Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I need to be careful about believing that I can accurately remember anything that happened 16 years ago, but my recollection is that John Kerry unexpectedly won the Iowa caucuses and that many people attributed his victory to a last-minute spat between the camps of Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean that turned off the voters and sent them looking for an alternative.

If that history repeats, the blowup between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren could wind up benefitting one of the other candidates and boosting them beyond what the polls predict. On the other hand, the Gephardt/Dean fight was more of an ideological matter than the dispute over whether or not Sanders once told Warren that a woman cannot beat Trump. A fight between the two leftmost candidates won’t send their supporters in search of a moderate in-between choice because there is no in-between candidate in the race. What it might do is drive down their favorables among non-ideological voters or cause them to lose out on second-choice votes.

In the latter scenario, supporters of Sanders won’t vote for Warren or vice-versa if their candidate fails to meet the minimum threshold in their caucus. In this way, compromise candidates might benefit, but it won’t make much difference if this lost progressive support is spread around.

Two weeks out from the caucuses, about the only thing I’m sure about is that Gephardt and Dean won’t win. As Gabriel Debenedetti writes for New York, the polls are all over the place.

From the outside, the race for the nomination can look exhaustingly (or maddeningly) stable—Sanders and Joe Biden are nearly exactly where they were in national polling a year ago, before either even entered the race. But the four leading candidates have, in fact, been trading places atop the bewildered first-to-caucus state’s polls for months, most often within the margin of error. The three most recent surveys have seen Biden narrowly leading, with Sanders in second; Sanders barely leading, with Elizabeth Warren in second; and Biden and Sanders tied with Pete Buttigieg, with Warren just behind. The campaigns are in a frenzy, and nobody working on them believes the winner will be clear before Caucus Night…

Not long ago, Buttigieg was on top in a couple of polls. There is really no information in the polls that can help us determine a clear favorite. The best signal will probably be late movement in the last set of polls, although it doesn’t help Sens. Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren that they have been called for jury duty in the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump. It might not help Joe Biden if the Democrats agree to allow Hunter Biden to testify in the trial in exchange for the testimony of people like John Bolton, who actually have some relevant information to share. Maybe Pete Buttigieg is going to get a lucky break by comparison, but then maybe he’ll suffer because no one will be thinking about him.

Of course, I can’t write about the Iowa caucuses without pointing out that they are a fraud and should be doomed.  The best example is from the 2012 Republican caucuses when there were arguably four equally plausible results or interpretations of what happened.

Thus, you can justifiably say that [Rick] Santorum won Iowa because he had the most votes in the certified count, or that Romney won because he [was the announced winner and] benefited the most from the result, or that Ron Paul won because he actually got almost all the delegates, or that no one won because the party refused to declare a winner.

In my mind, the person who gets the delegates is the winner, and Ron Paul won the delegates when they were actually assigned at later state and county party meetings. In reality, Romney got the bounce out of winning Iowa and thus was the one whose campaign came out on top. This was unfair to Santorum because when all the dust settled, it looked like he actually got the most votes and should have been the one getting a bounce. Except, some votes were simply missing, and so the party refused to say who won between Romney and Santorum since it wasn’t technically possible to know.

Hopefully, the Democratic results in 2020 will be more orderly and decisive, but the delegates at stake are insignificant compared to the perception that someone won or “exceeded expectations.” And the winner on caucus night is not guaranteed to actually be awarded the most delegates. To assure that, they need to stick in the race and they need to be organized when Iowa Democrats actually meet to award the delegates.

Personally, I think Elizabeth Warren needs Iowa more than the others. If she loses there, I don’t know if she’ll ever win a state. Sanders still looks strong in New Hampshire and Nevada, and Biden looks very formidable in South Carolina. I guess I could make the same argument about Buttigieg, but I’m still having trouble envisioning a road for him regardless of what happens in Iowa. If anyone can shake the world with an upset, it’s Amy Klobuchar. She might even get some juice out of a strong second-place finish.

Other than Tom Steyer topping two percent, the other result that could really change the future of the campaign is a horrible performance by Biden. He doesn’t need to win in Iowa, but a fifth-place finish would be hard to explain.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com