For Buttigieg and Warren, It Might All Come Down to Iowa
Finishing below second in the Hawkeye State could put the nomination out of reach
A squat utilitarian building with a dull, brick exterior, Fisher Elementary School in Marshalltown, Iowa, would fit in well in any small town in America. For a presidential nominee, that’s the whole point.
On a wintry January morning, about 400 people assembled in the school’s gymnasium to hear from Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who has recently won the Des Moines Register’s endorsement. But first, they had to sit patiently as a soundtrack of well-worn political fight songs — “Under Pressure,” “We Take Care of Our Own,” “My Girl” — blared over the loudspeakers and a swarm of quote-hungry reporters roamed the aisles, peppering the audience with questions. What did they want to hear from Senator Warren? What did they think the upcoming general election means for the future of our democracy? It was all quite a lot, especially before lunchtime.
But nobody seemed to mind — maybe they’re just nicer here? Everyone seemed eager to talk to reporters, eager to talk to candidates, eager to maintain, for at least a short while longer, a grip on the national spotlight. “The nation gets soundbites, stuff that’s been filtered through social media,” said Alex Abbe, a 32-year-old history teacher who’s been to 20 or so of these town halls in the last year. “But if you go to these events, you talk to the candidates, you watch how other people around you react to them. It’s more personal.” Another attendee, Leanne Falk, 61, who works as a legal secretary, added, “The debates are a little too rehearsed sometimes. Town halls feel a little bit more intimate.”
Town halls are where Warren really thrives. After an introduction by her rival-turned-surrogate Julián Castro (and a few seconds of her signature entrance song, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”), Warren entered the room. The crowd was rapt, cheering and waving signs that read, “Dream Big, Fight Hard.”
You’d never know, standing in the elementary school gym, that Warren’s polling numbers are down, nor that in some sense everything in her campaign — all the canvassing and fundraising, all the speeches — is dependent on a decent-to-good finish in this state.
Because Iowa holds the nation’s first major contest of the presidential primary, the caucuses are known as a make-or-break moment for campaigns. A strong performance can catapult a candidate into the race’s top tier, as it did for Barack Obama in 2008; a poorer than expected result can sink a campaign, as happened to Howard Dean in 2004, when he finished third and let loose a viral “scream” on caucus night that still resonates 14 years later. This year’s caucuses are looking incredibly tight — a January 29 poll by Monmouth University found 23% of likely caucusgoers named Joe Biden as their first preference, followed by Bernie Sanders (21%), Pete Buttigieg (16%), and Warren (15%). (The much-anticipated Des Moines Register poll, slated to be published February 1, saw its release canceled after questions were raised about its accuracy.) And while anyone would benefit from a first-place finish, two of those four candidates stand to lose the most if they fail to rank high by the end of February 3: Warren and Buttigieg.
Whereas Sanders can rely on strong polling numbers in New Hampshire, where he’s favored to again win as he did in 2016, and Biden is investing heavily in what he hopes will be a South Carolina firewall, the South Bend mayor and the Massachusetts senator — who have opened 19 and 22 field offices in Iowa, respectively — can’t bank on another early polling state to rack up delegates and deliver them field-clearing, cash spigot-turning momentum. Perhaps that explains why Warren has taken the unusual step of opening a field office in Michigan, even though its state primary isn’t until March 10: She’s got a plan for what to do without a victory in the Hawkeye State, and she’s reallocated resources accordingly.
For Buttigieg, who’s maintained a traditional primary-season approach, investing mostly in early voting states and depending on any success there to propel him through later primaries and caucuses, the stakes in Iowa could be even higher. “Buttigieg may have the most on the line as he and Amy Klobuchar have a regional advantage as Midwesterners,” said Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and former advisor to Bill Clinton. “Warren definitely lives to fight on, given her money, message, and organization. And Bernie and Joe definitely have resources and a national base of support.”
Neither campaign would ever admit this (and both declined to comment for this story), but a decisive third- or fourth-place finish (don’t even mention fifth) would likely put the nomination out of reach. Buttigieg acknowledged as much on Sunday, telling Meet the Press, “I need to have a good finish here in Iowa.”
Here are some previous fourth-place Iowa finishers: Dick Gephart (2004), Bill Richardson (2008), and Bob Kerry (1992). Some argue that this year is going to be different, and that there could be “at least half a dozen” candidates who continue their campaigns through at least New Hampshire, instead of only two or three, as normally happens after Iowa winnows the field. One pollster has predicted an ongoing “five-way contest,” thanks to the bunching of that many candidates at the top of Iowa polling. (As usual, it’s hard to put too much weight behind any one poll, as that process is notoriously unreliable. Greg Wolf, a political scientist at Drake University, explained to me that it can be “rather difficult” in Iowa to determine who among the polling respondents will actually turn out to caucus.) Even if there is a five-way bunching coming out of Iowa, no candidate has won the Democratic nomination since 1992 who did not also win Iowa. Only second-place and third-place Iowa finishers — such as Sanders, who came in a very, very close second in 2016, and Clinton, who came in third in 2008 — have even been able to maintain strong campaigns into the later contests.
