Biden June 2019
Credit: Marc Nozell

We are at the stage in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in which all of the chatter is focused on polling and debate performances. Before the Iowa caucuses on February 3, there will be three more debates, one each month from October to December. Once those are completed, the actual results will begin to dominate the news.

It’s important to keep that in mind because we are still fairly early in the process. The latest NBC/WSJ poll provided a stark reminder of the race’s potential volatility, with the news that “only 9 percent of all Democratic respondents say their minds are definitely made up.”

While it remains controversial with a lot of Democrats, the results in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire will probably have a bigger impact on what voters decide than the debates. The starkest example of that in recent history is how Barack Obama seemed to come out of nowhere in 2008 and take the lead after winning the Iowa caucuses.

On this day in 2007, the polling average at Real Clear Politics showed Hillary Clinton leading Barack Obama nationally by more 18 than points (41-23). Obama didn’t take the lead in polling until mid-February, more than a week after Super Tuesday. If that year is any indication, we could have some pretty big surprises ahead.

Sticking with the 2008 Democratic primary as a reference, Dan Guild pulled data from exit polls to show that 51 percent of Iowa caucus-goers made up their minds in the last month. Similarly, 65 percent of those who voted in the 2008 New Hampshire primary and 54 percent in South Carolina’s made up their minds in the last month.

As impatient as we all are to know who the nominee will be, the real test will not come until January, when the ground game in those early states will become the most important factor—just as Democrats are making up their minds. Earlier this summer, it was clear that Warren and Booker were the two candidates who were best prepared for that moment in Iowa. Here is a report on that from Gabriel Debenedetti in June.

While most campaigns, including some of the top-tier ones, have fewer than a dozen aides on the ground in the state, it’s Booker — whose 42 full-time Iowa staffers, including in-state digital and data teams, blanket the state — and Warren — who now has over 50 paid staffers there, about three-quarters of whom are organizers — who are dominating the traditional organizing game.

But according to Politico, by August, a couple of other candidates were stepping up to the plate.

[Biden’s] campaign staff is now the biggest in the state, with 75 full-time staffers on the ground, 60 of whom are field organizers. That doesn’t include another 20 unpaid Iowa “fellows,” products of an eight-week training program for organizers. By the end of the week, the campaign will have opened 10 offices in the state with a goal of 12 by summer’s end and a total of 25 by the caucuses on Feb. 3…

Harris is likewise committing heavily to Iowa — after first raising doubts about her attentiveness among the local political class…On Thursday, the California senator kicked-off a five-day bus tour and became the first major candidate to air TV ads in the state — centered on her kitchen table agenda including a middle-class tax cut, “Medicare for All,” and an equal pay for women plan.

She now has nearly 50 full-time paid staffers on the ground and is considering another staff hiring push.

To the extent that the Iowa ground game in January is important, that means that either (a) one of the front runners will win there and get a major boost, or (b) we’re in for a surprise showing from Booker or Harris. While the latter is a long shot, it would almost immediately boost either candidate into the top tier.

After Iowa, things will happen very quickly, with a ramped-up Super Tuesday on March 3rd, shortly after contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. By the end of March, more than 50 percent of the delegates will have been allocated. At this point, a flip of the coin would likely be as accurate as any prognostications.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.