The Iowa Caucuses have traditionally performed dual functions in presidential nominating contests in both parties: identifying an early front-runner and winnowing the field of pretenders. This latter chore that Iowans trudge through the snow to do for their party is usually described in terms of how many “tickets” are available to move on from the First-in-the-Nation Caucuses to the rest of the calendar. Traditionally, the number was three. This year, with no clear front-runner and a huge field, perhaps it’s four tickets, as I predicted last month.
But nobody really thinks five viable candidacies can come out of Iowa, which is why the latest polling trend there may represent an existential crisis for many campaigns. A New York Times/Siena poll that just came out got attention mostly because Joe Biden had slipped into fourth place with 17 percent, trailing Elizabeth Warren with 22 percent, Bernie Sanders with 19 percent, and Pete Buttigieg with 18 percent. The fifth-place candidate, Amy Klobuchar, is at 4 percent. That’s great news for her personally, since it gives her a second qualifying poll (she needs four) for making the stage in the December candidate debate. But the fact remains that the Big Four candidates have 76 percent of the Iowa vote as expressed in this poll, with the other 14 candidates in the race (along with “undecided”) scrabbling for the other 24 percent.
And this isn’t the only poll suggesting a yawning gap between what has become two tiers of Iowa contenders: the RealClearPolitics averages for Iowa have Warren at 22.3 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent, Biden at 15.7 percent and Sanders at 15.3 percent. Klobuchar is fifth at 3.7 percent. Kamala Harris is the only other candidate with as much as 3 percent.
There’s nothing inevitable about this particular form of stratification. For a while there, the field was dominated by a Big Three (Biden, Sanders, and Warren). Sanders had some poor polling and then a heart attack, and many observers thought he was on the road to Palookaville. But no: He’s right in the thick of things in Iowa and in most other states. Warren took some shots in the most recent candidate debate, but she’s still leading the RCP averages in New Hampshire as well as Iowa. Mayor Pete has gotten some sharp criticism of late as the new favorite of the corporate world, but he’s hanging in there too, at least in states with low numbers of the minority voters with whom he has famously struggled. And lots of smart people have been predicting a Biden swoon (or collapse) for many months, yet he still leads in national polls and has built something of a firewall in South Carolina and among the minority voters that may represent his ultimate base.
So the question is: Who among the remaining candidates looks capable of overtaking any of the Big Four in Iowa? At this point, it’s hard to identify anyone with that kind of potential, though there’s plenty of time left, a lot of subjective impressions of instability in candidate preferences, and certainly precedents of late-breaking trends in which candidates who have been barnstorming through Iowa in obscurity suddenly catch fire. Keep in mind, though, that the idea of a limited number of “tickets out of Iowa” isn’t just some artifice of the punditry. Candidates must obtain 15 percent of the vote at the statewide or district levels to win delegates, and it will be tough for anyone who gets skunked altogether in Iowa to keep donors and volunteers onboard. Right now Klobuchar and Harris and Booker and Steyer and Beto and Bullock and perhaps others, all of whom at one point had visions of big success in Iowa, seem a long way from those delegate-winning thresholds. And it’s not a promising campaign strategy to plan on any of the Big Four doing them the favor of self-destructing.