We don’t have as much data as I’d like, but with the Seltzer poll dropping yesterday, there are two current Iowa Caucus surveys, one of which is considered the gold standard, and the other at least worth paying attention to. Also, they’re voting in a little over three weeks, so it’s time to take a look at where the field stands as we get ready for the January 14 Iowa debate. It appears Nancy Pelosi will push delivery of Articles of Impeachment just long enough for the event to continue as scheduled.
We’re going to look at both surveys for clues. If you’re looking for the best numerical projection of the odds any given candidate wins Iowa, there’s the FiveThirtyEight model. It updates any time there’s new info. A new poll in Iowa will cause adjustments, but they also take into account what a result in another state might portend. They’re the best guess out there.
That’s the thing. It’s a guess. As of this morning, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are effectively tied. They think each have a 29% chance of winning the caucus. Pete Buttigieg has a 21% chance, while Elizabeth Warren is at 17%. Sure, you’d rather be Biden or Sanders, neither of whom need Iowa as badly as Buttigieg and Warren, but this is hardly over.
They do think there’s a chance for an extreme upset. Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Cory Booker are each given 2% odds. Individually, that’s not much, but there is a 1 in 12 chance one of the four pull off a miracle. Rather than trying to predict a result, our goal to think about how each of the contenders could win or place well enough. What are the scenarios that leave them beaming from behind a podium on Caucus Night?
As always, remember the rules. A candidate must reach 15% support in an individual caucus precinct to retain those voters. The candidates who can regularly clear that bar will wind up with more support than the top lines of polls are showing. If someone is running well short of 15% statewide, it’s better for them to have concentrated support so they can at least keep their numbers in some caucus precincts. They won’t win overall, but it will matter in the standings.
Because of this, it’s extra important for a candidate to register as a second choice, or even as a mere consideration. The Des Moines Register/CNN/Seltzer poll tracked this. if we look at first choices, it reads:
There’s a clear gap between the first four and the second four, and Bernie has a bit of an edge over his three closest competitors. This changes a bit when we add first and second choices together:
Now you see more evidence of the compression at the top, and the lower tier splits apart somewhat. Next, it’s candidates at least up for consideration. Beyond being an option if a voter needs to pick someone new at the caucus itself, this shows who might pick up ground with a strong debate performance, or some viral moment on the trail:
Sanders leads among first choice. Warren among top two. Buttigieg is the most frequently considered. In all cases, it’s close. One more thing to inspect. Favorability ratings. They’ve separated very favorable from mostly favorable. In a race with several candidates, it will usually take more than a mostly favorable opinion to get a vote. I’m going to list them by order of very favorable, but also show the combined very + mostly number after:
Buttigieg 34% (68%)
Warren 32% (70%)
Sanders 32% (65%)
Biden 22% (62%)
Klobuchar 18% (53%)
Yang. 17% (61%)
Booker 13% (53%)
Steyer 9% (43%)
He’s probably going to run out of time, but look at Yang. Mayor Pete’s numbers are almost the same as in September (33/68.) Klobuchar was at 17/53. Same again. Bernie is a little ahead of his 26/59 level. Warren is down from 44/75. Biden dropped from 29/67. Yang was only at 7/33. He’s the only candidate far ahead of his September position.
Biden is clearly trailing his major competitors on this measure, but given his perceived (with 100+ surveys to back it up) electability advantage, he’s the candidate who least needs passionate supporters to register a good result.
Now we’re going to hang out with the CBS/YouGov poll for a minute and look at the demographics of who is supporting each contender. We’re doing this partly to take both surveys in to account and also because this data isn’t available yet on the DMR/CNN/Seltzer poll. Don’t worry about the two polls having different results here. There are clear trends that show up in almost every state. We’re not worried about a couple points one way or another. This is a reminder of what the playing field looks like.
Because Iowa, they didn’t separate based on race/ethnicity. There’s not a ton of difference based on gender. Warren does better with women, Klobuchar with men. Yang is a bit more popular with guys. Biden, Buttigieg, and Bernie are almost evenly split. Booker and Steyer are showing as stronger with men, but that’s a relative statement.
They compared registered Democrats to Independents likely to caucus on the Democratic side. For most candidates this didn’t matter. Warren ran a little better with Democrats, Sanders a little better with Independents. This makes perfect sense. But the disparity isn’t as large or important as New Hampshire where there could be an equal percentage of Democrats and Independents participating. In Iowa, most caucus attendees are registered Dems.
