proud to be a part of US system amid UK royal family drama Buttigieg asked about 'Mayo Pete' memes by New York Times ed board MORE and Joe BidenJoe BidenLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Ex-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Parnas says he doesn't think that Joe Biden did anything wrong regarding Ukraine MORE. No one else is in double digits.

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

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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 ClintonDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment Political science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction Walsh plans protest at RNC headquarters over 'nakedly anti-Democratic' primary cancellations MORE and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials MORE skipped the Iowa caucuses.

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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 YangEvelyn Yang shares that she was sexually assaulted by doctor Buttigieg campaign reaches agreement with staff union Panel: Is Andrew Yang playing to win with Dave Chappelle endorsement and Iowa bus tour? MORE and Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Senate approves Trump trade deal with Canada, Mexico | Senate Dems launch probe into Trump tax law regulations | Trump announces Fed nominees Steyer proposes cuts for low- and middle-income families' taxes Warren to Sanders: 'I think you called me a liar on national TV' 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 ClintonFormer Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' NYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar 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 CruzSeven things to know about the Trump trial All the frontrunners could survive initial Iowa test Republicans face internal brawl over impeachment witnesses MORE “swarmed the room,” enlisting backers of those that didn't meet the threshold. This enabled him to edge out Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE, 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 Rubens BloombergBloomberg viewed as having best chance to beat Trump in betting market analysis Poll: Trump trails 2020 Democratic contenders in Michigan The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi names impeachment managers as focus shifts to Senate 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.