Trailing in Iowa? You Could Win Anyway

Trailing in Iowa? You Could Win Anyway

The snow was starting to come down. Senator Amy Klobuchar was snapping selfies at a campaign event. And Monica Peitz and Peg Raney, two friends from central Iowa, were discussing the question that it seemed every Democrat in the state was asking: Who is on your list?

Here’s how Ms. Peitz, a 65-year-old retired social worker, detailed her decision-making process to me yesterday, as I traveled around Iowa talking to voters.

“I’m going to stand up for John Delaney,” she said, describing how she planned to support the former Maryland congressman in her caucus next month. “So, I caucus for John Delaney, and my next thought is: Who am I going to go to when John Delaney isn’t viable? And I don’t know yet.”

A few feet away, Carrie King, 45, told me she was considering Andrew Yang, Ms. Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Oh, and she hadn’t written off Joe Biden quite yet.

“I want to try to get to some events,” said Ms. King, who is from suburban Des Moines. “There’s a lot of options, I think, in the next few weeks.”

Yes, Iowa voters are a promiscuous lot — at least in terms of their presidential votes. And when it comes to the caucuses, it doesn’t have to be love at first sight. There’s a strong political case for being Mr. or Ms. Good Enough.

First, a quick explanation of how the caucuses work: Democrats will gather at locations across the state on the night of Feb. 3 and sort themselves into groups supporting each candidate. The key word is viability. If a candidate doesn’t get the support of 15 percent of the people in the room at an individual caucus, that candidate is considered nonviable, and his or her supporters must reallocate themselves to someone else.

And right now, there are a lot of voters up for grabs. In the latest Des Moines Register/CNN poll, considered the gold standard for surveying the state’s notoriously hard-to-predict caucuses, about a third of likely Democratic caucusgoers were either undecided or supporting a candidate who was pulling in less than 15 percent support over all.

Mr. Delaney received less than 1 percent statewide, meaning he’ll probably be nonviable at most caucuses. So whomever Ms. Peitz picks as her second choice is likely to end up being her far more consequential decision.

So, who’s in the best position to benefit from this kind of political settling? Based on what we can tell from the polling right now, it’s likely to be Mr. Biden, the former vice president, or Mr. Buttigieg.

Over all, Senator Elizabeth Warren is the most popular second choice among likely caucusgoers in recent polling. Taken at face value, those numbers suggest she’s primed to benefit the most from the format of the caucuses. But that’s a bit deceiving.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which released a new poll of Iowa this afternoon, told me that 83 percent of Ms. Warren’s second-choice support came from likely caucusgoers who listed another top candidate as their first choice.

So, a lot of Ms. Warren’s second-choice support is likely to be blocked by Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders — all of whom are well positioned to reach that 15 percent threshold in most of the caucuses, barring a major shift in the race.

It’s probably more illuminating to look at the choices of the 32 percent of voters in the Register poll who were either undecided or backing a candidate outside the top tier. Of that group, more than half said they were also considering Mr. Buttigieg or Mr. Biden. Only 43 percent said they were considering Ms. Warren, and 41 percent said the same about Mr. Sanders.

Keep in mind, the Iowa caucuses are often decided by a tiny number of participants at the margins. One top campaign strategist estimated to me last week that 80,000 people — fewer than those who live in Mr. Buttigieg’s hometown — will be enough to win the state.

How did those easy-listening political prophets Hall & Oates put it?

Oh, right: Your kiss, your kiss is on my list. But Mr. Delaney is not.

  • Here’s something to add to your reading list: The New York Times editorial board (which is completely separate from the newsroom) is publishing its endorsement for the Democratic nomination on Sunday, and all this week, they’re releasing transcripts of their interviews with nine of the leading candidates. You can read through their conversations with Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer. And on Sunday night, their pick will be revealed in a special episode of “The Weekly” on FX and Hulu.

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at

Do winners of the Iowa caucuses become president?

— Robert S. Hedges, Ames, Iowa

After the candidates have spent months — or even years — plowing through the Iowa snow, eating corn dogs and talking about ethanol, Robert asks a pretty smart question: Is all this effort predictive of future success?

Not really. Except when it comes to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Since the first modern caucuses in 1972, the two parties have produced 18 different winners — 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, according to an analysis by The Des Moines Register.

Only three of them would eventually win the presidency.

But seven of the 10 Democrats who won their caucuses later won the Democratic nomination, compared to just three of the Republicans.

So, if you’re a Democrat, winning the caucuses means you have fairly decent odds of eventually capturing the nomination — if not the White House.

It’s worth noting that this year could be more complicated because of changes in the rules. The state party will now release tallies from the initial vote at each caucus along with the final votes after the nonviable candidates have been weeded out, in addition to the count of delegates each candidate won. That raises the possibility that multiple candidates could claim victory by pointing to the results most favorable to them. (We’ll be publishing a fuller explanation of this soon, so stay tuned!)

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