This leaves the only two measured things that matter. Age and ideology. Here’s how they look divided by age. I’m ranking by first choice but then listing first + second next to it for reference.
Sanders 38% (59%)
Buttigieg 18% (35%)
Biden 15% (34%)
Warren 15% (33%)
Yang 5% (14%)
Klobuchar 4% (8%)
Booker 2% (7%)
Steyer 1% (6%)
We know Bernie does best with the youngest voters, but it’s always staggering to see the data. Well over half of sub-45-year-old Iowans have him in their top two, and he’s the first choice of more voters than any two other candidates combined. This also shows why Klobuchar is stalled out. It’s really hard to wind up in the top tier when half of the voters aren’t considering you.
Biden 27% (45%)
Buttigieg 25% (41%)
Warren 17% (36%)
Sanders 15% (27%)
Klobuchar 9% (26%)
Steyer 2% (10%)
Booker 2% (5%)
Yang 1% (4%)
Older and middle-aged voters are only looking at five candidates. Sanders is doing better with this group in Iowa than nationwide. Biden’s advantage is smaller, due to the absence of African Americans. Combine those factors and you have them tied with CBS/YouGov and Sanders ahead with DMR/CNN/Seltzer. Time to glance at ideology. Will show first/second choice the same way as above.
Sanders 25% (41%)
Buttigieg 23% (39%)
Warren 20% (43%)
Biden 19% (36%)
Klobuchar 8% (20%)
Yang 2% (7%)
Booker 2% (5%)
Steyer 0% (6%)
If Warren is running third among liberals on caucus day, she’s going to have a problem. You can see she’s got room to improve, but it’s very unlikely she will dominate here. And she’s doing the worst of the Top 4 among moderates.
Biden 29% (49%)
Buttigieg 24% (44%)
Sanders 19% (33%)
Warren 10% (21%)
Klobuchar 8% (20%)
Steyer 5% (13%)
Booker 2% (6%)
Yang 1% (7%)
Except for Warren’s struggles and Steyer’s improvement, there isn’t much difference. Ideology matters a bit (Bernie does do better with liberals like you’d think, but not by as much as you’d think), but age is the larger divider. Now that we have our components, and some understanding of why the candidates are polling the way they are, let’s look at the scenarios:
Bernie Sanders: This is looking good for him. While FiveThirtyEight has his odds and Biden’s the same, Sanders is better positioned. Warren’s struggles with men and moderates will make it tough for her to get past him. If turnout is high, it always favors him, and even if voters are distracted by impeachment, the close contest will push more voters to turn out. Also, almost 50% of Iowans voted for him last time. When in doubt, when the supporters of sub-15% candidates are forced to pick a second choice, it might be easier to vote for the guy you picked last time.
His first risk is Buttigieg having a great debate next week and strong final push on the ground, along with him getting a disproportionate amount of Klobuchar supporters on the second go. His ceiling is arguably the highest of the contenders. So Bernie could do well, reach 25% or so, and still wind up finishing a close second to Mayor Pete.
The second problem would be Yang catching fire over the final three weeks. He’s strongest with the same age demographic that favors Bernie. He also appeals to first-time voters. If he makes a move, and if the poll that has him at 5% now instead of 2% is more accurate, Yang will be able to clear 15% in precincts around college campuses, which will pull possible Sanders supporters away and make it harder for Bernie to win.
I think Bernie has the highest floor. I can see a lot of ways where Biden or Buttigieg move past him, and you’ll see below how Warren could just barely edge him, but absent a health scare, I’m not sure how he could drop below the 15-18% range. He’ll either leave Iowa with a ton of momentum, or hang in well enough for a New Hampshire win to launch his campaign forward to Nevada.
He’s almost even with Biden in the nomination betting markets today. While I think that’s too close, and the markets are assuming southern voters will be more influenced by the first few contests than I expect, Bernie is definitely looking solid.
Joe Biden: Klobuchar supporters are going to decide his fate. Biden has led very few Iowa polls over the past several months. Sometimes he’s at/near the top, sometimes he trails by a few points. Always in range, never safe. Unless he dips further, Buttigieg is reaching 15% in most precincts. Anywhere (like at/near colleges) where the Mayor would struggle, Biden would have a problem too.
