With Iowa and New Hampshire Still Up in the Air, Democratic Race Has 2016 Echoes

Sometime soon, the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump will likely end and the Senate, notwithstanding who might get called as a witness, will acquit him.

The president, of course, will claim victory and, having escaped punishment, will presumably return to doing what he has been doing for months — looking for ways to discredit Democrats, even if it involves help from foreign governments. The rest of us will also jump quickly from impeachment and back to the presidential race, hardly missing a beat.

That means Iowa and New Hampshire. As I have been arguing for months, the early national polls were essentially meaningless.

Iowa will scramble the overall Democratic contest, since the fallout from caucuses will affect New Hampshire, fundraising, media coverage and the narrative about who is ahead nationally.

Up in the air

Given the wildly conflicting polls (and the difficulty in polling caucus attendees), we still can’t be certain who’ll win Iowa, what the order of finish will be or what the margins between candidates will look like.

So there is a lot up in the air.

On the other hand, the shape of the Democratic contest continues to look a good deal like 2016, though the current field is much larger than the two-person contest of four years ago.

Then, populist progressive Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who had support from much of the party leadership and establishment, finished in a virtual dead heat in Iowa.

Clinton drew 49.8 percent of attendees, while the Vermont senator drew 49.6 percent. She won 23 delegates to Sanders’ 21.

This cycle, the Jan. 20-23 New York Times/Siena College poll found the two populist progressives, Sanders (25 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15 percent), drawing a combined 40 percent in Iowa, while the three “pragmatists” in the contest, former Vice President Joe Biden (17 percent), former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (18 percent) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (8 percent), combined for 43 percent.

Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar actually are mainstream Democrats who generally hold liberal views but preach working together across the aisle, electability and the benefits of caution, which separates them from Sanders and Warren, who preach fundamental, structural change and never talk about the need to compromise.

So the divide in the state between the Democratic Party’s two wings echoes the conflict from four years ago.

Of course, the race could change over the next week, and how supporters of the candidates who don’t hit the 15 percent threshold behave during the caucuses could well determine who “wins” and what the various margins look like.

Members of the media tend to look for “winners” and “losers” in contests, so candidates failing to meet expectations will suddenly find themselves in a media feeding frenzy.

They will have to spend time explaining their performance and prospects instead of talking about health care, the environment and guns.

A Sanders sweep?

Four years ago, Sanders followed up his surprising showing in Iowa by beating Clinton rather soundly in New Hampshire, 60 percent to 38 percent. He earned 15 delegates to her 9.

Of course, New Hampshire voters always seem to enjoy being quirky, and Sanders benefited from geography (being from neighboring Vermont) and the fact that the Granite State allows independents to participate in either primary.

This year, Warren is also from a neighboring state, and other candidates (such as Buttigieg), could benefit from the state’s interest in new candidates.

The new NBC News/Marist poll from New Hampshire shows Sanders leading the field with 22 percent to Buttigieg’s 17 percent. Those results, along with Iowa’s, have journalists talking about Sanders’ “surge.”

But while Sanders leads in polls, he is nowhere near his showings of four years ago. (Readers beware: Journalists like to find “surging” candidates.)

While a Sanders sweep of Iowa and New Hampshire would give him momentum, help his fundraising and cause party pragmatists to start pulling their hair out, it wouldn’t put him in a very different place than he was four years ago. (Of course, the lack of a large bloc of superdelegates this time benefits the Vermont progressive.)

The next two contests in 2016 were won by Clinton, who bested Sanders narrowly in Nevada (53 percent to 47 percent) but clobbered him in South Carolina (73 percent to 26 percent.)

This year, party strategists continue to believe that Biden’s strength in the African American community is unassailable, making South Carolina the former vice president’s firewall. But will that firewall hold if Biden underperforms in the first two or three contests? Wouldn’t both black and white voters start looking for alternatives if Biden were to finish third or even worse in Iowa and New Hampshire?

And then there is Michael Bloomberg. He remains a curious contender who aims to jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday’s March 3 contests. But his rationale continues to be based on Biden failing, and he continues to assume Democrats will embrace a billionaire businessman.

The greatest danger for each of the party’s two wings is for the opposition to unite around one candidate while it finds itself divided among two or three contenders.

For example, what if Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg are fighting it out in late March for the “pragmatic” lane, while Sanders emerges as the standard-bearer of all progressives? That would surely advantage the Vermonter.

While polls suggest Democrats care more about beating  Trump in November than having a nominee who matches their views, the fight between the two wings of the party could last for some time, possibly even until the Democratic National Convention in July. Obviously, the longer the battle, the greater chance for animosity, which would benefit only one person — Donald Trump.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 28, 2020.

