And Andrew Yang makes his closing pitch with math.
“I am the heaviest betting favorite to defeat Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup of anyone in the field,” Yang said at a Saturday night rally that packed more than a thousand voters and canvassers into the Des Moines Marriott. “I am at 3 to 2 as a head-to-head favorite against Donald Trump. The next-best candidate is even money. I'm not much of a gambler myself, despite the Asian-ness.”
In the final hours before caucus doors open, the seven Democrats actively campaigning in Iowa here have started to converge on one theme — electability — while putting together very different closing arguments.
Their advertising, which ignored the president for most of last year, now puts him or his voters front and center. Their rallies, where voters jostle for space with tourists and journalists, sketch out the reasons they could put together a coalition that unseats the president. Here's what it looks like inside the final campaign events before the caucuses, with the candidates listed by the irresistible (and sometimes deceiving) metric of crowd size.
Bernie Sanders. Visibly frustrated at how the impeachment trial grounded him in Washington, Sanders has filled his schedule with rallies before a few hundred people and with hours-long concert/teach-in events that have pulled out at least 5,000 people in total, easily the biggest crowds of the caucuses.
At a Friday night concert in Des Moines with Bon Iver, Sanders called in with a version of his stump speech; at a Saturday night concert in Cedar Rapids, he delivered it live. “The reason we are going to win the Democratic nomination is because we are a campaign of us, not me,” he said, starting in on the agenda he'd run on since 2015: “single-payer Medicare-for-all,” tuition-free public college, criminal justice reform, an end to the drug war, and the rest.
Sanders hardly mentions Trump at all, referring briefly to the president as a “pathological liar” who can be defeated with “high voter turnout.” The only reference to the issues around the impeachment is a quick condemnation of a president who “does not believe in the separation of powers.” Trump returns to the stump only when Sanders needs to make a point about how affordable a democratic socialist agenda would be.
“If Donald Trump and his friends can give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to large corporations and the top 1 percent, we can cancel all student debt in America,” he said in Cedar Rapids. The message: He can win the election in a walk so long as he gets the nomination.
Pete Buttigieg. The phenom from South Bend, Ind., has consistently portrayed the president as a “symptom” of America's problems; as a result, Trump gets only some cameo roles at Buttigieg events. Buttigieg still asks crowds to imagine the day when Trump is finally gone (an instant applause line) but spends more time arguing against the Democrats polling closest to him, with Joe Biden “trying to meet fundamentally new challenges with a familiar playbook” and Sanders promising “revolution” without a Plan B.
Buttigieg describes a country that is moving inexorably toward liberalism and progress and gets some of his loudest applause when he thanks Iowa for making it possible for him to wear a wedding ring, evoking the state Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage. Democrats win, he says, when they roll the dice and go for what they actually want.
“Every single time my party has won the White House in the last half-century, it's been with a candidate who was looking to the future, who was not associated with Washington, either didn't have an office there or hadn't had one for very long, and was opening a door to a new generation,” Buttigieg said on CBS on Sunday morning.
Elizabeth Warren. In November, Warren changed her stump speech, slicing it down and leaving more time for questions. In January, she changed her ad campaign, emphasizing her support from former Republicans and from Democrats who backed either Sanders or Hillary Clinton in 2016. Over the weekend, signs that read “Unite the Party” materialized at Warren's events, turning her subtext into … well, text.
But Warren speaks even less about Trump than Buttigieg or Sanders, spending most of her time using questions to accentuate the agenda she'd bring to the executive branch. There's an increased emphasis on how electing her could make history, the first female president, finishing the business Democrats thought they were finishing in November 2016.
“I will do everything a president can do — I love saying this! — all by herself on her very first day,” Warren said on Sunday in Cedar Rapids.
Warren does not mention specific polling unless pressed, when she will point out that the wealth tax, the idea that powered her rise, is popular with Republicans.
Andrew Yang. The candidate with the least political experience in this race has become one of its most consistent political speakers, with jokes that falter only if the crowd is too familiar with him. Yang used to be able to ask the crowd if they've ever “heard a politician talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” but at this point, they have. (The punchline was: “Just now, and I'm barely a politician.”)
Yang is exuberant, describing a coming Iowa victory that no pollster sees as possible and reciting poll numbers about his crossover appeal to say that he can win more Trump voters than any Democratic rival. Yang is also perhaps the grimmest candidate, describing the economic problems that enabled a Trump win in the first place.
