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The Iowa caucuses are three weeks away – and there’s no clear frontrunner | Art Cullen | Opinion


The plain fact is that we Iowans are having a hard time making up our minds.

Our attention has been firmly fixed on a historically huge field of 25 Democratic presidential candidates since each stood on a soapbox and delivered their pitch at the state fair in August, within earshot of the butter cow.

Now it appears we are down to an effective field of a half-dozen – Iowa’s function in the nomination process is to responsibly winnow the field – and the gold standard of polling told us last weekend it’s a wide-open race. And that about half of us who think we are close to decided are still sucking our thumbs and remain open to some other suitor.

The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll reported Friday that Bernie Sanders has a slight lead at 20%, with Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden bunched in close behind in double digits. Amy Klobuchar is in shouting distance at 6%, and Andrew Yang pulls in 5%.

The old saying goes that there are three tickets out of Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses set for Monday 3 February. This time, four tickets may get punched for the next stop in New Hampshire a week later. It does not appear that there is a dominant frontrunner – Warren trails by three points and Biden by five.

“Viability” is the watchword. That’s because the caucus rules dictate that a candidate must have 15% support from the attendees who show up for two hours in a school cafeteria on a typical winter evening draped in freezing rain.

Only Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden muster 15% so far. Klobuchar is worth keeping an eye on, as the next-door neighbor from Minnesota, but her support hasn’t swelled.

Still, a third of the Democrats may trudge into that cafeteria undecided. Or they realize their candidate is not viable when they get there. Speeches get under way from neighbors who are precinct captains for each campaign. Appeals are made. Musical chairs commence. Unviable camps are courted by the viable.

Second choices, in this context, are as important as first.

Buttigieg and Warren have strong advantages, the Iowa poll reported. Sixty perc ent of those polled said the former South Bend mayor is either their first or second choice, while 59% say the same about the senator from Massachusetts.

At the same time, Buttigieg’s support in the poll as a first choice plummeted nine points after having led in the last poll in November. He, like Warren when she briefly led, came under intense attack. His corporate ties and tensions with the African American community came under scrutiny as did Warren’s healthcare position. It showed in the polling. Warren took her beating earlier and since has stabilized, actually bouncing up a tad. The poll reported that while Buttigieg slid, “undecideds” rose.

Buttigieg has perhaps the only paid organizing network as large as Warren’s in the Tall Corn state. The Iowa caucuses have historically served as a test of a campaign’s ability to organize and turn out voters at the precinct level. Warren set up shop statewide, with a special emphasis on rural areas so often flown over. Buttigieg reputedly caught up to her in committing resources to organizing. But she has been at it longer, especially in those forgotten rural places that could give a winner the margin they need.

Sanders benefits from a core of support that has stayed in place since he virtually tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus in 2016. His indictment: Clinton supported the Iraq war. His indictment revisited: Biden supported the Iraq war – a not-inconsiderable charge in Iowa. Iowa Democrats have a strong anti-war streak that runs deep among descendants of Prussian draft-dodgers.

Which all goes to say that nobody has any clue who will win our two-year-long parlor game. Probably, there will be no clear winner. Likely, there will be four viable campaigns. I suspect on-the-ground organization matters most – especially for candidates who are tied up in a congressional impeachment trial and can’t campaign. For certain, caucus night is going to be crazy. No doubt about that.

  • Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. He is author of the book Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland, due in paperback later this month from Penguin

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