The Iowa four and a half

Proceedings will open shortly – at midday in eastern Australia, or 7pm last night local time – in the Iowa caucuses, the first voting event in the contest for this year’s Democrat presidential nomination.

Just on three months ago I wrote a post on the race titled “And then there were four and a half.” It’s déjà vu today going into Iowa, where once again there are four and a half serious contenders.

In November the “half” was Kamala Harris, once a highly-favored candidate but by then “just clinging to fifth place, and relevance.” She failed to rescue her candidacy and dropped out at the beginning of December. That left four front-runners: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Since then, those four have maintained a clear lead in polling in Iowa, although the order among them has moved around a good deal. Only recently has another candidate gotten close to them: Amy Klobuchar, senator from Minnesota, who is now polling around the 10% mark.

That’s still definitely in fifth place, but it’s only a few points behind Buttigieg and Warren. If she can break into the top four today, she has the potential to shake up the contest.

Conversely, Buttigieg and Warren have an awful lot riding on Iowa. Each at different times has led in the polls, but they are now both back in the mid-teens. Buttigieg in particular has put most of his eggs in the Iowa basket; anything worse than a close third would probably be fatal for him. Warren has maybe double his support in national polls, but a bad result today would still do a lot of damage.

Biden and Sanders are so far at the head of the pack: Sanders is polling with a narrow lead in Iowa, and Biden with a narrow lead nationally. But the early calendar favors Sanders; he is strong in both of the next two states to vote, New Hampshire on 11 February and Nevada on the 15th.

So if Sanders wins well today, he will become the new favorite. That may concentrate the minds of Democrats to rally around a more mainstream alternative, or it may just produce further disarray – much as it did in the corresponding situation four years ago in the Republican Party.

But if it’s close (as it often is), Iowa probably won’t resolve much at the top end of the field. Neither Biden nor Sanders is likely to give up quickly.

In addition to the Iowa four and a half, there’s former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is sitting out Iowa and New Hampshire but putting a lot of money into advertising for the later states. That’s produced a steady but not spectacular rise in national polls; he’s now running fourth, still well behind Warren but ahead of Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

That should keep him in contention until Super Tuesday, on 3 March, when serious numbers of delegates will be at stake for the first time. At that point, everything may become clear. Or it may not.

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