Updates will appear at the top of the page. The original post follows below.
Update: CNN has reporters at various precincts across Iowa. Anecdotally, there appears to be a lot of support for Bernie and Warren, not so much for Biden.
Update: Hoo boy. FiveThirtyEight sniffed around for the results of that Des Moines Register poll that got spiked at the last second on Saturday night due to possibly flawed methodology. Turns out they weren’t good for Joe.
Nevertheless, a tweet made the rounds that night purporting to give the poll’s results, and after doing some reporting around this, FiveThirtyEight can confirm that it contains the correct final findings of the unreleased Iowa poll: Sanders 22 percent, Warren 18 percent, Buttigieg 16 percent, Biden 13 percent. Imagine the news cycle that would have been, with national front-runner Biden making such a poor showing in the last, highest-profile poll before the caucuses.
A fourth-place finish for Biden, with him not even making the 15 percent cut in many places, is the establishment nightmare scenario.
I get to use the plural of “caucus” in my headline because, believe it or not, the Iowa GOP is holding one tonight too. Why they’d bother is unclear; presumably they’re worried about Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status amid criticism that it’s outdated and want to keep as many voters as possible engaged in the process. But good on ’em for making Iowans turn out instead of canceling their election like various other states have done in order to genuflect towards Trump.
The Democratic caucus is effectively the only game in town, though. If you missed Ed’s post earlier explaining the rules tonight, here they are again in a nutshell. There’ll be two rounds of voting. The so-called first alignment is an old-fashioned “choose your favorite candidate” contest. Any candidate who clears 15 percent in that one moves on to round two, the final alignment. Any candidate who falls short of 15 percent is eliminated. Supporters of eliminated candidates are free at that point to switch to a different candidate, or to go home.
The whole fun of the caucus is people trying to persuade fans of failed candidates to join them between the first alignment and the final one. What’s intriguing about tonight’s slate of candidates is that each of the two “lanes” in the primary, moderates and progressives, has an obvious frontrunner and an obvious second choice who may or may not be able to clear 15 percent in many precincts. Bernie Sanders will have a big night if Elizabeth Warren can’t quite make it to 15 percent across the state; falling short would mean that her lefty fans would be free agents for the final alignment, and we all know whom they’d be likely to swing towards. Similarly, things will look good for Joe Biden if centrist-y Amy Klobuchar flames out short of 15 percent in various precincts. He’s likely to pick up many of her supporters as a second choice. As for where Pete Buttigieg’s supporters would go if he fails to make the cut, it’s anyone’s guess.
Right now Buttigieg stands at 16.8 percent in the RCP average of Iowa, with Warren right on the bubble at 15.5 percent and Klobuchar trailing at nine percent. That may mean Biden’s likely to pick up second-choice votes in more *precincts* than Bernie is since Klobuchar’s more likely to miss the cut across the state, but Bernie may end up picking up more second-choice *votes* than Biden since Warren’s support is stronger than Klobuchar’s. There’ll be more free agents from Team Liz if she fails to clear the 15 percent threshold in a given precinct than there will be from Team Amy, in all likelihood.
So, who’s likely to win? Each member of the Democrats’ big four has led in the RCP average at some point since mid-November but tonight someone has to prevail — in theory. In reality, “winning” can be defined in many ways. The final alignment will (mostly) decide how many delegates each candidate gets. And in the end, delegates are to the primary process what runs are to baseball, the only statistic that matters to the outcome. Whoever wins the most delegates tonight will be declared the “winner” — although if a different candidate happens to get a higher percentage of votes on the final alignment than the delegate winner, naturally that candidate will declare him or herself the real “winner.” And of course, if a third candidate happens to get the most votes on the first alignment, he or she will also declare themselves the “winner.” And yes, believe it or not, it’s possible we’ll have a different “winner” by each of those three metrics. Nate Cohn ran the numbers.
