By Jennifer Rubin
The Washington Post
In six weeks, Iowans will gather in schools, community centers and other locales to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee. The number of people who turn out for an evening to talk presidential politics with their neighbors is a sliver of the electorate. In 2016, a little more than 171,000 people participated in the Democratic Iowa caucuses in a two-person race that Hillary Clinton barely won; in the general election, more than 1.5 million Iowans voted. In 2008, Barack Obama won in a three-person contest with just less than 38% of about 239,000 votes cast.
On Feb. 3, there will be about a dozen candidates, five considered in the “viable” category. High turnout is expected. The winner could easily win with less than 25% of the votes. That could come out to be about 50,000 people. Figuring out how to make sure your 50,000 voters get to the caucuses takes more than solid debate performances and catchy TV ads. You have to create enough excitement locally and build networks of voters so that voters don’t, for example, stay home to help their kids with homework.
The organizational requirements and small number of voters make it difficult to figure out who has the best chance to win. Former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are bunched up in polling, but a two-point lead in the polls without on-the-ground enthusiasm and a solid organization does not mean much. Moreover, with so few votes at issue, a candidate such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., can, with a solid organization, enthusiasm and the secret sauce of “momentum,” move up quickly and do quite well. Throw in the wild card that the senators might have to be back in Washington for an impeachment trial (while Biden and Buttigieg are free to roam Iowa), and prognostication becomes virtually impossible. Given all that, you probably want to keep an eye on how much time the top candidates get to spend in the state and how big their crowds are.
Then you have to add a few more complications. Only candidates with 15% of the vote are awarded delegates, and after the first round of caucus voting, those supporting candidates with less than 15% can rearrange themselves, joining a different candidate. For example, caucus voters supporting Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., or Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who will likely win only 3 or 4%, would be freed to pick another candidate, possibly making the difference between a first- and second-place finish. Finally, don’t forget that “beating expectations” is part of the post-voting coverage. A fourth-place finish for Klobuchar is a big difference from a fourth-place result for Warren.
Also consider one more factor: Dec. 31 is the close of the fourth quarter for fundraising. We will soon learn how much money the candidates raised and spent in early states and, equally important, how much money they have left. If you’ve spent your last dime in Iowa and come in third, you may be in a worse position than if you came in a close fourth but are still flush with cash.