With fewer than 90 days before the Feb. 3, 2020, Iowa presidential caucuses, and after a recent visit to the Hawkeye state to see all 13 of the candidates (my ninth trip since April), it’s time for an update on the state of the race:
Bye Bye, Beto: Walking down a Des Moines street on Nov. 1, lined with dozens of “Beto” signs and entering a riverside park filled with Beto O’Rourke for president staffers handing out buttons and tickets to the giant party festival later that night, the last thing I expected was to find Beto himself, surrounded by crying fans, announcing he was dropping out of the race. “It has been the honor of my lifetime. I love you all and I know I’ll be seeing you down the road. Thank you and gracias.”
O’Rourke started his presidential campaign with great promise, polling in double digits in Iowa and nationally early on, and raking in boatloads of money. But in Iowa, the reality of Beto didn’t live up to the hype of Beto — or at least wasn’t a reality that appealed to Iowa Democrats. While he suffered several subpar national debate performances, in Iowa at least it might have come down to authenticity.
After hearing Beto speak in April at a house party I heard someone remark, “He sounds like John F. Kennedy.” At the time it sounded like a compliment. In retrospect, it sounds like an indictment.
Iowans still kicking the tires: Iowans aren’t even close to deciding on a winner. In Vinton, Iowa (population 5,093), Sen. Elizabeth Warren held a town hall in Vinton-Shellsburg High School (home of the Vikings) and had an enthusiastic crowd. Yet I still overhead someone say, “She was good, but I still need to see Booker, Harris, and Mayor Pete, and then see her again.”
That Iowa Democrats are still shopping around is also borne out by the most recent statewide poll by Monmouth University, where only 28% of likely Democratic caucus goers said they’d definitely made up their mind. These numbers are manna for heaven for a group of candidates who are ignoring current poll numbers and going all-in in Iowa with the hope of a late surge (a la John Kerry in 2004 and Rick Santorum in 2012). They include Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, who said in September, “I’m ****ing moving to Iowa!”
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is also part of this group, and when I caught up with him recently in a coffee shop in Creston, Iowa, he was asked about his biggest surprise in Iowa. He said, “How hard it is to get from 1% in the polls to 2%. It turns out it’s really easy to go from 9% to 1%!” It was thought that Julian Castro also had an all-in Iowa strategy, but that might be out the window given his recent comments saying that Iowa should no longer be the first in the nation to vote.
Keep your eye on Mayor Pete: With so many candidates in the race and so many fluctuations in the polls (Joe Biden, Warren, Bernie Sanders and Harris have all taken turns having Iowa surges), I have noticed but one constant over the past seven months: Everyone likes Pete Buttigieg.
Of course, likeability doesn’t guarantee a win Iowa, and Buttigieg knows it, telling me, “We've got to build that kind of ground game to match the kind of national attention that's come our way,” — but it’s not a bad thing to have going for you.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at email@example.com.