In this edition: The art of the caucus deal, debating Mike Bloomberg, and Democrats blow it in Texas.

I will not confirm or deny that I have a delegate-sharing deal with The Daily 202, and this is The Trailer.

DES MOINES — Joe Biden’s campaign contacted Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign about a caucus night alliance. Biden’s allies contacted Andrew Yang about a similar deal — but so have allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders. And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who’s stopped campaigning in Iowa, just visited a Sanders office in New Hampshire in a show of solidarity.

With no Democrat in clear command of the race in Iowa, chatter and actual planning about caucus night team-ups are getting an early start. A decades-old rule that eliminates candidates who do not get 15 percent of the vote in a caucus room has gained extra resonance in a crowded race where voters view most of their candidates warmly. 

Five of those candidates are above or close to the threshold in statewide polling: Biden, Sanders, Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. But there will be almost 1,700 across the state Monday, and those candidates’ strengths vary wildly from region to region and room to room. 

Four more candidates are actively competing across the state but are less likely to meet those thresholds and are being asked whether they will advise voters on where to move. 

“Many of my supporters would naturally head to Bernie,” Yang told reporters at a Wednesday morning breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg News. “I don't think they need me to say anything for them to head to Bernie. It wouldn't be surprising to me for them to head in that direction.”

Yang declined to give those voters a message, saying that he’d have “a hard time getting them to do anything they don’t want to do.” But Yang himself had already picked up a support from a former rival, author Marianne Williamson, who rallied with him last week in Fairfield — a liberal stronghold, home to the Maharishi International University, where she had built a following.

“I'm lending my support to Andrew in Iowa, hopefully to help him get past the early primaries,” she said.

Voters, many of them flummoxed by their options, sometimes talk the same way. In a Monmouth poll released Wednesday morning, 45 percent of Iowa Democrats said that they could change candidates inside the caucuses. 

“You have so many talented people in the race,” former HUD secretary Julián Castro said after speaking to supporters of Warren, whom he's endorsed, in Pella on Tuesday afternoon. “It may take a while to sort it out.”

At town halls, especially the ones hosted by Biden, voters frequently ask the candidates whether they would consider another candidate as a running mate. That factors into their own thinking, with many voters saying they are ready to move across the room if it helps their second-choice candidate stay viable.

“It’s a blend of what I personally think and support and of who I think is electable,” said Kelly Hoenig, a 37-year-old pharmacist who came to a Monday night Buttigieg event in the Cedar Rapids suburbs. “What I think of Buttigieg, compared to Warren, is general likability, electability, as opposed to someone who’s on the left. But they’d make a strong ticket.”

The can’t-they-all-win sentiment has spread into the party’s own system for reporting caucus results. In the past, Iowa Democrats have calculated the number of delegates each candidate won in each precinct, but not the total number of people who gathered to pick those delegates. For example: In a room of 10 Iowans, if one candidate got eight votes and two candidates each got one, the party would report only that the first candidate got that precinct’s delegates. 

This year, the party will report three numbers: the total vote when Iowans first gather in their caucuses, the total vote at the end of the night, and the number of delegates won by each candidate. That has not reduced the pressure to win outright, but it will demonstrate how much support candidates had before being eliminated by the “viability” rule.

Some horse-trading is inevitable, and it took place in both 2004 and 2008, in very different ways. In 2004, antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich entered the night below the threshold and made a public deal: His supporters would help John Edwards in rooms where Kucinich was eliminated. That helped Edwards surge in areas where he had not had natural support, and it required both candidates to form a plan and keep it quiet.

“Principals have to be in communication,” Kucinich told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “The decision to agree to pair is made at the top and is unlikely to be communicated to supporters until near the end of the first round of caucusing. This is why good relations between the candidates are important. They facilitate a willingness to help, if another candidate falls short and makes it easier to ask supporters to go along.”

In 2008, the trade was kept quieter; a now-defunct news outlet reported that then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s organizers were “instructed” to direct their voters to Barack Obama. Both campaigns denied it, but reporters saw organizers behave accordingly, helping push Obama past Hillary Clinton in some precincts.

