Around 80 Iowans came to see Biden in Denison, fewer than attended a town hall with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg last week. When Biden made a surprise stop at a firehouse — the International Association of Fire Fighters was the first union to support him — just three firefighters were there to accept his gift of doughnuts. (The others were on call.)
That was fine. Other candidates could draw flashy crowds. Biden, as his supporters liked to explain, could win.
"Think about more than whom you like, or who best aligns with your political thinking," said former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, as she introduced the candidate in Denison. "I hope you'll think about the people who won't or can't participate in the caucuses but who will vote in the general election. I hope you'll think about the people in the middle, because those are the people who will decide the 2020 election."
After nearly a year of campaigning, two months of it counterprogrammed against House impeachment hearings, the race for Iowa has become less about Democrats' own preferences and more what they imagine voters in the upper Midwest like. Both Biden and Buttigieg describe an electorate that is clearly ready to reject President Trump, so long as Democrats don't threaten to change too much about the country.
For much of the year, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) channeled Democratic frustration about the 2016 campaign into similar arguments: Democrats would win with transformational ideas, exciting the voters who had stopped trusting politicians. Biden's theory, and Buttigieg's, is that voters simply want to stop having to think so much about the president.
"I think character is literally on the ballot," Biden said in Denison. "For Democrats, Republicans, independents: It's character. Is this person decent? Do they share my basic fundamental values? Do they understand that everybody deserves an even chance? Are they going to be straight with me? Are they authentic?"
Biden's tour, which will stretch through next weekend — he is taking just two pauses for fundraisers — is as focused on the "electability" question as anything he's done. Over the first day, he spent most of his time on two topics, the unfitness of the president ("our children are listening") and his plan for rural America. Every Democrat who's competitive in Iowa has a rural plan, and in some ways, Biden's is less expansive; he sets aside $20 billion for rural broadband, for example, to $80 billion from Buttigieg and $85 billion from Warren. But Biden, unlike them, had helped pass big spending bills, so Biden, unlike them, could sketch out a future that looked comfortably like the past.
"The chances aren't being equally accessible to people these days," Biden said in Denison. "If I become your president, that's going to be my focus. My focus is on why America was built the nation it was the first place. If the middle class does well, people are going to stay where they were raised."
This wasn't too different from the pitch Hillary Clinton made to Iowans in 2016; she had promised a "broadband-for-all" investment that would get rural America fully wired by 2021. Iowa Democrats often say they're for more ambitious plans, too. Medicare-for-all remains, marginally, the most popular health insurance plan among caucus-goers, ahead of a "public option." It's the same for free tuition at public colleges and universities, and the same for the "Green New Deal."
The problem for supporters of those policies is that many Iowa Democrats worry Republican or independent voters won't agree with them. In those some Iowa polls, roughly a third of Democrats who support more left-wing policies suggest that candidates who support them are less electable. Gordon Reed, 64, who had caucused for Sanders in 2016, said that he had gotten behind Biden while deciding that Sanders, or Warren, could not win key states in a general election.
"Their policies bankrupt our government," Reed said in Denison. "We don't have the money for it. I love their passion. I love their willingness to say what they want. But pragmatism has to win out. If I want a rib-eye steak, but I only have money for a hamburger, do I starve to death? Or do I buy the hamburger?"
The left's growing clout inside the Democratic Party, which has dramatically changed the party's default positions on health care, labor and abortion rights, has given Biden and Buttigieg ways to pitch their appeal to independents and Republicans. Both use populist rhetoric to explain why voters aren't ready for too much populism — why, instead, they want less political strife. After months of TV ads, even voters listening to rival candidates sometimes praise Buttigieg's fight-free vision of "Medicare-for-all-who-want-it," a swerve away from the complicated Medicare-for-all debate.
For Biden, it's his riff on how "Wall Street didn't build this country," which is disconnected from any other criticism of the financial industry and avoids Warren's and Sanders's call-outs of individual chief executives. (He has talked about repealing the 2017 tax cuts, which benefited the industry.) For Buttigieg, it's a series of arguments about how well-meaning left-wing ideas could alienate voters, warning (not always subtly) that candidates focused on "fighting" will just leave the country divided and the next president's agenda unfinished.
