DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats crowded into local caucuses Monday night as Iowa embarked on its first-in-the-nation tradition of picking presidential candidates, with clear divisions along the lines of ideology and age affecting their choices.
Early entrance polls conducted for the national news networks showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with support of caucusgoers who described themselves as “very liberal” as well as those ages 29 and younger. Each of those groups represented about a quarter of attendees.
Among those 65 and older — about a third of those attending — caucusgoers showed a preference for former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, early results from the Edison Research survey showed. Buttigieg, 38, billed himself as an agent for generational change and showed some strength among younger voters as well.
Electability proved to be a major motivator for caucusgoers, with two-thirds preferring candidates who could defeat President Donald Trump rather than just contenders with whom they agree.
Those themes emerged as thousands of Democrats turned out at nearly 1,700 precinct sites across Iowa’s 99 counties, drawn by anger at Trump as well as having a huge Democratic field from which to choose. The size of the field, along with new rules designed to ensure transparency and accuracy, were causing delays in the reporting of results by the Iowa Democratic Party.
Iowans also became the first to take sides on the future direction for a Democratic Party that finds itself plagued by a burgeoning ideological split between its progressive and more moderate wings.
Moderates contend the progressive wing represents an unrealistic overcorrection to counter Trump in November. Progressives decry the moderates as political relics in an age that requires bold structural changes and expanded social programs to counter income inequality.
In the Iowa campaign’s closing days, much of the attention on the race focused on Sanders and Warren, both progressives, and Biden and Buttigieg, who come from the party’s more moderate side. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of neighbor-to-the-north Minnesota also was looking to finish well as a more moderate candidate.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Sanders by three-tenths of a percentage point in Iowa. Sanders looked for a chance to avenge that loss but still faces direct progressive competition from Warren.
Already, a record field of 24 contenders has been winnowed down to 11. Only seven of them actively competed in Iowa: Sanders, Warren, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, along with businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is looking at later contests, as is former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.
In each of the Democrats’ last four contested nominating contests, the winner of Iowa has gone on to claim the nomination — Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016. No Democrat has ever finished outside of the top three in Iowa and gone on to win the nomination.
On Monday, Iowa launched the grueling and expensive primary and caucus competition leading to the choice of a Democratic nominee at the party’s national convention in Milwaukee in July.
The nation’s first primary is in New Hampshire, a week from Tuesday. That’s followed by the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.
Super Tuesday is March 3, as 16 states and regions, including delegate-rich California and Texas, cast their votes. The Illinois primary is March 17, and by the end of next month, more than half of the convention delegates will be selected.
The large size of the Iowa field and what polls had showed to be a large number of undecided caucusgoers meant that second choices for a preference for the nomination could become very important.
Under caucus rules, a candidate must have at least 15% support from everyone in the precinct caucus to become viable. Those candidates lacking that threshold of support are deemed nonviable.
That’s when the process of realignment, or second choices, occurs.
Supporters of a nonviable candidate can join with another candidate who already is viable, join with others to try to make a nonviable candidate viable or leave the caucus site. Unlike past years, there only will be one realignment session, and people in a viable group in the first round cannot move to another candidate.
In addition, there’s a new wrinkle in how the results will be reported.
Traditionally, the winner of the caucuses was determined by a percentage of what’s known as state delegate equivalents — the apportionment of delegates to Iowa’s Democratic state convention, where its 41 delegates to the national convention are allocated.
This time around, Iowa Democrats will be releasing hard counts of attendees. There’ll be a first-round hard count — measuring how many people came out for each candidate, regardless of whether the contender was deemed viable in each precinct.
Then they’ll release a second body count, post-realignment. That will represent the totals used to determine the state delegate equivalents.
That leaves open the possibility that a candidate could win the first-round turnout tally but another contender could win the delegate percentage count —muddling who is considered the winner.
Republicans in Iowa also caucused, but Trump faced only minor opposition and The Associated Press quickly declared him the winner.
To move through Iowa and the initial states, a Democrat has to have a strong fundraising operation along with a comprehensive long national ground game.
Latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that among the top-tier contenders in Iowa, Sanders was the most prolific fundraiser. Through the end of last year, Sanders took in $109 million, spent $96 million and had $18 million in the bank.
Warren raised $82 million and spent $68 million with nearly $14 million available, Buttigieg received $77 million and spent $62 million with $14.5 million, while Biden raised $61 million and spent $52 million, leaving him with $9 million in cash on hand while Klobuchar got $29 million and spent $24 million and had $5 million available, the FEC reports showed.
The seven Democrats competing in Iowa combined to spend nearly $55 million in TV ads, according to a New York Times tabulation of Advertising Analytics data.
Steyer led the way, spending $14.27 million of his fortune on TV spots, followed by Sanders with $10.1 million, Buttigieg with $9.99 million, Yang with $6.52 million, Warren with $6.14 million, Biden with $4.09 million and Klobuchar with $3.74 million. Biden’s total does not include an additional $2 million spent by a super PAC supporting his candidacy.
