Election 2020

A timelapse inside one caucus site shows Iowa’s trouble narrowing the field

DES MOINES — Common wisdom holds that there are “three tickets out of Iowa” as every four years caucusgoers dutifully pledge their support for their preferred presidential candidate and narrow the field in the process.

So the Des Moines 62nd Precinct gathered at Drake University’s basketball arena on Monday night to “tell Americans who you feel can dethrone Donald Trump,” as caucus chair Jeffrey Goetz put it in an invitation to the event.

[Iowa caucuses 2020 live updates]

But with support spread across so many candidates – and with statewide results delayed by inconsistencies – Iowa’s typical role in cutting the size of the Democratic field is in question.

Buttigieg

Sanders

Klobuchar

Buttigieg

Sanders

Klobuchar

Buttigieg

Sanders

Klobuchar

Buttigieg

Sanders

Klobuchar

Buttigieg

Sanders

Klobuchar

Caucusgoers gather to support their preferred candidates, standing row by row to be counted by party officials and campaign staff. (Justin Smith for The Washington Post)

Support was divided evenly enough at this precinct covering wealthy western neighborhoods of Des Moines that the five top candidates all met the 15 percent viability threshold. That’s the share of caucusgoers needed to earn state delegate equivalents, and scattered reports from precincts throughout the state showed varying success among the top five candidates.

There wasn’t too much convincing to be done at Drake’s Knapp Center, where the collection of friends and neighbors attended what amounted to more of a pep rally for those five candidates than a process of elimination.

From left, Mary and Rachel Challender and Kathy Bernreuter caucused for former tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who fell short of the viability threshold. They ended up supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). (Kevin Uhrmacher/The Washington Post)

Margaret Roy, left, sits along a dividing line of people caucusing for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and former mayor Pete Buttigieg at a caucus. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren had the largest showing at this precinct, followed by former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Those candidates also gained most among the four dozen Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang voters who did have to realign, according to preliminary results from caucus officials. But Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also cleared the viability threshold, 127, by narrower margins.

[Iowa live results: 2020 Democratic caucuses]

“I think that’s pretty amazing,” Goetz, the caucus chair, said after the event wrapped up with five viable groups. “Historically, you get the two or three. Four is pretty unusual.” He credited the change to campaigns using more sophisticated grassroots organizing techniques to get their supporters to the caucuses.

Steyer

Warren

Yang

Biden

Steyer

Warren

Yang

Biden

Steyer

Yang

Warren

Biden

Steyer

Yang

Warren

Biden

Steyer

Yang

Warren

Biden

After the first round of counting, groups backing Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer relocate to support candidates. (Justin Smith for The Washington Post)

The delay in the effort to identify an opponent to face President Trump resulted in a muddle less than a week after the president held a rally in this very space.

Who Des Moines’s 62nd Precinct supported

First

Second

27 (+2)

Warren 25%

23 (+3)

Buttigieg 20%

18 (+1)

Klobuchar 17%

16 (+1)

Biden 15%

16 (+1)

Sanders 15%

Yang 3%

Steyer 3%

Gabbard 0%

0

Unofficial results reported by the precinct. Remaining first alignment percentage represents respondents who were uncommitted.

In this precinct, only three candidates received some support but were not viable at the end of the first round: Andrew Yang (28 supporters), Tom Steyer (26) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (2). They had the option to join a viable group or simply leave.

Those who realigned made their decisions based on issues and campaign tactics, but also took their power to sway delegate allocation into account.

“I don't know if I'm gonna join anybody or not,” said BJ Van Vleet, a Yang supporter, at the start of the 15-minute realignment period. He eventually joined his wife Jill and two kids in the Warren section. “I’m a teacher and I think a lot of her ideas about education and universal preschool would benefit our nation greatly.”

Anne Peterson, precinct captain for Tom Steyer’s campaign, opted for Buttigieg second. “One of our other supporters did learn that if Pete had ten more [people], that he’d get another delegate and I would like to see him do well in this.”

This consolidation of voters that usually happens during Iowa’s realignment is in some ways a miniature version of the much larger Democratic nominating process.

At one point, dozens of Democrats were running for president, but now it’s just 11. Typically, the field would have already begun to shrink following poor showings in Iowa.

It appears unlikely that any of these candidates will drop out in the lead-up to New Hampshire’s Feb. 11 primary, but let’s see where supporters might go should their candidates fade. Iowa’s statewide realignment totals will (eventually) give us some clues. Here are other hints we have.

Who are voters’ second choices in New Hampshire?

