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There are a lot of ways to “win” Iowa. Here’s what each candidate needs to do.

The Iowa caucuses’ expectations game, explained.

A pedestrian passes by the campaign bus of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on January 29, 2020.
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Voters are finally ready to caucus in Iowa, and the election for the Democratic presidential nomination will finally have begun.

Candidates are fighting over just 1 percent of the overall pledged delegate share, so what matters far more in Monday’s caucuses is who comes out looking like a winner rather than actual vote totals. And though the status of the frontrunners has been stable for months, wacky results in Iowa could scramble the race.

So how are we supposed to interpret what happens in the Iowa caucuses?

“A lot of this will depend not just on who wins but how close it is — what the one, two, three order is, etc,” Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report said over email. She demurred on endorsing a clear narrative.

“I’m really not all that comfortable with the ‘If Warren finishes third, she’s dead’ kind of stuff,” Walter said. “I just think it’s more complicated than that.”

She noted that in 2004, the story was not only John Kerry’s unexpected win in the Iowa Democratic caucuses but John Edwards’s rise (and then Howard Dean’s unforgettable scream). Marco Rubio looked strong in Iowa to kick off the 2016 GOP primary but quickly faded.

All this is compounded by the fact that Super Tuesday, just a month away, looms larger over Iowa than ever before. Some voters have already started casting ballots in those early states, and they add up to far more delegates than the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Nevertheless, the political world has been making hay out of the Iowa results for years, and that’s unlikely to stop this year. As Walter pointed out, the order will matter but so will the gap.

Josh Putnam, who runs the elections blog FrontloadingHQ, said campaigns should be tracking how widespread their support is: in how many different counties are clearing the 15 percent threshold to actually win some delegates. You need a majority of the 3,979 up for grabs in the next few months to win the nomination before the convention. Iowa has just 41.

As always in politics, narratives matter. Let’s run through the candidates and — acknowledging the unpredictability of politics — give a general theory of how the candidates want to show in Iowa.

Joe Biden would be glad to win, but doesn’t have to

Former vice president Joe Biden, who has consistently led national polls and polls near the front in the early primary states including Iowa, would certainly be happy to come in first. But he doesn’t have to, said Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

For Biden, who depends on older and black voters for so much of his support, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states will be the most critical. But he’ll want to at least perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire to prove his strength as the overall frontrunner. He’d certainly like to win some delegates.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign town hall event at the University of Iowa on January 27, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Iowa and New Hampshire are not necessary, and a top-three finish in both is enough to show viability and a presence,” Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos told me. “The fact that some polling has him winning one or both of those states is just a bonus.”

Still, for a presumed frontrunner, frontrunning usually means winning or at least coming close. Heading into the caucuses, Biden is polling in second at 21 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s averages of the Iowa polling. He’s leading nationally at 26.7 percent.

The main risk to Biden’s road to the nomination is that his momentum slows and voters bolt to other viable options.

Bernie Sanders wants to win, and victory might be a big boost

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont certainly could be expected to finish first, especially given his recent strong polling heading into the caucuses and an established history organizing in the state. He is polling in first at 22.2 percent in Iowa, just ahead of Biden, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a campaign event in Perry, Iowa, on January 26, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Given the late polling seeming to break in his favor, not finishing first might seem disappointing,” Kondik said. He describes the Vermont senator’s “dream scenario” as sweeping Iowa, New Hampshire, and the third state in the primary, Nevada.

Sanders has been the second-highest polling national candidate for most of the race, currently sitting at 21.7 percent. He looks strong in New Hampshire too and in the polling we have for Nevada, sitting in first place and a close second respectively, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages.

Either way, Sanders seem likely to stick in the race for a while. He has a well-built organization. But if he’s going to win the nomination outright, a first-place Iowa finish would be a big step toward overcoming Biden.

Elizabeth Warren needs to build momentum for New Hampshire

Kondik said he thought Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would want to finish in the top three and “close to the top.” It’d help to have momentum going into New Hampshire.

