The Four-Way Race For Iowa

January 16, 2020

Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, was a snoozer. Even the much-hyped conflict between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over whether he told her a woman can’t be elected fell flat. Her refusal to shake his hand afterward was the closest thing the evening offered to real drama.

Candidates reinforced positions we’ve heard many times before. The real question is who did better or worse than expected and, for the second consecutive debate, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar shined brighter than forecast. It wasn’t enough, however, to vault her into the first tier of candidates.

The absence of game-changing moments isn’t surprising. It’s hard to score with six hopefuls on the stage, especially when candidates are being cautious ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Transformative debates come when the focus is on a few candidates or the exchange cements someone’s image for good in the middle of voting.

This leaves political junkies scouring the latest polls to divine what might happen Feb. 3, when Iowa Democrats meet to kick off their party’s 2020 presidential roller derby. Opinion surveys can be comforting due to their precision, expressing complicated dynamics in numbers sometimes carried to the tenth of a point.

That’s taking it too far, but two recent, highly reputable polls from Iowa—Selzer’s from Jan. 2-8 and Monmouth’s from Jan. 9-12—should help guide analysis.

The two polls converged on many points. Monmouth has Mr. Sanders at 18% among likely caucusgoers; Selzer has him at 20%. Monmouth has former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 17%; Selzer 16%. Monmouth had Ms. Warren at 15%; Selzer 17%.

The big divergence is on former Vice President Joe Biden : Monmouth has him at 24%; Selzer at 15%. That 9-point gap is at least four times the size of any other between the surveys. It’s also the difference between first and fourth place for Mr. Biden.

So which is it? Since primaries and caucuses have smaller, more-difficult populations to survey than do general elections, we don’t really know. A YouGov survey for CBS News that polled voters between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3 finds a three-way tie between Messrs. Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg at 23%. The Real Clear Politics average of the three polls places Mr. Biden narrowly in the lead with 20.7% to Mr. Sanders’s 20.3%.

While it’s unlikely there will be major changes in public opinion before the Iowa caucuses, the race is so closely bunched that even small changes could produce a much different outcome than polls suggest today.

There are two reasons. First, Iowans take seriously their participation in the country’s first contest. Both Selzer and Monmouth find around 40% have firmly made up their minds, but 45% in the Selzer poll say they “could be persuaded” and 13% haven’t made a choice. The comparable Monmouth numbers are 52% still “open” and 5% with no choice yet.

Second, Iowa Democratic Party rules say that if a caucus participant’s preferred candidate doesn’t receive 15% of the vote in the attendee’s precinct, then he must chose another candidate or head home to await final results. Selzer finds 32% undecided or supporting candidates with less than 15% total support; Monmouth has around 26%. These voters’ second-choice preferences are likely to be especially important.

The two recent polls provide conflicting guidance as to where these people will break when their candidates lose. Selzer says Ms. Warren gets 16% as a second choice, Mr. Buttigieg 15% and Messrs. Biden and Sanders 12% each. Monmouth finds that 23% pick Ms. Warren as their second choice, vaulting her to first place. Fifteen percent say Mr. Buttigieg is their second choice, 14% pick Mr. Sanders and only 10% choose Mr. Biden, the same percentage who would turn to Ms. Klobuchar.

How this plays out depends on which candidates lack 15% in which of the state’s 1,681 precincts and what the field above them looks like in each meeting place. No candidate’s support will be consistent across the state.

Iowa used to punch the tickets of three candidates to proceed. This year, winners and losers in Iowa will be judged more by how they meet expectations than by vote percentage. The most likely outcome is that Ms. Warren and Messrs. Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg split Iowa’s 41 delegates roughly equally, with Ms. Klobuchar perhaps grabbing a couple.

The Democratic presidential race is as up for grabs at this point as any in modern U.S. electoral history. That means buckle up: There are lots of surprises and plenty of turmoil ahead.


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