After a seemingly endless primary campaign in Iowa, voters are finally going to the polls in just a few days. I spoke to national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about how things look on the ground in the state, and how the various leading campaigns might spin Monday night’s results.
Ben: When we last spoke, you were just a bit skeptical of the “Bernie is surging” narrative in Iowa and beyond (which is not to say you denied it was happening). Since then, several new polls have shown him to have a lead in the state, or pulling into a close second behind Joe Biden. How much do these numbers track with what you’re seeing on the ground out there?
Gabriel: I didn’t deny it! But yes, since then there’s definitely been a lot of evidence that we’re in the middle of a Sanders moment. I have to say, though, that plenty of the usual ways of measuring momentum and support in Iowa have proven pretty useless this time around. If you go just by crowd sizes, you’d say Sanders has got this. If you go by organizer presence, it’s Warren’s to lose. Yard signs? Buttigieg. Coverage? Biden. Hell, we can keep going: Billboards? Tulsi! Campaign buses I keep nearly crashing into on the icy roads? Steyer.
Ben: Yang’s gotta come out ahead on one of these metrics.
Gabriel: Good point. Candidate I keep running into accidentally? Yang.
I will say, though, that when I talk to local political types, there’s something close to a consensus now that Bernie could very realistically win.That’s a bit of a shift. Not everyone is convinced, obviously, and plenty still think Biden will “surprise” (scare quotes because he’s still leading a bunch of the polls here, but you wouldn’t know it by the tenor of the coverage).
Ben: Right — funny how these narratives work. If Biden does manage a win now, will it be even more of a boost than it might have been, because he’ll be seen as holding off this late Bernie surge and vaulting over everyone else?
Gabriel: That’s definitely possible, though I hesitate to predict media narratives since the result will almost certainly be muddled rather than a clear 1-2-3-4 order. That’s because it could be very close, and because plenty of campaigns could conceivably declare victory based on the three (technically four) different measures of Caucus Night support that the Iowa Democratic Party will be reporting … which, by the way, is all the more reason to care about New Hampshire, if you ask just about anyone from New Hampshire.
Ben: Can you remind us of what those different measurements are, briefly?
Gabriel: To make a long story bearable … remember that the caucuses take place over two rounds. This is how the night breaks down: Say you live here in Des Moines. You show up at your assigned caucus site (a living room? a cafeteria? whatever), and you stand in the corner of the room corresponding to your preferred candidate. The people monitoring the proceedings then count everyone up, and calculate which candidates don’t have enough support to hit the predetermined support threshold (again, this is maybe oversimplifying). This is, basically, 15 percent. If your candidate doesn’t hit this number, you then get to choose another candidate. The result of this realignment is then reported to the state party, which then calculates how many “delegate equivalents” each candidate gets, based, basically, on the size of the caucus site and its location. Usually, this last measure is what “counts.” But now the party will report the raw number of backers each candidate got in both Caucus Night “alignments,” too.
So you can see a world where, for example, Sanders has the most backers in the first round in a given caucus site, but then someone else — say Amy Klobuchar — doesn’t hit viability and her supporters move over to Biden, who then finishes with more backers in the second round. Sanders’s camp has already suggested they’re likely to treat the first raw alignment number as the “real” one, and other campaigns are trying to figure out which they’ll spin on.
Add to this the calculus that campaigns are making about WHEN to declare victory (Hillary Clinton did so early in the night in 2016, infuriating Sanders’s team but successfully tilting the coverage in her favor — her former Iowa comms director just wrote an article recommending this tactic to the 2020 campaigns:/), and we could be in for a pretty unclear evening.
Ben: Maybe they should just declare victory now?
Gabriel: Uh, I wouldn’t be shocked if some of the lower-polling candidates try to pull the moral victory argument in the next few days.
Ben: You mentioned Klobuchar, whom you wrote a piece about today. There’s been some talk of her making an arrangement with Biden so that her backers throw their support to him if she doesn’t gain viability, which would presumably be bad news for Bernie Sanders. She has basically scoffed at this idea, which is natural for a candidate who still wants to win. But might this end up happening organically anyway, since the two groups of voters are pretty well aligned?
Gabriel: Polling suggests a lot of her voters would go to Biden, but significant numbers would also break for Buttigieg and Warren. Naturally any candidate who doesn’t hit viability will see their supporters go elsewhere, deal or no deal. That’s just how it works, so what you’re seeing now is campaigns trying to see if they can arrange it in their favor. People looooove to speculate about these kinds of deals, but they’re exceedingly rare. Yang, too, said this morning that some of his staffers had been approached by other camps about making something like this happen. But who knows? A big thing to remember here is that it’s not like these candidates are likely to say to their backers: “Thanks for supporting me, let’s go win this thing! And if it doesn’t work, you should definitely support this other guy!” If it were to happen, it’d be a more subtle arrangement carried out by organizers and local staff. Which makes it all the harder to enforce/track.
Anyway, re: the actual substance of your question: The Biden people are trying hard to convince voters who might like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to swing to them in the final days.
Ben: Elizabeth Warren led polls a couple months ago, then dropped steadily, but is still very much in contention going into the caucuses. As you mentioned, she’s known for having a very strong organizational presence in the state. Could that factor end up putting her over the top if things remain really close Monday night?
Gabriel: Yeah, definitely. It’s a maxim for a reason: In a close race, you’d rather be the candidate with the best organization. And I think a lot of the polling coverage has really made it seem like this race is less close than it is. I can’t stress enough that any one of the top four could very conceivably win. Warren has some things going for her, too, that may be flying under the national radar: her organization, which shouldn’t be underestimated (yesterday I was at a Buttigieg event in Indianola and there was a Warren table with some of her local organizers handing out info literally right outside the door), and the fact that she’s just gotten the endorsement of not just the Des Moines Register, but also a lot of late-deciding local legislators, including, most prominently, the state senate’s Democratic leader, who was expected to stay neutral. Usually I’d say “that stuff doesn’t really matter,” because it doesn’t … but all bets are off in a four-way race where the winner could be decided by just a few thousand votes.