A unique balloting system, a muddled race
DES MOINES — After more than a year of campaigning, the Democratic presidential primary gets underway Monday night in Iowa — and the race is nearly as muddled as when it began.
With many voters split along ideological and generational lines, and others still undecided because they were not sure who would be their best chance to defeat President Trump, any of the four leading candidates could plausibly win Iowa.
Those four candidates — Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren, Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg — campaigned across Iowa over the weekend, making their final pitches to voters and, in some cases, reigniting divisions that had surfaced in the party four years ago. Mr. Sanders, considered the one to beat based on recent polling, drew most of the fire.
Much of the uncertainty heading into Monday night stems from the unique nature of Iowa’s caucus system. Attendees can rally behind another candidate on a second ballot if their preferred choice does not claim 15 percent in the initial round.
It is those voters who will play the most pivotal role Monday. Mr. Sanders, for example, might garner the most overall votes on the first ballot, but if one of his rivals could amass enough support from the lesser candidates, he or she could vault past Mr. Sanders on the realignment round.
The key question, then, is where do the backers of Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Steyer and Mr. Yang, who have all been polling below 15 percent, go on that second vote?
But it gets even more complicated. Caucusgoers can also stand as “Uncommitted.” So those most determined fence sitters could emerge as power brokers on the second ballot.
Welcome to Iowa — and hang on.
Why voter age could be a factor
One of the biggest predictors of who will finish first, second and third will be not just who votes but also how old those voters are.
Age has been one of the biggest divides in the 2020 race, especially between Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders. Young voters have generally swooned for Mr. Sanders and old voters have flocked to Mr. Biden.
The New York Times/Siena College poll last month showed Mr. Sanders, 78, carrying a sizable 40 percent of voters under the age of 30. That was the highest percentage for any candidate for any age group. Support for the Vermont senator declined in each successively older age bracket down to single digits — 9 percent — among those who are 65 or older.
It was the opposite story for Mr. Biden, 77, who captured a 32 percent plurality of those who were 65 or older. His worst group was younger voters under 30. He only carried 10 percent of such voters.
The same split has been present in poll after poll. The Des Moines Register/CNN poll in early January showed Mr. Sanders with 38 percent of voters under 50 — and Mr. Biden with 37 percent of voters over 65.
Typically, older people are more reliable voters. But caucuses are different, as our colleague Nate Cohn recently pointed out, and much of the differences in polls that show different leaders can be traced to different projected models of who will actually turn out on Monday.
County chairs predict a Sanders victory
The leaders of Iowa’s county Democrats are a group that has long been in search of a candidate to fall in love with. Since 2018, they have harbored suspicions about septuagenarian candidates and have longed for somebody fresh and new.
And now many of them think that Mr. Sanders, aged 78 and a member of Congress for three decades, is going to win the Iowa caucuses.
In conversations this weekend with 24 of 99 county chairs, 14 said they believed Mr. Sanders would place first in Monday night’s caucuses. Six predicted Mr. Biden would win, while four said they still could not say who would win.
“I suspect that Bernie will end up in first place, as the polling indicates,” said Nathan Thompson, the party chairman in Winneshiek County. “It’s consistent with what I’ve seen in northeast Iowa.”
Several acknowledged that their favorite candidate was not likely to win.
Marjie Foster, the Decatur County chairwoman, said she planned to caucus for Ms. Klobuchar but predicted she would finish behind Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg.
Terry Kocher, the Humboldt County chairman, said he expected Mr. Biden to win but was hoping that Mr. Buttigieg, for whom he will caucus, did well.
And Rachel Bly, a co-chairwoman in Poweshiek County east of Des Moines, predicted a split decision, with one candidate taking the most delegates and another winning the most raw votes.
“Sanders has pockets of support, but won’t necessarily carry the rural areas or get delegates in as many places as some of the others,” she said. “He may win the numbers game, but not the delegate game.”
Will candidates drop out after Iowa?
Iowa traditionally winnows the field, extinguishing the hopes of more than one candidate. But with so many Democratic hopefuls dropping out in the lead up to the caucuses, few in the party expect to see more than one contender quit after Monday night. And even that may be overstating it.
With each of the major candidates having already qualified for the debate Friday in New Hampshire, and the state’s primary taking place on the following Tuesday, the challengers will likely want to at least give that state a shot.
So what will be the impact of Iowa? It will reward the winner, giving him or her a shot of momentum and a burst of contributions.
But the bigger impact of the caucuses this year could be who they hurt.
Ms. Klobuchar has been to all of Iowa’s 99 counties and needs a strong showing to continue in the race; Mr. Buttigieg has surged with the state’s heavily white electorate but without a solid performance may not be able to find his footing in more diverse states later this month; Ms. Warren has spent considerable time in the state and also needs liftoff here because of her relatively weak standing in the coming states.
And Mr. Biden will go on if he finishes out of the top two in Iowa but he will have missed his best early opportunity to take command of the race — and may find it hard to find his footing in New England, home to two of his rivals.