CLINTON, Iowa ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) all need a strong performance in this state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses to keep their hopes of winning the Democratic presidential primary alive.
But it’s likely only one of them will get the boost they need.
A presidential campaign axiom holds that there are only three tickets out of Iowa. While former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have the loyal bases and national polling leads to remain in contention regardless of the outcome in the first state to vote, the fortunes of Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar rest heavily on how they perform here.
The three candidates’ situations are not identical. Warren, who is in third in most national polls, has developed a significant ground game in other early and Super Tuesday states, but a strong performance in Iowa could allow her to box out other challengers and directly challenge Sanders and Biden. Buttigieg, who is struggling with Black and Latino voters, needs a win to have any hope of proving his viability. Without one, his campaign could end not long after New Hampshire votes on Feb. 11. Klobuchar, who has staked her entire candidacy on a strong performance here, may essentially need to dislodge one of the top four candidates in Iowa.
The three are also facing different challenges: Warren is aiming to relieve voters’ anxiety about whether she can actually defeat Trump, Buttigieg is hoping to persuade Iowans that an outsider is what they need and Klobuchar must convince voters she has enough momentum to actually win.
While Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all need to outperform expectations, it’s unlikely all three will be able to: They’re all competing for the same type of high-information, college-educated voters who have bounced from candidate to candidate over the course of the now year-old primary race.
Cammie and Carol McGuire, sisters who attended an event for Klobuchar in this small city on the Mississippi, are somewhat typical. Carol, who is the vice chair of the Clinton County Democratic Party, is deciding between Klobuchar, Buttigieg and businessman Tom Steyer. Her sister is debating a choice of Warren, Klobuchar or Steyer.
Though Steyer is unlikely to be a viable candidate ― caucus rules require each candidate to have at least 15% support in the first round of voting, and he polls well below that level ― Carol’s and Cammie’s descriptions show how voters could be torn among three ideologically different campaigns.
“[Buttigieg] brings a sense of calmness. Amy does, too,” Carol said. “After hearing all the bombast for the past four years, I’m ready to move past it.”
Cammie praised Warren’s and Klobuchar’s intelligence: “They’ve got a wealth of knowledge. It just overwhelms me. And I think that’s what we need after this jackass who doesn’t even read.”
“Women Can Win”
Last Sunday, Warren rolled into Cedar Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, on a new campaign bus. Both sides were emblazoned with her image and large blocks of text: “Courage over cynicism,” one side reads. “Hope over fear,” the other declares.
Warren, who was essentially limited to a 24-hour dash across the state’s eastern half, was greeted with one of her largest crowds in months: 900 people, there to see her and “Queer Eye” co-host Jonathan Van Ness, who has endorsed her.
The candidate, who was the front-runner here in the early fall, still has what most operatives in the state consider the strongest field operation. But her polling numbers have flatlined, she’s being kept out of the state by Trump’s Senate impeachment trial and voters across the state routinely wonder aloud if she could win the election. She’s responding with a shift in strategy: After months of essentially ignoring the president ― and arguing he was a symptom, not the cause, of the problems she would fix in the White House ― she’s shifted to directly comparing herself to Trump and boasting of her ability to defeat him.
“I just want to be clear: Women win!” Warren boasted during the Cedar Rapids rally, noting statistics have shown women performing better than men in elections since Trump’s victory in 2016. “We took back the House, we took back statehouses around this country because women ran for office and women showed up to make those elections winnable. So I say all that just to level the playing field a little bit, right?”
The rhetoric is matched with new television ads, including one contrasting Warren’s and Trump’s backgrounds, narrated by author Roxane Gay, titled simply “Why She Will Beat Him.”
With Warren off the campaign trail, her allies have continued pushing the message in the media. On a conference call with elected officials in key states, the Democratic Party chair of Macomb County, Michigan, one of the signature swing counties in U.S. politics, said she was the candidate best positioned to win there.
“Warren is the woman we need,” said Ed Bruley on the call hosted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “And I emphasize ‘woman.’ In Michigan, we run the governorship, the attorney general and the secretary of state ― our top three offices ― with women. People were worried about that last time. It was nonsense.”
The shift seems to be paying some dividends: John Bradley, a teacher in Cedar Rapids, came to her event torn between Warren and Klobuchar, and he admitted he had doubts about Warren’s ability to beat Trump.
“But after seeing her in person? She can win,” he said.
Warren has some claim to momentum: She’s received major endorsements in the past two weeks from the Des Moines Register, from Janet Peterson, the Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate, and from Sue Dvorsky, a former state party chair who had previously backed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Her campaign is hoping those boosts, along with her ubiquitous field organizers’ months of engagement, can help her anti-corruption message resonate both with the urban liberals of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and with struggling rural communities where farmers and factory workers are getting squeezed.
“They have had the best organization and structure,” said J.D. Scholten, a Sioux City-based former minor league baseball player who narrowly lost to GOP Rep. Steve King in 2018 and is challenging him again in 2020. “She has the best potential of getting a lot of the undecideds late.”
“I’m A Mother. I Can Multitask.”
Klobuchar has run the most Iowa-centric campaign of the major candidates, often relying on a sort of Midwestern identity politics to win over voters here. She’s the only candidate still in the race to hit all of Iowa’s 99 counties. She routinely name-drops famous Iowans, including Joseph Welch, the Army lawyer who stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and Norman Borlaug, whose scientific advances in agriculture helped power the Green Revolution and alleviate global hunger.
Klobuchar, in her trips to the state in between impeachment trial sessions, has joked about her ability to campaign and serve as a Senate juror: “I’m a mother, I can multitask.” The joke is part of a stump speech that seems to be equal parts Ray Romano and Paul Wellstone.
