Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race. Reminder: There are 274 days until the 2020 presidential election.
On Monday evening, Iowans will gather in the state’s schools, churches and living rooms for the quadrennial caucuses, offering the first official results of the 2020 Democratic primary. (Republicans will also be caucusing, but the outcome there is preordained.) The caucusing process is confusing, and polling has been tight enough that the results are unpredictable.
A wide range of outcomes are still possible. Here are six headlines and ensuing storylines that you might see on Tuesday.
1. Bernie wins big
If you were only reading the myriad headlines about a Bernie Sanders surge, you might think the Vermont senator was running away with the race. He has had a great stretch of polling to pull ahead in the RealClear Politics average of Iowa Democrats, and even in some national polls. Several surveys this week showed Joe Biden still slightly ahead, but there’s reason to think Sanders’s ceiling could be higher.
Surveys of Iowa Democrats have consistently shown that Sanders’s supporters were the most committed and enthusiastic, but that many voters were still undecided. In a caucus setting, that enthusiasm for Sanders will likely mean that he clears the 15 percent threshold in the first round of caucusing almost everywhere, to potentially pick up those undecided voters. Sanders could also benefit from Sen. Elizabeth Warren falling below the viability mark in some rooms, which could encourage her progressive followers to back him as a second choice. Iowa will also be the first test of the Sanders campaign primary thesis: His platform and network of volunteers are going to turn out voters who don’t normally vote and aren’t normally polled. If they’re correct, polls right now are underselling his support, and he could post an impressive number relative to even the current raised expectations.
An impressive Sanders win would likely add to his polling average lead in New Hampshire. Another big win there and it would only be Michael Bloomberg’s billions and Biden’s margins with black voters standing in Sanders’s way.
2. Biden beats Bernie
Sure, three of the last five Iowa polls show Sanders ahead of Biden. But that means two of those polls still put Biden in the lead. Overall, Sanders’s advantage in the RealClear Politics average is only 3.6 percentage points. In the FiveThirtyEight average, it’s even smaller: 0.6 percentage points. The site’s forecasting model, meanwhile, gives Sanders a 38 percent chance of winning the caucuses. Biden’s odds of victory? A near-identical 35 percent. In other words, Sanders has been surging, but Biden could beat him Monday night.
If the former vice president does defeat the Vermont senator, expect a lot of breathless media coverage — and a lot of so-called momentum for Biden heading into New Hampshire the following week. That’s because expectations really do matter. For the past week, the press has been hyping Bernie as a sure thing in the Hawkeye State. A loss would upend those expectations, and the “surprising result” would give Biden a bigger bounce than he otherwise might have received. The “narrative” would be all about how Iowans got cold feet, returning to the “safe” Biden after flirting with the “risky” Sanders.
So how would a Biden win actually happen? Easily enough. He’s already polling at 21 percent, on average, so he should hit Iowa’s 15 percent viability threshold almost everywhere. But other moderates — Pete Buttigieg, who’s at 15 percent, and Amy Klobuchar, who’s at 10 percent — may not. At any caucus site where Buttigieg and/or Klobuchar don’t clear that bar, their supporters will likely “realign” with one of the remaining viable candidates during a second round of voting. And according to second-choice polling, a large number of them are likely to realign with Biden over Sanders. That could be enough to put Biden over the top — even if Sanders gathers second-round support from Warren fans.
3. Buttigieg beats Biden
At one point the 38-year-old gay former mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city looked like he had a shot at becoming 2020’s Cinderella story. He was leading the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He was on a fundraising tear. The media couldn’t get enough of him.
Buttigieg has since drifted back down to earth. Plagued by questions about his electability — particularly his stubborn inability to attract any detectable support from black voters, a key Democratic constituency — he now trails Biden by roughly 5 points in the Hawkeye State, and Sanders by roughly 8. At 14.8 percent in the RealClear Politics average, former Mayor Pete is right on the cusp of viability, and may fall short at a significant number of caucus sites.
But Buttigieg’s fairy-tale campaign isn’t necessarily kaput. He’s built what is arguably Iowa’s strongest field operation, and to “win” on caucus night he doesn’t have to win the caucuses. He just has to beat Biden, his biggest competitor in the moderate lane.
That won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible. First, clear 15 percent. Then rely on your superior organization to attract Klobuchar, Warren and Andrew Yang supporters on second alignment. Then squeak past Biden in the final vote tally. If Buttigieg somehow manages to pull this off, it will be one of the night’s biggest stories — and it will give him a chance to continue competing with Biden for the anti-Bernie vote in New Hampshire, where he and the former vice president are roughly tied in the polls.
4. A muddle of mixed messages
In 2016, the Democratic race in Iowa was a virtual tie: Hillary Clinton came away with 23 delegates versus 21 for Sanders, their state delegate equivalents separated by a quarter of a percentage point. Because of a push for transparency by Sanders supporters, who claimed there was reason to suspect that he had actually won the raw-vote total in the state, the results this time will include two sets of vote totals — from the first and second rounds of voting — along with the final delegate count. With a congested 2020 field, those new results might come into play.
There are just 41 delegates up for grabs in Iowa, and with both Buttigieg and Klobuchar running ahead of their national averages here, it’s very possible we see a four- or even five-way split of the delegates. (For comparison’s sake: New Hampshire, the next state to vote, offers 33 delegates, while Super Tuesday’s biggest prize, California, has 494.) If the race is essentially a draw, look for campaigns to highlight the vote counts and how they performed relative to expectations. While there’s certainly the potential for big news Monday night, it’s also possible there’s a collective shrug — and a continued stalemate — as the primary moves to its next stop.
