In this edition: An early guide to Iowa's caucuses, a wonk-on-wonk fight about Medicare, and one fewer Democrat running for president.

My TV is stuck in 2016 and keeps playing speculation about whether Hillary Clinton will run again, and this is The Trailer.

This weekend, Democrats will mark 100 days until the Iowa caucuses. Next weekend, they'll be in Iowa again, for the Liberty and Justice Celebration that kicks off the long sprint to caucus night. 

Some years, and some campaigns, have minimized Iowa's importance. This year is different: Every campaign's strategy starts with Iowa, with visits there far outpacing visits to other early-voting states. Every campaign has more offices in Iowa than in other primary states, while two candidates (Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke) have more offices in Iowa than in the next three states put together. 

That's a lot for a state where just 250,000 voters would amount to record-breaking turnout in February. And it's a lot for a state that looks less and less like the Democratic Party's core vote, where 90 percent of caucusgoers in 2016 were white.

But Iowa looms large in Democratic thinking for that very reason. As candidates never tire of saying, 31 Iowa counties flipped from blue to red in 2016, more than any other state. (Several candidates have focused campaign swings on those counties.) As candidates also note — because it gets more applause — Democrats won three of the state's four congressional districts last year, after being reduced to one in 2016. Republicans still run every branch of state government, but the party's longest-serving legislator became a Democrat this year, and voter anger at the White House's agricultural policy (the trade wars, the issuing of waivers that have hurt the ethanol industry) has been rising.

Any candidate who wins the state on February 3, 2020 will be a contender, perhaps the favorite, for the party's nomination. So, how do they pull it off? Interviews with Iowa Democrats and veterans of previous caucus campaigns came up with the same answer: Organize like crazy, preferably in the right places, and don't let voters think you're ignoring them.

The “right places” are easy to define. Democrats will elect 2,017 delegates on caucus night. They'll do so by walking into designated caucus sites where each candidate — serious campaigns will have a staffer or volunteer on site — is assigned a different section of the room. If any candidate fails to get 15 percent support, his or her supporters get to pick again; they can leave, or they can walk over to the clump of supporters around their second-choice candidate. 

Every precinct gets at least one delegate, no matter how many Democrats show up. Through gritted teeth, Iowans sometimes compare this to the electoral college — a few rural votes can count more than a stampede of voters in some Des Moines or Davenport precinct.

“I've been to a rural caucus where just five voters showed up, so two of them were enough to get delegates,” recalled Brent Welder, a Democrat who now lives in Kansas but organized for Barack Obama's victorious 2008 presidential campaign.

That has been part of Iowa's rules since the beginning, in 1976, and it matters on the margins. Tiny Union Township in Cass County, for example, has just 495 residents, and a handful of Democrats. It will elect just one delegate, while the dozens of Democrats likely to show up to Ankeny's 12th precinct will elect 17 delegates. It's possible for a candidate to show massive strength in one area and lose because he or she never got organized in forgotten parts of Iowa. Every campaign knows that, and some of them will be ready.

There are more complications, such as the fact that these are delegates to the county convention (not the national convention, to be elected later), or that the party will release complete vote totals alongside the delegate count, which creates the possibility of two "winners" from a major international news event. 

Campaigns can't control all that. They can control where they organize and where they send the candidates. Yes, there are campaigns, every cycle, that hit all 99 Iowa counties — this time, John Delaney has done so twice. But no Democrat has done the “full Grassley,” named for the Republican senator who initiated that tradition, and then won the caucuses, since Dick Gephardt did it in 1988. Most campaigning and organizing have taken place across nine regions of the state, where more than three-quarters of delegates will be selected. And stumping in the most-ignored places has not done much for the candidates doing so this cycle. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, the only Democrat who has campaigned in some of the smallest Iowa counties, dropped out of the race today.

This guide isn't meant to diminish the smaller counties. Indeed, late on the night of February 3, there will be campaigns wondering whether they got enough of an advantage in tiny southwest Iowa precincts to pull ahead statewide. What the maps below should do is clarify where most of the action is, and why, and what it could take to dominate the caucuses.