In both cases, the candidates who suffered from the deals were the ones perceived to represent the party establishment. It’s much less clear who would benefit from deals, formal or informal, in this race. 

The same Monmouth poll that showed nearly half of Iowans open to other candidates found that every candidate stood to gain as weaker candidates were eliminated. Biden gained the most, in a situation where Klobuchar was no longer an option. But support for Sanders is more solid than support for any other candidate, and many of the caucusgoers flirting with Yang, Warren, Gabbard and even Biden had supported him four years ago.

Biden, who was badly hurt by the “viability” rule in his own 2008 run, also has an ingrained habit of telling voters they should support someone else if they disagree with him. On Tuesday, he demonstrated that in a conversation with Ed Fallon, a former state legislator and full-time climate activist, who told Biden that he could not support a candidate whose climate plan did not get the country off fossil fuels before 2050.

“Go vote for someone else,” Biden said, putting his hand on Fallon’s chest. “You’re not going to vote for me in the primary.” 

After Fallon asked for a picture, Biden refused, telling Fallon that “Bernie” was the candidate who could enact his ideal climate plan.

“I’m actually supporting Tom Steyer,” Fallon said.

On his website, Fallon had already explained that Steyer was his first choice but that he could caucus for Sanders on the second round.

READING LIST

The trials of the Never-Bernie movement. 

The ads you will never see on TV.

How do you solve a problem like a caucus?

Is it worth paying for votes if the election's still months away?

A comprehensive look at the contest.

Growing pains for a campaign that has not built much nonwhite support.

The hunt for votes in states where balloting has already started.

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

AD WATCH

Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, “Electable.” The first completely negative ad run against Bernie Sanders in this cycle, by a group that opposes his position on aid to Israel, does not mention Israel at all. The 30-second spot consists entirely of Iowa Democrats fretting that Sanders cannot win a general election.

“I like Bernie, I think he has great ideas,” says attorney Michael Kuehner. “But Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa? They're just not going to vote for a socialist.”

The harshest blow comes from Darby Holroyd, who previously worked for Sen. Kamala D. Harris's Iowa campaign and worries that Sanders “just had a heart attack.” That could connect, but it could just as easily backfire: Iowans have told pollsters that the age issue has given them some worries about both Sanders and Joe Biden.

The group has spent nearly $700,000 to run the ad in Iowa; Sanders's campaign said Wednesday that it had raised nearly twice as much, $1.3 million, after asking donors to fight back.

The Club for Growth, “Handle.” Mitt Romney is one of the most popular elected officials in Utah, and he won't face voters again until 2024. But the conservative CFG is up with its second spot against him, in the state and in the D.C. media market, portraying him as a threat to the president's success. “There's Mitt Romney, threatening to vote with Democrats again!” says an exasperated narrator, who goes on to dismiss John Bolton as an “attention-seeking blowhard.”

POLL WATCH

Iowa caucuses (Monmouth, 544 voters)

Joe Biden: 23% (-1) 
Bernie Sanders: 21% (+3) 
Pete Buttigieg: 16% (-1) 
Elizabeth Warren: 15% (-)
Amy Klobuchar: 10% (+2)
Tom Steyer: 4% (-)
Andrew Yang: 3% (-)
Michael F. Bennet: 1% (-)
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% (-)

Sanders allies have quibbled with this poll, arguing that it relies on an older voter sample and may not catch the less-traditional caucusgoers being courted by his campaign. This is Monmouth's best result for Sanders in Iowa since it went into the field nine months ago, but it paradoxically shows his favorable numbers falling (from +48 to +29) as he picks up more support in the trial heat.

It also finds him benefiting a bit less when pollsters push for second choices, trying to model a caucus room where candidates with less than 15 percent support are not viable. In that scenario, Biden gains six points, while Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg gain 4 points, a fallout that would give Biden an easy win.