5. The Warren wild card
Like Buttigieg, Warren is a former frontrunner — not just in Iowa, where she led the polls for much of the fall, but nationwide, where she is still the only candidate to have challenged Biden’s longtime dominance.
Yet the Massachusetts senator’s awkward embrace of Medicare for All opened her up to attacks from the middle (that she was too far left to win) and the left (that she wasn’t as pure as Sanders), while latent sexism and lingering shellshock from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss triggered fears that she might not be able to defeat Donald Trump. As a result, Warren’s numbers fell in Iowa (and elsewhere), and in the final days before the caucuses they seem to have settled at around 14.5 percent.
It’s possible, then, that on Monday night Warren supporters’ main relevance will be as a source of second-choice votes for Sanders or Buttigieg. But given that she remains Democrats’ top second-choice candidate, it’s worth considering another possibility as well: that Warren’s deep ground-game investment and closing electability argument (“Women win”) propel her past the viability threshold and past Buttigieg to an unexpectedly strong showing at a time when she’s nearly been declared DOA. That, in turn, would make her a key player next week in her neighboring state of New Hampshire — and perhaps in any future push among progressives to prevent Biden from securing the nomination.
6. Klobuchar makes a mark
With minimal traction in national polls, Klobuchar likely needs a strong showing in Iowa to justify staying in the race beyond New Hampshire. The possibility is there: The most recent polls have shown her consistently in double digits, near the 15 percent threshold needed to compete, with one placing her in third place. She has a relative home field advantage representing Iowa’s northern neighbor and has picked up a number of endorsements, including the Quad-City Times (which endorsed Sanders in 2016) and a slew of current and former Iowa legislators.
The question is: How high would Klobuchar have to finish for her to lock in as a viable contender moving forward? Every candidate in the top four of national polling who finishes behind her would have questions to answer, but her low polling numbers in New Hampshire — she has cracked double digits just a handful of times — combined with minimal traction among nonwhite voters and a lack of both funding and organization beyond Iowa limit her upside. There’s also the chance any success in Iowa will provoke more interest in a call this week by the NAACP’s Minneapolis chapter and Black Lives Matter for her to withdraw from the race due to questions about a case she tried in her time as a prosecutor.
Latest polls show Bernie or Biden on top
Given the unusual process of caucusing, the Iowa caucuses are notoriously tough to predict. But five new polls released this week show a relatively tight race at the top, with either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden holding a slight edge over the rest of the field. (Sanders is on top in three of the surveys, with Biden topping the other two.) They were released days ahead of the Des Moines Register poll, which is seen by some observers as a bellwether and will be released Saturday. Note that the results below do not show candidates who polled at 1 percent or less.
Iowa State University Poll, Jan. 23-27
• Bernie Sanders 24%
• Elizabeth Warren 19%
• Pete Buttigieg 17%
• Joe Biden 15%
• Amy Klobuchar 11%
• Andrew Yang 5%
• Tom Steyer 4%
• Tulsi Gabbard 2%
Margin of error: +/- 4.8%
Monmouth University Iowa Poll, Jan. 23-27
• Joe Biden 23%
• Bernie Sanders 21%
• Pete Buttigieg 16%
• Elizabeth Warren 15%
• Amy Klobuchar 10%
• Tom Steyer 4%
• Andrew Yang 3%
Margin of error: +/- 4.2%
Emerson College Iowa Poll, Jan. 23-26
• Bernie Sanders 30%
• Joe Biden 21%
• Amy Klobuchar 13%
• Elizabeth Warren 11%
• Pete Buttigieg 10%
• Andrew Yang 5%
• Tom Steyer 5%
• Tulsi Gabbard 5%
Margin of error: +/- 4.6%
USA Today/Suffolk University Iowa Poll, Jan. 23-26
• Joe Biden 25%
• Bernie Sanders 19%
• Pete Buttigieg 18%
• Elizabeth Warren 13%
• Amy Klobuchar 6%
• Andrew Yang 3%
• Tom Steyer 2%
Margin of error: +/- 4.4%
CBS News/YouGov Iowa Poll, Jan. 16-23
• Bernie Sanders 26%
• Joe Biden 25%
• Pete Buttigieg 22%
• Elizabeth Warren 15%
• Amy Klobuchar 7%
Margin of error: +/- 3.9%
“I could make this speech really short. All I’d have had to do is say, ‘Uh, hello, Iowa, you have to vote for me. You have no choice. Otherwise, everything you’ve built in your entire life will be gone. Goodbye, Iowa. Have a good time.’”
— President Trump at a rally in Des Moines on Thursday night
“Character is on the ballot. America’s character. I do not believe we’re the dark, angry nation Donald Trump sees in his tweets in the middle of the night.”
— Former Vice President Joe Biden in a campaign speech in Waukee, Iowa, on Thursday morning
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in an impeachment.”
— Retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and member of President Trump’s defense team at the Senate impeachment trial Wednesday
“That is the normalization of lawlessness.”
— Rep. Adam Schiff, lead manager for House Democrats, responding Thursday to Dershowitz's argument, which he also referred to as “a descent into constitutional madness”
“It has been a privilege to campaign for the Democratic nomination for President, but it is clear that God has a different purpose for me at this moment in time.”
— Former Maryland congressman John Delaney in a statement Friday announcing the end of his bid
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