"We can gather the majority to drive those big ideas through without turning off half the country before we even get into office," Buttigieg says in his most recent Iowa ad; it deploys a populist argument against benefits for "millionaires and billionaires" to argue against universal free public college.
Buttigieg's college plan is actually more conservative than one Clinton rolled out during the 2016 campaign. Hers made public college free for families earning under $125,000 per year; for Buttigieg, the cutoff is $100,000. And Buttigieg's plan infuriated left-wing Democrats, who saw him trying to turn their own voters against a concept, "college for all," that had been gaining steam.
"This is a GOP talking point used to dismantle public systems," tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, after Buttigieg's ad went viral.
Biden, whose own advertising has not slighted other Democrats, has a deeper reserve of Democratic goodwill. That was on display as his tour began. A brief moment in Council Bluffs, where Biden's wife Jill accidentally clipped him with her hand and he jokingly bit her finger, went nuclear on conservative media; it got a warm laugh from the Bidens' hot-chocolate-sipping crowd. At every stop, Biden carved out time for conversations with voters, signing autographs or calling family members. When the interactions were over, volunteers materialized with clipboards, asking for help on caucus day. There is no flash, which is the point: Biden is the candidate voters know, which is why they know he can win.
"If you look at the polls in the states that really will decide who the next president will be, whether it's Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin, here, Florida, Ohio, there's one constant," said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack on Saturday night, closing out Biden's first day on the bus. "Joe Biden is doing better against Donald Trump than any other Democratic candidate. In fact, in almost all of those states, Joe Biden is beating the president by a considerable margin. So, that tells me this is the only thing, probably, that Donald Trump and I agree on. Joe Biden is the one that he's most concerned about."
"Harris faces uphill climb amid questions about who she is," by Chelsea Janes
Redefining a candidate who hasn't quite come into focus.
"How Kamala Harris’s campaign unraveled," by Jonathan Martin, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns
Recriminations begin two months before Iowa votes — with some talk about ending the campaign early.
"Pete Buttigieg says being gay helps him relate to the black struggle. Some reject that notion," by Robert Samuels, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Chelsea Janes
The ongoing quest to convince black voters that the Indiana mayor can be trusted (and win).
"Making impeachment matter," by Alex Pareene
Lessons for 2019 (and 2020) from the only impeachment that almost removed a president.
"Opponents of Elizabeth Warren spread a doctored photo on Twitter. Her campaign couldn’t stop its spread," by Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm
The odd, short and revealing history of a fake "African Americans for Warren" picture.
A look at the changing political mood in Clinton Country.
Learning the lessons of previous impeachment fights.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The Working Families Party is a strange political specimen: It runs its own candidates, it commands its own ballot line, but it does not "spoil" elections for Democrats. That's because the party grew out of New York politics, where "fusion voting" allows candidates to run with the backing of multiple parties. While it has elected a few people on its own ballot line, it has pointedly declined to challenge Democrats even after bitter fights. Last year, after Cynthia Nixon fell short in her Democratic challenge to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the WFP voted to drop Nixon from its ballot line and support Cuomo.
The party's reward: potential oblivion. As part of negotiations over the state's new electoral rules, state Democrats proposed raising the requirement for ballot access in a way that would hurt the left-wing party in particular. Currently, any New York political party must petition to make the ballot or get at least 50,000 votes for a statewide candidate to stay on automatically. State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, a member of the electoral reform coalition, now favors raising the requirement to 2 percent of total votes cast every two years, or 130,000 total votes, whichever is higher in the given year. If implemented now, that would strike the WFP from the ballot, along with every New York third party save for the Conservative Party.
“Governor Cuomo and Jay Jacobs were hellbent on punishing the WFP for our independence," New York Working Families Party Director Bill Lipton said in a statement. "This is a power grab by the Governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing. The result is that New York will be the most hostile state in America to minor parties — if the changes hold up to legal scrutiny."
There is virtually no outside support for the rule change. Elizabeth Warren, who won the national WFP endorsement this summer, has condemned the proposal, as has one of the city's major newspapers. "Make it 100,000 and make it fair," wrote the editorial board of the New York Daily News, endorsing a change that would keep the WFP's ballot status. Even Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a sometimes target (but occasional ally) of the party, urged the commission to leave fusion voting in place and protect the WFP. If the rule is approved, it could hobble one of the faster-growing forces in left-wing politics, with repercussions for 2020.
