I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP world headquarters in my bedroom. It’s Monday, February 3, 2020, or caucus day in Iowa. 274 days until Election Day. Have questions, comments, or tips? Email me.
Iowa kicks off 2020 cycle with caucuses marked by uncertainty
After more than a year of town halls and cattle calls, as well as fierce debates on policy and personality alike, the 2020 presidential campaign will officially kick off today in school gymnasia and church basements across the state of Iowa.
An expansive Democratic field — initially numbering 24 candidates, now whittled to 11 boldface names — has spent months courting Iowa's elusive voters, hoping for a victory in tonight's caucuses that could propel them to winning the party's White House nod. Their Iowa-focused efforts will end tonight, as a victor (or two) is crowned in the Hawkeye State and the presidential cycle pivots to a new stage: a frenzied series of primaries and caucuses in key states throughout February, followed by Super Tuesday and a slew of other contests in the months ahead.
For now, however, political observers can only speculate how the caucus process will come to a close in Iowa. An unusually low number of public polls — culminating with the last-minute cancellation of the highly-anticipated Des Moines Register pre-caucus poll on Saturday — has made the quadrennially unpredictable caucuses even harder to forecast this year.
However, recently-released surveys do show Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders with a slight edge heading into caucus night: he leads the RealClearPolitics polling average in Iowa with 24.2%, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden at 20.2%, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 16.4%, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 15.6%.
Sanders has benefited from a recent burst of on-the-ground momentum, as evidenced by his polling lead and 3,000-person crowd in Cedar Rapids on Saturday (the largest rally of the 2020 caucus season). "They're looking at recent polls in New Hampshire and in Iowa, and they're saying, 'Oh my God, Sanders can win!'" the self-described democratic socialist said of the political establishment last week. Indeed, Sanders' gains in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and national surveys have led to a fresh round of hand-wringing from top Democrats, who are mulling various efforts to band together and stem Sanders' rise.
The Vermont senator has been the main target of attacks from his rivals in the run-up to the caucuses, as centrist alternatives including Biden, Buttigieg, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (as well as his ideological ally Warren) have attempted to make the case to Iowans that they are more electable than Sanders in the general contest versus President Donald Trump.
"Joe Biden is the strongest candidate to [defeat Trump]," the narrator promises in one of the ex-vice president's closing television spots in Iowa, underlining his electability message. "He beats Trump by the most nationally and in the states we have to win. This is no time to take a risk. We need our strongest candidate." (Buttigieg responded to the ad by arguing that a candidate with vision is also needed, saying "the biggest risk we could take. . . is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work.")
A first-place finish in Iowa would be a landmark triumph for Sanders' ascendant political movement (especially in a state he came within two-tenths of a percentage point of winning in 2016), but victory is far from assured. For every New York Times poll showing Sanders with a 7-point lead in Iowa, there is one from USA Today giving Biden a 6-point advantage. Most polls also show the Vermont senator and former vice president closely clustered with Buttigieg and Warren, giving all four credible shots at top-tier finishes that could launch them into New Hampshire and beyond. (Neighboring-state senator Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang are also hoping to jumpstart their campaigns by exceeding expectations in Iowa tonight.)
The unsettled nature of this year's caucuses is accentuated by the byzantine process that governs them: the proceedings often last for hours as voters are required to realign their support until no candidate is backed by less than 15% of the caucusgoers in their precinct. This realignment procedure places an unusual premium on caucusgoers' second choices, compounding the potential scenarios that could occur and making the caucuses even harder to poll.
There is also the possibility that multiple candidates will be able to declare victory tonight, as Iowa Democrats will take the unprecedented step of releasing not just the delegate equivalences of the caucus results, but the raw vote totals after the first and final alignments in each caucus as well. If different candidates come out in top in these different metrics, the impact of the Iowa vote could be blunted as the various contenders spin the results in their favor.
But before any spinning can take place, the votes themselves must be cast. Iowa's hotly contested caucuses, the first skirmish of the 2020 presidential campaign, will begin at 7 p.m. Central Time tonight in 1,676 precinct locations across the state. 41 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July are up for grabs.
--- Do you still have questions about the caucus process? They might be answered in the first episode of my new podcast with St. Louis Public Radio, which endeavors to explain how the caucuses work and how they came to be such an important part of picking a president. Listen wherever you find your podcasts! (And if you're in the St. Louis area, tune in to "St. Louis on the Air" in the 9 a.m. hour to hear me talking about the caucuses!)
President Donald Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
The Senate will convene at 11 a.m. Eastern Time to continue the impeachment trial of President Trump. The chamber, which narrowly voted Friday against hearing witnesses as part of the trial, will hear up to two hours each of closing arguments from the House managers and the president's counsel. At approximately 3 p.m., the trial will adjourn for the day and senators will be able to deliver floor speeches for up to 10 minutes each, their first speaking opportunities since the trial began last month.
The House will meet for a pro forma session at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Bill Weld, and Andrew Yang will hold their final events in Iowa and caucus night celebrations. Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick will campaign in New Hampshire. Michael Bloomberg will campaign in California.
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