Texas primary (Texas Lycuem, 401 voters)

Joe Biden: 28% (+4)
Bernie Sanders: 26% (+13)
Elizabeth Warren: 13% (-2)
Mike Bloomberg: 9% (+9)
Pete Buttigieg: 6% (+3)
Amy Klobuchar: 4% (+1)
Tulsi Gabbard: 2% (+1)
Tom Steyer: 2% (+2)

This pollster last looked at the field in August, before any candidate had done much in Texas and long before Bloomberg launched his campaign, with a big focus on the state. Most of the movement has involved undecided voters coming off the sidelines, and supporters of two disappeared Texas candidates (Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro) sorting out their new preferences. Bloomberg, with an enormous head start, has not demonstrated the robustness that could scare away candidates who'll be arriving next month. 

IN THE STATES

Democrats set a goal for last night's election in Texas's 28th legislative district: lose by single digits, but no more, and show that their gains in the Houston suburbs were real.

They couldn't make that happen. Democrat Eliz Markowitz lost in a landslide to Republican Gary Gates. She won just 12,617 of 30,074 total votes, a marginal improvement on the 11,355 votes she'd won in the all-candidate primary two months ago. Gates consolidated the Republican voters who had been split before, more than doubling his November total.

“Democrats this morning are scrambling to justify their humiliating defeat,” said Austin Chambers, the triumphant chairman of the Republican State Legislative Committee, which invested in the race as Democrats and allied groups tried to make a stand. “More than 1 million dollars in liberal spending, support from major national party leaders and presidential candidates, and the highest voter turnout in Texas state House special election history. And they still lost by a 16-point margin.”

Neither party's performance matched their typical election-year numbers. In 2018, a total of 81,998 votes were cast across the district, with Democrat Meghan Scoggins winning 37,584 of them. That rattled Republicans, who had easily held the seat since its creation, and cheered Democrats, who hadn't even contested it in the past few elections.

Nearly two-thirds of those Democratic voters stayed home yesterday, despite campaign help from Mike Bloomberg and former congressman Beto O'Rourke and a concerted effort to turn the race into a bellwether. It just didn't happen, and Republicans could not resist mocking the tall guy from El Paso who'd made the suburbs competitive in 2018.

“Beto math was that if he won or was close in a House district then he could help a Democrat win,” tweeted Gov. Greg Abbott. “Beto math doesn’t work. All of that $ was incinerated.”

There's no spinning the Democrats' embarrassment, but the scale of Republicans' win could be overrated. In 2018, weeks before the midterms, the GOP picked up a state Senate seat in a low-turnout special election in heavily Latino South Texas. Abbott's party popped champagne, predicting that the “blue wave” Democrats were hoping for that November would wash out. But Democrats got their voters out in the midterms, winning two House seats in the Houston and Dallas suburbs and trimming the GOP's margin in the state legislature.

DEBATE SEASON

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is not competing for Iowa. He’s not competing for New Hampshire. According to the DNC’s debate rules, Bloomberg is simply unable to qualify for a spot onstage unless he wins at least one delegate, or gets hundreds of thousands of donations. Because he’ll secure no delegates in early states and refuses to take donations, Bloomberg could not possibly join a debate until after Super Tuesday.

That irks some of Bloomberg’s competitors, though there isn’t much for them to do about it. 

“Instead of just putting your money out there, he's actually got to be on the stage and be able to go back and forth so that voters can evaluate him in that way,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of Bloomberg in a Tuesday interview on MSNBC. “I think he could have done it if he wanted to get some donors and be on the ballot in the early states.”

On Wednesday, Andrew Yang agreed with the sentiment, saying at a Bloomberg News-sponsored breakfast that Bloomberg could hit the DNC threshold for donations “in two months” if he merely sold merchandise at cost.

“What Mike is doing is essentially saying, hey, I don't need customer money,” Yang said. “I've got my own money. And the problem there is that you never actually have people who feel like they have to invest in your campaign. One of the reasons why my campaign is doing so well is that almost half a million Americans decided to throw down.”

Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen responded with a statement that ruled out any change in how the former mayor is running.

“Since getting in the race two months ago, Mike has visited every Super Tuesday state and has been aggressively campaigning across the country so voters can hear directly from him about how he'll get it done as President. As we've said before, Mike would be happy to debate if the DNC changes its rules.”

