Remember when there were 20 candidates?
It’s been a long and crazy road to get to February of 2020, and the Iowa caucuses. John Delaney was the first guy in, in July of 2017. Wow! You go John! Andrew Yang was next in, in November of 2017 and then West Virginia tough-guy Richard Ojedda after that…a year later in November of 2018. Most of the rest of the field filed sometime between January of 2019 and November of 2019.
Ojedda was also the first guy out, suspending his ridiculous campaign less than three months after announcing, in January of 2019 just as other candidates were thinking of getting in. August and September of 2019 were really the cruelest months. Kirsten Gillibrand, Seth Moulton, Mike Gravel, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee and Bill DeBlasio all folded the tents that month. Candidates who once looked like strong contenders – Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke – bowed out over the fall and winter. Candidates who looked like a consultant’s wet dream (Steve Bullock and Corey Booker) just never seemed to find an audience.
And thus, back to that whole 20 candidates thing. Remember that? There are really just a handful left: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sure, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer are both still in, and can stay in as long as they want. They’re both spending their own money hand over fist. Neither is likely to do anything in Iowa. Bloomberg is also still in, but not on the Iowa ballot. But he’s been rising in national polls, suggesting that he knows how to incinerate dumpsterfuls of his own billionaire money smarter than either Yang or Steyer do.
And there are other candidates still technically in. Michael Bennet is still in. Tulsi Gabbard is too. Remember when Deval Patrick declared? I kind of barely remember that, too but he’s still in. By Wednesday, all but Gabbard are likely to be out. Well, Patrick may stick around to finish below 1% in New Hampshire and then he’ll close shop.
So for the Iowa caucuses, I’ll focus on The Big Four +1. That’s Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren + Klobuchar. With apologies to the rest of the candidates and their supporters, those are the five who’ll be front and center on Monday night when caucus returns start rolling in.
So how do these caucus thingies work?
The first thing to know about caucuses is that they’re inherently undemocratic relics. You have to participate in real, live time. Which means you have to be at a designated area in your voting precinct at a designated time or no caucusing for you. And there’s a lot of standing around and being in crowds and possibly having to stand around for hours that makes it tough for older folks and folks with disabilities, not to mention anyone who works nights or has to work early the next day. Caucuses suck.
But yeah. As described, you go to your designated caucus site (usually a high school gym or cafeteria or firehouse or community park center) and precinct captains for each candidate try to gather their supporters around. The folks gatekeeping the caucus site mark off each person who enters, so they know the total number of folks caucusing. And once everyone’s in, the folks standing with the captain or campaign person for each candidate are counted. And here’s where it gets kind of interesting and strategeric. ;)
Remember, the workers at the caucus site know how many total caucusers there are who have shown up to participate. And so as the huddled groups for each candidate are counted, any candidate who doesn’t have at least 15% of the folks at the caucus site standing with his or her designated captain is termed non-viable. Supporters of non-viable candidates are then released, and are free to join another candidate. Sometimes two or three groups of supporters for different non-viable candidates will join together and make one non-viable candidate hit the 15% threshhold in that precinct. But most often, supporters of non-viable candidates are lured, cajoled, browbeat, and begged to join with groups for candidates who are viable. This is called realignment. After realignment, a final count is taken, affirmed, and reported to the state party/election officials.
It’s a crazy thing in practice, as you might imagine. Experienced precinct captains are already making deals long before supporter counts take place, even as caucusers arrive. And there’s likely to be this offshoot in a lot of caucuses where handfuls of Gabbard and Yang and Steyer supporters yell at one another before deciding not to join together as one OR support another candidate who is viable, and declare themselves uncommitted and taking their respective footballs and going home to get on twitter to start dumb hashtag wars and rail about the DNC or something.
Here’s the way I see it, but this is just a lot of semi-informed opinion.
1. Bernie Sanders
Best case scenario: Bernie wins Iowa by more than 5 or 6 points and heads into New Hampshire’s primary 8 days later with a wind at his back. Bernie will want to bank wins in Iowa, NH, and Nevada before South Carolina can rescue Biden. A big win in Iowa would get Sanders a nice bounce into New Hampshire.
Happy with… Sanders will be happy with any win at all, really. And honestly, I’ll be fairly surprised if his name isn’t at the top of the list on Monday night. He won’t get a huge bounce to New Hampshire off a narrow win, but he probably won’t need it.
Not happy with… A narrow defeat, especially to Biden. That would be a surprising result, and send Biden to New Hampshire with a bounce. Not what Sanders wants or needs out of the gate.
Worst case scenario: Sanders finishes third, somehow. I think this scenario is almost impossible to actually occur, but if it should, it’s easy to see a Sanders negative bounce to New Hampshire and would be a disaster for his campaign.
