In this edition: Sanders sees a clearer path in Iowa, endorsements matter (maybe), and Andrew Yang returns to the debate stage.

Congratulations to every newspaper that endorses fewer than two candidates, and this is The Trailer.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — “The New York Times poll has Bernie way ahead in Iowa,” said filmmaker Michael Moore. “I mean, way ahead! Way ahead!” 

The crowd, a couple hundred Iowans and a few dozen Wisconsinites who’d come down to canvass, started to cheer. “No end zone dancing on the two-yard line,” Moore warned.

Until very recently, supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president did not mean cheering about public polls. Sanders made his first campaign trips to Iowa six years ago and never quite stopped running for president. He never led in the Des Moines Register’s poll of the state until last week, when he led by three points, followed shortly by that New York Times-Siena poll that showed him up by seven points.

The senator from Vermont's supporters were ready for pushback — maybe an anti-Sanders PAC, maybe a “stop Sanders” push from party leaders. Former president Barack Obama warned last year in a speech about the party going too far left, and a rumor that he would intervene against Sanders, published by Fox News but not corroborated by other news outlets, spread instantly on social media. Conversations at Sanders rallies still sometimes turn to whether the Democratic National Committee has a plan to block him. 

But Sanders has met surprisingly little resistance in Iowa, campaigning as the well-liked populist with unique appeal to the young and disaffected voters who Democrats worry about losing. 

“In terms of electability, which is a fair question, we need a campaign which has energy, which has excitement, which has a strong grass- roots movement, which is able to raise money from working families to campaign, and not just billionaires and Wall Street executives,” Sanders said Saturday night in Ames. 

A week earlier, 150 or so people had come to see former vice president Joe Biden speak in this college town whose caucus-day population is swelled by Iowa State University. On Saturday, nearly 10 times as many voters came to see Sanders, Moore and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Sanders has pushed ahead in Iowa by doing exactly what he talked about for years: raising money through small donors and building the largest campaign organization possible. Like many campaigns, the Sanders organization originally underestimated the appeal of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But as Warren took fire, no campaign was in a better position to reintroduce itself to Democratic voters. They told pollsters that they broadly agreed with both senators — single-payer health care should replace private insurance, student debt should be broadly forgiven, and trillions of dollars should be spent to build and rebuild responses to climate change.

That helped Sanders to his current position, as one of the best-liked candidates in the race, even as most voters split among rival candidates who have more traditional support inside the party. Even direct criticism from Hillary Clinton went largely unnoticed, with none of Sanders’s active rivals echoing her worry that the senator had no allies in the Senate or that he promised policies he couldn’t really enact.

“I’m not going there,” Warren told CBS News when asked about Clinton’s quote.

Democratic state legislators, who see a chance of taking back the state House Chamber in Des Moines this year, have tended to support anyone but Sanders. As of Sunday afternoon, 17 of the state’s 66 Democratic legislators had endorsed Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; 11 had endorsed Warren; nine had endorsed Joe Biden; and five had endorsed former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Just one state legislator, former Teamster Jeff Kurtz, has endorsed Sanders. 

“There are people who endorsed him last time and haven’t gotten behind him again,” said state Sen. Liz Mathis, who supports Klobuchar and hosted a Saturday meet-and-greet with the senator from Minnesota at her home. “If he’s the nominee, I think the risk would be that you wouldn't pick up some of those voters in areas that are more moderate.”

Sanders has a different theory of the electorate, which his endorsers lay out at events increasingly focused on how he could win the election. The campaign’s “distributed organizing” has always targeted nonvoters, or people who are seen as unlikely to caucus, in a bet that they can rewrite caucus math. 

“For too many voters, ‘safe’ means ‘stay away from the election,' ” said Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, one of the surrogates in Cedar Falls who campaigned while Sanders was returning from Washington. “Honestly, we've done that before and it's led us to failure. We need to heed the lessons of 2016. In the fall of 2016, voters in my state were not inspired enough.”

The work to get nonvoters, and less wealthy voters, has built a coalition that does not share the worries of the likeliest Iowa Democratic voters — middle-class liberals who always caucus. All of Sanders’s rivals spend time, sometimes after a worried voter asks for it, explaining how they will pay for their plans without busting the budget.

Sanders does not get these questions and spent months at town halls where he asked voters to describe their crises — health-care bills, student debt — so he could explain why only an unfair economy would even allow the problems to exist. In Cedar Falls, Ocasio-Cortez fit into the Sanders role, embracing 41-year-old Amber Hess after she said that her wages had been garnished to pay off medical debt. 

