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Opinion What good are the Iowa caucuses anyway?

Heidi Day, a campaign representative for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, holds up a phone as volunteers and staff receive a call from Yang at his field office in Waterloo, Iowa, on Feb. 2. (Brenna Norman/Reuters)

There are bound to be a whole bunch of candidates during the Iowa caucuses on Monday night who do not meet the 15 percent threshold, do not get delegates and do not make it out of single digits. What do those candidates do, and when do they do it? Theoretically, the idea has been that some of those candidates get out. In this case, however, there is reason to doubt that will happen.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has already signaled she is going on to New Hampshire no matter what, which might sound a bit defensive about her chances in Iowa but is a necessary push for her voters to stick with her, at least in the first round of caucusing. Unless she does much worse than anticipated, she might as well stay in for the debate this Friday and the New Hampshire primary. After that, she will either show real promise or make a tough decision to pack it in, maintaining her viability for a future race, a vice presidential slot or other political ambitions. She is a serious candidate with serious political considerations.

David Axelrod, senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, says the presidential nominating process is flawed but should not change too much. (Video: Ben Derico/The Washington Post, Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

At the other extreme are Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, non-politicians with money but virtually no chance to win the nomination. Unless they dramatically improve in the polls, they will not make the Feb. 19 debate, which will require that they have won a delegate or get either 10 percent in four polls or 12 percent in Nevada or South Carolina polls. If they do poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, they might trudge on, simply because they like running for president. If you do not have a full-time job and enjoy talking to people and the media, it can be a fun gig. At some point, they might realize that whatever attention and voice they had is waning. Needless to say, the party (by means of the debate rules) will be pushing them out to focus voters on the “real” contenders. Leave after Iowa, though? I sincerely doubt it.

Among the top four, would any drop out after a poor showing? Likely not, since once again, they have the debate on Friday and have already invested money and organization in New Hampshire. If Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) does not meet the 15 percent threshold (and I do not think this will be the case), would she want to drop out before losing in her backyard in New Hampshire? Possibly, but the real issue comes with Super Tuesday when she really does not want to lose in her home state of Massachusetts.

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Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, so long as he makes the threshold, has every reason to stay in for one more week as well. He’s a strong debater, and New Hampshire is the last overwhelmingly white electorate (where he does best) before Nevada and South Carolina.

You might be seeing a pattern here. There is very little incentive for any candidate to get out at this point given the debate later in the week and New Hampshire four days after that. Between the non-serious attention-grabbers (e.g. Steyer) and the good debaters/"give it one last chance" set (e.g. Buttigieg, Klobuchar), there is practically no reason (other than pride if one absolutely bombs in Iowa) to leave the playing field. So why is Iowa in first place if it does not winnow the field?

That is a good question. The party effectively limited its importance by sticking the debate on Friday, with the next race on the following Tuesday. Perhaps that’s a hint about its evaporating patience with Iowa’s placement and non-democratic caucus process. If a non-diverse state that Democrats are unlikely to win anytime soon does not even play the elimination role to narrow the field, perhaps it finally is time to throw in the towel both on the caucus and the first-place position.

Read more:

Stephen Stromberg: Imagine if Joe Biden weren’t so bad at running for president

David Byler: Build your own Iowa caucus

Jennifer Rubin: Five things we will learn in Iowa

Karen Tumulty: Uncertainty hangs over Iowa — and the 2020 race

The Post’s View: The Iowa caucuses are fundamentally flawed