There just aren’t many places where Buttigieg is a donor to Biden. Yang voters aren’t going to Biden. Steyer and Booker aren’t first choices frequently enough to add up to a lot. Warren could fall short of 15% in more moderate precincts. Intuition (and some data) says Sanders and Buttigieg are more likely to pick them up. That leaves Klobuchar as his prime donor.
To win, Biden needs the following: The news, be it impeachment, Iran, or something Trump hasn’t thought of yet, moving in the direction of voters wanting an established steady hand. Along with Trump seeming a little less vulnerable. The weaker Trump appears, the more voters will think someone other than Biden can beat him. The less dangerous the world looks, the less foreign policy experience matters.
We’re not talking about a ton of voters making decisions based on this, but if a Klobuchar supporter is deciding between Mayor Pete and Uncle Joe, it’s enough to move them across the room. Biden also needs to have at least an adequate debate, while Buttigieg doesn’t have an amazing one.
Again, not that many voters are moving, but you can see Biden dropping a few if he’s shaky and Pete getting a third wind if he does particularly well. Klobuchar is likely to swing for the fences, and that gives the Mayor a chance to parry and turn it back on her.
Pete Buttigieg: Welcome to our highest variance situation. In November, he led the DMR/CNN/Seltzer poll by 9 points. Now he’s trailing by 4. In the same survey, he gained 14 points between March and June (1% to 15%), lost 6 between June and September (down to 9%), and then picked up 16 between September and November.
Iowans like Pete. A lot. They just aren’t certain he can beat Donald Trump. He has the highest favorability ratings, and is being considered by the most voters. His November peak in this survey was the highest of any candidate so far. When he’s riding high, after a good debate, or a solid bus tour through the state, you see the coalition that would push him forward. He pulls liberals from Warren who think she’s not electable. Moderates from Biden who worry he’s lost his fastball. Gen X voters like him better than Klobuchar. His struggles with voters of color don’t apply in Iowa.
If he looks presidential for the next 2-3 weeks, Mayor Pete will either win, or barely lose to Bernie. While Biden doing well in the debate and on the ground will matter, there’s just less room for people to move their opinion of him. Less established candidates are more volatile by nature.
Should Buttigieg stumble in the debate and have a rough week afterward, the wheels could come off. He’s got little overlap with Bernie, so this would benefit Biden and/or Warren, depending on whether moderate or liberal voters abandon him in larger numbers. Among his younger adherents, it might benefit Yang.
He’s got the money to persist for several weeks regardless of the Iowa outcome, but he’ll need a win to have a good shot at the nomination, and it’s hard to see how he could finish behind Biden and have any momentum going to New Hampshire. A Buttigieg nomination likely begins with winning both of the first two states. If he wins neither, it’s hard to see him lasting to the convention, or even beyond Super Tuesday.
Not only does he have the biggest variance, he’s also got the highest stakes.
Elizabeth Warren: Unless she can suddenly change perceptions, I think Warren has a lower ceiling here than the other three. Her shaky standing with men and moderates, without a true advantage elsewhere to offset it makes it hard to get her past 23-25% unless most of her competition stumbles badly.
However, a win is a win, and all of her opponents respect the Warren ground team. Unlike Sanders and Yang, who will need young and first-time voters to show up for them, Warren’s supporters lean a bit older and more likely to have regularly caucused before. Ted Cruz was in a similar position a couple weeks out in 2016 and used a combination of ground game and supporters who regularly participate to move past Trump and grab the caucus win.
She’s only trailing by 3 points in the DMR/CNN/Seltzer poll. This is up 1 point from November. Her CBS/YouGov number was down 2 from November. While Warren isn’t surging again, she’s not sliding any further. Half of Klobuchar’s supporters identify as liberal. It’s not insane to think they’d pick Warren over Biden, especially if they’re partial to a female nominee.
If Pete has a great three weeks, Warren isn’t winning Iowa. If he doesn’t leap forward again and stays mostly in place, or falls a little, his more liberal supporters are far more likely to move to Warren than Sanders. The Pete/Bernie voter just isn’t a thing. As long as Yang can hold a few college precincts, and/or the voters he loses are distributed somewhat evenly among the other candidates instead of Sanders getting most of them, the math is there for Warren to get 24% and narrowly finish ahead of Biden and Sanders, with Buttigieg winding up fourth and getting effectively eliminated.