“We're being told how great things are all of the time,” Yang said in Des Moines on Saturday. “Record high GDP, record high stock market prices, record low unemployment. But we're looking around and thinking, I'm not sure things are actually that great. And we are right. We have record high corporate profits in this country, yes, but what else are at record highs in the United States of America right now? Suicides. Depression. Overdoses. Income inequality. Homelessness. Debt, student loan debt, medical debt. Anxiety.”
Joe Biden. There are two types of Biden speeches: the ones that rely on a script, and the ones where he largely wings it. The closing days have relied on a more spontaneous Biden, who talks more and more about Trump's outrages and implies that if voters select another Democratic candidate, it would risk reelecting him.
“I don't think you've ever had a greater responsibility than you have this time, not because I'm on the ballot,” Biden said on Saturday in Cedar Rapids. “You owe it to the country to make sure that Donald Trump is not the next president of the United States.”
No Democrat spends more time on the stump warning about Trump as the only impediment to a Democratic Party agenda. There are mournful Trump references, as when Biden recalls the scenes from the 2017 “Unite the Right” march of white supremacists on Charlottesville. “Close your eyes and remember what you saw on television,” Biden says. There are fiery Trump references, such as when Biden refers to a card he carries, detailing the total of military casualties in Afghanistan (“Not roughly 6,000, but 6,095!"), a way of calling the president callow.
Amy Klobuchar. The senator from Minnesota is getting the biggest crowds of her year-long campaign, and she will say so, taking her time on the way to her microphone to work the audience, before being introduced as the Republican-slayer from up north.
“All she does is win,” said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, one of the surrogates who had campaigned for Klobuchar during the bulk of the Senate trial, then rejoined her on the trail.
The Klobuchar stump is long, usually running to 35 minutes, and starts with a rundown of her many legislative endorsements and often ends by detailing just how she won her races.
“I am someone that has won every race, every place, every time,” she said Saturday in Cedar Falls. “I have won in the most rural districts, including the one bordering Iowa, by big margins. I have won the one bordering North and South Dakota in big margins. I have won in the north part of Minnesota, where there's currently a Republican congressman, and I have won in Michele Bachmann's district.”
Klobuchar makes no references to her rivals and only gently refers to how some of them have plans that might not ever get passed. Trump appears intermittently, and Klobuchar finishes talking about him by warning that the Democrats of 2016 “had a great message but chased him down every rabbit hole.” One year after declaring her candidacy during a snowstorm, she still recalls her Twitter comeback to Trump: “I'd like to see how your hair fares in a blizzard.”
Tom Steyer. An underappreciated irony of the caucuses is that Steyer, who spent years campaigning for Trump's impeachment, saw it unfold just in time to bury presidential campaigns — his included. He, too, has “Beat Trump” signs, leading the field in conciseness. He, too, has a campaign bus, which has crisscrossed the state even as polls show him doing much better in Nevada and South Carolina.
Steyer draws the smallest crowds of the candidates still in Iowa, but voters do show up and settle in for town halls that stretch to an hour long. On Sunday night, in Waterloo, he took questions about climate change (his “number one priority”), the electoral college, infrastructure and student loan debt. That last question led him into a story about lobbying in California for a bill to crack down on companies that exploit students with debt and finding that legislators viewed it cynically.
“I walked in for a meeting, and I said, I'm here for a Bill of Rights for students,” Steyer says. “And this senator goes: 'Do you care about this?'" Steyer recreated his dumbfounded look. “Do I care about giving my students far more money so that they can get an education and be more productive people and better citizens? Come on! Who doesn't care about that?”
Steyer's electability pitch is unique, an argument that only a candidate who has succeeded in business and never been tied to Washington can effectively compete with him. Iowa might not be the state where he proves that.
Sights, scenes and worries from the last stretch.
“Rivals warn Sanders campaign plans to game Iowa results,” by Natasha Korecki
Could the senator from Vermont declare victory before caucusing ends?
“As Clinton slams Sanders, he tries to restrain his supporters,” by Sean Sullivan
How to lead a party that your voters don't trust.
“Where Democratic candidates might look for support in Iowa caucuses,” by Randy Yeip, Max Rust and John McCormick
The places to look for election night insight.
“How does Pete Buttigieg feel?” by Ben Terris
Stoicism, and how it came to define the first credible gay candidate for president.