One topic that has received national TV attention got little notice in Iowa: Trump’s impeachment trial in Washington. His acquittal is viewed as a foregone conclusion in the GOP-led Senate, but it has served to sideline the senators competing for the nomination in recent weeks.
Those senators campaigned over the weekend but left Iowa on Sunday night for closing arguments in Trump’s Senate trial on Monday.
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Ultimately, the Democratic choice comes down to voter confidence in the electability of their candidates while looking to attract the independents and Republicans in critical states that helped Trump win election in 2016.
“One thing that’s different this time is the electability issue. It’s always been floating around but it’s really pronounced this time,” said David Yepsen, a former veteran political reporter for the Des Moines Register. “Democrats are so mad, they might like a candidate, but they’re going to go with who they think can win.”
Winning was the final sales pitch for all of the top contenders.
In a crowded bar Sunday afternoon on the west side of Des Moines, Sanders made a final plea to supporters to bring their friends, “distant cousins and those people you haven’t talked to in years” to the caucuses.
“This is the political reality: If the turnout is low, we’re gonna lose. If the turnout is high, we’re gonna win,” Sanders said. “So, our job together is to create the highest turnout in the history of the Iowa caucus.”
The caucuses represent “the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sanders said to raucous applause and raised beers. “It is the beginning of a moment when we tell the billionaire class and the 1% that this country belongs to all of us, not just the few.”
Warren’s pitch in the closing days of the campaign marked a continuation of her call for “big, structural change” to the federal government. But she also pivoted to presenting herself as the best candidate to unify the progressive and more moderate wings in the party.
Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a six-pack of beer, Warren offered her final thoughts on the race at a Super Bowl party at a downtown Des Moines convention center.
“I started this a year ago, right here in Iowa, to run for president. I knew why I’d be running. I knew who I’d be running for. This is a fight I’ve been in all my life for hardworking families,” Warren said, noting she had held “a zillion” town halls, fielded hundreds of questions and taken thousands of selfies. “Iowa, you’re tough. You ask hard questions ... I’m grateful for those hard questions, because you, Iowa, have made me a better candidate and you will make me a better president of the United States.”
Biden, at his final rally at a Des Moines middle school, emphasized his experience and reiterated his message that 2020 is not a time to elect a president who isn’t ready for the job. It’s an approach aimed at drawing a contrast with Buttigieg, his top competition among moderates.
“To state the obvious, the next president is going to inherit a country divided and a world in disarray,” Biden said. “There will be no time for on-the-job training. We need a president who is going to be able to lead on Day 1, who can command the world stage, lead our armed forces and repair our relationships with our allies, which are being crushed right now.”
Biden repeatedly has pointed to efforts by Trump and his surrogates to launch attacks aimed at hampering his campaign in Iowa as a sign of strength that he’s the candidate most feared by Republicans.
“There’s got to be some reason why they are so intent on me not being the nominee,” Biden said. “Folks, I promise if you stand with me, we’ll end Trump’s reign of hatred and division and unite this country.”
Buttigieg ended his Iowa campaign with an enthusiastic rally under the cavernous dome of Bowen Roundhouse Arena at Lincoln High School on the south side of Des Moines. More than 2,000 supporters frequently interrupted the former South Bend mayor with applause as he once again invoked the imagery of the sun rising over America the first day Trump is no longer president and contended his moderate approach and the generational change he represents would best unify a divided nation.
“I know how much you are weighing, even now, the importance of that influence, that thumb on the scale that you’ve got in deciding the future of the nomination and the presidency, and therefore, the country,” Buttigieg told the crowd. “And I’m here one more time, to look you in the eye, to ask you for your support so we can begin to turn the page and bring about a better day in this country.”
Beginning the race as virtually unknown to the Iowa electorate, Buttigieg reviewed the journey of his campaign, from drawing a few dozen people at a coffee shop, where his campaign manager mopped the floor afterward, to rising to the top tier of the field with a chance to win the caucuses. As he often has in the final days of his campaign, Buttigieg drew comparisons to Obama’s improbable 2008 victory in Iowa, which propelled him on a run that ended in the White House.
“Iowa, you have a beautiful, beautiful tradition of vindicating people’s hope. You have a beautiful tradition of expanding what people think is possible in our political life,” Buttigieg said in his final remarks on the trail. “The first time I ever stepped foot in this state was as a campaign volunteer, knocking on doors for a senator from Illinois, and I was here when you changed what America thought was possible.”
Like Warren and Sanders, Trump’s impeachment trial had Klobuchar off the trail for many of the race’s final days. At a Super Bowl party in a Johnston barbecue joint, Klobuchar referenced that absence in appealing to her campaign staff and volunteers to escalate their efforts in the contest’s final hours as she once again returned to Washington for closing arguments in the trial.
“I have a strong feeling that the people of Iowa understand that when I couldn’t be here all last week, that I had a job to do,” she said. “And that they get, because I wasn’t here, that you just have to double down on your work.”