In the final days before the Iowa caucuses every four years, it’s typical for campaign aides and reporters, and baristas and taxi drivers, and any Iowan who’s ever turned on a television or heard a radio ad, to try predicting which presidential candidates will win and which ones will fall flat. But this year is different. Just two weeks out, as the outcome of the race should be taking shape, almost no one in the state — much less the campaign operatives paid to project confidence to anyone who’ll listen — is comfortable even hazarding a shadow of a guess about the Democratic caucuses. This is, in part, the product of a hangover from the 2016 experience there, when Donald Trump happened and Ted Cruz won the Republican caucuses anyway, and when Bernie Sanders shocked the country by effectively tying Hillary Clinton. But even more than that, it’s about how unusually tight this year’s race is — and how much of the rest of the primary campaign seems to hang on its, for now, totally wide-open outcome.
Come February 4, more than two-thirds of Democrats will be at least some amount of disappointed by who wins Iowa, with a whole lot of them much more panicked than that: If, after a year of seemingly nonstop campaigning, none of the candidates has really pulled in front, how confident can you be, they might ask, that any of them could actually take down Trump? The campaigns know this, and know that after Iowa the field of real contenders is likely to narrow even further — which is why they are all, even the most ideological candidates, so focused on February 3 as a way of demonstrating electability. Because the first and last thing every voter is asking themselves right now is, Who can win in November?
From the outside, the race for the nomination can look exhaustingly (or maddeningly) stable — Sanders and Joe Biden are nearly exactly where they were in national polling a year ago, before either even entered the race. But the four leading candidates have, in fact, been trading places atop the bewildered first-to-caucus state’s polls for months, most often within the margin of error. The three most recent surveys have seen Biden narrowly leading, with Sanders in second; Sanders barely leading, with Elizabeth Warren in second; and Biden and Sanders tied with Pete Buttigieg, with Warren just behind. The campaigns are in a frenzy, and nobody working on them believes the winner will be clear before Caucus Night, when Iowans will gather across the state to pick their favorites and then, in many cases, ditch them for their second or third options — an even-more-complicated-to-predict second- or third-order political calculus.
And that’s just the voters who have preferences. The four leaders combined for just 68 percent of the vote in the most recent Des Moines Register poll, and fewer than one-third of respondents to the latest CBS News survey reported being “definitely” committed to their chosen candidate. If this is hard to believe as an engaged political observer who sees the candidates’ differences clearly even from a distance, it can be even harder once you’ve set foot in Iowa, given the complete saturation of campaign advertising and the candidates’ all-out sprint to give personal attention to every last caucusgoer. Since personal attention is at such a premium, and the impeachment trial is forcing the senators back to Washington, Sanders has thought about flying to Iowa for nighttime events after the day’s proceedings in D.C. and Amy Klobuchar (trying to make a final push to surprise) told me she might Skype into events. And in part because — unusually — none of the leading candidates has established a stronghold in a particular part of the state, the campaign geography is in total disarray too, which means it’s not uncommon to run into candidates unexpectedly while on the phone with others, as I’ve done a number of times this cycle, most recently twice in a three-block and two-hour range in Des Moines’s East Village neighborhood on a recent Wednesday morning. And it’s even worse on TV: Without changing the channel over the course of about 15 minutes on one January Monday night downtown, I caught two spots each from Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar (who’s in fifth place) and one each from Sanders, Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer (who’s spent the most), and Cory Booker, who soon after dropped out. Iowa has experienced almost as much television-ad spending — close to $50 million — as it did over the course of the full 2016 election cycle, when there were two parties competing.
Of course, this is not the first time Iowa has been tight. In 1988, six Democratic candidates were clustered together, and John Kerry’s 2004 victory was a surprise. 2008 and 2016 were nail-biters too. But a four-way dead heat with the rest of the primary season hanging in the balance? Even the state’s oldest veterans admit they’ve never seen a contest quite like this one. This year’s caucuses appear poised to be the first with four candidates breaking the 15 percent support threshold to gain delegates that the national party imposed for the 1992 caucuses. And unsure of their standing and terrified of underperforming, the teams are all desperate to manage expectations downward — not just in Iowa but in New Hampshire, which is a toss-up, and Nevada, which is also close (South Carolina is practically a nonevent with Biden so far ahead). Senior Democrats have urged the campaigns to get more serious about planning for what happens next, but most campaigns are still focused on Iowa, hoping the first result reshuffles the board before March, at least in part because one of the scenarios they’re taking seriously has the tycoon former mayor of New York outspending them into oblivion on Super Tuesday.
