Iowans, famously indecisive, worry the 2020 race is ‘a mess’

For a year now, Iowans have been analyzing Democratic candidates for president, weighing their policies and personalities with the knowledge that the choices they make on caucus night on Feb. 3 could determine the trajectory of the primary.

Written by Sydney Ember and Trip Gabriel

Lois Grier knows she has to make a decision about the Democratic primary soon.

She and her husband, Ted, traveled from their home in Otley to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday and hoped to see Pete Buttigieg, too. But although Lois Grier, 62, cares about issues like health care, what she is yearning to find above all is a White House hopeful she believes can defeat President Donald Trump.

She hasn’t found one yet.

“It’s important to narrow it in to somebody that can beat Trump,” she said, adding that she would be watching the debate on Tuesday in Des Moines closely for telltale signs.

“A lot of the candidates are saying the right things,” she added. “But are they strong enough?”

For a year now, Iowans have been analyzing Democratic candidates for president, weighing their policies and personalities with the knowledge that the choices they make on caucus night on Feb. 3 could determine the trajectory of the primary.

But with the first-in-the-nation caucuses three weeks away, many people in the state are still trying to make their decisions: A Des Moines Register poll last week showed that only 40% of likely Democratic caucusgoers had made up their minds. Nearly half said they could be persuaded to support another candidate as their top choice, and 13% said they did not have a first choice.

This level of uncertainty, verging on anxiety and even panic for some caucusgoers, reflects the stakes for Democrats as they seek a nominee who can do effective battle with Trump. Many Iowans worry that none of the top contenders have clearly proved themselves able to defeat the president.

“It’s a mess,” said Laura Hubka, the chairwoman of the Howard County Democrats. “Everyone is so all over the place.”

The current level of indecisiveness is striking, even for Iowans known to make up their minds late. At the same point in 2016, only 14% were undecided in the Des Moines Register poll, for a race that featured just two top contenders, Sanders and Hillary Clinton. In 2004, a more comparable election year when the field was nearly as crowded as it is today, 70% had not picked a candidate a month from the caucuses. Forty-two percent made up their minds in the last two weeks, according to an entrance poll.

“They’re worried about the country and they don’t want to make a mistake — they’re feeling the pressure,” said Penny Rosfjord, a party activist who has not settled on a preference.

Iowans are acutely aware of their responsibility in holding the first presidential nominating contests, and the state’s Democrats do not want to set the party on a path to a weak nominee. Making it more difficult this year is the fierce argument over how far left the Democratic Party should tilt.

Such ambiguity raises the possibility that no one will emerge from the caucuses with a clean victory, potentially undermining Iowa’s claim to acting as a springboard to the nomination by muddling Democrats’ choice.

In interviews at campaign events in recent days, many Iowans were still wavering, often listing several candidates they liked but also reasons that each candidate could be perceived as weak. They worried Joe Biden might be too old, thought Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, might be too inexperienced and were apprehensive that Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren could be too far left.

And at a time when Iowans are confronting questions about whether their overwhelmingly white state should retain its preeminent position in the primary process, voters want more than ever to elevate a coalition-building candidate who can win elsewhere.

The fact that other candidates, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have failed so far to catch on has given Iowans pause about them, too.

Bob Wymore, a retired truck driver from Ottumwa, said after a Sanders event recently that he was still undecided even though there were several candidates he liked, including Sanders and Warren. But, he said, “I’m kind of leaning toward Biden because he’s more moderate and that’s probably what we need, like a lot of people think.”

Complicating matters, several of the state’s best-known Democratic officials have withheld their endorsements, opting instead to see how the race unfolds on its own. Those who have not backed a candidate so far include Rep. Cindy Axne, who flipped her district in 2018; Rob Sand, the state auditor; and J.D. Scholten, who is running for Congress in Rep. Steve King’s district.

Scholten, who could be a kingmaker in the Iowa caucuses and often appears with 2020 candidates at forums on rural issues, said in an interview that he had expected to make an endorsement this month.

But as the calendar flipped over, he was nowhere near to making up his mind.

“I thought I’d have a clearer picture,” he said. “The lanes aren’t as clear as what I think people thought they would be.”

Voters sound like cable news pundits as they mull the candidates, wondering aloud if progressives like Sanders and Warren can carry crucial swing states, and if moderates like Biden and Buttigieg will excite the party’s young and diverse base.

“Of paramount importance is beating Trump, of course,” Gary Mansheim, a family practice physician from Burlington, Iowa, said at a Warren event in December. “Warren and Sanders speak to the Democratic heart, but the brain says you need someone that is more moderate to beat Trump. So that brings us back to the more moderates — Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar.”

Randy Farnum, 49, an elementary school principal from Dubuque, said that he was trying to decide between Sanders and Warren and that it would come down to their “final plans.”

“It’s coming down to the amount of decisions we have to make very rapidly in the next year for the world,” he said.

The surges and retreats in the Iowa polls — all the candidates in the top tier taking a turn at the top — reflect how scrutiny of whoever is in the lead brings attacks in the debates and, for voters, second thoughts. The debate on Tuesday in Des Moines is likely to be fierce as candidates seek momentum going into the final weeks before the caucuses.

“The number of undecideds truly has as much to do with the stakes as with anything else,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Dvorsky and her husband, Bob, a former state senator, do not expect to settle on a candidate until caucus night.

“Very honestly, our decision will be made based on what is happening in the room that night,” she said, adding that “we are center-left people,” favoring the candidate leading in that lane. “This year there is great uncertainty,” she said. “I don’t know if Biden’s going to be viable that night.”

Biden’s ads in Iowa call the Trump presidency “the most dangerous moment in a generation.”

A poll of the state by Monmouth University on Monday showed Biden leading among likely caucusgoers with 24%, followed by Sanders at 18%, Buttigieg at 17% and Warren with 15%. Three days earlier, the Des Moines Register/CNN poll also showed a tightly bunched, four-way field at the top, with Sanders in first with 20%.

Asked how important it was to choose a candidate capable of defeating Trump, 3 in 4 supporters of Biden and Buttigieg named this as a crucial factor in the Register poll. But only 54% of Sanders supporters and 53% of Warren supporters did so.

Angela Woodhouse, 56, of Muscatine, said Democrats were “super fortunate because we have so many great candidates.” But she, too, had not made a decision.

“I would be happy with anyone, honestly,” she said. “Trump is so bad.”

The persistent, hand-wringing indecision among Iowans has unnerved elected officials, county chairs and campaigns alike, many of whom have adopted an anything-can-happen approach to the caucuses while at the same time continuing to await a still-elusive sign that the race is shaking out. And it could snarl the already complex caucus process that favors visible momentum and live persuasion.

“From the people that I’ve talked to, there’s just still this sense of, it’s just all up in the air,” said Sandy Dockendorff, a Democratic activist in southeastern Iowa who has endorsed Warren. “If I had to put money on the outcome on Feb. 3, I wouldn’t.”

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