vision 2020

How Many Candidates Can Survive a Bad Showing in Iowa?

For Minnesota neighbor Amy Klobuchar, it’s definitely Iowa or bust. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

With a fourth Democratic candidates’ debate in the books, and many observers becoming impatient about some of the remaining 19 White House aspirants dropping out, guessing games will ensue about who will drop out next. At least one candidate, Julián Castro, has invited that sort of scrutiny with a fundraising appeal linked to a threat to quit:

This sort of gambit worked for Cory Booker in September, so maybe Castro can get his loyalists to cough up some more dough in time to make the next stage. But soon some candidates who haven’t been doing well may calculate that they might as well stick around until voters start voting, at which point denying the obvious will become vastly more difficult. Later this week we’ll hit the 100-day milepost before the February 3 Iowa caucuses. So instead of trying to figure out who ought to quit earlier than that — today, or maybe even yesterday — a more useful exercise is to project which candidates cannot credibly survive a bad showing in the very first contest. It’s a variation on the old “how many tickets are there out of Iowa?” puzzle that the chattering classes have played for decades.

The “Big Three” Should Be All Right Unless They Totally Fall Apart

The candidates who have dominated the early going in Iowa and elsewhere, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, all have strong national followings, distinct identities, and good fundraising operations. Short of some horrid mistake that produces a free fall in support in Iowa and elsewhere, they all have enough of a national base and a plausible path to the nomination that a post-Iowa comeback is possible even if they underwhelm a bit in the caucuses. It’s also possible, of course, that one of the Big Three will decide winning Iowa is the ball game and will empty the bank account trying to do so. That’s what Hillary Clinton did in 2008. And her third-place showing in Iowa might have finished her had she not pulled a shocking upset win in New Hampshire just five days later.

Mayor Pete Really Needs Some Iowa Magic

Recent polling in Iowa has shown Pete Buttigieg doing quite well, consistently running third or fourth. But given the nature of his base of support, he absolutely needs to do quite well in both Iowa and New Hampshire; later on, his struggle to win over minority voters could become fatal to his candidacy if he hasn’t already established himself as viable. Since his current strategy appears to be to position himself as the “moderate alternative” to Joe Biden, Mayor Pete’s best path to the nomination is to beat Biden in Iowa and then begin to make himself the strongest moderate in the race, particularly if Warren and Sanders continue to fight it out for supremacy among progressive voters.

Bennet, Beto, Booker, Bullock, Klobuchar, and Probably Harris Are Iowa-or-Bust Candidates

There are quite a few White House aspirants who will likely have to (or need to) drop out if they don’t finish really well in Iowa. The most obvious is Amy Klobuchar, whose proximity to the First-in-the-Nation Caucus State has been central to her candidacy all along. Like fellow Minnesotans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann (briefly viable in 2012 on the Republican side) and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (who dropped out in 2016 after polling poorly in Iowa), Klobuchar isn’t going to convince voters anywhere else she’s worth considering if she can’t win over her neighbors.

Colorado senator Michael Bennet and Montana governor Steve Bullock are also from relatively near Iowa and have spent significant time there. They also have in common that they are part of the crowd of candidates (along with Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris) who have been auditioning to become moderate alternatives to Joe Biden. Since neither has been on a debate stage since July, it’s hard to imagine their highly theoretical rationales for candidacy surviving a poor or even meh showing in Iowa.

The same is likely true of Beto O’Rourke, whose early fundraising and high name ID, and then a modest revival after the gun massacre in his hometown, have given him more staying power. But once voters vote, his long-standing “potential” may be used up.

Booker built one of the strongest early organizations in Iowa, and given the fact that he has no other states to fall back on if he falters there, he, too, should be good or gone after February 3. And you can make a strong case that Harris, briefly a world-beater after a strong first-debate performance, has to finish in the money in Iowa as well, after she decided to focus her entire candidacy on an Obama-style breakthrough there. Conversely, Biden can clear out a lot of potential moderate-lane and African-American competition if he badly beats all these rivals in Iowa, which is a good reason for him to keep spending time there despite having stronger support elsewhere.

Steyer and Yang May Be Impervious to a Bad Showing

Tom Steyer, I am sure, wants to do well in Iowa as much as anyone else. But he has the resources to survive a poor finish there, and in quite a few other states as well, so long as he doesn’t become too discouraged to go on. Andrew Yang is a niche candidate who has already exceeded every reasonable expectation, without raising those expectations above what he can accomplish. He’s raising money pretty well, too, and has no particular geographical base, so why should he drop out after Iowa?

Perhaps Tulsi Gabbard is a niche candidate, too: sort of the Dennis Kucinich of the 2020 cycle, with an ideological positioning that probably secures a hard kernel of support. But it’s unclear whether she has the appetite for that kind of quixotic run. As for Castro, his path to the nomination depends on making it to Nevada, where he could in theory draw on support from fellow Latinos, but it’s doubtful he can survive until then.

Candidates Who Are Going Nowhere Anyway Can Meander On After Iowa

Some of the above candidates, of course, and several others who have made less of a mark on the contest, can keep going on a sort of energy-saver mode after doing poorly in Iowa because they don’t need a lot of money or support to hang around and/or don’t have time-consuming day jobs. The model for this kind of sort-of candidacy is provided by Miramar, Florida, mayor Wayne Messam, who is not raising or spending much of anything. A livelier version of the eternal candidate may be Marianne Williamson, who has pretty good name ID and some fundraising ability, along with no discernible path to the nomination that she can screw up with a poor performance in Iowa or anywhere else. If she wants to stick around, she can. The very wealthy John Delaney is a sort of Tom Steyer with less money and a lot less support. And who knows why Tim Ryan is still in the race (though focusing most of his attention on his real campaign, the one for reelection to the House) — or Joe Sestak?

So to get back to the perennial question, how many tickets out of Iowa are there likely to be, counting only candidates who are truly viable? The traditional answer has always been three. For the reasons cited earlier, there will probably be four tickets out of Iowa this time around: the Big Three plus some lucky dark horse aiming for Biden’s vote, minority voters, or some sweet spot in the center of the party.

How Many Candidates Can Survive a Bad Showing in Iowa?