In earlier Iowas, the candidates often maintained clusters of support, which could theoretically grow by drawing voters from a variety of places. But, as plenty of operatives in the state not associated with Buttigieg will tell you, this campaign is unmistakably and tightly sorted by lanes on the ideological spectrum. Picture it: Sanders-Warren-Buttigieg-Biden. The campaigns acknowledge all most voters want is to beat Trump, and few voters openly speak of ideology, but nobody sees obvious opportunities at this point to draw many voters from anywhere but their adjacent rivals, even though Iowans’ politics are far from predictable. (Thirty-one counties in the state voted for Barack Obama, then Trump, and whereas an early 2016 poll found over four in ten Democratic caucusgoers describing themselves as “socialist,” a late 2019 survey found over half preferring a Democrat who is more moderate than most of the party to one who is more liberal.)
This has all made things very chippy, very abruptly, in the late going. Early in January, with the final pre-caucuses debate in Des Moines looming, Sanders’s advisers dreaded having to answer for campaign talking points for canvassers that Politico uncovered depicting Warren as an “elite” candidate unable to expand the party’s electorate. Many of them believe this, and want progressives on the fence between the pair to believe it, too, but they bristled at the way the case was presented — as a departure from a nonaggression pact by the two most left-wing campaigns — and so pulled the document from circulation. Warren, meanwhile, made no secret of being angry about those talking points. Then came the reports that Warren said privately that Sanders had told her in 2018 he didn’t believe a woman could win the election (which he denied, later pointing out he deferred to her before deciding to run in 2016).
To some in Sanders’s camp, the timing was fishy: Why would Warren have kept quiet for more than a year, praising Sanders the whole time, some of the senator’s top aides grumbled, if she believed him to hold this view, only for it to come out right before the Des Moines debate? But Warren’s team, unsure how to respond at first, appeared genuinely caught off guard by the development, unamused to have the senator’s closing argument to Iowa voters be clouded by an ugly fight with Sanders. Both staffs publicly sought de-escalation, but the hostility between the candidates showed up on-camera after the debate, when Warren accused Sanders of calling her a liar (and he replied in kind). It will be hard to put that kind of bitterness back in the bottle before the caucuses. After the debate, one Sanders adviser made sure reporters understood that the candidates were more “D.C. friends” than real ones. Nearby, an aide to one of the rival candidates shrugged, perfectly content to see the lefties at war with less than three weeks until the caucuses. “We don’t mind the kids fighting,” the aide said.
On January 7, party insiders across Washington opened their in-boxes to find a memo from Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, titled “Bernie Sanders and ‘Electability.’ ” The two-page document opened by informing recipients, “A January 1984 Gallup poll had Walter Mondale tied with Ronald Reagan. Eleven months later, Reagan crushed Mondale 59-41%, winning by the biggest Electoral College margin ever.” It highlighted national poll numbers indicating the unpopularity of socialism and issued a reminder that no Sanders-style lefty has ever won the presidency. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Establishment was now realizing in a panic, could win this whole thing.
Sanders and his advisers have found watching this revelation take hold to be a hilarious experience. After all, it’s not like he’s been hiding his game plan or his confidence that he can build on his base of 2016 supporters and new, young voters by reaching out to disaffected working-class communities. And to listen to those in the senator’s D.C. headquarters, all has been going very much according to plan: This month’s CBS poll put him in first place among first-time caucusgoers, and a week later the Register poll showed him in first overall, with the paper plastering its front page with an image of Sanders at the front of a sled with his rivals behind him, above the words sanders ahead. He then hopes to replicate his 2016 New Hampshire win. From there, his staff believes, with a conviction supported by some polling data and bordering on prophetic faith, he’ll win Nevada largely based on his significant Latino and union-worker backing, his biggest-in-the-field organization there, and his momentum from the first two states. Then, after an assumed loss to Biden in South Carolina, they project that he’ll be positioned to break out in the Super Tuesday states, especially in California, where he’s done more public events and spent more time and resources than any of his rivals — and where polls show him competing with (or even leading) Biden. “After Super Tuesday in 2016, we were in a significant delegate-deficit position, which we were almost able to climb out of,” said the senator’s longest-serving political adviser, Jeff Weaver, who managed his last campaign. “This time, the calendar is more favorable.”