“Black women in Iowa who turned out for Obama say they may sit out this year's caucus,” by Priscilla Thompson
After a year of campaigning, some voters still feel left out.
ON THE TRAIL
DES MOINES — “I want to beat Donald Trump!” said Joe Walsh.
The crowd around the former Illinois congressman broke into laughter, and to be fair, he was joking.
“Here's what I want,” Walsh explained. “I want to do well enough that Donald Trump gets irritated. I want to do well enough that Donald Trump sends me crazy tweets. I want a number that surprises Republicans all over the country, so they wake up the day after Iowa, and they go, 'Oh, my God!' "
That was a low bar, one still unlikely to be crossed by a presidential candidate talking to voters in a coffee house that was at best one-third full. But the international political media had descended on Iowa, and so had Walsh. So had Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, who is running his own quixotic bid against the president.
“My expectations are modest here,” Weld said Sunday morning after visiting the Waveland Cafe and shaking diners' hands. “But I was just talking to some people over there, who were knocking doors for Mayor Pete. And they were saying, having knocked 150 doors, that they were finding a lot of support for me. Much to my surprise! I'll take it.”
Neither Weld nor Walsh had gotten much attention from the president. They had drawn the anger of state Republican parties, which was flattering, if not exactly fun. They had to fight to make sure that Iowa Republicans held caucuses at all, and once they succeeded, the Trump campaign put together a massive surrogate plan that would send everyone from the president's sons to Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr. to speak at caucuses that Trump will almost surely win.
Weld and Walsh had spent more time in Iowa than Falwell, but not by much. Weld said that his current visit to the state was his third, and the best so far, because he'd picked up the endorsement of former congressman Jim Leach, a liberal Republican who (like Weld) had supported Barack Obama for president.
“I love the place,” Weld said of Iowa. “It's a different kind of outdoors than I'm used to in Massachusetts and New York, but it's very beautiful.”
Walsh had spent more time in the state, talking up his neighborly roots, and spending most of January speaking to whoever would give him the time. On Friday, during a stop at the community center Urban Grounds, Walsh recalled how he'd showed up at the president's Des Moines rally, shaking hands with Trump voters, even though the conversations had not gone very well.
“Right now, the Republican Party is a bunch of old white guys,” Walsh said Sunday, adding that he might not be able to remain a member of the party. “I really think the Republican Party is going to die.”
Weld was less brash; while Walsh would gather voters (and reporters) around and hold court as he apologized for ever supporting Trump, Weld preferred to have polite conversations in diners. He spent nearly 15 minutes outside the Waveland, taking questions from local media, as well as a South Korean TV station that probed whether he could solve the impasse with North Korea.
“The position of America has to be that we'll cover the backside of our allies who do not develop nuclear weapons,” Weld said. “If we don't keep the nuclear peace, that means World War III. I don't think that Mr. Trump has any depth of understanding of these issues.”
There was some genuine support for Weld once he broke free of the media scrum. Tony and Laura Cupp, 36 and 33, picked up WELD T-shirts, which they intended to use Monday when they went to their local Republican caucus and tried to win him some votes.
“I'm not sure how much of a turnout to expect, honestly,” said Tony, who had backed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in the 2016 caucuses. “But I expect to see some resistance.”
The latest on the impeachment of President Trump:
Iowa caucuses (CBS News, 1,835 registered voters)
Bernie Sanders: 25% (-1)
Joe Biden: 25% (-)
Pete Buttigieg: 21% (-1)
Elizabeth Warren: 16% (+1)
Amy Klobuchar: 5% (-2)
Thanks to the Des Moines Register's debacle, this is the only DNC-approved poll of the caucuses we're going to get, and it sets expectations high for everyone but Warren and Klobuchar. The difference is in the model, which sees the caucus population skewing a bit older than other polls (benefiting Biden), and sees more first-time caucus-goers breaking for Buttigieg than for Sanders. It's still a far better position than Democrats expected Sanders to be in at this point, back when they were writing him off, and far worse than multiple rival campaigns see Klobuchar doing.
