Maybe the Iowa caucus race is indeed a two-candidate contest, like Pete Buttigieg said recently (and then walked back shortly after).
But is it a race between the surging Buttigieg and poll leader Elizabeth Warren, as he suggested? Or is it between Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders?
That question could be argued, but a new poll in Iowa this week delivered some good news to the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns.
Quinnipiac University’s latest survey in Iowa, which was conducted in the week before Tuesday and published Wednesday, showed a virtual dead heat among the race’s four leaders: Warren at 20 percent, Buttigieg at 19 percent, Sanders at 17 percent and Biden at 15 percent.
The poll of 698 likely Democratic caucus participants had a margin for error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
A deep dive into the myriad questions in the survey revealed even more encouraging prospects for Buttigieg and Sanders: They fared best on the questions that have a direct correlation to what matters most in the Iowa caucuses.
One such question asked likely caucusgoers how excited they are about supporting their candidate. This is important because obviously the more excited somebody is about his or her candidate, the more likely that person is going to stick with that candidate and not have a change of heart between now and Feb. 3.
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Sanders and Buttigieg did best: 81 percent of Sanders supporters said they are “extremely” or “very” excited about him, while 70 percent of Buttigieg supporters said the same.
Trailing them, 64 percent of Biden supporters said they are “extremely” or “very” excited about him; 59 percent of Warren supporters said the same of her.
The survey respondents also were asked which candidate was their second choice. This is a critical question at the caucuses, because if a candidate doesn’t meet the minimum threshhold of support in the first round of voting, his or her supporters will be free to move to a different candidate who is viable.
The threshhold to be considered viable is 15 percent. Quinnipiac totaled the second-choice selections of all the candidates who did not reach 15 percent in the poll, and Buttigieg (22 percent) and Sanders (21 percent) were easily the most popular.
In other words, if the poll is accurate and if the caucuses were tomorrow, Buttigieg and Sanders would stand to benefit most from the candidates who would fail to become viable in that first round.
Among the supporters of candidates who did not reach 15 percent in the poll, Biden was the second choice of just 12 percent and Warren just 6 percent.
Another interesting thought exercise is what would happen if Biden or Sanders slide to a point where they are not viable in some precincts. The beneficiaries of those possibilities are clear, according to the Quinnipiac Poll: Buttigieg would benefit greatly if Biden failed to reach 15 percent, and Warren even more so if Sanders faltered.
There also was some bad news for the Sanders campaign in the poll.
Democrats regularly say the bottom line for them is finding the candidate who can defeat President Donald Trump next year.
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The Quinnipiac Poll asked likely caucus participants what is the most important quality in their choice of a candidate. For those who answered someone who can win in 2020, Sanders was far behind the other leaders.
Just 11 percent of those who said winning in 2020 was most important picked Sanders; Buttigieg, Warren and Biden tied at 21 percent.
Sanders also fared worst among the leaders with Iowans who have caucused before. Buttigieg did best at 21 percent, Warren was close behind at 19 percent, Biden was at 16 percent and Sanders at 14 percent. Political experts say people who have caucused before are more likely to caucus again next year.
On the other hand, Sanders did best among those who said they plan to attend the caucuses for the first time in 2020. With those people, Sanders got 30 percent, followed by Warren at 24 percent. The next-highest was Buttigieg at 10 percent.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.