In internal conversations with top advisers in recent months, Sanders has made clear how much he wants from Iowa, which he now expects to win. But while both his rivals and neutral party observers are terrified of underestimating Sanders after his overperformance in 2016, and many believe Iowa turnout could exceed the 2008 record of 240,000 voters, they’re also just not sure what to make of the campaign’s confidence. “No one wants to say Bernie’s not doing well because of what happened last time, and the polls, but we see nothing from them,” one high-ranking Iowa Democrat told me — meaning there is not enough evidence on the ground or in polling of the momentum Sanders has claimed.
None of the traditional gatekeepers in the state quite know what to think of the confidence of the Sanders campaign, either. They seldom see Sanders’s team wooing the usual power brokers and figured Sanders would be far less of a factor after he reshaped the upper levels of his stuttering Iowa operation this fall (while replacing his state director in New Hampshire). Then there was his heart attack, and the concerns he’s just too far left and just too old. The campaign itself doesn’t seem worried about either concern, and expresses confidence that, after older minority voters rejected him four years ago, he can compete for them this time — in fact, Sanders’s significant investments in Latino outreach have gone mostly unmatched by other candidates. But in rival camps, nobody has yet come up with satisfactory ways to model the turnout surge Sanders says he’s expecting in their own internal polls. They think he may just be operating on hope.
Internally, Sanders staffers seem to believe in the power of their “Bern app” to help them reach unexpected voters, including in rural corners of the state, and of their 250-plus-person in-state organization, not to mention support from outside groups like the Sunrise Movement and Our Revolution. But they also can’t shake the worry about relying too much on disaffected voters — who might turn to Sanders out of frustration with conventional politics, then fail to show up to caucus out of the same frustration. Keeping those voters engaged is one reason he keeps bringing up Biden’s Iraq War vote in the closing weeks.
Even in the best-case scenario, it will be a long slog from here. Success in Iowa and New Hampshire won’t necessarily translate on Super Tuesday for Sanders without a standout performance in the next two states. Of the two, Sanders talks far more about Nevada, which makes sense, given how unlikely it seems that anyone will make a dent in Biden’s South Carolina lead and how much he’s spent on organizing Nevada, another caucus state where he’s now near Biden in polling. Members of Nevada’s highly influential Culinary Union are opposed to Medicare for All and the union could endorse a rival, but Sanders has kept in touch with Nevada’s traditional kingmaker, Harry Reid, who has been ill but nonetheless visited Sanders in the hospital after his heart attack and who used to employ two of Sanders’s top aides, campaign manager Faiz Shakir and his deputy Ari Rabin-Havt. “If you look at it right now, without any bank shots, if Senator Sanders wins two to four early states, he’s going to be well on his way,” said Weaver.
Ask just about anyone on Team Biden and they’ll tell you — without their name attached — that while Trump’s Iranian offensive was an obvious mistake, it couldn’t have come at a better time. “What we need,” the former vice-president said in an uncharacteristically forceful burst at a town hall inside Davenport’s minor-league-baseball stadium earlier this month, “is a president who can provide steady leadership on day one when they’re elected.” And much of Biden’s focus in the Iowa homestretch is assuring the moderate, often older, Buttigieg-curious caucusgoers that now is no time for risk-taking. “The most important thing, frankly, is that voters continue to see him as the candidate best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November of this year,” said Pete Kavanaugh, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, who recently relocated to Iowa. “You can look at any piece of data in any state—Iowa, nationally, or otherwise — and that is the thing voters care most about. They will put any other difference aside, ideological or anything else.”