2. Joe Biden
Best case scenario He wins, even narrowly by a whisker. It won’t mean much for the delegate breakdowns, but it’s likely to seem like a bit of a surprise and will get him a bounce based on expectations to take to New Hampshire. Would make Grampy Joe awfully tough the rest of the way, too.
Happy with… Honestly, second or third, as long as Sanders doesn’t win by more than 6 or so. Biden would be happy to just play stalking horse until March 3 and Super Tuesday.
Not happy with… …a fourth place finish or Sanders winning by a wide margin of 8-10 or more. would bounce Bernie nicely into New Hampshire and dig a deeper hole than Biden wants out of the gate. Could dent that “electability” argument, too.
Worst case scenario Biden finishes fourth, and it’s a distant fourth, under 15%. That would make his poor performance and questions about electability arguments drive the narrative for the rest of February.
3. Pete Buttigieg
Best case scenario Mayor Pete somehow wins a squeaker in Iowa thanks to some precinct captain magic and earns a nice bounce to take him to New Hampshire.
Happy with Hard to say, really, because its tough to envision a scenario where Mayor Pete wins anything without a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. I suppose a close 2nd to Bernie would be OK.
Unhappy with… …3rd or below. That’s probably a negative bounce (as in, numbers fall) in New Hampshire. Hard to see a path here, but…
Worst case scenario If Mayor Pete finishes fourth in Iowa, it’s probably over. There’s no bounce to take him into New Hampshire, and he looks dead in the water in Nevada and South Carolina and his “I’m not Joe Biden” moderate left lane is going to run smack dab into a brick wall called Mike Bloomberg on Super Tuesday.
4. Elizabeth Warren
Best case scenario She finishes 2nd, but within 5-7 points of the winner. The Iowa winner will bounce into New Hampshire, but so too will Warren if this happens, and if the Iowa winner isn’t Sanders, she’s live for New Hampshire.
Happy with A more distant second or close third that puts Mayor Pete into a distant fourth place and puts Klobuchar below 10% in Iowa. Should one or both drop out by Super Tuesday, it gives her a reason to stay in until then.
Not happy with… Pretty much anything where she’s polling right now. A 16-19% state delegate portion finish and coming in behind Biden and Sanders gives her nothing for New Hampshire, where she could finish fourth in her neighboring state. She might not make Super Tuesday in this all-too-likely scenario, and certainly might not make it far past Super Tuesday.
Worst case scenario She finishes fifth, getting picked off by Klobuchar on her flank. Would possibly end her candidacy after New Hampshire.
5. Amy Klobuchar
Best case scenario Finishes 3rd and would thus bounce sky high into New Hampshire. Like fetch, though, it’s not happening. (I don’t think.)
Happy with… …a fourth place finish, where she picks off Warren or Mayor Pete and maybe gets up to 15% to take some token delegates. It’d at least give her a reason to continue for another week or so.
Unhappy with/Worst case scenario If Klobuchar can’t hit 10% in her neighboring state, it’s hard to see her hitting 5% in any other contest before Super Tuesday, and the money’s just not going to be there for her to make it worthwhile to stay in. Fifth or worse and she may be out before New Hampshire or right after.
If I wanna see Trump lose, what should I root for?
You should probably root for Bernie and Biden to get a real scare from either a strong performance from Buttigieg or Warren or both. No really.
See, so far both the old guys are running somewhat sloppy, uninspired campaigns at the moment. Biden’s organizing has been terrible, even with a lot of old campaign hands. They seem to know they have a lot of Biden voters out there, but they also seem almost adrift as far as how to galvanize them.
And Sanders has been running a better campaign than he did in 2016, but that’s like saying your blimp landed better than the Hindenburg. He’s still letting his supporters and especially his surrogates get off message, and generally seems either uninterested in message discipline or unwilling to publicly enforce it. Biden can be undisciplined. People sort of expect it and it’s baked into his brand. “Oh Joe, you funny old guy.” But people expect Bernie to be the ideas and big policy guy. He can easily enforce message discipline without alienating his adoring, core supporters. But will he?
What’s really disturbing to me is that Iowa has been right there for either front-runner to win. It was right there back in June. July. September. December.
And yet, it’s the Buttigieg and Warren campaigns that have been snapping up the best and most experienced precinct captains and putting together the best organized ground games in the state…the kind of ground game folks that can steal you the handfuls of supporters of non-viable candidates on caucus night that can make a difference in a close race.
Both front-runners need to tighten their respective shit up by June, if either guy is going to be the nominee and beat Trump in November. It wouldn’t hurt them at all to get scared early here and be forced to make some tough organizational changes.