IOWA CAUCUS 2020

Iowa Democrats unsettled as Feb. 3 caucuses near

Polls show 60 percent could still change their minds

Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd (right) on Feb. 8, 2019, shows New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker around exhibits at
Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd (right) on Feb. 8, 2019, shows New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker around exhibits at the African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, during a stop on his Iowa Rise Tour of the state. Now that Booker has dropped out of the presidential race, Todd said he is “a free agent,” undecided on picking another candidate. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Dale Todd didn’t plan on being an undecided voter so close to the pivotal Iowa caucuses.

“I’m not one to kick the tires in a car,” said Todd, a Cedar Rapids City Council member. “When I go to a car lot, I buy what I like and I don’t mess around.”

So he committed early to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, just as he had committed early in the 2008 cycle to Barack Obama and, eight years later, to Hillary Clinton.

But after Booker dropped out of the race earlier this week, Todd found himself among the majority of Iowans who have not firmly made up their minds on the first nominating contest of the Democratic presidential primary.

The campaign season kicked off here more than a year ago, but the sprawling field and a near-paralyzing desire to beat President Donald Trump has left Iowa Democrats unsettled.

Recent polls point to an unpredictable contest, with little consensus on the likely victor. The Iowa Poll last week showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders atop a tightly clustered pack of contenders, but a Monmouth University poll showed former Vice President Joe Biden out front.

Both polls found agreement on one point: About 60 percent of Iowa voters say they may change their minds before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

“The caucuses are notoriously sort of late-breaking campaigns, so the fact there are still upward of 60 percent of voters who say they could change their mind just means the work that goes into identifying voters’ first choices, second choices, third choices in a really fluid and changing field is more important than ever,” said David Kochel, an Iowa Republican operative.

After months of the soft sell, candidates and their supporters have become notably blunter.

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“I ask that you support me,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said this month to Iowans at an art museum in Waterloo. “I know I’m not in the lead right now, but I’m doing really well. I’m asking you to sign one of those commit-to-caucus cards. It’s the beginning of the year. Just go out and do it!”

It’s not that voters like Jessalyn Holdcraft are commitment-phobic. Holdcraft, marketing director for a Cedar Rapids nonprofit, was on board with Clinton’s campaign in May 2015, nine months before caucus night.

“This time was so different,” Holdcraft, 27, said in a Cedar Rapids loft where Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, Calif., had just made a pitch for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I didn’t have that same loyalty to a campaign. I came in with an open mind.”

And she came in with a plan — a spreadsheet where she ranked the candidates on various criteria, including their positions, their ability to inspire, the quality of their campaign organizers. She crunched the numbers and found that California Sen. Kamala Harris was her best match; Holdcraft settled on committing the week that Harris dropped out.

Now Warren ranks top on her spreadsheet, but Holdcraft hasn’t made a final decision.

Some Iowa voters say it’s necessary to keep an open mind, given that breaking news can jolt the dynamics of the race. The heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, for example, led to a prolonged discussion of foreign policy in Tuesday’s debate in Des Moines.

Again and again, Iowans point to the same reasons for their slow decision-making: too many choices to sort through and the terror of making the wrong pick.

Jim Estin has spent months following the candidates — he’s seen Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., four times but still hasn’t been able to pick a favorite.

“I have dated them all,” the 65-year-old psychiatric social worker said. He made the admission sheepishly, as friends and colleagues milled around his Iowa City living room in the closing minutes of a breakfast gathering put on by the Warren campaign. His wife, Ann, a law professor, sided with the senator last fall.

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But Estin has regretted some of his past choices, such as supporting former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the 2008 caucus over Obama, the eventual winner. The shock of Trump winning in 2016 makes him second-guess his instincts even more.

“Democrats really missed something important in the last election,” he said. “I feel a little traumatized.”

The dilemma voters face can be described most simply as the tug of war between the heart and the head, said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University.

The former, he said, “you think is a wonderful candidate; you’d go to the mat for that candidate. It’s the person that makes your heart beat faster,” he said.

The head, meanwhile, is “if you look at it coldly, objectively, who would seem to have the best chance of defeating the opposition?”

Mary Newton said her decision was weighing heavily on her; being uncommitted this late in the calendar is an aberration, she added.

“I always know, but we’ve never had this many choices,” she said. “You know, usually it’s been two or three. So, it’s very difficult. They would all be great.”

The 63-year-old retired teacher from Newton has been inundated with text messages and emails from campaigns.

“I feel pressure,” she said. “I feel I need to do the right thing.”

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For Todd, Booker’s departure meant new uncertainty in the race. Within an hour of the news breaking, Todd had heard from the Biden campaign. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign also checked in.

“I’m an official free agent,” Todd said,

LATEST RESULTS: Delegate counts, and first and final alignments

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