Sanders has a large lead in the state, according to a recent University of New Hampshire-CNN poll, with Biden, Buttigieg and Warren joining him as a clear top four. But 10 percent of respondents were undecided, and another 20 percent supported a candidate outside of this top four.

[ Undecided New Hampshire prepares for key first primary role after Iowa caucuses ]

What if those respondents were to “realign” like in Iowa? The poll asked respondents who their second-choice candidate was, which means they could rerun the result to see how the figures would change if some candidates were removed.

Who’s leading in New Hampshire

Preferred candidate in a Jan. 26 UNH-CNN poll of 516 likely Democratic voters

25%

Sanders

16

Biden

15

Buttigieg

Warren

12

Klobuchar

6

Gabbard

6

Yang

5

Steyer

2

Bloomberg

1

Other

1

Undecided

10

... and how the race might look if the field shrank

The same poll, only the top four candidates included. If a respondent chose a candidate outside of the top four, they were assigned to the candidate they identifed as their second choice.

Sanders

+6

31%

Buttigieg

+7

22

Biden

+5

21

+3

15

Warren

Remaining percentage represents respondents whose first and second choices were both outside of the top four candidates.

Who’s leading in New Hampshire

Preferred candidate in a Jan. 26 UNH-CNN poll of 516 likely Democratic voters

Sanders

25%

Biden

16

Buttigieg

15

Warren

12

Klobuchar

6

Gabbard

5

Yang

5

Steyer

2

Bloomberg

1

Other

1

Undecided

10

... and how the race might look if the field shrank

The same poll, only the top four candidates included. If a respondent chose a

candidate outside of the top four, they were assigned to the candidate they identifed as their second choice.

+6

Sanders

31%

+7

22

Buttigieg

+5

Biden

21

+3

15

Warren

Remaining percentage represents respondents whose first and second choices were both outside of the top four candidates.

The results are tough for Warren, who should hope to do well in the state with the highest level of college education of the first four. She gains just three percentage points in the rerun poll, falling further behind Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden.

Which donor bases overlap most?

We can also look at the record numbers of Americans who used their wallet to throw their support behind candidates in 2019.

A Post analysis of 2019 Democratic donations found that hundreds of thousands of Americans donated to multiple presidential campaigns. Looking at just donors from New Hampshire, we can see that donors to Gabbard and Yang rarely give to Biden as well.

New Hampshire’s Klobuchar donors

also like Buttigieg

New Hampshire giving to multiple

Democrats in the second half of 2019

Share

of

Sanders

Warren

Buttigieg

Biden

Gabbard donors who also gave to ...

15%

5%

5%

2%

Klobuchar donors who also gave to ...

21

5

13

11

Steyer donors who also gave to ...

11

8

13

9

Yang

donors who also gave to ...

10

7

9

2

New Hampshire’s Klobuchar donors also like Buttigieg

New Hampshire donors giving to multiple Democrats in the second half of 2019

Sanders

Warren

Buttigieg

Biden

Share of

Gabbard donors who also gave to ...

15%

5%

5%

2%

Klobuchar donors

who also gave to ...

13

21

5

11

Steyer donors

who also gave to ...

11

8

13

9

Yang donors

who also gave to ...

10

7

9

2

One-fifth of Klobuchar’s donors in the state also gave to Buttigieg.

Klobuchar, like all the Demcoratic candidates, is playing up her performance in Iowa, saying “we are punching above our weight” on Monday night. Buttigieg went even further, declaring victory late Monday at his caucus night party next door to the Knapp Center.

[ The Democratic Party’s presidential delegate process ]

Of course, the “three tickets” axiom relies on actually getting results from the state. Until the numbers are released, the Democratic field, its eventual winnowing — and even Iowa’s place as the first contest in the nominating process — remains in limbo.

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Kevin Schaul

Kevin Schaul is a senior graphics editor for The Washington Post. He covers national politics and public policy using data and visuals.

Kevin Uhrmacher

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor for politics covering elections and public policy at The Washington Post.

Reuben Fischer-Baum

Reuben Fischer-Baum is an assignment editor on the graphics team of The Washington Post. He previously worked at FiveThirtyEight and Deadspin. He joined The Post in 2017.

Brittany Renee Mayes

Brittany Renee Mayes joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter, focusing on sports and politics, in June 2018. She previously worked at NPR on the visuals team as a news applications developer.

Seth Blanchard contributed to this report. Video by Justin Smith for The Washington Post.

About this story

Donor overlap was computed among the remaining major Democratic candidates. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is excluded from this analysis because he is not accepting donations. See the full analysis for more details. In some small precincts, the threshold for viability is greater than 15 percent.

Originally published Feb. 4, 2020.

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