I'll also note which candidate won these regions in the last three contested caucuses. The statewide winners in each of those contests went on to be the party's nominee: Hillary Clinton in 2016, Barack Obama in 2008, and John Kerry in 2004.

Polk County is the most populous of Iowa's 99 counties, and growing every year. It'll select 392 delegates, nearly one-fifth of the total, everywhere from downtown Des Moines to the precincts around Drake University to fastest-changing suburbs such as Urbandale. Pete Buttigieg's campaign has opened three offices, leaving no part of the county untouched; Amy Klobuchar's and Elizabeth Warren's have each opened two. Every other campaign that is seriously playing for Iowa has one.

What campaigns are trying not to do is give off the impression that they're overly focused on Des Moines. Sure, the county's media market covers the biggest swath of Democratic voters, but the record for candidates who tried to run up the score there is poor; when Republicans called Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) "the mayor of Ankeny,” it wasn't a compliment. Polk is wealthier, more diverse and more highly educated than the rest of the state, with 35.3 percent of residents, and a higher share of caucusgoers, holding at least a bachelor's degree; statewide, that number is 27.7 percent. 

2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
2008 winner: Barack Obama
2004 winner: John Edwards

 

Most of the growth in the greater Des Moines area has come in its suburbs and exurbs, and all told those counties select 150 delegates. They're relatively easy to reach on short campaign trips; Dallas County, in particular, has become a bigger pull for Democrats as it grows more competitive in general elections.

There are just four campaign offices open in the region, two of them for Buttigieg and two for Warren, which showcase just how much they're trying to pull suburban voters into the caucuses. The attitude at campaign stops ranges from a we-haven't-forgotten-you tone in rural parts of Guthrie County, to a celebration of the party's gains in Dallas and Boone — shrinking the GOP's margins there, in 2018, helped elect new Rep. Cindy Axne.

2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
2008 winner: John Edwards
2004 winner: John Edwards

The old industrial towns along the Mississippi river were, until 2016, part of the Democratic Party's Midwest stronghold. Hillary Clinton held on to Scott County, where Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa's chunk of the Quad Cities, stayed blue. She badly lost the rest of the area in the general election, which led to a sustained Democratic focus on those counties that won them back in 2018's House races.

None of that changed the region's importance in caucuses: Scott, Muscatine and Clinton control 176 delegates. But it has changed the way Democrats approach the area, less as a place that the party can count on than one it needs to convince to come home. Visits to Davenport often start with candidates explaining why and how they can play in “Trump country,” and emphasize the risks of climate change along river towns that were not built for it.

Thirteen campaign offices have opened up in the region, mostly in Davenport. Only Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have expanded into Clinton County; only Warren and Biden have expanded into Muscatine.

2016 winner: Bernie Sanders
2008 winner: Barack Obama
2004 winner: John Kerry

Call this the liberal archipelago. Candidates can't ignore rural Iowa, but most Democratic campaigning happens in a constellation of college towns and midsize cities. Together, Story County, Black Hawk County, Linn County, Johnson County, and Jefferson County contain tens of thousands of college students, and 547 delegates. In 2016, Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton in every one of those counties; in Jefferson, home to the Maharishi University of Management and some of the state's most reliably left-wing voters, he won by 46 points.

No one candidate dominates like that now. Most of the campaign offices in Iowa are spread across these counties; no campaign has a Jefferson County headquarters yet, but Buttigieg, Warren, Joe Biden, O'Rourke, Sanders and Klobuchar have opened them up in the four other counties. But each county stands out for a different reason. Black Hawk County, which contains both the college town of Cedar Falls and the old industrial center of Waterloo, has far more black voters than the state at large. Story has the liberal precincts of Ames; the rest of the county isn't as liberal. 

2016 winner: Bernie Sanders
2008 winner: Barack Obama
2004 winner: John Kerry

Siouxland is exactly the sort of place that Democrats, toward the end of the Obama years, tended to ignore: A Republican stronghold where even intense campaigning probably wouldn't move votes. Only one of its counties, Woodbury, was competitive, and that was entirely because of Democratic-leaning Sioux City. The rest was deep red, and remote, and Democrats took another look at it only after J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player who mounted a quixotic-seeming challenge to GOP Rep. Steve King, came close to beating him.

