Less Than 100 Days Out, and Iowa Is Up for Grabs

Mayor Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
November 4, 2019

REPORTERS NOTEBOOK

DES MOINES — In 91 days, voters will gather in school gymnasiums and community centers across the state to participate in the first major contest of the 2020 presidential primary: the Iowa caucus. Yet it remains almost entirely unknown which candidate will win.

So with uncertainty in the air, the Democratic hopefuls and the reporters who cover their every move — myself included — are flocking to the bellwether state of Iowa.

Despite forgetting my luggage in New York, I arrived in Des Moines just as Pete Buttigieg was making news. The Mayor of South Bend told John Heilemann on Showtime's "The Circus" that the Iowa caucus was a two-person race between Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and himself. If you look at the most recent poll out of Iowa, Buttigieg's prediction is not far off. Warren enjoys a solid lead but is followed closely by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and a rising Buttigieg.

Next, Warren released her long-awaited plan to pay for Medicare-for-all, a proposal that would cost nearly $52 trillion over the next decade. Warren promises it will not increase taxes on the middle-class, yet opponents have their doubts.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called Warren's plan "unrealistic" and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — a longshot candidate essentially running against Medicare-for-All — said the promise of a government-run, universal healthcare system could be disastrous for the party overall.

"I don't think [Democrats] can [beat Donald Trump] if we are arguing Medicare-for-all ought to be the standard of whether you are a progressive Democrat," Bennet told me in gaggle room of the Liberty and Justice Celebration Dinner, one of the last times all candidates will join together on the same stage before the caucus.

The night was made even more memorable after former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas said abruptly he was suspending his campaign. O'Rourke's announcement, which came just before he was expected to address the crowd, even caught me off guard as I was set to meet with the campaign the next day.

So that's where we are…

The ideological rift among Democrats is widening with candidates standing firmly in their corners: the progressive wing features Warren and Sanders, versus the more moderate candidates, like Buttigieg and Biden.

Voters are also conflicted over the prospects of Joe Biden, who was, until recently, widely viewed as the frontrunner. One voter, a supporter of Mayor Pete, told me that she now sees the race as a toss-up between Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg.

While Biden continues to lead in many polls and enjoys support from the widespread popularity of former President Barack Obama, his ability to attract new voters seems to be fading. It's become so dire in the Hawkeye state that the Biden camp is now turning to super PACs for donations. At one point over the weekend, protesters interrupted Biden during a speech at an event for the campaign's 23rd Iowa office opening. In a scene reminiscent of Irish bar antics, the demonstrators sang "Which side are you on Joe, which side are you on?" They also held a sign that read: BIDEN BOUGHT OUT BY BIG OIL.

The protesters stormed off when Biden asked them to stick around and talk it through. I tried to catch up with them, but they departed the new office quickly.

And on top of the Democratic punches and jousting — there remains the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Trump, which could take six sitting senators off the trail right before the Iowa caucus. Speaking with voters about the inquiry, it is far from the top of their concerns.

This could pose an unforeseen wrinkle, especially for candidates like Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker who are trailing in the polls and need as much facetime with Iowa voters as possible. For contenders like Warren, who told me she will certainly attend an impeachment trial, and Sanders, going back to Washington to perform their Senatorial duties may be easier.

Nonetheless, Booker, who is polling close to the bottom of the list, echoed Warren's sense of duty, telling me the "politics needs to take a back seat to the incredible possibility that we are having, for one of the few times in American history an impeachment trial for the President."

Yet regardless of impeachment, Iowa poses an interesting case.

Whoever is elected here has a very good possibility of becoming Trump's Democratic challenger in the general election. And, keep in mind, Iowa is a quintessential swing state, voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then flipping in favor of Trump in 2016.