What Matters in Iowa (Part 3–Best Practices)

Hi! If you’re just joining our journey to the center of the Iowa caucus, please consider reading the first piece—an overview, and the second, which covers the positive and negative signs that indicate how a candidate will do on Caucus Day.

Our next project is examining ways candidates can improve their standing. How they can be their best Iowa selves. For each of the options below, we’ll see who is best poised to take advantage, who must take advantage, and who isn’t a fit. At the end, we’ll add up the results for an extremely unscientific score.

NOTE: We aren’t looking at *every* candidate. Twelfth place in the Real Clear Politics national polling average is 0.8%. In Iowa, that’s 0.7%. If someone isn’t at that level in either average, they don’t require analysis. Except Steve Bullock, outgoing Governor of Montana. He has the only two Iowa endorsements on the FiveThirtyEight tracking list.

The Full Grassley

If a 10-year-old asks you what this is, shockingly, it’s safe to tell her. It merely refers to Senator Chuck Grassley’s annual habit of visiting each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

This is a lot. California only has 58. I’m not sure if it really matters if the candidate gets all 99, though as long as you’re visiting most, might as well complete the circuit. The New Hampshire (10 counties BTW) equivalent is doing over 100 town halls.

It’s almost impossible to do both a Grassley in Iowa and a McCain (my term) in New Hampshire. Especially if a candidate wants to pay any attention to Nevada or South Carolina, or make enough appearances in Super Tuesday states. For someone currently holding office, it’s even less plausible.

A candidate choosing this route is implicitly prioritizing Iowa over New Hampshire. No 2020 candidate is a paragon of Iowa perfectness. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent states that share a border with New Hampshire. So many campaigns should consider going all in on Iowa.

Who Can/Must: Bullock, Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Klobuchar, O’Rourke

Who Can’t/Shouldn’t: Biden, Bennet, Booker, Gabbard, Harris, Inslee, Sanders, Warren, Yang

I know it sounds insane to keep referencing Bullock’s two Iowa endorsements. But it’s two more than anyone else has. He doesn’t have any in New Hampshire. He’s still in office and Montana is closer to Iowa. Nobody else has established themselves as a moderate backup in case Uncle Joe implodes in an upcoming debate.

Mayor Pete has some good polling. He’s a Midwesterner. The top four candidates have less incentive to camp out in Iowa. Buttigieg needs to take advantage. Julian Castro’s biggest distinction is being the Latino candidate in the contest. Otherwise he’s one of a thousand liberals. Iowa does have a noticeable Latin population. Many Iowan farmers are pro-immigration. This is the place for him to make his stand too.

Delaney is already effectively an Iowa resident. We know this isn’t going to end well for him. He’s almost entirely self-funded. But nobody can say he’s not giving a full effort. If Klobuchar can’t compete next door, she’s not going to elsewhere. She’s got to do everything she possibly can to get a result here.

There’s nothing to indicate Beto O’Rourke is a real contender. Several things will need to break right for him. And he needs to improve as a candidate. Any of those ideal scenarios go right through Iowa.

The others are either big national candidates who need to make sure they’re spending time in Nevada, South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday states, or they should make themselves New Hampshire candidates.

Boots on the Ground

We’re talking about a real legit operation. Precinct captains in every damn precinct. Extreme voter targeting. Knocking on thousands of doors. The record Democratic caucus turnout is 236,000, set in 2008. There’s reason to think 2020 will exceed this, but we’re still talking about 250,000-300,000 at absolute most.

With up to 10 candidates making a serious effort in the state, it’s going to take a huge amount of effort to make sure a candidate keeps supporters and turns them out. In 2016, both Clinton and Sanders did a good job, but there was less competition. On the GOP side, Ted Cruz had more and better boots, and made up a polling disadvantage to finish ahead of Trump.

Who Can/Must: Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Castro, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Harris, Biden, Delaney, Bullock

Who Can’t/Shouldn’t: Inslee, Gabbard, Yang, Booker, Bennet

The only people who can’t or shouldn’t are those who clearly won’t have the financial resources, should focus on New Hampshire, or both. All the others need to find a way.

Sanders and Warren will have this covered. Buttigieg has the money now to make sure he does too. If Biden hasn’t figured out how to do this by now, he has no hope. Any of the others will need a real ground force to contend.

Lesser Expectations

This has more to do with how the Iowa finish is viewed by the media and voters in upcoming states than where the candidate finishes. The less expected, the more upside. To have a surprise positive result that creates extra momentum. Or to have a mediocre result that counts as a win.

Marco Rubio did a good job at this in 2016. He managed to treat third place like a victory. John McCain finished a close fourth in 2008 and it actually gave him a push in New Hampshire. Gary Hart wound up a distant second in 1984 and it was treated as a miracle.