The latest on the impeachment inquiry:
Pete Buttigieg, "Big Ideas." The ad that launched a thousand tweets, only some of them in Iowa. Buttigieg's latest velvet-gloved spot, one in a series in which he's contrasted more expansive Democratic plans with his own. "There are some voices that say, 'Well, that doesn't count unless you go even further, unless it's free even for the kids of billionaires,'" Buttigieg tells his audience. "But I only want to make promises we can keep."
United We Win, "The Other Rhodes Scholar." The second super PAC created to boost Cory Booker's campaign (he's tried and failed to wave them off) captures the zeitgeist in Iowa, assuming that its audience is already in love with Pete Buttigieg. "He's a Rhodes scholar, a successful mayor, a uniter," says a narrator, before a jagged jump cut to Booker, whose own achievements have been getting some free media lately. It's the most negative ad ever run against Buttigieg as a presidential candidate, and it's not even that negative; it just suggests that Booker is better. (The ad also describes Newark's schools as "number one for beating the odds," a superlative unbound by data.)
Cory Booker, "Love." The senator’s first ad in Iowa, coming less than two weeks before the qualifying deadline for December’s debate, is a quick run through of his inspirational stump speech: “From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, the truth of America is that we win when we come together and show the best of who we are against the worst that we face.” It could not be less like the super PAC ad, which is usually how these things work; third-party groups go negative where campaigns go positive. But again, Booker's said he does not want that PAC helping him.
Who did best in the most recent debate? (CNN/SSRS, 314 Democrats)
Elizabeth Warren: 28%
Joe Biden: 15%
Bernie Sanders: 13%
Pete Buttigieg: 11%
Amy Klobuchar: 4%
Cory Booker: 2%
Kamala Harris: 1%
Andrew Yang: 1%
Pete Buttigieg: 22%
Joe Biden: 16%
Bernie Sanders: 10%
Elizabeth Warren: 8%
Kamala Harris: 8%
Cory Booker: 5%
Amy Klobuchar: 4%
Tulsi Gabbard: 2%
Tom Steyer: 2%
Andrew Yang: 2%
One of the big questions (if not quite mysteries) of the primary last month was "What happened to Elizabeth Warren?" CNN's polling complicates one theory, that the pressure put on Warren in October's debate began moving voters away from her. Voters thought that Warren came off best that night; after November's debate, in which Warren was never attacked effectively, voters were more impressed by Buttigieg. It's tempting to find single causes for campaign's triumphs or struggles, but the damage to Warren looks more iterative.
The Democratic primary field shrunk again Sunday, with former Navy admiral and congressman Joe Sestak quitting the race and citing a lack of media coverage.
“Without the benefit of national press,” Sestak said in a statement, “it is unfair to ask others to husband their resolve and to sacrifice resources.”
Joe Biden. He got another congressional endorsement on Saturday: Rep. John Garamendi, a fixture of California politics and former lieutenant governor. "The support that Joe Biden has received from within the state is well-deserved and characteristic of the broad coalition he has built," Garamendi said in a statement.
Elizabeth Warren. Before her Saturday town hall in Chicago, she got the support of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a former leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; that particular pool of Democrats has been splitting between Warren and Sanders.
Pete Buttigieg. He spent Sunday at the Rev. William Barber's church in North Carolina before heading to South Carolina.
Cory Booker. On CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, he made another plea for support to make the next debate. "If you want me in this race, if you want my voice and message, which is resonating, then I need help," Booker said. "I am running on individual contributions and that’s what we are going to need to keep going.” Booker has enough individual donations to qualify for the debate but needs four qualifying polls (or two from early states).
Bernie Sanders. He made a return appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon;” on Sunday he made a run through South Carolina, speaking at a church and hosting an afternoon “eat and greet” for voters. "It is not justice when so few have so much, and so many have so little," Sanders said at the service. "Justice says that black women should not die in childbirth at three times the rate as white women."
