It's Wide Open Going into Iowa

Charlie Cook New
January 10, 2020

The upcoming round of polls will be closely scrutinized to determine how President Trump’s numbers are affected by his decision to take out Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as well as to measure the Democratic presidential field now that we are only three weeks from the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus.

The Democratic race has been frozen in place by the holidays, without many meaningful developments since the Dec. 19 debate. But don’t let the recent lack of movement fool you; this is the most wide-open contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in modern history.

Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg are tied in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls with 22 percent each; Joe Biden is a statistically insignificant 2 points back at 20 percent, Elizabeth Warren is 5 points further off the pace at 15 percent, and Amy Klobuchar sits in fifth place with 7 percent. In Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight averages—which take into account a variety of factors including past polling accuracy—Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg are virtually tied with 22, 21, and 19 percent, respectively. Warren isn’t too far back at 13 percent, and Klobuchar is again fifth with 7 percent.

There is roughly a three-way statistical tie in New Hampshire as well, with RealClearPolitics showing Sanders at 23 percent, Biden at 19 percent, Buttigieg at 18 percent, Warren at 15 percent, and Klobuchar at 4 percent. FiveThirtyEight has Sanders and Biden tied for first with 21 percent each, Warren and Buttigieg tied for third with 14 percent, and Klobuchar at 5 percent in fifth.

Given the slim margins, it's nearly anyone's game among the top four. Klobuchar needs a front-runner to stumble, but she is not an asterisk in this race.

As a frame of reference, the last time we saw such a big field of Democrats in Iowa was 2008. Barack Obama was pulling 32 percent in the late December Des Moines Register poll, with Hillary Clinton in second at 25 percent, and John Edwards just a point behind with 24 percent. Bill Richardson, Biden, and Chris Dodd claimed single-digit support. In the end, Obama won with about 38 percent of the caucus vote and 16 delegates. John Edwards was second with 30 percent and 14 delegates. Clinton ran an extremely close third place in the vote total with 29 percent, but edged Edwards out by one delegate with 15, the most important metric. That shows how hard it is to build a meaningful lead of delegates under a proportional-representation system.

Speaking of delegates, we'll soon have a sense of Michael Bloomberg’s return on investment for six weeks of saturation-level advertising in the 14 states that hold their primaries in March. It is certainly true that the Democratic Party is not begging for a billionaire who earned his money on Wall Street. But while four candidates—Sanders, Warren, and Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Booker—will be tied up for much of February in an impeachment trial, Bloomberg will be busy trying to boost his approval ratings. The February survivors may find themselves close to broke, while Bloomberg continues to write checks.

Using numbers from the authoritative Green Papers website (a great source of information on the delegate process), fewer than 4 percent of the pledged delegates (that is, those allowed to vote on a first ballot at the Democratic National Convention) will be picked in those first four contests in February. On Super Tuesday, 34 percent of pledged delegates will be chosen, and another 27 percent will be picked later in March.

The Democrats who do emerge out of those first four contests will face at least $160 million in media buys by Bloomberg, according to Advertising Analytics, in addition to an 800-person staff spread across 30 states. His plan: Accumulate delegates here and there in districts that his rivals will have never either visited or spent a dime in. After the first four states, it’s only about the delegates, which the Democratic Party rewards for as little as 15 percent of the vote share in a district.

This is not to predict that Bloomberg will win the nomination. But he may position himself to be an electable alternative to the current five contenders—more centrist than Sanders and Warren and without some of the baggage that he presumes Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar carry. There is no denying that Democrats want to win, and the No. 1 credential for many is someone who can win in November. Maybe it works, maybe it won’t, but any polling taken over the last few days would indicate whether Bloomberg's ads are taking hold or not.

If his support in Super Tuesday states moves into the higher single digits, it would be a sign that he’s gaining some traction.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on January 7, 2020