“Warren must do what John Kerry did in 2004: reignite her New Hampshire campaign in Iowa,” Dante Scala at the University of New Hampshire added. “At a minimum, she must better Bernie, and convince New Hampshire progressives to take another look at her.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on January 26, 2020.
Stephen Maturen/AFP via Getty Images

After a rise and fall in the latter half of 2019, Warren has been third and sometimes second in the polling, both nationally and in the early primary states (around 15 percent nationally and in Iowa). That means she needs to leapfrog Sanders and Biden, both of whom have been constants throughout, to win the nomination.

Moulitsas pointed out another complexity of the Iowa caucuses: There are a few different ways to claim victory. The process is going to be more complicated than ever before, with three outcomes, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained:

1) The pre-realignment vote total: This is the initial tally of how many people prefer each candidate at each of the more than 1,600 individual caucus sites (added together for a statewide total). Basically, it’s who got the most votes the first time around.

2) The final vote total: After the first tally, any supporters of a candidate who got less than a certain threshold of the vote (15 percent in most precincts) can shift their support to another candidate. Candidates who are below the viability threshold are eliminated as “nonviable,” and a new and final tally is taken. So this is who got the most votes after a reshuffling.

3) State delegate equivalents: The final vote total at each caucus site will then be used to assign each viable candidate a certain number of county delegates. Then those county delegate numbers will be weighted to estimate their “state delegate equivalents” (how many delegates each candidate will get at the Iowa state convention).

Warren needs at least claim one, Moulitsas said, in order to build off Iowa.

Pete Buttigieg might need to win to have a chance

“To be a truly viable threat to win the nomination, I honestly think he needs to win,” Kondik said. “With so little minority support, Iowa is a golden opportunity.”

Some were even more pessimistic. In the national polls, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg actually trails quite far behind the top three of Biden, Sanders and Warren. He’s recently fallen behind Michael Bloomberg, by FiveThirtyEight’s reckoning, and is now polling at around 7 percent. (In Iowa, he’s around 15 percent.)

Pete Buttigieg speaks at an event in New Hampton, Iowa, on January 29, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“The idea that an Iowa victory would somehow propel Klobuchar or Buttigieg into wider contention is a pipe dream for those guys,” Moulitsas said. “Not only are they weak with the voters of color that predominate South Carolina and Nevada, but they’ve fared poorly in the national primary that has preceded Iowa and that has already whittled down the field into a three-candidate race.”

Buttigieg has built a core base of affluent college-educated voters in New Hampshire, Scala said. A strong showing in Iowa, paired with a poor Biden performance, could help him heading into the next state. The former mayor’s campaign has a good organization in New Hampshire, too.

“That said, Iowa disappointment for Buttigieg (and Biden triumph) could lead to lots of New Hampshire Democrats shrugging their shoulders and going with Biden,” Scala said. “Could be lots of ‘dated Pete, married Joe’ voters.”

Amy Klobuchar is looking for a shockingly good finish

Needing a pretty big shake-up to break through, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would really benefit from a surprise first or close second, Kondik said. It would bring the media attention she’d need to extend her reach through the rest of the race.

Scala thought she could parlay Iowa into a good New Hampshire result “only if Klobuchar puts up a number that makes her the story out of Iowa.”

“If she can somehow make herself appear to be the moderate alternative to Sanders or Warren,” he said, “she could make some headway in the last week.”

She’s snuck up to 10 percent in the FiveThirtyEight Iowa polling average, but that still puts her in fifth.

Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, and Mike Bloomberg have a lot of ground to make up

Billionaire Tom Steyer can afford to stay in the race as long as he wants to but somebody polling where he is right now — 2 percent nationally, according to FiveThirtyEight — needs to finish up near the frontrunners in order to have any shot of establishing himself. The same goes for businessman Andrew Yang. He’s at least sticking around for the near term.

Former New York City Mayor (and fellow rich person) Michael Bloomberg seems to pretty much be punting on the first four states in the primary, focusing his efforts on the March 3 Super Tuesday. He doesn’t really need to do anything in Iowa by his campaign’s rationale.

Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennet have other reasons to run for president

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado are polling down at 1 percent (or even less, in the latter’s case, per FiveThirtyEight) in Iowa.

Their campaigns have always been more of an ideological exercise — Gabbard as anti-war protest, Bennet arguing for pragmatism and against Medicare-for-all — and it’s hard to see a path to the nomination for either of them barring a miracle early in these primaries.


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