“Every candidate in the caucuses has precisely the same opponent. And that opponent’s name is ‘expected.’”
For the Warren and Buttigieg campaigns, “this is sort of do or die for them,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist and the president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist-leaning think tank. “They have to perform well enough to make it look like they’re competitive.”
Warren certainly sounded competitive that day in Marshalltown. Waving her arms and intonating her points in the way only a former teacher could, she spoke, as she has many times before, about why Iowans should vote for her. “When you see government working great for those with money and not working much for anyone else, that is corruption pure and simple,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to change this by nibbling around the edges, it’s going to take big structural change. And I have a plan for that!”
She would repeat that refrain — “I have a plan for that!” — often during her speech: when talking about climate change, or criminal justice, or taxation, or immigration. And she’s said it not just in Marshalltown, but in the 100-plus other town halls she’s hosted throughout Iowa in the months leading up to the caucuses. It is her calling card, and she’s counting on it to deliver.
The Iowa caucuses are a convoluted process, one made even more confusing by recent rule changes. Starting this year, remote caucuses will be held across the country and abroad for Iowa émigrés, a tweak that could benefit centrist Democrats like Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar (both of whom claim an older voter base that might leave during the cold winter months). More importantly, the caucuses will now report a candidate’s delegate count at the beginning and end of the night, and will also record the final delegate count. That move for transparency can also allow candidates to further spin their narratives.
“Every candidate in the caucuses has precisely the same opponent. And that opponent’s name is ‘expected,’” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. “If you have somebody like Biden, for example, who finishes fourth, that really underperforms expectations.”
But the theatrics aren’t all bad. Caucuses allow lesser-known candidates to compete, because they’re able to campaign “fairly inexpensively,” Goldford said, “and talk to voters as real live human beings, not just campaign props for photo ops.” Obama’s success here in 2008 has become political lore, evidence that Iowans’ fickle nature belies their ability to bestow on an otherwise newer name a degree of national familiarity. “Iowans are deeply serious about their role, and insist on putting the candidates through their paces,” said Begala, the former Clinton advisor. Ben Smith, the 41-year-old owner of Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop, a greasy spoon-cum-campaign stop in Des Moines, explained it to me most succinctly: “I enjoy the process, I enjoy talking to people.”
For Warren and Buttigieg, that face time is especially valuable since they don’t have the luxury of another, later-state lead, like Sanders and Biden, or the massive financial arsenal of Michael Bloomberg, whose campaign is running with the yet-to-succeed campaign strategy of not playing hard until Super Tuesday. Warren and Buttigieg, who have spent $22 million and $14 million on advertising in the overall race so far, respectively, will both need a strong Iowa finish in order to convince voters that they’ve still got a fighting chance and thus are worthy of the surge in donations needed to make a go of it in the later states.
“Even though both have a significant amount of money, the tap can dry up,” Rosenberg said. “If they can’t replenish, these campaigns could be in trouble faster than people really understand. Campaigns that appeared strong and vibrant can be taken down with weak showings.” Yet you’ll never know when a campaign is dead until it’s purchased its cemetery plot and told you to start grieving. Until then, every candidate is all smiles.
Several hours after attending Warren’s pep rally, I drove to Des Moines to get an up-close view of the Pete Buttigieg experience. Though it was by now dark and a wet snow had begun to fall, a line of hundreds stood outside the State Historical Building, wrapping all the way out the door and around the corner to see the South Bend mayor speak. Packed with so many bodies, the venue was at once grandiose and snug, perfect for an Iowa speech.
Inside, more political fight songs (“Rebel Rebel”) played as the 750 attendees shook the snow off their jackets and murmured among themselves. The people I spoke with were the definition of centrism, focused more on electability than policy. “It’s mainly about dumping Trump,” said Mark, a 75-year-old who would give me his age but not, he insisted, his last name. “I think that he has a better chance against Trump,” echoed Spencer Vasey, a 27-year-old lawyer.
And sure enough, when Buttigieg finally took the stage that evening, flanked by an enormous dinosaur fossil specimen and a banner that offered a handy pronunciation of his name (It’s “BOOT EDGE EDGE,” dang it!), he opened up with a vision of Democratic utopia: “Imagine a day that’s coming up,” he said, slowly and purposefully, “Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States.” The crowd burst into applause.
Buttigieg talked about lots of things that night — net neutrality and education and his “Medicare for All Who Want It” platform and God and what it was like to come out to those he held dearest. It was, by now, a familiar speech, full of familiar anecdotes and familiar policies.
But no amount of joviality could overshadow the truth: that Buttigieg needs a strong finish here, and that his campaign depends on it. Should he or Warren fail to win or rank second on February 3, their campaigns will be hampered, perhaps fatally. They probably won’t pack up and call it a day immediately. But without the momentum of a win in Iowa, and with only the less-than-friendly territory of New Hampshire and South Carolina to look to, it’s hard to see how either of the two becomes this year’s comeback kid.