Expectations are relative. Kamala Harris can get away with a lower finish than Biden can. It doesn’t mean 5th place is ok. She’s likely can survive 4th. Third works very well for her.

Andrew Yang can persist longer than many other candidates. He’s sort of the Ron Paul of 2020 Democrats. Reaching the 15% viability threshold at a few caucus locations would be a big deal for him.

Mathematically, only six candidates can reach 15% at the same time. Realistically, support won’t be distributed that evenly. Any lower tier candidate getting a few percent in Iowa will have reached viability in a significant amount of precincts. The 2008 version of Biden was unable to do this. If Michael Bennet can, while the 2020 Biden disappoints, that’s the path to relevancy as the moderate choice in New Hampshire.

Who Can/Must: Harris, Booker, Bennet, Inslee, Gabbard, Yang

Who Can’t/Shouldn’t: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Bullock, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Castro, Delaney, Klobuchar

This group has no excuses. Biden is the front-runner, the ex-VP. There’s no way he can claim anything out of the top three is ok. Bernie isn’t taking the nomination if he finishes down the list in a caucus state. Warren has a very strong organization. Bullock is going to be an Iowa candidate. Castro will have an easier time here than New Hampshire. Klobuchar is next door. Delaney moved here. Beto has one chance at relevancy.

Peak Late

Staying close enough, but not getting too far out front is a virtually universal Iowa rule. Ben Carson got out front a little too fast in 2016. Newt Gingrich in 2012. This is bipartisan. Howard Dean had the same problem in 2004. That year, Dean and Dick Gephardt slugged it out up front, and finished third and fourth. John Kerry floated almost unchallenged to the nomination after floundering through fall 2003.

Nobody is pulling more than a quarter of the Iowa polling support. In the post-debate surveys, two candidates have cleared 20% once each (Biden, Buttigieg). Getting too visible means consistently reaching 30% and/or a 10 point lead with less than 120 days to go.

So each contender has the opportunity to peak at the perfect time. For Harris, Warren, or Buttigieg, it’s a continuation of something that began building a while ago. For Sanders or Biden, it’s a comeback. These happen too. Any lower-tier candidate by nature will not get ahead too quickly.

Who Can/Must: Everyone

Who Can’t/Shouldn’t: Nobody

Peaking right before the caucus doesn’t mean invisibility now. Previous winners are frequently in contention by 90 days out. They have a pulse the previous summer. Castro & Friends need to do well enough in the next debate to start consistently polling in the 3-5% range soon or they won’t have time.


Not all candidates are expected to move to Iowa. If you’re a top-tier national contestant, you get a pass. However, you do need to put on a show. Donald Trump did a very good job of this. He actually used a helicopter—with Trump logo—to arrive at the 2015 Iowa State Fair.

In order to get a decent result, the high-profile candidate has to make a legit effort to compete. Mid-level candidates, or those who are named McCain can prioritize New Hampshire without having a Jeb Bush 2016-style Iowa disaster.

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton couldn’t decide if she was all in on Iowa or not. She concluded visibly trying and failing was worse than holding back a bit. Her third place finish, followed by a different approach in 2016 indicates this was a mistake.

Who Can/Must: Biden, Warren, Harris, Sanders

Who Can’t/Shouldn’t: Inslee, Yang, Bullock, Gabbard, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Booker, Castro, Delaney, Bennet

Biden is starting to put in his time. He’ll need to do more. Much more. But it’s early. Same goes for the others. At least one of them should have a solid plan for making a real impression at the Fair. They can’t be Trump, but some flair and some fun will go a long way.

The other candidates don’t have the national presence to get away with this approach. They need to check off their 99 counties or stay in New Hampshire.


Nobody collected all five possible points. Nobody earned fewer than two. It’s a compressed list.

4 Points: Harris

3 Points: Biden, Bullock, Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren

2 Points: Bennet, Booker, Gabbard, Inslee, Yang

Kamala has the most to gain here. Of anyone in the lead pack, she can most easily survive finishing fourth. Though she’s surged in post-debate surveys, she’s not the front-runner yet. But she doesn’t need to worry about being taken seriously either. It’s an advantageous position.

The two point group is going to have a really hard time making a mark in Iowa. They lack funding and polling, and most are better fits for New Hampshire.

The three point group is a combination of higher-tier candidates who need to finish top three to have a chance at the nomination, and lower tier candidates who need to finish top three to have a reason to keep going.

With the 15% rule, a seventh place finish in Iowa is going to wind up being 2%ish. The same is possibly true for 6th. Fifth could be low-mid single digits. There are only a few tickets out of Iowa. Most of these candidates will be grouchy on caucus night.

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