DES MOINES, Iowa – Presidential politics move fast. What we're watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to Iowa caucuses: 0
Days to general election: 274
The end of the beginning is here. After a year of political drama, the first voting contest of the 2020 primary season will be Monday in Iowa. The kickoff caucuses will bring the first real sense of the clarity to the Democrats' presidential nomination fight. Perhaps. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden appear to be the front-runners, but Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg can't be counted out. And don’t forget about Midwestern favorite Amy Klobuchar. Some expect the candidates to finish locked in a four-way muddle, but, heading into New Hampshire, expect to see some separation within the moderate and progressive lanes. With a primary contest and debate every week this month, things start moving much faster now.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Will there be a clear winner?
The Associated Press will declare a winner Monday night based on which candidate earns the most state delegate equivalents. But it may not be so simple. Iowa officials will for the first time announce three separate results: the raw vote totals for the first alignment, the raw vote totals for the second alignment and finally the delegate equivalents. That leaves open the possibility of three separate “winners,” and campaigns tell us they’re prepared to declare victory should they come out on top in any of the categories. Even with the quirky reporting system this year — driven by Sanders — the opportunity is there for one candidate to win all three and leave Iowa as the undisputed front-runner. Of course, it's just as likely Iowa will yield a muddle that could mean a long and messier primary season.
How many tickets out of Iowa?
State Party Chairman Troy Price says a four-passenger car may not be big enough to carry all the candidates who leave Iowa with a legitimate path to the nomination. That's rewriting the longtime trope that there are just three tickets out of Iowa. And we have a hard time envisioning any of the four top-tier candidates getting knocked out of the race altogether. But any candidate who fails to meet the 15% support threshold will have a hard time justifying a place in the contest for much longer.
Will the Midwestern advantage pay?
Monday’s stakes are particularly high for the two Midwestern candidates, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, who have a regional advantage. Both candidates have built a rationale for their candidacies based on the notion they can appeal to voters in key key Midwestern battleground states in a way their rivals cannot. An underwhelming finish in the Midwest, therefore, could be devastating. New England Sens. Sanders and Warren face a similar hometown test when the race pivots to New Hampshire next week.
How does the dynamic change in NH?
The Iowa results will be huge, but the political world will pivot almost immediately to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. As usual, we'd expect multiple candidates to fly directly to New Hampshire from Iowa almost immediately after the results are announced — even though the State of the Union and the Senate impeachment trial may cause some complications. Don't forget that Sanders begins as the front-runner in the Granite State, having dominated Hillary Clinton there four years ago with a 22 percentage point victory. There will be intense pressure on Warren to hold her own in what could be a race for second place for everyone else. Neither Buttigieg nor Biden can afford a weak finish there. Biden cannot afford a finish there that could undermine his strength in South Carolina.
Is the system rigged?
This is a dangerous moment for anyone who cares about the Democratic Party's ability to come together. Sanders strategist Jeff Weaver resurrected a loaded phrase late last week when he said the Democratic National Committee's decision to change debate qualification rules that open the door for Mike Bloomberg was an example of “a rigged system.” The next day, Clinton again teed off on Sanders during a podcast interview. And hours later, a Sanders surrogate sparked an outcry from the Democratic establishment for booing Clinton. The details are not as important as the broader dynamic in which the fissure between Sanders' supporters and the party's more moderate wing seems to be widening by the day. Democrats will struggle to defeat President Donald Trump if this emotional fight stretches into the spring and summer.
How strong is the state of Trump's union?
Trump may not have a serious primary challenger, but this is still a huge week for the Republican president. On Monday, Trump should get a real sense of the strength of his Democratic competition. He will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday. And by the close of business on Wednesday, the Senate could conclude its impeachment trial by acquitting him. While other presidents might move on from impeachment with some sense of humility, it's safe to expect an emboldened Trump to try to use the stain of impeachment as a strength. The question is whether women and disaffected suburban Republicans begin to warm to him as well.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
We're expecting fireworks in Iowa. With wild swings in polling and multiple candidates teetering on the edge of viability, it's not crazy to think one of the leading candidates might suffer a devastating blow on Monday that could shake up the race. And even if the top four finish in a cluster at the top, this field — it still technically features a dozen candidates — will likely begin to shrink dramatically in the coming days.
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.
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