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The state of the 2020 Democratic race before the final pre-Iowa debate, explained

Things are getting increasingly tense because there isn’t much time left.

This is the last debate, but these six candidates — Buttigieg, Warren, Biden, Sanders, Klobuchar, and Steyer — qualified for tonight’s debate as well.
The six Democratic candidates who qualified for Tuesday’s debate, the last before the Iowa caucuses.
Mario Tama/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

With the Iowa caucuses now less than three weeks away, the top Democratic presidential candidates will meet Tuesday in Des Moines for their only remaining debate before then — just as the race has been getting increasingly nasty. (The debate kicks off at 9 pm ET).

Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead national polls, as he has for the past year. But because there’s no national primary, candidates are battling to gain the advantage in the first two states to vote: Iowa and New Hampshire. And there, the situation is far more muddled.

Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a candidate clearly in the lead. And though Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders lead the latest polling averages in both states, the top four candidates overall — those two plus Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are all within a few points of each other.

Any of those four still has a clear shot at winning either state. But Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg seem to need strong performances in at least one early state to shake up a race where Biden still has the overall advantage. So do the other candidates who will be onstage Tuesday night — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Tom Steyer — and those who missed the cut, such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang. (Only one candidate is pursuing a sharply different strategy: Michael Bloomberg, who’s skipping the early states, and who also won’t be onstage at Tuesday’s debate.)

But the extraordinary importance of Iowa and New Hampshire helps explain the sharp tensions between, for instance, Sanders and Warren, Buttigieg and Warren, and Klobuchar and Buttigieg.

Simply put, Biden’s campaign thinks he can survive a mediocre showing in the early states. But Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all think they can’t. So they’re bitterly battling one another, each with the hope that they’ll emerge as the main alternative to Biden. The risk there is that their focus on each other may just let Biden cruise to victory.

The bigger picture is that Democratic voters are trying to make up their minds on two major questions: Whose vision of the country do they find most appealing? And who is most likely to beat President Trump?

The candidates are battling to be the alternative to Biden

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) arrives for a campaign stop at Berg Middle School on January 11, 2020, in Newton, Iowa.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) arrives for a campaign stop at Berg Middle School on January 11, 2020, in Newton, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In recent months, it’s been easy to predict which of the leading Democratic candidates would take the most heat from their rivals — it’s whoever seems to be emerging as the most likely alternative to Joe Biden, particularly in Iowa.

Around October and November, that was Elizabeth Warren — who briefly led in Iowa and tied Biden in national polls, later faced criticism over her health care plan, and then declined.

Around December, it was Pete Buttigieg — who led Iowa polls for a month, faced criticism over his high-dollar fundraisers and lack of experience, and then declined.

And now it’s Bernie Sanders’s turn in the barrel.

Sanders, who began the campaign as the clear second-place contender behind Biden, appears to have regained that mantle, and has posted a set of strong poll results in early states. He led the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa poll, albeit narrowly, and has also posted strong results in New Hampshire.

All this is because if Sanders proves to be the breakout candidate in Iowa or New Hampshire, that’s probably the end for Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, who are all hinging their hopes on those early states.

To put it simply: The weaker your position is in other states, the more you need a strong performance in either Iowa or New Hampshire — because you’re hoping a surprising showing in one or both will boost your numbers elsewhere. Iowa and New Hampshire have a paltry number of delegates but a tremendous impact on the political world’s perceptions of the race, and on who the top contenders are believed to be.

So these few weeks — and this last pre-Iowa debate — may be several candidates’ final chance to make it happen.

Things have been getting tense

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign stop at Fisher Elementary School on January 12, 2020 in Marshalltown, Iowa
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign stop at Fisher Elementary School on January 12, 2020, in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Now, this weekend, Sanders appeared to be shifting his focus toward the frontrunner: Biden. His campaign released a statement saying Biden “still refuses to admit he was dead wrong on the Iraq War.” And Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner wrote an op-ed saying Biden had repeatedly let down black voters in the South Carolina newspaper the State.

But this was soon swamped by a media frenzy over a different spat — that between Sanders and Warren.

Sanders and Warren are the two most progressive candidates remaining in the race, and both have faced criticism from the rest of the field for being too far left to win. But they performed well in polls through 2019. And the pair, who have had friendly relations during their Senate careers, continued to be amicable during the campaign, even when some of their online supporters weren’t.

Yet things took a turn this weekend.