This, according to nearly a dozen campaign insiders, is what the Biden brain trust in Wilmington and Washington, and at the campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters, sees as its silver bullet nationwide, and its reason to be confident that the very high number of undecided voters, including Iowans, will ultimately break its way. “If you look at the number of people who are willing to change their mind, or willing to consider another candidate, it is really remarkable,” Kavanaugh told me. This is especially important in Iowa, where supporters of lower-performing candidates (especially Klobuchar, or perhaps even Buttigieg) could gravitate toward Biden in the closing days or after their first choices are eliminated at the caucuses sites on February 3. It’s why the Biden faithful see no need to make tightly targeted strategic choices about what demographic groups or parts of the state to focus on — “It would be a mistake to be very, very narrow in any sort of targeting strategy, so many voters are still on the table,” insisted Becca Siegel, Biden’s chief analytics officer — and why some Democrats close to him are even coming around to the idea that it wouldn’t even be so bad if Buttigieg won the state and derailed either Warren or Sanders. A few months ago, Buttigieg seemed like a more direct threat; now, given his enduring struggles to pick up minority voters anywhere in the country, the Biden campaign is happy to have him pick up momentum in Iowa, so sure he’ll lose it as soon as South Carolina.
In fact, to Biden’s top aides, the path ahead hasn’t looked this straightforward in months. In private, they simply throw their hands up when reporters or allies ask for the real game plan, as if it’s not obvious. Biden’s standing — in the state and nationally — doesn’t look quite as robust as it did last summer. But he has not exactly fallen back to the pack, either. And the campaign plan is to sail along on that remaining strength. Early-state voters have “seen the vice-president take punches in this race from all sides, from Trump and others, and he’s still standing,” Tom Vilsack, the former secretary of Agriculture and Iowa governor who’s backing Biden, told me, distilling the case. “We really don’t know if these other folks can take a punch.”
“Other candidates have had to throw everything at Iowa. Their intent is that the whole country focuses on that. That’s their whole strategy,” said Siegel. Biden’s plan is more broad-minded: make a decent showing, at least, in Iowa and New Hampshire, then go on to the much more diverse states, where he holds a commanding advantage, especially with minority voters. “As we’ve been saying from the beginning, we don’t think either [Iowa or New Hampshire] is a must-win,” Kavanaugh added.
But another senior Biden aide who’s part of high-level strategy discussions described the campaign’s Iowa posture as “all in” — a sign of not just strategic disagreements within his leadership team but something more like an if-it-ain’t-broke-why-fix-it staff attitude. The campaign seems divided about Iowa’s importance. Some of this mixed messaging is left over from the late summer and early fall, when party leaders in the state grew concerned enough about how slowly Biden was staffing up and warned he might be humiliated — his campaign’s state director wouldn’t even tell Bloomberg News if he lived in the state.
Now, though, to the extent that Biden’s staff worries about anything, it’s that a rougher-than-expected start in Iowa could expose the 77-year-old gaffe machine to yet another political storm, this time in the form of his own party finally zeroing in on his ability to actually win. But for Biden’s rivals, the last year has been a lesson in “nothing matters,” as they’ve seen the front-runner maintain his standing through disagreements, like over his Iraq War vote or his comments about working with segregationist senators, that they universally believe should have long ago taken him down. When impeachment talk picked up, many expected it would be catastrophic for Biden — his name and his son’s in a constant loop not just on Fox News but CNN. It hasn’t taken its toll. For a front-runner, he’s a weak one and hasn’t yet demonstrated an ability to get much past a quarter of national Democratic support. But for a weak front-runner, he’s a stable one, with endorsements rolling in by the day as the party as a whole starts to make strategic bets with an eye toward November.
Elizabeth Warren was sitting in Santa Monica, and the House was minutes away from impeaching the president, but the Massachusetts senator was still thinking about Iowa. It was December, and she was taking her time to consider what it meant for her candidacy that caucusgoers had, in recent months, started thinking like pundits: It was now common to hear them expounding specifically on “the electability question.” That didn’t always work in her favor, especially not recently, with voters telling pollsters and reporters that they found Warren too far left, not clear enough about her health-care plan, too hectoring, sometimes simply too female. She leaned back, her sneakers perched on the hotel-room coffee table. “I remember when Barack Obama wasn’t ‘electable’! I remember when Donald Trump wasn’t ‘electable’! And here we are,” she told me. She paused. “I hear it — this question — as born out of an intense desire to make change. That’s what I want to do. Not everyone is in this race to do that.”