“It’s morally wrong,” said Ocasio-Cortez, before sharing her own story about the anxiety she had felt when she needed a blood test in 2018 but lacked insurance. “Your wages are being garnished so that there could be a profit margin,” she told Hess. There was no hand-wringing about how to replace one system with another; change would come, the congresswoman explained, with a “paradigm shift.”

Anti-Sanders Democrats were not naive about the appeal of this message, but they did little to stop the candidate, and they wouldn’t make too many converts if they tried. Buttigieg has warned about the “risk” of a Sanders nomination in a fundraising email that most voters wouldn't see. Biden had warned about the downticket damage that he worried Sanders or Warren would do, but he did it in an interview with a South Carolina newspaper.

While Biden and Klobuchar have portrayed Sanders as wanting to upend the Obama legacy — Klobuchar still says he would “blow up the Affordable Care Act” — many voters were unmoved.

“Right after Obama got elected, I got into Occupy Wall Street,” said Ryan Vestal, 43, a truck driver who was giving rides to canvassers once they arrived in Iowa. “Looking back on it now, Obama didn't do anything about Wall Street. He didn't want to prosecute the bankers that crashed our economy. He appointed Wall Street bankers and Wall Street executives to his Cabinet. He let the pipeline protest play out for months without making decisions.”

Other voters said they saw Sanders as the candidate who could build on Barack Obama. Adoration for the former president runs deep in Iowa, and at his stops this weekend, Michael Moore would sometimes pivot from criticizing the 44th president’s mistakes to asking Iowans to remember the joy they felt when he was elected — joy they could feel again if they elected Sanders.

“Remember when Barack Obama was running,” Moore asked an audience in Iowa City. “How many people in your family, how many friends, said to you: 'Oh, well, I liked that speech at the convention, but I know this country won't elect him.' How many times did you hear that?”

Obama might disagree with the comparison. But he was staying quiet about the caucuses, as the Sanders team flooded the state with canvassers, knocking a door every two seconds.

READING LIST

“For Amy Klobuchar, the impeachment trial means bombarding Iowa voters from distant D.C.," by Sean Sullivan

Not on the road with the Democrat who most needs to be in Iowa.

“How do you rank Andrew Yang, cards at his Iowa events ask. What about now?” by Robin Opsahl

The closing strategy of the candidate who's in Iowa the most.

“Sanders supporters have weaponized Facebook to spread angry memes about his Democratic rivals,” by Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker

It's getting ugly (or uglier) online.

“Joe Biden's confounding candidacy,” by Walter Shapiro

Small crowds and a good chance to win.

“Joe Biden unspools an endless supply of ‘Bidenisms’ on the campaign trail,” by Matt Viser

My father had an expression: Folks, here's the deal, not a joke.

ON THE TRAIL

HIAWATHA, Iowa — There are two types of candidates: those who win newspaper endorsements and those who say that newspaper endorsements don't matter. And Amy Klobuchar was firmly in the first group. 

“Who would have thought a year ago, when I launched my campaign in that snowstorm, that I would get both the endorsement of the Quad City Times and the New York Times?” the senator from Minnesota asked at a crowded house party in this Cedar Rapids suburb. “Talk about a killer combination! And you know, one of those newspapers has one city, but the other has five, if they count East Moline.”

Local newspapers, smaller and more embattled every four years, still have the power to shape voters' opinions and demand the candidates' time. Winning over the newspaper that covers two cities in Iowa (three in Illinois) has become a big part of Klobuchar's campaign, from her ads to her stump speech. It's a validator: She came here, she did the work, and Iowans paid attention.

But after this weekend, the endorsement chase looks as divided as any other element of the Democrats' race. The Sioux City Journal endorsed Joe Biden, calling him “the candidate best positioned to give Americans a competitive head-to-head matchup with President Trump.” The Des Moines Register endorsed Elizabeth Warren, which surprised her enough to inspire a little jig. (The timing was ideal, after a town hall in Muscatine that was noticeably smaller than the Warren events of October or November.) 