Her problem in getting nominated is that’s not necessarily a good thing for her. Sanders isn’t going away regardless of what happens in Iowa, and losing to Warren by a couple points won’t impact him much at all. More moderate voters would then rally around Biden in New Hampshire. Warren has a way to grind out an Iowa win. Putting herself strongly in contention for the nomination will take a few more steps.
Andrew Yang: If we’re betting on who finishes fifth, I’m taking Yang instead of Klobuchar. If we’re wagering on who could pull a huge upset win, I’m taking Yang instead of Klobuchar. Below the top line, his numbers have improved faster than any other candidate. He’s got a particular demographic (young) that clusters in caucus precincts. It may be that he finishes fifth with 2.5% of the retained vote, but Klobuchar, Steyer, and Booker are likely to get wiped out entirely.
The formula for a Yang victory (or even a top four finish) requires several steps. First, he needs to take advantage of missing the next debate to rally support. Most Iowa voters are very worried about viability going forward, but those are also the voters who regularly caucus. Yang’s constituency isn’t that. If the Yang Gang rallies over the next couple of weeks and knocks on doors, along with peer pressure to get previously reluctant voters out, he can benefit from being locked out.
Next, Buttigieg needs to stumble. At the moment, Mayor Pete is the more viable, young, forward thinking option. But, a bad debate performance could push him below 15% in a lot of precincts. Right now he’s on the right side of the line, but he could quickly wind up in the 12-14% range in lots of places and become a donor instead of a recipient. This is a stretch. There’s a reason why Yang has 2% odds of winning. But possible.
Finally, Warren needs to play her hand poorly. If she goes overly negative, if a few polls in swing states show her trailing Trump by a lot more than Biden and Sanders, she too could fall below 15% in many precincts. A combination of Warren and Buttigieg dropping buy just enough to be in trouble, but not enough to launch Klobuchar, gives Yang a narrow window. If first-time voters show up, and pollsters are missing them right now, add a last-minute shove, and maybe he matters.
Amy Klobuchar: She’s just not making further progress. In September, Iowans started noticing her. Since then, good debate performances have put her a clear fifth in polling. Not much movement in the past 60 days. Approval and consideration numbers clearly below the Top 4. Most importantly, zero momentum with voters under 45.
Klobuchar really needed to see top line support in double-digits by now. To the point where people kicking around her, Mayor Pete, and Biden could try on thinking of her as a nominee. Unless both of her moderate opponents instantly turn to dust, I don’t see the math working. She’s already done well in debates, so one more good performance isn’t likely to matter. Candidates don’t suddenly start appealing to demographics that wouldn’t consider them at all. If she wants to win over younger voters, it will take months, and detract from her ability to get enough senior citizens to make it out of Iowa.
Tom Steyer: It’s not there for him in Iowa. The big question is whether a poor showing here will impact him in Nevada and South Carolina, where his intensive ad spending has made him relevant and provided the poll results to qualify him for the next debate.
Cory Booker: Zero progress for all of the past year. Kamala Harris’ exit didn’t matter. A good amount of Iowans like him, but very few have him in their top two. If you check anything I’ve said about Booker in Iowa for the past several months, that’s exactly what you’d find. He should have moved to the center like Buttigieg instead of the left. That was the fatal flaw. Too late now. Theoretically, if Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar vanished overnight, Booker would quickly grab 20% support and contend. Instead, he’ll announce his withdrawal on February 4.
Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Deval Patrick: Are all technically options, but getting even less support in Iowa than Steyer and Booker. Gabbard is a possible factor in New Hampshire. None of the others are. We’ll talk more about her in the New Hampshire Prospectus.
Michael Bloomberg: Is hoping Sanders or Warren finish first and Biden finishes fourth. He’s not campaigning or on the ballot in Iowa. If he were, Buttigieg’s odds would be significantly worse. His presence has negatively impacted the Mayor in national polls and may have something to do with his slide in the past several weeks.
We’ll learn a lot from the first round of polls after next week’s debate. It wouldn’t take much to push one of the candidates in the lead pack ahead of their contenders. We’ll also see if missing the debate rallied Yang’s supporters or depressed them.