Since then, Democrats have repeatedly come to campaign here, though it offers just 86 delegates, most of them in Woodbury. Eight campaigns have opened up offices, all in Sioux City: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, O'Rourke, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Delaney.

2016 winner: Bernie Sanders
2008 winner: John Edwards
2004 winner: John Kerry

There is an endless debate about where “northeast” Iowa begins, but the counties of Worth, Mitchell, Cerro Gordo and Floyd used to mark the transition from red Iowa to blue Iowa — an unbroken line of Democratic votes from Clear Lake to the Mississippi River. Then came 2016, when all four counties, having backed Barack Obama twice, voted for Donald Trump. 

Democrats have been working the counties heavily since then, even though they offer only 52 delegates, mostly in Mason City and the surrounding Cerro Gordo County. Just four campaigns have opened offices: One each for Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
2008 winner: Hillary Clinton
2004 winner: John Kerry

The biggest urban center in northeast Iowa, Dubuque and the surrounding counties have 93 delegates and a well-organized Democratic base, which has recently always voted for the overall winner of the caucuses. Six campaigns have opened offices here: Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Delaney and O'Rourke, Biden made one of his first stops here, while Buttigieg has returned multiple times. It's the region of the state where Catholics are most dominant, but that hasn't played much into recent Democratic politics.

2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
2008 winner: Barack Obama
2004 winner: John Kerry

The Council Bluffs area is one of the hardest to till for votes. Local Democrats have been losing numbers; many of the people who show up for events have driven over from Nebraska, and the nearby counties are largely rural. There are just 62 delegates at play, but the region gets plenty of Democratic activity, both as a base to reach rural southeast Iowa and as a place to demonstrate the damage climate change and trade wars have done to voters who largely backed Trump in 2016.

There are eight open campaign offices, one each for Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, O'Rourke, Klobuchar, Harris, Delaney, and Sanders. It's a region with no clear preference, either; longtime state Senate leader Mike Gronstal endorsed Biden, but he himself was bounced out of office in 2016.

2016 winner: Bernie Sanders
2008 winner: Hillary Clinton
2004 winner: John Kerry

No part of the state showcased the gap between traditional Democratic strength and Clinton's problems like southeast Iowa, a string of small and often-shrinking communities that bolted the party's nominee in the 2016 general election, while reelecting Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack. Between them, the counties of Henry, Des Moines, Lee, Van Buren, Wapello, Mahaska and Marion select 105 delegates, mostly in cities such as Keokuk and Ottumwa. When Democrats want to show strength with blue-collar voters, they often head here.

Tellingly, Biden has three offices in the region, a demonstration of his bet on old-school Democrats. He also has been endorsed by state Rep. Dennis Cohoon, who represents Burlington, where Biden gave his first big speech responding to the president's Ukraine scandal. Buttigieg and O'Rourke each have two offices, while Warren, O'Rourke, Klobuchar, Harris and Sanders have one.

2016 winner: Hillary Clinton
2008 winner: John Edwards
2004 winner: John Edwards

READING LIST

“In Milwaukee, an inner-city group tackles a key Democratic need: Turning out black voters,” by Jenna Johnson

The fight for an electorate that tuned out in 2016, even though there was no love for Trump.

“Why is Tulsi Gabbard paying this obscure consultant big bucks?” by Nick Grube

The most expensive of several campaign mysteries.

“Expecting a ‘sea change’ on impeachment? Here’s one reason it’s not likely,” by Paul Kane

Why most voters aren't budging outside their comfort zones.

“Gay money, Democratic secret weapon, comes out for Buttigieg,” by Peter Hamby

How the candidate with no built-in mailing list became a donor powerhouse.

“How Warren could pay for Medicare-for-all,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein

The race for a single-payer pay-for.