2020 general election (NBC News/WSJ, 1,000 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 50%
Donald Trump: 44%
Bernie Sanders: 49%
Donald Trump: 45%
Elizabeth Warren: 48%
Donald Trump: 45%
Pete Buttigieg: 46%
Donald Trump: 45%
This poll has Trump's approval rating at its highest levels in years, albeit still underwater. When the poll is limited to swing states, Biden is the only Democrat who holds a lead of any significance; Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg all do worse. Even as rivals in Iowa look down on Biden's organization, higher-information voters keep getting data to suggest that he'd run stronger against the president than anyone else. If he wins tomorrow, that will be a big reason.
The four senators seeking the Democratic nomination are nearly free from the requirements of the impeachment trial, though obviously not for the reason they preferred. (The acquittal vote is expected on Wednesday.)
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet will all return to Washington in the next 12 hours; Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar still expect to zip back to Iowa on Monday afternoon. In an accidental act of solidarity, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have no public events planned until their own caucus parties that evening.
Andrew Yang. He’ll lead four canvass launches, in Grinnell, Iowa City, Davenport and Des Moines.
Tom Steyer. He’ll lead two canvass launches in Des Moines.
Deval Patrick. He’ll campaign in North Conway, Hanover, New London and Nashua, for his last day as one of the only candidates in New Hampshire.
Tulsi Gabbard. She’ll hold an online roundtable in the evening as caucus results come in.
Mike Bloomberg. He’s wrapping up another tour of western states, where he sparred with the president over some tweets about the DNC’s debate rules (“the president lies about everything”) and a comment in tonight’s pre-Super Bowl interview wherein the president called him short.
The 2004 Iowa caucuses are remembered for two events, occurring within minutes of each other: John F. Kerry's resurrection and Howard Dean's scream. They're also remembered for Kerry coming out of nowhere in the final weeks, an inspiration to candidates that the media has written off.
The real story was a little more complicated. First, Kerry was always relatively strong in Iowa, just not dominant until the end. Second, Dean did not start out expecting to become the antiwar candidate, or the candidate of young voters, or the guy who yelled into a microphone. He opened an exploratory committee in May 2002, 19 months before the caucuses, and initially focused his candidacy on universal health care. To the extent that he was known at all, it was because he signed civil union legislation in 2000, when same-sex marriage was politically toxic.
“Dean considers his conservative fiscal record and his expansion of health care the hallmarks of his governorship,” Jonathan Cohn wrote in an early profile of the candidate.
The Iraq War changed everything. Of the four candidates who would fight for the lead in Iowa, only Dean opposed it. Kerry voted for the resolution that enabled the March 2003 invasion, as did Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, as did Dick Gephardt, whose nearly final act as House minority leader was losing most of his conference as he backed the Iraq vote. Dean benefited from that instantly, and by April 2003, he was competitive in polls of Iowa.
“The data also hinted that John F. Kerry could become a formidable candidate and that John Edwards was a direct threat to Dean,” the governor’s pollster, Paul Maslin, eventually revealed in The Atlantic.
Nationally, and in New Hampshire, Dean began to run away with the race by the summer. Iowa was more complicated, because Dean's new image did not sync up with the record he'd initially planned to run on. In Vermont, usually ignored by the national media, he'd talked about putting Social Security “on the table,” a comment that Gephardt would throw back in his face in debates and ads. Dean slashed Gephardt right back, portraying him as the weakest in a bevy of Washington-based candidates, and saying he'd “hung his own people out to dry” on the Iraq vote.
Kerry and Edwards benefited from the back-and-forth, and even from how Gephardt had tied up most labor support, denying Dean some traditional organizing strength. Dean's campaign, the first to really take advantage of online organizing, set a goal of bringing 5,000 supporters into Iowa from other states; 3,500 showed up, still an overwhelming number.
The “Perfect Storm” of grass-roots supporters put fear into Dean's rivals, and when he lost, some Democrats overlearned the lesson. The problem was not with how Dean organized. It was with his record, and Democratic nervousness about whether he could win in November. Late-deciding voters ran away from Dean, especially after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq caused a spike in President George W. Bush's approval rating. Dean ran weakest with voters who prioritized “experience,” voters who lacked college degrees, and voters over 65, and he did not replace those voters with a new, young antiwar bloc.
He couldn't do it, which convinced some campaigns that no candidate could. They would be wrong.
... one day until the Iowa caucuses
... two days until the special primary election in Maryland's 7th Congressional District
... five days until the seventh Democratic debate
... nine days until the New Hampshire primary
... 20 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 27 days until the South Carolina primary
... 30 days until Super Tuesday