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Iowa is awash in candidates but don’t expect clarity until the very end

The Iowa State Fair is a gathering place for those seeking food and fun, and also for those wanting to hear from political candidates. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

DES MOINES — Iowa is awash in presidential candidates this weekend and, if you like your politics deep-fried, this is the place to be. But don’t try to make sense of it all. It’s far too early for that.

The Iowa State Fair, which opened Thursday, will draw nearly the full lot of Democratic candidates, all testing their messages before fairgoers from Iowa and around the country at the Des Moines Register’s famous Soapbox, then setting off in search of photo ops, handshaking and whatever caloric food meets their culinary tastes or their political needs.

On Friday night, Democrats in Clear Lake, just south of the Minnesota border, hosted more than 20 candidates at an event known as the Iowa Wing Ding, a speech-a-thon akin to political speed dating, where each candidate was given five minutes to make an impression.

Miraculously, the event ended well ahead of schedule. Most candidates were well-received by an audience, whose energy highlighted the intense, early interest in the presidential race. But South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg won the applause meter test with a scorching speech that raised the decibel level in the Surf Ballroom.

The convergence of candidates in Iowa in the past week has drawn people from around the country. Some have come out of a pure love of politics just to watch. Others have come with a more serious purpose — to find the candidate they believe can defeat President Trump in 2020. Their sense of urgency about that mission is unmistakable.

Democrats descend on Iowa — with renewed anxiety

Iowa’s place at the front of the nominating process has been set by tradition and now by rules established by the Democratic and Republican national committees. Its presidential caucuses kick off the primary caucus season and it acts as the great winnower of candidates. Only a handful of this record field of candidates will survive the caucuses in February, though the number seems murkier than ever this year.

The caucuses are still nearly five months away and, yet, perhaps because there are so many candidates running, Democrats and political handicappers are trying to anticipate who those survivors will be and who will actually leave Iowa as a declared winner.

Join us Monday at 12 p.m. ET for a live show from the Iowa State Fair

Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register and in this cycle also for CNN, has earned through many presidential cycles a reputation as the best pollster of Iowa politics. From that experience, she offers two pieces of wisdom about how to think about the coming months of campaign here. The first is never to disregard dark horse candidates.

“Anyone can come to Iowa and win,” she said during an interview in her West Des Moines office last week.

Iowa’s state fair has become a political testing ground

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was at 3 percent in her first poll of the 2016 cycle and ended up on caucus night in a virtual tie with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, giving him momentum all the way to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (Clinton’s team claimed victory in Iowa without really knowing the final outcome, and there is still dispute about the results.)

Selzer’s second observation is a variation of the first. “I have seen enough elections to know how fast things can change and how common it is for things to change when we’re in the field doing the final poll before the caucuses,” she said.

She keeps what she calls the “Register graph of Doom” for Howard Dean, the former Democratic governor of Vermont who, just a few weeks ahead of the caucuses, was the favorite to win the state. As Selzer was conducting the final survey, Iowa caucus-goers were suddenly shifting their allegiance. The graph charts a steady decline for Dean, from roughly tied for first to roughly tied for fourth.

Listen on Post Reports: 48 hours at the Iowa State Fair

Dean ended up third behind then-Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) and never recovered. Kerry, who had been written off six weeks before the caucuses, went on to become the 2004 nominee.

Selzer saw something of the same thing in 2012 with former Republican senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who was at 10 percent on the first day of polling (about double where he had been earlier), then climbed steadily until he was statistically tied with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Romney was declared the winner on caucus night in 2012. A few weeks later, the state Republican Party, after some detective work, declared Santorum the actual winner, too late to make much difference for his candidacy. Romney eventually become the GOP nominee.

Next year’s caucuses will be conducted under new rules designed to alleviate some of the criticisms of the process, which historically has required participants to show up at a fixed time and for several hours on a winter’s night. This time the party will hold the regular, in-person caucuses as well as “virtual” caucuses ahead of caucus night.

The changes will open up the caucuses to more people, but they also mean that, instead of just one result being posted on election night, the state party is likely to report the results with a series of numbers. This effort at transparency could lead to multiple claims of success.

By various measures, former vice president Joe Biden is the Democrats’ summertime leader in Iowa. He’s ahead in the polls, and he’s the favorite in the unscientific but enjoyable exercise at the state fair, WHO-TV’s “cast your kernel” in which citizens show their support by dropping a kernel of corn into a glass jar labeled with each candidate’s photo.

The most recent survey Selzer conducted was in June, before either of the two debates, but she has takeaways from the data collected at the time that offer some guidance about the shape of the contest here.

One is that the state’s Democratic electorate might not be quite as liberal as characterized. Another is that, while electability is prized over issues by many voters here, integrity and intelligence rank as the two leading attributes for which voters are looking; electability is fourth.

The June Iowa Poll asked respondents to give their first choice for the nomination as well as their second choice. It also asked people to say who else they might be actively considering. Selzer combined those responses into what she described as the candidates’ footprint in the state, which provides some sense of the top tier here.

Five candidates have a majority in that calculation: Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) with a combined 61 percent; Sanders with a combined 56 percent; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Buttigieg each with a combined 52 percent.

Speaking at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8, former vice president Joe Biden said that he’s running for president “to unite the country." (Video: Reuters)

The past week’s activity moves the campaigns into another level of intensity. In September, the candidates will return to Iowa for the annual Democratic steak fry. In early November, they will gather again for the state party’s fall gala, an event that has sometimes proved to be consequential.

But if anyone is looking for real clarity or a moment when the race truly begins to come into focus, Selzer offered one other observation: “I don’t ever think anything is set. I will never say things have jelled.”