Warren abhors talking about polls and horse-race politics — she employs no traditional campaign pollster, which means strategic decisions can seem, when viewed from the outside, more seat-of-the-pants than in other campaigns, when Warren isn’t simply drafting off conventional wisdom about the race, that is. At the time, the thinking was she was losing leftist supporters to Sanders and rank-and-file liberal backers to Buttigieg. Democrats in Iowa were whispering about parallels to Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, another progressive effort that looked like a winner before crumbling late in the game under sustained fire from his left and moderates. Her fourth-quarter fund-raising was lagging. It was enough to force Warren and her close clutch of senior aides — some sitting in Boston, some traveling with her — to change tack in the final weeks of 2019 and the early days of 2020.
The first part of the strategy: to take more questions at events where voters invariably invited her to respond to their skepticism. The second part: to address the problem by becoming effectively ubiquitous on television news before the impeachment trial took her off the trail, racking up Rachel Maddow, Seth Meyers, The View, and Sunday-show appearances as soon as January began, hoping to force herself into the consciousness of Iowa voters who want more than just a return to the pre-Trump status quo. This would make her seem more familiar and less risky. But she would also lean into her anti-corruption vision to present herself as a unity candidate, more than solely a purveyor of plans or a left-winger defined by the health-care-reform funding plan she never wanted to talk all that much about in the first place. Julián Castro, who became a Warren surrogate as soon as he dropped out of the race, has made that case on the trail, presenting Warren’s second-choice appeal to different wings of the party as a kind of selling point. Meanwhile, after Kamala Harris dropped out, she’s also started relying more on women surrogates and appearing more in women’s magazines.
Still, her main Iowa bet is one she placed over a year ago, when she made her first hires there: her massive on-the-ground organizing apparatus in the state. The operation has been the envy of all her rivals for months, even when she fell behind them in the polls late last year — and the reason none of them ever thought she was really out of the race. Individual organizers have been deployed for months to all corners of the state, in many cases fully integrating with local communities to a degree that the state’s political pros marvel at, pointing to the intimate events like book clubs and road races they planned for months before shifting their focus to turnout. “Seeing the enthusiasm folks on the ground have for her organizers [makes me believe that] as things break, I think that’s really going to play to her advantage,” said California congresswoman Katie Porter, a Warren campaign chair and native Iowan who grew up attending caucus events throughout her childhood. The caucuses reward that kind of organization doubly — by getting voters to the polls and helping make sure supporters fight and coordinate on Caucus Night.
Must she win? The Warren team’s short-term goal, now, is to prove the national naysayers wrong by at least competing with Biden, Buttigieg, and Sanders for first place, and maybe out-organizing them to an outright victory. She is trying to do it by making what she hopes could be a self-fulfilling pitch on electability, long seen as a weakness by pundits viewing the race from afar. “I’m the only person on the debate stage who has beaten a popular incumbent Republican any time in the last 25 years,” she told a questioner in Davenport on a recent blustery Sunday — a line she then echoed on January’s debate stage. Less than a week after an unnerving CBS poll landed showing her in fourth place in the state, she got better news from the Register, which put her just behind Sanders, in a statistical tie for first.
Sanders’s team — some of which is growing more frustrated with Warren by the day — remains worried that her organizing could carry her through, winning over some of the progressive voters deciding between the pair. It’s one reason the campaign recently issued those talking points about Warren. (Sanders, who often refuses to listen to advisers who want him to go negative, has held off on trashing Warren in public, even as some of his surrogates have been criticizing Warren outright.) In her eyes, any stumble from Biden or Sanders by Nevada — where she’s also well-organized — would allow her to present herself as the real center of a new Democratic Party by Super Tuesday. In the eyes of her top rivals, a clear defeat in Iowa would produce a media narrative that she’s been in a precipitous plummet since the fall and may just functionally end her campaign.
When volunteers walk into Buttigieg’s field office in Ames, a strip-mall storefront a few miles from Iowa State University, they’re immediately greeted by a large sign asking “WHY PETE?” On a recent frigid Saturday afternoon, four answers were scrawled in under the prompt: “Executive experience,” “Veteran,” “Change the channel” (a go-to Buttigieg line about change in Washington), and “Chasten” (Buttigieg’s husband’s name and an apparent reference to LGBTQ representation on the campaign trail).
