Government

With 2 months to go, presidential candidates target undecided Iowans

In less than two months, Iowa Democrats will weigh in on which candidate should represent their party in the 2020 presidential election.

The race in Iowa remains fluid.

A pack of front-runners has emerged in polling: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden lead the field by a significant margin in Real Clear Politics’ rolling average of Iowa polls, as of Sunday.

Amy Klobuchar has been rising in recent polls, but remains well behind the lead group. Others, like Tom Steyer and Cory Booker, remain active in Iowa with hopes of catching fire late.

But while that polling describes the current state of the race, most Iowa Democrats say they have not yet made up their minds, or are willing to have their minds changed. Multiple recent polls on the race in Iowa showed fewer than 1 in 3 likely caucus participants are locked into their current choice, while more than half said they may change their mind.

Many of the candidates — including each of the polling leaders — were in Iowa this past week. While each had his or her messages and policies to promote, there was one common thread: their pitches to all those undecided Iowa Democrats.

And those undecided Iowa Democrats were not difficult to find this past week.

“I’m still shopping. This is still the speed-dating phase,” said Pam Messer, a 74-year-old Huxley woman who attended a Biden campaign event on the Iowa State University campus in Ames.

Said Keith Hudnut, a 72-year-old from Montezuma who attended a Buttigieg event in Grinnell: “It’s still kind of wide open. I have to figure out which one has the better chance of getting (Republican President Donald Trump) out of office.”

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David Redlawsk, who leads the political science department at the University of Delaware, has written a book on the Iowa caucuses and has been following the candidates in Iowa throughout the cycle, said with such a competitive and fluid race, more than just those four front-runners still have a chance to win or at least fare well in Iowa, and campaign organization will play a critical role in the outcome of the Feb. 3 caucuses.

“You’ve got those four bunched up, but any one of them could make a major misstep and there could be openings for somebody,” Redlawsk said. “We say it all the time, but it’s organizing. It’s the on-the-ground (staff). This is the time. ... You’ve got to now really start working the turnout angle.”

Pete Buttigieg

The South Bend, Ind., mayor has been surging in the polls in Iowa — his Real Clear Politics average is best in Iowa right now, nearly 6 points ahead of Sanders, and has climbed from 7.5 percent in mid-September to 24 on Sunday.

And Buttigieg regularly is drawing large crowds at his Iowa events, in Iowa cities both large — 2,000 in Coralville this week and 1,000 in Davenport and Mount Vernon — and small — 560 in Grinnell and nearly 400 in Washington, Iowa.

But with that added attention comes added scrutiny.

National reporters have been peppering Buttigieg with questions about whether he will release documentation on his time working as a consultant for a worldwide consulting firm, although Iowans who asked questions at Buttigieg’s town halls this week did not have similar interest in the topic.

In Grinnell, which is in Poweshiek County, one of 31 Iowa counties that flipped from Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, Buttigieg faced pointed questions from three young Iowans. Two urged him to take more liberal stances on college tuition and climate policy, and a third insinuated Buttigieg’s response as mayor to the fatal shooting of a black man by a South Bend police officer was inadequate.

A few demonstrators also came to the event with banners critical of Buttigieg and his policies, providing further evidence that Buttigieg has become a true front-runner in the race. Now his challenge is showing his campaign has staying power.

“It’s really important for us to demonstrate that we can (stand up to scrutiny),” Buttigieg said. “We’re talking about the American presidency. So you ought to be able to demonstrate that you can stand up to difficult questions. There were a lot of difficult questions (in Grinnell). And they were really important, and really good questions, and I’m glad we had the chance to go through them.”

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Bernie Sanders

While Buttigieg has taken a lead over the fellow front-runners in Real Clear Politics’ polling average, the next three — Sanders, Warren and Biden — are crammed in a tight pack separated by only 2 points.

Sanders continues to drive his core message of igniting a political revolution. At a campaign stop in Indianola, he stressed structural reforms such as overturning the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for unaccountable spending on elections; reforming health care to a single-payer, “Medicare for All” system; a tuition-free college system and cancellation of all student loan debt; and climate policy.

The U.S. senator from Vermont also continues to have one of the strongest core of supporters in the field. His challenge is expanding beyond his base to compete with the other front-running candidates.

“Bernie’s the real deal. He’s been at this for years and years. People know him. He knows what needs to be done,” said Madelyn Patty, a 70-year-old woman from New Virginia who attended the Sanders event in Indianola.

Elizabeth Warren

The U.S. senator from Massachusetts took a turn as the polling leader in the race in Iowa throughout much of October, but has since slid while Buttigieg surged.

But Warren still has a formidable ground game in Iowa, an asset that likely will make her a major player in the race until the end.

Like Sanders, Warren talks regularly about structural reforms and creating a government and economy that work for all Americans, not just the wealthiest.

“Our democracy is broken. I get it, Rich people may own more shoes than you do, they may own more cars than you do, they may own more houses than you do. But they are not supposed to own a bigger share of our democracy than you do,” Warren said during an event on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. “We take that on. We fight that fight. We end the influence of money. We disrupt it. We get off our back foot and get on our front foot and then the whole world changes. ...

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“We can beat back the big polluters. We can beat back the influence of the gun industry. But it’s got to start with not a nibble around the edge, not a, ‘Oh, let’s be polite to the rich folks.’ It starts with big, structural change.”

Joe Biden

The former vice president was the polling leader on the race in Iowa until mid-September. While his Real Clear Politics polling average his dived from a high of 28.5 to almost half that, he remains in the lead pack.

And some of Biden’s strongest allures continue to resonate with many Iowa Democrats: that he is viewed as the party’s best hope with general election voters, and that he is most qualified to tackled the job on the first day.

“I really feel he’s our best chance to win in the general election, and we need to win,” said Charlene Harmon, a 67-year-old woman from Ankeny who attended the Biden event in Ames. “He has all of the qualities we want as far as a resume goes.”

Harmon said she has hosted campaign events for Biden at her home, and recently was invited to appear in a campaign ad. She said she thinks Biden could appeal to voters who in 2016 may have voted for Trump reluctantly.

Biden this past week completed his “No Malarkey” bus tour of Iowa, which included 19 events over eight days in 18 counties. During the trip, the Biden campaign announced the endorsement of John Kerry, the 2004 winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, who later served as U.S. secretary of state in the Obama-Biden administration.

The Field

Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, has made gains recently in Iowa — both in the polls and in efforts to boost her campaign organization.

“I like Amy Klobuchar,” Messer said at the Biden event. “I like her approach to every issue she’s spoken to. She just seems to have a solid approach. It doesn’t seem to be pie-in-the-sky stuff.”

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Tom Steyer, a businessman from California, jumped into the race only recently but has been using his personal wealth to fund a campaign advertising blitz and rigorous campaign schedule in Iowa.

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur from California, has carved out a unique niche in the race with proposals such as universal basic income: a taxpayer-funded $1,000 per month stipend for every U.S. adult.

Cory Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey, continues to struggle to gain traction in the polls — he’s at 1.7 percent in Real Clear Politics’ average — despite being received warmly and enthusiastically at almost every Iowa event he holds.

“We really just see the kind of growth and support,” Booker said during an interview this past week, adding that his campaign is encouraged by his favorability numbers in polling, its number of Iowa endorsements, and its campaign organization. “These are all the ingredients that have helped everybody from Kerry to Obama upset here, and that’s what we believe is our pathway.”

Comments: (563) 383-2492; erin.murphy@lee.net

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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