The Iowa caucuses have ended a long line of weak White House bids, traditionally culling the presidential primary field to just two or three viable candidates.
But this year’s unique dynamics have a very real scenario shaping up that could mean at least a half dozen — or maybe more — candidates move to New Hampshire and beyond.
Poll after poll shows a cluster of four hopefuls at the top — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — with the possibility of delivering no clear winner among them.
Beyond that, Amy Klobuchar is demonstrating late polling strength, validated by Sunday’s high-profile endorsement from the New York Times. Then there’s Andrew Yang, who has money and the motive to keep campaigning at least through New Hampshire, the state where he figures to be strongest.
Finally, there’s virtually no Iowa outcome that would cause billionaire Tom Steyer to pull the plug, according to his team. Already armed with resources, Steyer is showing strength in Nevada and South Carolina.
“If you look historically, only three candidates have come out of Iowa earning delegates in the modern era; there’s never been more than three who have broken the 15 percent threshold,” said Jeff Berman, a delegate guru now with the Steyer team who was a key figure in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign.
In 2020, Berman said, “There may be more tickets out of Iowa than ever before.”
The probability that Iowa fails to produce a breakout frontrunner and instead sends through more than a half-dozen candidates is the latest turn in a tumultuous primary that began with a historically large and diverse field. It's indicative of a contest that's long from settled; with just two weeks until the Feb. 3 caucuses, there's still a looming question over what, exactly, the Iowa results will mean.
Aides with Klobuchar, Steyer and Yang indicated that there's almost no scenario that would cause their candidate to drop out before New Hampshire. With a low delegate count, especially compared to Super Tuesday states, Iowa’s influence is its ability to propel a candidate’s national narrative — either beating expectations or notching a first win — and building subsequent momentum.
And a new rule change to the caucuses that for the first time will provide raw vote totals, in addition to final delegate counts, will arm campaign aides with new data to spin.
Steyer’s campaign is already saying a raw vote count may be more reflective of a candidate’s strength in the state than the final result, which hands out delegates only to those who achieve 15 percent support or higher. In the past, that meant if a candidate didn't reach 15 percent in Iowa, they were awarded nothing and their supporters aligned behind a different candidate.
“Now we will be able to accurately see caucus results below the 15 percent threshold, which can show public support,” Berman said. “It’s right that we’ll be moving forward out of Iowa in any event and we look to keep building strength.”
A senior adviser with Buttigieg’s campaign said Iowa will still have a culling effect. The person predicted the public will view candidates with the highest delegate counts as having credible campaigns, helping separate frontrunners from the pack.
“I think Iowa will still have a pretty significant effect in defining a top tier,” the Buttigieg adviser said. “Some people have endless resources and they’ll use that the way they want to. But for most candidates that aren’t viewed as viable or in a top tier coming out of Iowa, it’s going to be very hard to stay in the race.”
A senior adviser with Biden's campaign called the reporting of raw votes in the 2020 caucuses "uncharted waters" and said it was possible one candidate could claim victory using one metric and another candidate could claim victory using a different metric.
Both the Iowa Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee stress that despite the changes in how numbers are reported, it’s the final delegate count that matters in determining who wins the nomination.
Despite the cavalry of candidates coming out Iowa, the state may have already served its purpose, said veteran Democratic strategist Jeff Link. That's because the Democratic field has shrunk considerably since more than two dozen candidates announced their candidacies in 2019.
“I think if we go from 24 to six or 7," Link said, "then Iowa has done its job."
Many candidates who have since dropped out have blamed rules imposed by the Democratic National Committee for preventing them from reaching what they called unattainable small dollar fundraising goals. But Link argued he’s seen a correlation between those who gain ground in the first caucus state and those who don’t.
“It’s a chicken and an egg question. Those who didn’t make the debate stage were probably struggling to gain traction in Iowa,” he said, pointing to Kamala Harris as an example. “She was as on the debate stage, raising lots of money and then she just didn’t click on a clear message.”
Link also held up Cory Booker and Steve Bullock as examples. “Was it the debate criteria or was it that they just didn’t get something going in Iowa? They just feed into each other.”