“Both her and Pete have the strength of being a Midwesterner. And for Iowans, there’s just that level of comfort with other Midwesterners,” Scholten said, who plans to caucus but is not endorsing ahead of time. “Her humor is very relatable to Iowans.”
Klobuchar plays up those connection in one of her closing advertisements, which plays up her endorsement from the Quad City Times in southeastern Iowa before highlighting her endorsement from The New York Times and notes her trips to all 99 counties.
The cultural connection is a large part of the reason the Iowa and national pundit classes have pointed to her for months as a potential breakout candidate. While her position in public polling has steadily improved, there’s been little evidence of a major breakthrough.
In two trips to the state’s eastern half in recent weeks, Klobuchar’s crowds were smaller than those that gathered for Warren and Buttigieg. (The campaign made up for it by hosting events in significantly smaller spaces.) An event hosted at the home of state Sen. Liz Mathis, for instance, seemed to mostly draw the local political class.
There’s reason to think Klobuchar may be uniquely hurt by the impeachment trial. Though Sanders and Warren can each turn to national political figures to campaign in their absence ― Sanders has enlisted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, while Warren has former presidential candidate Julián Castro and a host of members of Congress ― the star of Klobuchar’s events has been her daughter, Abigail Bressler, and hotdish, a casserole variant that is Minnesota’s signature dish. (Klobuchar did manage to make a midweek trip to Iowa on Tuesday, a step Warren did not take.)
Like Warren, Klobuchar is making electability a closing note. Her campaign signs read, “Every race. Every place. Win big.” But while Warren is focused on gender and political courage, Klobuchar leans on her personal history of winning elections in the blue-tinted swing state of Minnesota.
“You know my history in Minnesota,” Klobuchar told crowds in Iowa, referencing her three statewide victories, each by an increasingly large margin. “I’m just going to tell everyone to call 5 million people for a job reference.”
Klobuchar’s momentum may also mean she’s about to face the same cycles of media scrutiny that hit Warren and Buttigieg when they shot up in the polls. An Associated Press investigation this week highlighted Klobuchar’s 2003 prosecution of a teenager who says he was wrongly convicted, prompting calls from the Minneapolis branches of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP for her to drop out of the race.
“We feel some wind at our back,” Justin Buoen, Klobuchar’s campaign manager, told reporters at a Bloomberg News breakfast in Des Moines earlier this week. “I think we’re going to walk away with delegates.”
“Leave The Politics Of The Past In The Past”
Buttigieg has been able to spend far more time in the state than Warren or Klobuchar. As of Friday, he will have spent 15 days campaigning in Iowa in January. Warren and Klobuchar have both spent 11 days in the state. And his busier campaign schedule (he usually holds three rallies a day) adds up: As of Friday, he will have held 48 town halls, rallies or smaller public events in Iowa in January. Buttigieg, who has boasted of having “the best ground game in the state,” is projecting confidence.
“There is no other campaign that I would want to trade places with right now,” he told reporters after a rally in Newton earlier this month.
But some Democratic eyebrows in the state were raised by trips he’s taken out of state to hold fundraisers while Warren and Klobuchar were trapped in Washington, and those eyebrows moved even higher when he held a fundraiser in Des Moines. (When candidates do raise money in Iowa, they’re expected to help state or local parties or candidates, not their own campaigns.)
Buttigieg has used his extra time to amp up his message as an outsider, contrasting himself with the four other major contenders in Iowa, all of whom have extensive time in Washington. Starting on Thursday, he began to get more explicit about his request for Iowans to “leave the politics of the past in the past.”
“I hear Vice President Biden say that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” Buttigieg told a crowd in Decorah. “But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments.”
“Then I hear Sen. Sanders calling for a kind of politics that says you’ve got to go all the way here and nothing else counts,’” he added.
Buttigieg has long tried to position himself between the moderate and liberal wings of the party, though starting a two-front squabble with Sanders and Biden is a significant escalation. Biden responded bluntly when a reporter asked about a contrast with Buttigieg: “I’ve gotten more than 8,600 votes in my life.” (Buttigieg received 8,515 to win reelection as mayor in 2015.)
Buttigieg has picked up some high-profile endorsements designed to lend him an air of credibility with voters that exceeds his limited political experience. Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Rep. Dave Loebsack, who represents a swath of southeast Iowa in Congress that Trump narrowly won in 2016, both announced that they were backing Buttigieg earlier this month.
But the general approach has won him a significant following. Julie Robison, who works at a local university, was at a Warren rally in the industrial community of Marshalltown earlier this month. She was leaning toward Buttigieg because she was nervous about the “equity” of Warren’s plan to cancel student debt and unconvinced that the campaign’s mantra of “big structural change” would appeal to her neighbors.
A Fourth Ticket?
If Warren performs poorly in Iowa, she’ll likely face intense pressure from Sanders supporters to exit the contest so he can consolidate the progressive vote. Biden backers will similarly hope Klobuchar and Buttigieg make an orderly exit from the primary. Klobuchar could also face pressure from women’s groups to drop out of the race so they could consolidate behind Warren.
But all three also have strong incentives to stay in. Buttigieg is polling well in New Hampshire, and both he and Klobuchar appeal to the independents who are allowed to vote in the Granite State’s open primary. Warren didn’t build a massive organizing operation in Super Tuesday states to not eventually deploy it, and her campaign manager has already told supporters to ignore “breathless media narratives” coming out of the early states.
Klobuchar, the candidate who has the most riding on Iowa, dismissed the idea she would drop out while talking to reporters after an event in Bettendorf in the state’s southeastern corner.
“I’ve got one of only six tickets to get on the debate stage,” she said, referring to a debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, scheduled for Friday. “We’ve got Michael Bloomberg in, and he’s not even campaigning. Why would I drop out while he’s still in?”
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.