Kamala D. Harris. She returned to Iowa over Thanksgiving week for house parties, the focus of her rebooted caucus-centric campaign; she also began running a new digital spot.
Julián Castro. He's returning to California this week for more of the movements-first campaigning he's focused on; a homelessness roundtable, a Los Angeles news conference "calling for accountability for the officers involved in the shooting of Grechario Mack," and finally a foreign policy speech at Stanford, his alma mater.
Cory Booker. On CBS's "Face the Nation," he made another plea for support before the cutoff for the next debate."If you want me in this race if you want my voice and message, which is resonating then I need help,” Booker said, asking supporters to contribute to his campaign. “I am not taking corporate PAC money. … I am running on individual contributions and that’s what we are going to need to keep going.”
Tom Steyer. He's spent the weekend in the Las Vegas area, from an "anti-corruption roundtable" to a women's luncheon to a meet-and-greet in little-visited Pahrump.
Marianne Williamson. She spent the weekend in Iowa, culminating in a World AIDS Day Event in Iowa City on Sunday night.
Andrew Yang. He's returning to New Hampshire this week and heading back to Iowa for a bus tour at the middle of the month; his campaign announced that it had its biggest fundraising day on Saturday, pulling in almost $750,000.
Tulsi Gabbard. For at least the second time, she's accused the Democratic National Committee of unfairly slanting debate access against her by not counting as a qualifier the Boston Globe/Suffolk poll, which found her at 6 percent support in New Hampshire. "The pollster the Globe uses is recognized by the DNC for other media outlets," Gabbard said in a statement while campaigning in the Granite State. "There is no reason the DNC should not recognize this Boston Globe poll, other than adherence to a subjective, nontransparent process where party elites try to dictate to the primary voters." Gabbard needs just one more qualifying poll to access the December debate, but from the moment the party set its rules, the Globe/Suffolk poll was excluded.
ON THE TRAIL
WATERLOO, Iowa — In the waning days before Thanksgiving, two of the top contenders in Iowa got into a long-distance argument about transparency and ethics. They broke for the holiday before a lot of people noticed.
It began, sort of, on the day of the fifth Democratic debate. Buttigieg released tax returns from his time at the McKinsey consulting firm in 2007 and 2008, records he’d held on to during his two campaigns for mayor. He’d fulfilled a campaign promise, having told The Washington Post to expect the records before the Iowa caucuses, and he issued a challenge: “Every candidate in this race should be transparent with voters by disclosing their income in the private and public sectors."
Only one of Buttigieg’s close competitors did any private-sector work of consequence: Elizabeth Warren. She’d released her tax returns from 2008 onward, starting with her service in the congressional panel overseeing TARP. But that was as far back as she went. For years before that, Warren was paid for legal advice in 56 cases, as disclosed by her campaign this summer.
"You've got to be prepared to lead by example on transparency," Buttigieg told reporters in Denison, Iowa. "And that does mean disclosing your tax returns from both public and private sector work experience."
Warren blew it off. "I think anyone who runs for president should have to meet the same rule [as Barack Obama], and that would be the eight-year rule," she told reporters in West Des Moines. "I’m already well past that.” She then turned the topic back to Buttigieg: "There are some candidates who want to distract from the fact that they have not released the names of their clients and have not released the names of their bundlers."
That statement applied only to Buttigieg, who, pressed on it, said that Warren was "changing the subject," then rebuffed a CNN reporter who asked if he'd open his fundraisers to the press.
Both topics were pretty far from the center of Democratic primary debates. Joe Biden is the only Democrat who's holding traditional fundraisers who has allowed reporters into them; Warren's tax returns would reveal whether she was paid for additional legal work, but that work hasn't become a primary flash point.
By Sunday, when Warren returned to this small Iowa city, the issue had already burned out. She took questions instead about Buttigieg's newest criticism: that if free public college was not means-tested, it would benefit the children of millionaires and billionaires. Without repeating back his name, she disagreed: "I think it's the right thing to do."
... two days until runoff elections in Orlando and Boise, Idaho
... nine days until runoff elections in Albuquerque
... 11 days until the qualifying deadline for the sixth Democratic debate
... 13 days until runoff elections in Houston
... 18 days until the sixth Democratic debate
... 64 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 72 days until the New Hampshire primary