DES MOINES, Iowa - Joe Biden’s campaign contacted Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign about a caucus night alliance. Biden’s allies contacted Andrew Yang about a similar deal - but so have allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders. And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who’s stopped campaigning in Iowa, just visited a Sanders office in New Hampshire in a show of solidarity.
With no Democrat in clear command of the race in Iowa, chatter and actual planning about caucus night team-ups are getting an early start. A decades-old rule that eliminates candidates who do not get 15 percent of the vote in a caucus room has gained extra resonance in a crowded race where voters view most of their candidates warmly.
Five of those candidates are above or close to the threshold in statewide polling: Biden, Sanders, Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg. But there will be almost 1,700 across the state Monday, and those candidates’ strengths vary wildly from region to region and room to room.
Four more candidates are actively competing across the state but are less likely to meet those thresholds and are being asked whether they will advise voters on where to move.
“Many of my supporters would naturally head to Bernie,” Yang told reporters at a Wednesday morning breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg News. “I don’t think they need me to say anything for them to head to Bernie. It wouldn’t be surprising to me for them to head in that direction.”
Yang declined to give those voters a message, saying that he’d have “a hard time getting them to do anything they don’t want to do.” But Yang himself had already picked up a support from a former rival, author Marianne Williamson, who rallied with him last week in Fairfield - a liberal stronghold, home to the Maharishi International University, where she had built a following.
“I’m lending my support to Andrew in Iowa, hopefully to help him get past the early primaries,” she said.
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Voters, many of them flummoxed by their options, sometimes talk the same way. In a Monmouth poll released Wednesday morning, 45% of Iowa Democrats said that they could change candidates inside the caucuses.
“You have so many talented people in the race,” former HUD secretary Julián Castro said after speaking to supporters of Warren, whom he’s endorsed, in Pella on Tuesday afternoon. “It may take a while to sort it out.”
At town halls, especially the ones hosted by Biden, voters frequently ask the candidates whether they would consider another candidate as a running mate. That factors into their own thinking, with many voters saying they are ready to move across the room if it helps their second-choice candidate stay viable.
“It’s a blend of what I personally think and support and of who I think is electable,” said Kelly Hoenig, a 37-year-old pharmacist who came to a Monday night Buttigieg event in the Cedar Rapids suburbs. “What I think of Buttigieg, compared to Warren, is general likability, electability, as opposed to someone who’s on the left. But they’d make a strong ticket.”
The can’t-they-all-win sentiment has spread into the party’s own system for reporting caucus results. In the past, Iowa Democrats have calculated the number of delegates each candidate won in each precinct, but not the total number of people who gathered to pick those delegates. For example: In a room of 10 Iowans, if one candidate got eight votes and two candidates each got one, the party would report only that the first candidate got that precinct’s delegates.
This year, the party will report three numbers: the total vote when Iowans first gather in their caucuses, the total vote at the end of the night, and the number of delegates won by each candidate. That has not reduced the pressure to win outright, but it will demonstrate how much support candidates had before being eliminated by the “viability” rule.
Some horse-trading is inevitable, and it took place in both 2004 and 2008, in very different ways. In 2004, antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich entered the night below the threshold and made a public deal: His supporters would help John Edwards in rooms where Kucinich was eliminated. That helped Edwards surge in areas where he had not had natural support, and it required both candidates to form a plan and keep it quiet.
“Principals have to be in communication,” Kucinich told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “The decision to agree to pair is made at the top and is unlikely to be communicated to supporters until near the end of the first round of caucusing. This is why good relations between the candidates are important. They facilitate a willingness to help, if another candidate falls short and makes it easier to ask supporters to go along.”
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In 2008, the trade was kept quieter; a now-defunct news outlet reported that then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s organizers were “instructed” to direct their voters to Barack Obama. Both campaigns denied it, but reporters saw organizers behave accordingly, helping push Obama past Hillary Clinton in some precincts.
In both cases, the candidates who suffered from the deals were the ones perceived to represent the party establishment. It’s much less clear who would benefit from deals, formal or informal, in this race.
The same Monmouth poll that showed nearly half of Iowans open to other candidates found that every candidate stood to gain as weaker candidates were eliminated. Biden gained the most, in a situation where Klobuchar was no longer an option. But support for Sanders is more solid than support for any other candidate, and many of the caucusgoers flirting with Yang, Warren, Gabbard and even Biden had supported him four years ago.
Biden, who was badly hurt by the “viability” rule in his own 2008 run, also has an ingrained habit of telling voters they should support someone else if they disagree with him. On Tuesday, he demonstrated that in a conversation with Ed Fallon, a former state legislator and full-time climate activist, who told Biden that he could not support a candidate whose climate plan did not get the country off fossil fuels before 2050.
“Go vote for someone else,” Biden said, putting his hand on Fallon’s chest. “You’re not going to vote for me in the primary.”
After Fallon asked for a picture, Biden refused, telling Fallon that “Bernie” was the candidate who could enact his ideal climate plan.
“I’m actually supporting Tom Steyer,” Fallon said.
On his website, Fallon had already explained that Steyer was his first choice but that he could caucus for Sanders on the second round.