What We Can Learn from the 2004 Presidential Race

Beware of reading too much into presidential polls. Take, for example, the 2004 race.

An August 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey found Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, leading the party’s presidential field with 23 percent. He was trailed by former House Majority (and Minority) Leader Richard A. Gephardt (13 percent), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (12 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry(10 percent).

A month later, another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found the newest entry into the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, topping the pack with 22 percent, while Dean (13 percent), Kerry (11 percent), Gephardt (11 percent) and Lieberman (10 percent) were bunched together.

There were others in the race, of course — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and activist Al Sharpton — but they barely registered in the polls.

By December, Dean had pulled ahead in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, opening up a considerable lead over Lieberman, 31 percent to 13 percent. Clark and Kerry drew 10 percent, and Gephardt received 8 percent.

(Multiple other polls, including those for CBS News, Newsweek, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed the same movement to Dean.)

A little more than a month later, on Jan. 19, Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 38 percent, while Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent. Dean and Gephardt finished much further behind.

Clark and Lieberman did not really compete in the caucuses, preferring to devote their time to New Hampshire.

The first CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey after the caucuses, conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, 2004, showed Kerry leading nationally with 49 percent to Dean’s 14 percent, Edwards’ 13 percent and Clark’s 9 percent. The race for the Democratic nomination was effectively over.

In a matter of weeks, Kerry went from a political basket case to the de facto Democratic nominee.

Edwards become his major opponent and eventually his running mate.

The early polls weren’t “wrong.” They just weren’t predictive of how things would develop.

16 years later

But 2020 is very different from 2004, isn’t it? In 2004, neither party had ever nominated a person of color or a woman to be president. The Democratic field then was large but nothing like the almost two dozen hopefuls this year.

The Democratic Party of 2004 was very different from the one we see today. And the political environment was very different then, given its proximity to 9/11.

One thing that is similar is the timing of the first debate. In 2003, Democrats held a debate on May 3, about six weeks earlier than this year’s June debates.

Nine Democrats — including one woman, Moseley-Braun, and two candidates of color, Moseley-Braun and Sharpton — participated in the debate, which was held at the University of South Carolina and broadcast on C-SPAN and 59 ABC affiliates. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News was the moderator.

The more things change …

So, what might 2004 teach us about 2020?

First, as Gallup’s Frank Newport noted shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, an early lead in national polling doesn’t guarantee anything.

Sure, some hopefuls (including George W. Bush and Al Gore in 1999-2000, and Donald Trump in 2015-16) have gone wire-to-wire, but most contests show surges and lead changes.

Throughout 2003, voters were doing just what they are doing this year: learning about the candidates, sampling them and sorting them into those they might support and those they won’t.

Polls from before the 2004 Iowa caucuses showed Kerry virtually eliminated from the race — until he wasn’t.

As Democratic pollster Diane Feldman told me more than a decade ago, it’s only weeks before the Iowa caucuses that caucus attendees start asking themselves which of the hopefuls could handle the office of president. That’s a different test from “Who do I like?’ or “Who do I agree with the most?”

Second, every day is “crucial” for cable TV hosts and political spinners, but not for campaigns and candidates.

Fundraising numbers are worth noting, as are news reports about controversies and polling. But all the hoopla — countdown clocks, Super Bowl-like pre-debate introductions, massive panels of experts dissecting every new public opinion survey — is mostly about drawing eyeballs, not educating viewers.

Third, Iowa can change everything.

The winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t automatically win the nomination, but the results invariably change perceptions about the front-runner and the entire field, creating new expectations and weeding out the also-rans.

“The [nomination] process is not a simultaneous process but a sequential one,” noted Feldman, whose clients have included the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Fourth, the Hawkeye State will be more uncertain than ever with the addition of a “virtual caucus” that allows Iowa Democrats to caucus up to six days before the Feb. 3 traditional in-person caucuses.

People undoubtedly are paying more attention to the current race than they did at this point in 2003-04, in part because Democrats are so focused on defeating Trump next year.

And Trump’s nomination and election may well have altered the way people look at the political process and campaigns.

But the coverage of the Democratic contest — including contradictory polling results and multiple media narratives — tells us less than you may think about the party’s eventual nominee.

Voters have plenty of time to evaluate the crowded field before Iowa and Nevada caucus-goers and New Hampshire and South Carolina primary voters make their choices and remake the field.

Note: This column appeared initially in the July 9, 2019 issue of Roll Call.