If you look at recent national polling for the Democratic presidential contest, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is either a few points ahead or about 10 points behind former vice president Joe Biden.

Look at Iowa polling, however, and you will see a very different story. The USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Monday showed, “Biden (18 percent) led Warren (17 percent), [Pete] Buttigieg (13 percent), Bernie Sanders (9 percent), with Tom Steyer, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard tied with 3 percent each.” Considering Sanders won more than 49 percent of the vote in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, his current standing suggests that the 2020 Sanders campaign is a pale imitation of its 2016 incarnation.

The poll also finds:

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The biggest winners since the July Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll were Buttigieg (+7 points) and Warren (+4 points), while the biggest losers were Harris (-13 points) and Biden (-6 points). ...
Both Warren (22 percent) and Buttigieg (14 percent) were also the top second choices of Iowa caucus-goers, a key metric that signals future strength in the Iowa caucus when supporters of candidates who don’t reach a 15 percent threshold are forced to pick another candidate who reaches the threshold.

Buttigieg is benefiting from his strong debate performance. “Nearly 39 percent of debate watchers said that Buttigieg performed better than expected, followed by Amy Klobuchar (28 percent) who also exceeded expectations,” the polls finds. “Although a majority of respondents did not watch the three-hour debate, Buttigieg led the entire Iowa Democratic field among those who did.” When you consider the glowing coverage from his bus trips, it is not so surprising that the Midwestern mayor should be climbing the polls in a Midwest state.

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The good news for Buttigieg is that he has already qualified for the November debate, along with just seven other candidates. Fewer bodies onstage gives adept debaters such as Buttigieg a chance to shine and to engage in close quarters with top-tier candidates.

The last intellectual cool character to come along and snatch Iowa from Washington insiders was Barack Obama, whose Iowa upset in 2008 propelled him into a one-on-one contest with Hillary Clinton and eventually to the nomination.

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Buttigieg may not possess Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but as Obama did in 2016, Buttigieg has a fresh face, a preternaturally calm demeanor and a talent for challenging rivals without sounding nasty. As Buttigieg assumes the role of the straight-talking moderate willing to call foul when super-progressive candidates over-promise what they cannot deliver, he may benefit from a wide divide among Iowa voters on the electability vs. “shares my values” question. A remarkable 58 percent of respondents in the USA Today/Suffolk University poll say the “most important thing for Democrats is to nominate a presidential candidate who can defeat Donald Trump” while only 35 percent say it is more important thing that Democrats “nominate a presidential candidate who reflects my priorities and values.”

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Polls this far out from Iowa are hardly predictive, but rather they remind us that in a state-by-state primary system national polling means relatively little beyond media coverage and donors’ perception. Moreover, the race in Iowa is becoming more fluid — not less — after 4 debates. (“The number of undecided voters is up 8 points from the 21 percent undecided in the last Iowa poll taken in the summer.”)

The latest polling data should serve as a reminder that Iowa’s role as the place to weed out candidates is more important than ever with an historically huge field. Insofar as Iowa provides an opportunity for lesser-knowns to quickly level the playing field with initial front-runners (helped by a relatively cheap media market and a small number of voters), it is an inviting setting for underdogs.

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Finally, front-runners in the fall before the caucuses come in with the burden of expectations. Dubbed by many in the media as the “candidate to beat,” Warren may have a hard time convincing the media that anything but a win is a disappointment. By contrast, a second- or third-place finish likely would earn Buttigieg the “dark horse” moniker and momentum going into New Hampshire. That’s not a bad place to be for a candidate who was virtually unknown nine months ago.

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