“Anxiety rises among Democrats worried about party’s prospects in 2020,” by Annie Linskey and Matt Viser

It's October, and that means Democrats are panicking.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

There’s no countdown clock, but there is a deadline. Sometime before the next Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren will explain how to fund Medicare-for-all, as laid out in the Senate legislation she’s supported since 2017.

As Jeff Stein reports, there are plenty of researchers who have been waiting for a moment like this. Until this year, Medicare-for-all was mostly an idea, with legislation that never ran longer than 20 pages. For the past few years, it has been “paid for” only in the abstract — Sanders had laid out some potential ways to make up the cost, without getting specific about which he preferred.

Warren’s situation, and political theory, is different, and she’s now getting advice on how to make the numbers work. In the American Prospect, Jon Walker argued that Warren could promise to cap all health-care prices, down to the levels seen in countries that have single-payer systems.

“If we are going to have a massive fight over the systemwide transformation of 18 percent of the economy, we might as well rip the Band-Aid off and truly transform all of it,” Walker wrote.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the sponsor of the House’s Medicare-for-all bill, said in an interview that Warren had found a “better way to answer the question” about the costs – precisely because she refused to talk about taxes. And she suggested that the real cost of phasing in Medicare-for-all was harder to determine that campaign debates made it look.

“It's really hard to score something,” Jayapal said, “and it's never scored until it comes to the floor. I made that point early on, introduced that, and everyone was like, what's the cost? I said that you don't ask that question of any other plan. That’s not how you do it, until you actually have the final piece of legislation.”

Jayapal, who is among those who have talked to Warren’s campaign about the cost of Medicare-for-all, suggested that it was possible to answer the killer question – would she raise taxes on the middle class? – with a no. The answer could be in replacing the cost employers pay for private health insurance plans with a new tax.

“You could take the trillion or so dollars that employers pay, and you could even just scale it back,” Jayapal said. “You could just have them pay a portion of that; it would still be less.”

Some pro-Medicare-for-all economists have suggested versions of the same idea, and they’ve also encouraged Democrats to challenge the common $30 trillion cost estimate; perhaps two-thirds of that cost is being paid by the government already, through existing Medicare and Medicaid programs, and through the Veterans Affairs administration. What started as a question from Stephen Colbert may end up producing a number, or a series of cost numbers, that single-payer advocates had not agreed on before.

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest news on the impeachment inquiry

POLL WATCH

Which candidate has the best policy ideas? (Quinnipiac, 713 Democratic voters)

Elizabeth Warren — 30% (-10)
Bernie Sanders — 20% ( 8)
Joe Biden — 15% (-1)
Pete Buttigieg — 9% ( 3)
Kamala Harris — 4% ( 3)
Amy Klobuchar — 3% ( 1)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 0)
Beto O'Rourke — 1% (-1)
Cory Booker — 1% ( 0)

Even before Warren overtook Biden in this poll — she's ahead of him, for the second month — she began to lead him on the question of which candidate had the strongest policies. This is the first time that number has dropped for Warren, and it's the only real evidence her of post-debate slippage, after several center-left candidates attacked her for not explaining how Medicare-for-all could be paid for. The biggest beneficiary of that has been Sanders, which means that fully half of primary voters see the most left-wing candidates as the most compelling founts of policy. But this gets to why her campaign is engaging on the challenge to come up with a payment scheme.

Wisconsin Democratic primary (Marquette Law School, 379 registered voters)

Joe Biden — 31% ( 3)
Elizabeth Warren — 24% ( 7)
Bernie Sanders — 17% (-3)
Pete Buttigeig — 7% ( 1)
Kamala Harris — 5% ( 2)
Amy Klobuchar — 3% (-1)
Andrew Yang — 3% ( 1)
Tulsi Gabbard — 2% ( 0)
Cory Booker — 1% (-3)
Marianne Williamson — 1% ( 1)

Most of the Democratic field is unlikely to be around by April, when Wisconsin votes. But the state's Democrats look ready to repeat their recent pattern of backing a more liberal candidate: The combined vote for Warren and Sanders outpaces the vote for Biden by 10 points. (Sanders easily defeated Clinton here in 2016.) Just as interesting is the generic ballot test, which shows the top three Democrats in a competitive race with Trump. Biden's hypothetical lead over the president is 6 points, down from 10 this summer; Sanders's lead is 2 points, down from 4; Warren is up by 1, a statistically insignificant change from her tie with Trump this summer.