The office’s back wall is plastered with dozens of the campaign’s commit-to-caucus cards — meaning identical printed copies of the candidate’s headshot are staring out into the room — and the wall next to it features a painted reminder of the ten “Rules of the Road” that Buttigieg expects his supporters, having made it this far, to follow: respect, belonging, truth, teamwork, boldness, responsibility, substance, discipline, excellence, and joy.
The roughly 20 Iowans sitting inside the office that day were staring at a PowerPoint presentation reminding them of the fine points of the caucus process, drilling them on delegate math, and encouraging them to be polite to supporters of other candidates. Buttigieg’s hyperdisciplined, technocratic campaign can at times resemble a caricature of the candidate himself.
Buttigieg, who’s drawn some of the state’s biggest crowds, is the only candidate whose theoretical path to the nomination essentially relies on a win in Iowa, or maybe a close second-place finish — preferably behind Warren or Sanders, against whom his strategists think he could be an attractive alternative. “I don’t think it’s essential that he wins, but I do think it’s pretty essential that he do well, especially now that expectations are raised,” Virginia representative Don Beyer, Buttigieg’s first Capitol Hill endorser, told me shortly before he flew to Iowa to canvas after yet another poll showed Buttigieg toward the top of the field there. But Beyer is strategically underselling the importance: Buttigieg is close in Iowa, yet is far enough behind in national polls that he absolutely needs a boost from the first caucus to continue entertaining even a long shot at the nomination.
One result of the campaign’s decision to focus on Iowa and recently New Hampshire is that he hasn’t built up as much of an organization in some Super Tuesday states as some of his rivals. He recently swung through Texas for three days of private fund-raisers, for example, but he did no public events. And while Buttigieg began advertising in Nevada in December, and in recent weeks has made a more concerted push to woo black voters in South Carolina, practically speaking, it’s all in on Iowa. A strong finish in the caucuses, his Iowa state director Brendan McPhillips told me, would “expose him to a lot of new people in other states who are waiting to see who’s out of the gate. That resets the campaign.” Given that Buttigieg stands barely ahead of Michael Bloomberg nationally, he needs that reset, which campaign aides for months have quietly compared to Obama’s path in 2008.
Of course, Obama had opportunities to gain ground in South Carolina that Buttigieg lacks. Which is one reason why a clear loss in Iowa would suggest a very different path for him, and, in the most recent Register poll, Buttigieg dropped nine points — from a clear lead to, basically, a tie with the other three prime contenders. Behind the scenes, his advisers agree his organizer-and-volunteer army’s task now isn’t just to persuade the late deciders to listen to the candidate’s consensus-focused pitch; it must also stop his newest, least-committed backers — many of whom came onboard only in the past few months — from defecting, as both Warren and Biden strive to win them back. The campaign remains confident because of Buttigieg’s high favorability ratings among Iowans, but it understands keenly that the result in Iowa is often judged in the national media less by the final delegate count than by performances against expectations. Unfortunately, they fear, after the raft of positive polls for Buttigieg in December, “the only way for him to beat expectations is to win,” as Patti Solis Doyle, who was Hillary Clinton’s first campaign manager in 2008, put it. “I wish that the [polls] that have him ahead like that came in mid-January, not December,” said Beyer. “Because now he’s a target.”
And though his opponents are intimidated and even unnerved by Buttigieg’s fund-raising strength, they have a hard time telling a story in which he gains enough support among minorities to represent a genuine long-term threat — perhaps even after a win in Iowa. “Pete is very soft,” predicted a senior adviser to a rival, confidently echoing his team’s private polling analysis. “He will come down a bit.” Another called his standing “fragile.” It’s why Warren picked fights with him over his wine-cave fund-raising and McKinsey clients, aiming to paint him as a workaday politician willing to cater to entrenched interests, and why Biden has leaned into his experience argument in the homestretch. They believe they can pick off — rather than alienate — his supporters.
