On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidates hustled across the state on Sunday trying to fire up voters and make one last appeal to those struggling to make a final decision about their choice in the crowded field.
Campaigns and voters acknowledged a palpable sense of unpredictability and anxiety as Democrats begin choosing which candidate to send on to a November face-off with President Donald Trump.
News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute said a win in Iowa is not about winning delegate.
“It’s about momentum. It’s about public perception. It’s about appearing to be a winner and appearing to be viable,” Mullaney said Sunday. So today really, really important for those candidates to make a strong impression in Iowa because they want to have that momemntum."
The Democratic race is unusually large and jumbled heading into Monday’s caucus, with four candidates locked in a fight for victory in Iowa and others still in position to pull off surprisingly strong finishes. Many voters say they're still weighing which White House hopeful they'll support.
“This is going to go right down to the last second,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden campaign.
Polls show Biden in a tight race in Iowa with Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang are also competing aggressively in the state.
Mullaney said Sanders’ surge could hurt the former vice president.
“For Bernie Sanders to be successful, he does need to win Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mullaney said. “If he does, South Carolina becomes a critical firewall for Joe Biden.”
A wild card in the race could be the man who’s been very visible in Florida but not so much in Iowa: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He bypassed the early voting states and spent millions on campaign ads in Super Tuesday states and other large states like Florida.
“He’s making a big bet on Super Tuesday. He’s probably hoping it wouldn’t be bad for him necessarily if Bernie Sanders were to win on Monday in Iowa," Mullaney said. "He wants to be the moderate candidate of choice and, right now, that lane is occupied by Joe Biden.”
Democrats’ deep disdain for Trump has already put many in the party on edge about the decision before them. And a series of external forces have also heightened the sense of unpredictability in Iowa, including Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, which marooned Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar in Washington for much of the past week.
Many campaigns were looking to a final weekend poll to provide some measure of clarity. But late Saturday night, CNN and the Des Moines Register opted not to release the survey because of worries the results may have been compromised.
New caucus rules have also left the campaigns working in overdrive to set expectations. For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will release three sets of results: who voters align with at the start of the night; who they pick after voters supporting nonviable candidates get to make a second choice; and the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate gets.
The new rules were mandated by the Democratic National Committee as part of a package of changes sought by Sanders following his loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primaries. The revisions were designed to make the caucus system more transparent and to make sure that even the lowest-performing candidates get credit for all the votes they receive. But party officials in Iowa and at the DNC have privately expressed concerns that but multiple campaigns will spin the results in their favor, potentially creating chaos on caucus night.
The Associated Press will declare a winner in Iowa based on the number of state delegates each candidate wins. The AP will also report all three results.
Despite the late-stage turbulence and confusion, the candidates spent Sunday making bold pronouncements. Speaking to several hundred supporters in Cedar Rapids, Sanders declared “we are the campaign of energy and excitement" and said “we are in a position to win tomorrow night.”
Warren, who is also rallying progressive voters, pressed her supporters to “fight back" if they ever lose hope.
Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Buttigieg talked up his newcomer status, telling a rally in Coralville that when Democrats have won the White House in the past, “we have done with it someone who is new in national politics." But Biden, emphasizing his decades of Washington experience, told voters there's no time for “on-the-job training."
Biden's campaign appeared to be trying to lower Iowa expectations, cautioning against reading too much into Monday’s results. Biden is hoping to sustain enough enthusiasm and money coming out of Iowa to make it to more diverse states where he hopes to draw strong support from black voters. His campaign is particularly focused on South Carolina, the fourth state on the primary schedule.
“We view Iowa as the beginning, not the end," Symone Sanders said at a Bloomberg News breakfast. “It would be a gross mistake on the part of reporters, voters or anyone else to view whatever happens on Monday – we think it’s going to be close, but view whatever happens — as the end and not give credence and space for New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.”
Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar fanned out across the state, trying to make up ground after missing most of the last two weeks of campaigning due to the Senate impeachment trial.
In a conference room in Cedar Rapids, Klobuchar appealed to caucusgoers by asking them to think about the voters who won’t be caucusing — moderate Republicans, voters who swung from Barack Obama to Trump and voters who stayed home in 2016.
“They’re watching all of this right now,” Klobuchar said. “We have people who want to come with us. And we need a candidate who is going to bring them with us instead of shutting them out.”
Klobuchar retold her joke about slowly winning over former Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran, who once told Klobuchar that she was “78 percent with you.”
“We don’t have time for that!” Klobuchar said. “She got to 100 percent and so can you.”
But many voters, too, are still making last-minute moves. According to a Monmouth University poll in Iowa in late January, 45% of all likely Democratic caucus-goers named a first choice but said they were open to the possibility of supporting another candidate, and another 5% did not indicate a first choice.
Indeed, talking to Iowa Democrats can be dizzying. Many can quickly run through what they like — and what worries them — about the candidates in rapid fire, talking themselves in and out of their choices in a matter of minutes.
“There are just so many candidates,” said John Kauffman, a 38-year-old who works in marketing in Marion.
There will likely be a lot of changes in the race before Democratic voters cast ballots in Florida. Primary day in Florida is March 17.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporters Thomas Beaumont in Coralville, Iowa, Will Weissert and Kathleen Hennessey in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bill Barrow in Dubuque, Iowa, Alexandra Jaffe in Indianola, Iowa, and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.