Warren, who is also backed by the Storm Lake Times, got exactly the sort of endorsement she needed. Near the top, the newspaper argued against the idea that Warren was “radical” or left-wing: “She was a registered Republican until 1996. She is a capitalist.” It cleaved her from Bernie Sanders, and defended against a line both Biden and Pete Buttigieg had used, by suggesting that Warren could actually unite the country, thanks to her “competence, respect for others.” Sanders's strength had likely closed Warren's path to most left-wing voters, so she needed some validation for moderates, and here it was.

Nearly every candidate competed for the Des Moines Register's nod, and the spin came fast once it picked Warren. “Pete Buttigieg is not going to be the candidates of editorial boards this cycle,” tweeted the former mayor's communications director Lis Smith. A top researcher for Bernie Sanders noted that the Register had supported the 2002 invasion of Iraq. And every skeptic pointed out that the Register had a terrible win record, endorsing exactly one winner (Hillary Clinton, in 2016) over the past few decades of Democratic primary endorsements.

The endorsement is still usually worth something, enough that candidates who don't get it sometimes quote its praise in TV ads or mailers. (Like a court decision, the endorsement is accompanied with some dissents making the case for also-rans.) Warren hardly dwelled on her DMR endorsement, telling reporters in Muscatine that she was “happy” to see it, then not mentioning it in a short eight-minute speech at the Scott County Democrats' annual dinner in Bettendorf.

Klobuchar took another approach. In Bettendorf, she told her joke again about the superiority of the Quad City Times endorsement, then shared the good news that she had been endorsed by the Union Leader in New Hampshire. After her remarks, when asked about the Register's choice, Klobuchar looked at the positives.

“I think, actually, they did commend me for being a leader and getting things done,” Klobuchar said. “So maybe I look at the glass half full instead of half empty. The Sioux City paper also said some nice things about me, for what it's worth, even though they endorsed Vice President Biden. And then you see that long, long endorsement by the Quad Cities paper.”

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest on the impeachment of President Trump

AD WATCH

Joe Biden, “Threat.” The former vice president's ads have frequently portrayed the polls where he does the best, making the argument that he can win in November and voters' other favorite candidates might not. This is the most direct delivery of that message: “This is no time to take a risk. We need our strongest candidate. So let's nominate the candidate Trump fears the most.” Biden has not had a memorable Iowa slogan (“No Malarkey” was in place for a week, replaced by “Soul of the Nation”), but this one gets there: “Vote Biden, beat Trump.”

Andrew Yang, “Right Now.” Yang's ads about universal basic income and economic transformation have varied between ominous and heartwarming. This one lands in between, putting Yang into a Tesla to demonstrate the threat of the self-driving car. “I'm the only candidate who built a nonprofit that's created thousands of jobs,” Yang says as his hands leave the wheel and the car steers itself home. “If you don't think automation and a transforming economy is costing jobs, think again, because it's happening right now.”

POLL WATCH

Nonwhite support for Democratic candidates (Washington Post/ABC News, 349 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 38%
Bernie Sanders: 28%
Mike Bloomberg: 9%
Andrew Yang: 7%
Elizabeth Warren: 6%
Michael Bennet: 3%
Pete Buttigieg: 2%
Amy Klobuchar: 2%
Tom Steyer: 1%

A national poll with a sample size in three digits is a good voter guide, but not definitive; the burst of support for Michael F. Bennet, who has largely campaigned in New Hampshire, may be overstated. But this is a good corrective to a story that anti-Sanders Democrats tell themselves, that any steam he picks up in Iowa and New Hampshire would be smothered once the race expanded to diverse states. Biden leads with black voters, but by around half of the 60-point margin Hillary Clinton enjoyed in the 2016 primary; Sanders continues to run strongest with Latino voters.

New Hampshire primary (CNN/UNH, 516 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 25% ( 4)
Joe Biden: 16% ( 1)
Pete Buttigieg: 15% ( 5)
Elizabeth Warren: 12% (-6)
Amy Klobuchar: 6% ( 1)
Tulsi Gabbard: 5% (-)
Andrew Yang: 5% (-)
Tom Steyer: 2% (-1)
John Delaney: 1% ( 1)

The trend lines are from October, when Sanders was at a low point and Warren was on the rise. Since then, Buttigieg has leapfrogged his rivals and has the highest overall favorable rating (46 points); Yang's popularity has surged, though his horse-race numbers haven't; and views of Warren, Biden and Sanders have remained fairly stable.