This same possibility unsettles Buttigieg’s advisers, who are hoping to take advantage of the impeachment trial with targeted personal visits to the state while his Senate rivals are stuck in Washington. If Biden sees the Iran mess as a (political) boon, Buttigieg views the impeachment the same way. In fact, in Iowa, the two often seem to be most directly competing, in terms of message if not always for individual voters. And, like Biden, Buttigieg is particularly focused on Obama-to-Trump voters and residents of small industrial cities that resemble South Bend, McPhillips explained. In the estimation of Buttigieg’s top aides, the contest now comes down to a small persuadable group of caucusgoers who will likely remain up for grabs until the final hours.
And then there’s the small army assembling in the old New York Times Building in midtown Manhattan, where Bloomberg is setting up to try and make sure none of this matters. The former mayor’s late entry has the other campaigns at a bit of a loss. “If Bloomberg wants to spend $2 billion on ads to beat us, there’s nothing we can do about it,” one senior strategist for a leading campaign told me. “I don’t have time to think about him,” a top operative for another candidate said, then paused. “But should I?”
Ever since Bloomberg announced last year that he was, after all, getting into the race and planning to spend huge to win, there’s been no consensus among his rivals over how to handle him, or even how seriously to take his campaign. For one thing, there’s the short-term money question. As soon as news broke that he was considering running, Biden’s top aides began ringing his biggest fund-raisers to make sure none of them bolted from the former vice-president’s camp. (Few did, in the end.) In his first two months in the race, though, Bloomberg has already spent over $200 million on ads alone, even buying a Super Bowl spot. There’s also the fact that by skipping the first four states in the process, he’s trying something no one’s ever done successfully. The former mayor is circumventing the part of the contest that’s gotten the most attention and resources for over a year to try and become dominant in March-voting states and win their delegates while other candidates focus on the early four.
It’s a strategy that could, in theory, make all of their campaigning entirely redundant, and the pace of Bloomberg’s campaign growth has been like nothing the Democratic-primary process has ever seen. Aiming to build the party’s largest field organization, the mogul has hired over 1,000 staffers in just two months, including around 700 distributed over 30 states, concentrated largely on the Super Tuesday destinations (in North Carolina, for example, he has at least 90 aides working already). He has also promised many of them surprisingly lucrative jobs through the November election, which means even if Bloomberg’s money can’t carry him to the nomination, his apparatus will be a major force to be reckoned with on the way to someone else’s convention and in the general election. (Some top Democrats quietly believe — or hope — this has been the plan all along.) Even those close to Bloomberg who were at first skeptical — urging him not to run — eventually joined up, some feeling they couldn’t say no and still expect a professional or personal relationship with him to continue. This has been especially frustrating to Biden and Buttigieg, who in many cases wanted their support and cash.
When they are feeling more confident about the threat, staff from rival campaigns point out that, while he’s already hit 5 percent in multiple national polls, Bloomberg will need to hit at least 15 percent in the districts he’s targeting in order to win delegates in states like Texas and Virginia. But those close to Bloomberg are sure he’ll be ready to spend over $1 billion overall, and he’s made no secret in the past of his disdain for Sanders’s and Warren’s politics. He entered the race because he came to believe Biden, his onetime favored candidate, was a weak option, and, according to some close to the mayor, he may still reconsider his plans if Biden emerges from the four early states in control. If not, the big, perhaps paranoid, worry among the other candidates is not that Bloomberg would comfortably win the nomination but that his presence could ultimately force a mathematically unlikely contested convention — or at least that he could effectively extend the messy primary process until deep into the summer, damaging the ultimate winner. Still, no campaign has yet fully turned its fire toward him, given that he may be funding their general-election fight not too long from now.
In recent weeks, they’ve become preoccupied with another wrinkle anyway: the Iowa Democratic Party’s plans to, for the first time this year, report not just the final weighted and calculated Caucus Night results, but also the raw vote totals for both the first Caucus Night “alignment” — when Iowans pick their top choice — and the second, when low-performing candidates are eliminated and their supporters choose their second option. This means the country could get a very muddied picture of Iowa on Caucus Night — perhaps muddied further if a fifth-place finisher (almost certainly Klobuchar) can claim enough momentum to carry on to New Hampshire, too. Nothing, the contenders fear, would dash their hopes for some long-awaited clarity more than three candidates proclaiming victory.
*This article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!