Massachusetts Democratic primary (WBUR/MassINC, 456 registered voters)

Elizabeth Warren — 33%
Joe Biden — 18%
Bernie Sanders — 13%
Pete Buttigieg — 7%
Kamala Harris — 3%
Tulsi Gabbard — 2%
John Delaney — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1% 
Tom Steyer — 1%
Andrew Yang — 1% 

The network's first poll of Warren's Massachusetts gets her out of an awkward place, occupied by several other Democrats: She's no longer trailing in her home state. (Polling has been sparse, but the race's Californians, its sole New Yorker and its Texans cannot say this.) Warren's two election wins here have been sliced by analysts for evidence of weakness. She did not, as some 2020 contenders did, run ahead of Clinton's 2016 margins; she has not, as they have, consolidated most party support in their states. Just last week, Biden announced endorsements from a bevy of Massachusetts Democrats, including more than a dozen state legislators. But Massachusetts is a Super Tuesday primary, and Warren is now in a stronger position for it, with the caveats coming as all Massachusetts voters prefer a “public option” to Medicare-for-all.

IN THE STATES

Virginia. Voting is underway in the state's legislative elections, where anything short of a Democratic sweep would be seen as good news for Republicans. The president, who is campaigning in Kentucky and Mississippi ahead of their Nov. 5 elections, has made no stops in Virginia; the vice president, who draws smaller crowds and fewer controversies, is heading to Virginia on November 2.

“Everything is on the line in these elections, and Virginians are deciding that radical socialists have no place in the state legislature,” said Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is organizing the Pence event.

Polling has shown Democrats ahead narrowly or by a wide margin, and the election is taking place across new maps that have reduced the old pro-Republican skew. But it's not attracting the massive Democratic attention of 2017's elections, so some Democrats have used their 2020 campaign events to draw attention to the races, and some outside groups have been asking donors to chip in. Data for Progress and Crooked Media teamed up to distribute money to key delegate races; they raised $232,128 from 4201 donors, or about as much as a mid-level congressional campaign does in a quarter.

“We're directing money to the most pivotal races,” said Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee. “Republicans have used corrupt shenanigans to hold onto the legislature of this increasingly blue state. With the power of small-dollar donors, that ends this year.”

2020

The Democratic primary field shrank to 17 candidates on Thursday, as Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio closed down his campaign.

“I got into this race in April to really give voice to the forgotten people of our country,” Ryan said in a video that announced his decision to quit the race and run for another term in the House. “While it didn’t work out quite the way I planned, this voice will not be stifled.”

Ryan never shook his long-shot status, despite an elevator pitch that appealed to Democrats — he was from exactly the part of Ohio where Republicans had sold themselves as the real worker’s party, and he could fight them on that ground. He raised less than $1 million and built skimpy campaigns in early states, emphasizing in-person visits to places where Democrats had been losing.

That won him some early support. Ryan’s table-banging stump speech, with stories about strikes, picket lines and corporate greed, made him a standout at some cattle calls. He paused his campaign after a mass shooting in Dayton, traveling to the city (across the state from his district), then taking a gun control message back to Iowa.

“We need gun reform in America and we need it now,” Ryan said at the summer Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa. “People are dying on the streets of this country!”

He was on shakier ground when the topic got away from labor or preventive health care. Ryan was a House co-sponsor of Medicare-for-all who warned that the issue was a general election loser; he was a populist who warned that Democrats should not appeal “hostile to business.” The rise of Buttigieg, who had less electoral experience than Ryan but was defter delivering a Rust Belt message, made Ryan less and less relevant.