CANDIDATE TRACKER

The four senators running for president remain mostly stuck in Washington, waiting to learn whether they'll get the votes to allow witnesses in the impeachment trial. If that happens, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Michael F. Bennet would probably remain at their desks through the caucuses, with only this Sunday free to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren held a tele-town hall on Tuesday night, while in a Wednesday morning statement, Sanders pledged to renegotiate the USMCA update to NAFTA with stronger climate and drug price standards, emphasizing that he was “the only leading presidential candidate to oppose Trump’s NAFTA 2.0.”

Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar are still tentatively planning caucus night events, with the senators from Massachusetts and Vermont chartering planes that will take them from Des Moines to Manchester. And they have scheduled some events as early as Thursday afternoon, which they could make only if the trial is over without witnesses. They'll have some competition in local media: The president, whose travel is not restricted by impeachment, will rally in Des Moines on Thursday.

Joe Biden. He'll hold town halls across central Iowa, stopping in Waukee, Newton and Ottumwa.

Pete Buttigieg. He's moving from northeast Iowa to the Des Moines suburbs: Decorah, Independence, Marshalltown and Ankeny.

Andrew Yang. He's in eastern Iowa, with town halls in Washington, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Cedar Falls.

Tom Steyer. He's in eastern Iowa as well, stopping in Burlington, Muscatine and Davenport.

John Delaney. After weeks in small towns, he'll be in bigger cities tomorrow: Muscatine and Cedar Rapids.

Joe Walsh. The national media has descended on Iowa, and so has the Trump challenger, counterprogramming the president's rally with stops in Ames, Newton and Des Moines.

Deval Patrick. He's kicking off his own counterprogramming bus tour, in New Hampshire, stopping in Manchester, Greenland, Londonderry and Concord.

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a town hall in Portsmouth, N.H.

CAUCUS HISTORY

Jimmy Carter's 1976 Iowa campaign is remembered as a surprise, an instant conversion from “Jimmy Who?” to a serious and inevitable candidacy. 

It's a bit of a myth. George McGovern's 1972 decision to play for the caucuses had perked up interest in his insurgent antiwar campaign, boosting him before a surprise second-place finish in Iowa. Carter, who launched his campaign on the way out of the Georgia governor's office, focused early on Iowa, building on the McGovern model and making sure the media knew about it.

Unlike McGovern, Carter had competition. The 1976 race had no clear front-runner and several candidates with Midwest roots. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma also focused on the state, as did the later-starting Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona. Carter's advantage was not that he discovered Iowa but that he had no other job, freeing him up for door-to-door retail campaigning while the senators were earning media coverage in Washington. 

“The people of this country want a fresh face,” he would say, “not one associated with a long series of mistakes made at the White House and on Capitol Hill.”

Carter made his first trip to the state 11 months before the caucuses, but he did not sneak up on his rivals. An October 1975 poll conducted by the Des Moines Register found Carter's support at 23 percent, with Bayh at 10 percent and no other active candidate in double digits. By January, when it was clear that no candidate was likely to beat him, Carter's critics in the party were ready to write off anything that happened in Iowa as a nice little prize for a candidate who lacked support from labor unions and other party gatekeepers.

“A victory for Mr. Carter here could prove hollow,” wrote R.W. Apple in the New York Times, the day before the caucuses. “Canvassers for all the candidates found as many as 60 percent of the Democrats undecided last week, and many politicians predicted an uncommitted vote well in excess of the 35.8 percent recorded in 1972. If it is large enough, it could suggest that no candidates have caught on.”

That was a very low bar, and Carter crossed it. He won 28 percent of the vote, far ahead of Bayh and the field, while 37 percent of caucusgoers stayed uncommitted. Nearly three-quarters of Iowans had supported someone else, or no one; what mattered was that they gave no hints as to who could be a Carter rival on the left.

This item originally gave the wrong state for Sen. Birch Bayh; it has been corrected.

COUNTDOWN

... five days until the Iowa caucuses
... nine days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 13 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 24 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 31 days until the South Carolina primary
... 34 days until Super Tuesday