But over the long run, Biden and Warren have taken the most hits. This has never been a particularly strong poll for Biden, but since last summer he has never broken out of the teens, and a shrinking number of voters (10 percent, down from a high of 19 percent) count him as their second choice, ominous if Iowa does not go well for him. There has been a sharp decline for Warren when voters are asked who's most “electable” (from 18 percent to 6 percent) and most “likable” (from 10 percent to 4 percent). 

Iowa caucuses (CBS News/YouGov, 1,401 registered voters)

Bernie Sanders: 26% ( 3)
Joe Biden: 25% ( 2)
Pete Buttigieg: 22% (-1)
Elizabeth Warren: 15% (-1)
Amy Klobuchar: 7%
Tom Steyer: 1% (-1)
Andrew Yang: 1% (-1)
John Delaney: 1% (-)

One of Biden's best polls in this state is also fairly ominous for Klobuchar, who has centered her campaign on her win record in neighboring Minnesota. Just 49 percent of Iowans think Klobuchar would “probably” or “maybe” win in November, compared with 70 percent for Warren, 74 percent for Buttigieg, 75 percent for Sanders and 90 percent for Biden. On most measures Democrats are comfortable with Biden, and there are big warning signs for Warren; 30 percent of voters say she has not been consistent (less than Biden, nearly twice as much as the number for Sanders), and half of voters worry that a woman is less electable.

DEBATE SEASON

Andrew Yang is back. The first-time candidate, who has outlasted and out-fundraised far better-known Democrats, is set to make a return trip to the televised debates next month, after four polls found him at or over the DNC's 5 percent threshold.

It was welcome news for Yang, if a little bittersweet. He missed January's debate in Iowa in large part because of a holiday polling drought, with no qualifying polls conducted in the early states during the month of December. 

That drought is over, as both of today's polls of New Hampshire, CNN/UNH and NBC/Marist, put Yang above the threshold — and two national polls, from Fox News and The Washington Post, added to that total. Put another way: Yang got all the polling he needed to make the next debate in a period of 10 hours.

“Where were they last month?” said Yang spokesman Erick Sanchez. “We're thrilled. This is what we anticipated would happen if those polls simply dropped.”

The Democrats who'd qualified for this month's Iowa debate had already qualified for the New Hampshire debate: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer. This also marks the second time that a Democrat who had been nudged offstage has qualified for a return trip, after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii missed September's debate and returned for October's. 

But Gabbard and Yang have been on completely different paths since then, with Yang's favorable ratings surging thanks to big early-state ad buys and Gabbard's ratings tanking in the wake of her “present” vote on impeachment. Gabbard needs two more qualifying polls to make the New Hampshire debate, and that state — where she has spent the most time campaigning, and where she appeals to conservative crossover voters — could get more polling before the Feb. 6 debate cutoff.

CANDIDATE TRACKER

The four senators running for president got about as much of a break from the impeachment trial as they could have asked for. Bernie Sanders managed to get a chartered flight in time to guest-star at a Saturday afternoon event in Marshalltown, then headed to Ames before three scheduled stops Sunday. Amy Klobuchar packed in three events on each weekend day; Elizabeth Warren made four stops, with some interviews and retail campaigning mixed in. 

Both of the female contenders campaigned across eastern Iowa, while Michael F. Bennet focused on New Hampshire, finishing with his 42nd town hall of a planned 50 before the primary.

Pete Buttigieg. He's taking full advantage of the absence of the senators, with events scheduled in Iowa single day through the end of the month, including his second Fox News town hall tonight.

Joe Biden. He won more endorsements in early states, including a wave of legislative support in Texas, and picked up the support of Iowa state Rep. Mark Smith, one of the many politically homeless supporters of Cory Booker. Biden id campaigning in Iowa through the caucuses.

Mike Bloomberg. He rallied in Florida on Sunday and will open a campaign office on Monday in Vermont, a state where Sanders ran so strongly in 2016 that Hillary Clinton won no pledged delegates.

Tulsi Gabbard. She's continuing her journey through New Hampshire, with events every day there; as the Des Moines Register noted when it did not bother including her in the pros/cons list accompanying its endorsement, she has not campaigned in Iowa since October.

Deval Patrick. He's also largely focused on New Hampshire, with a six-day bus tour starting Jan. 30 and continuing through Feb. 4, when his rivals arrive from Iowa.

COUNTDOWN

... two days until the special legislative election in Texas
... eight days until the Iowa caucuses
... 12 days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 16 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 27 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 34 days until the South Carolina primary
... 37 days until Super Tuesday