The spat kicked off on Saturday, when Politico’s Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein obtained a script given to Sanders campaign volunteers, listing suggested responses to offer people who said they supported various other candidates. For Warren backers, the suggested response was to praise her but say that her supporters were mainly “highly-educated” solid Democrats, and question whether she could “turn out disaffected working class voters.” Warren characterized this as Sanders “sending his volunteers out to trash me” and said she was “disappointed.”

Things escalated on Monday, when CNN’s MJ Lee cited four anonymous sources describing a private comment Sanders purportedly made when meeting Warren in late 2018 — that, in his view, a woman couldn’t beat Trump in 2020. Sanders claims he never said that, but that he did say Trump was “a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.” That evening, Warren released a statement confirming the anonymous sources’ version but insisting that she and Sanders were still “friends and allies.”

The topic is sure to be revisited at Tuesday’s debate. But the upshot has been that the two most left-leaning candidates have been feuding while Biden, a much less progressive candidate, continues to lead national polling.

Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all have a shot to win Iowa

Joe Biden speaks to volunteers at state campaign headquarters on January 13, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joe Biden speaks to volunteers at state campaign headquarters on January 13, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

All of this is unfolding as the outcome in the first state to vote looks genuinely uncertain. The results of three most recent polls in Iowa are:

  • Des Moines Register/CNN: Sanders 20 percent, Warren 17 percent, Buttigieg 16 percent, Biden 15 percent
  • Monmouth: Biden 24 percent, Sanders 18 percent, Buttigieg 17 percent, Warren 15 percent
  • CBS News/YouGov: Biden/Sanders/Buttigieg 23 percent each, Warren 16 percent

The point is it’s very close. These are small overall amounts of support and small margins, with relatively little separation among the top candidates. No one has built a breakaway lead.

And Iowa is particularly difficult to poll because of its unusual caucus system — it’s tough to model what turnout will be and who exactly will turn out. Another wrinkle is that if a candidate falls below 15 percent support in individual caucus sites, his or her supporters get to switch their votes to a different candidate.

But while any of the four candidates seems to have a real shot at winning Iowa, they don’t all equally need Iowa.

Biden is best positioned to survive a mediocre showing in Iowa and New Hampshire — it could damage him, but it wouldn’t quickly end his campaign (barring a sudden, catastrophic collapse in support). That’s because he continues to lead national polls and in most states, and has a particularly large lead in South Carolina, the last state to vote before Super Tuesday.

It’s the other candidates who really need to do well early on, because they’re hoping to shake up the dynamics of a race where Biden continues to hold the advantage. That goes for Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, as well as for other candidates with a less clear path to victory, like Klobuchar and Yang.

The billionaires are spending tons of money

Michael Bloomberg, opening a campaign office in Philadelphia last year
Michael Bloomberg, opening a campaign office in Philadelphia last year.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Finally, though the Democratic field has lost a former Cabinet secretary, a senator, and a spiritual guru this month, there are still two billionaires around spending enormous amounts on advertising — and it’s started to pay off in the polls, at least a little bit.

First there’s Tom Steyer, the Democratic megadonor who entered the race in July. Steyer has spent more than $100 million on campaign advertising. And while it hasn’t seemed to help him much in Iowa or New Hampshire, he’s been getting some surprisingly good results in the third and fourth states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina (where other candidates haven’t spent very much on ads yet).

Recent Fox News polls showed Steyer tied for third place with 12 percent support in Nevada, and in second place with 15 percent support in South Carolina. Those are currently still outliers — but there’s been little polling in either state lately, and the Morning Consult “early states” poll has often shown Steyer with double-digit support. The problem for Steyer will be what happens if he finished poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, and after other candidates finally start focusing on Nevada and South Carolina.

Second, and also running with a more unusual strategy, is Michael Bloomberg. The former New York City mayor is skipping all four early states in hopes that a massively expensive ad campaign can propel him to a surprising win in Super Tuesday’s March 3 primaries.

And though Bloomberg and Steyer are both billionaires, Bloomberg is far richer — and his ad spending so far reflects that. Though he’s only been in the race since November, he’s already doubled Steyer’s ad spending, shelling out more than $200 million. (He will, however, be absent from the debate stage because the DNC requires candidates to get a certain number of donors to qualify, and Bloomberg isn’t accepting donations.)

As a result of his spending, Bloomberg has risen to fifth place in national polls, with about 6 percent of the vote on average. That may not seem impressive, yet his strategic decision to skip the early states means he’ll be waiting in the wings for whoever emerges there. And while skipping Iowa and New Hampshire hasn’t worked before for presidential candidates, none of those candidates have had as much money to burn as Bloomberg.

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