The reason delegate totals may not be proportional to the outcome of the final alignment is complicated and comes down to the fact that rural precincts “weigh” a little more heavily than urban ones. Read Cohn or Nate Silver if you want the nuts and bolts of that. Suffice it to say, it’s strange that a party that depends heavily in national elections on urban and nonwhite voters is holding its first presidential race in an overwhelmingly white state where rural areas are a bit more important than cities. And not even a state that’s a battleground anymore. Iowa is reliably red under Trump.
Let’s pre-game some narratives. I think either Sanders or Biden could stomach finishing a close second to the other. Each man has a likely victory ahead of him, with Bernie surging in New Hampshire and Biden seemingly a lock in South Carolina. Sanders obviously wants to win tonight, though, in order to prove that This Time Is Different and to send his fans over the moon, as they’re likely to shower him with even more cash if they’re encouraged by the result. He already enjoys a considerable financial advantage over the field; winning Iowa and New Hampshire might produce a fundraising burst that’s decisive. If he finishes a close second to Biden, eh, then he can look ahead to New Hampshire and get ready for war in Nevada. But losing a tight race to Biden here would make this election suddenly feel like 2016, which didn’t work out well for Bernie.
Biden could also tolerate losing narrowly to Sanders. It’d be a bad sign, but a rebound in Nevada would steady the ship and then a win the following week in South Carolina would give him momentum. He’d obviously like a win in Iowa, though, since it would cement the perspective that he’s for real and allow him to shrug off a likely Bernie victory in New Hampshire next week. If he takes three of the first four, he’d be heavily favored to be the nominee. Where things get interesting is the non-negligible possibility that Buttigieg will sneak into the top two or even win the caucus outright — and if you think that’s unlikely, note that a new poll this morning of Iowa placed him first at 19 percent, with Sanders second at 17. Biden finished third in that one at 15 percent, just four points back of the winner, but a third-or-worse finish by either Joe or Bernie would obviously be catastrophic to perceptions of their viability tomorrow. That’s really what tonight’s all about: Viability. Either candidate or both could claim to be viable if they’re in the top two. If one isn’t then the Democratic center or the progressive left will be in panic mode tomorrow.
The nightmare scenario for each of them is not only finishing third but finishing behind the other candidate in their “lane.” Klobuchar’s rise in the polls appears to have stalled lately but if she were to finish ahead of Joe tonight the narrative tomorrow would be that centrist Dems had given up on him at the moment of truth and opted for a younger alternative. It’d be catastrophic for him, particularly given how lackluster Klobuchar’s polling has been. A surprise in which Elizabeth Warren surges past Bernie would have a similar effect on the lefty side of the field. Sanders has spent the past two months reestablishing himself as the progressive choice in the race. If Warren were to outpace him tonight for whatever reason, possibly because undecideds view her as an acceptable middle ground between Sanders and Biden, then all of that would disappear in a flash. Warren’s campaign would be reborn and she’d likely be in the race through Super Tuesday and beyond, hoarding progressive votes from Bernie that he needs to get past Biden.
As such, I think the home-run scenario for each man tonight is a win coupled by a bad defeat by the candidate in their lane and/or a strong showing by the second-place candidate in the other lane. If Biden wins, Warren and Sanders end up more or less tied for second and Buttigieg and Klobuchar flame out, that leaves Joe to consolidate centrists while the two leftists split progressives going forward. If Sanders wins, Biden and Klobuchar (and Buttigieg?) more or less tie, and Warren underperforms, then the left will unite and establishmentarians will bicker and panic.
The caucus begins at 8 p.m. ET. For what it’s worth, Silver’s model gives Biden a 43 percent chance to win a majority of Iowa delegates followed by Sanders at 31 percent. As far as rooting interests go, you’re free to pull for whichever candidate you think would make the easiest match-up for the GOP (probably Warren) but I think that’s a fool’s errand and a lesson everyone should have learned after Democrats popped the champagne in 2016 at the prospect of facing Trump. Philip Klein’s wise to pull for Klobuchar, the best combination of sanity, youth, and experience in the bunch, purely on the theory that Democrats always stand a good chance of winning a presidential election and in case that happens we need someone in charge who’s neither senile nor radical nor still a few years away from their 40th birthday. Stay tuned for updates.