Joe Biden. He delivered an economy-focused address in Scranton, Pa., on his first campaign trip to the city where he was born. It was light on new details, focusing on Biden’s twin arguments — that what’s good in the economy is largely owed to the Obama-Biden administration, and what workers have worried most about is the result of Trump-driven corporate greed. Having previously suggested he would roll back the entire 2017 tax cut, he suggested raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, up from the new 20 percent rate but down from the 35 rate that preceded the new law.

Julián Castro. He told reporters in Iowa that he was more than one-quarter of the way to his goal of raising $800,000 by the end of the month.

Cory Booker. He held a news conference in Washington to pitch himself as the kind of candidate worried Democrats could support, saying that he’d begun to get calls from supporters of Biden who were nervous about the former vice president’s campaign skills.

Marianne Williamson. She, too, held a Washington news conference, where she said that the last conflict she might have approved the use of troops for was intervening to stop genocide in Rwanda.

Pete Buttigieg. He gave an interview to Cosmopolitan that touched on his idea to expand the Supreme Court in a way that he said could depoliticize it. “The idea here is you get more justices who think for themselves,” he said. “Justices like Justice Kennedy or Justice Souter.”

Bernie Sanders. In a tweet, he fired back at Buttigieg: “I’d like more justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.” Kennedy, who was a swing vote on some cases important to liberals, also voted against liberals on the Shelby voting rights case, the Janus labor case, and even Citizens United.

Elizabeth Warren. Her campaign reported a break-in at her Manchester, N.H. office, though it did not suspect political reasons for it.

Amy Klobuchar. She qualified for the November debate thanks to a new Quinnipiac poll, pushing the total of candidates who've qualified so far to nine.

Kamala Harris. She'll campaign in Northern Virginia on Sunday for candidates in tight legislative races.

WAIT, WHAT?

It has been six extremely long days since Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii accused Clinton of calling her a Russian asset. On Wednesday, even Biden was asked to weigh in, taking both Gabbard's and Clinton's side — Gabbard was a "good person," but Clinton was understandably angry about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In the midst of all this, the New York Times published an update to the story that sparked the controversy, about Clinton's podcast interview with David Plouffe. Clinton, the paper said, never claimed that Russians were “grooming” Gabbard. It claimed that Republicans were.

Is that right? Yes, but it's complicated. The key section of the interview was at its chit-chatty end, when Clinton and Plouffe were finishing each other's sentences and riffing on how Republicans needed a third-party candidate to make it easier for the president to win key states.

“I'm not making any predictions,” Clinton said, “but I think they've got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third party candidate. She's the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that's assuming Jill Stein will give it up. Which she might not, 'cause she's also a Russian asset.”

Early coverage of the quote tended to truncate it, saying that Clinton called Gabbard a “Russian asset.” The use of the word “also” certainly left that open to interpretation — would Stein not give up her Russian support because she was “also” a foreign asset, or was Gabbard “also” comparable to Stein?

This was confusing from the get-go, which is why the first reporting on it included a quote from Nick Merrill, Clinton's spokesman. CNN's Dan Merica asked Merrill whether Gabbard was the person being “groomed,” and Merrill answered with a reference to Russia.

“If the nesting doll fits,” he said. “This is not some outlandish claim. This is reality. If the Russian propaganda machine, both their state media and their bot and troll operations, is backing a candidate aligned with their interests, that is just a reality, it is not speculation.”

It had been well reported, for months, that Gabbard's campaign was being boosted online by foreign bot networks. That obviously had nothing to do with the candidate herself; Gabbard was just the latest beneficiary of campaigns to sow chaos among mainstream politicians. But Clinton's office had the chance to cool off the story, explaining what the candidate was referring to. It decided instead to make the “nesting doll” crack, which led to one of the more ridiculous cul-de-sacs of the primary so far.

COUNTDOWN

... one day until the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum in South Carolina
... eight days until the Iowa Liberty and Justice Celebration
... 12 days until state and legislative elections in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia
... 20 days until the cutoff for the fifth Democratic debate
... 23 days until Louisiana's runoff elections
... 27 days until the fifth Democratic debate
... 102 days until the Iowa caucuses