One Week Until Iowa: Seven Random PPFA Thoughts

(Shout out to Europe!)

We are now just one week from the unpredictable Iowa caucuses. What a time to be alive. To mark Seven Days Out, here are seven random PPFA thoughts on the 2020 Democratic Primary.

1. I’m really nervous about making a good prediction. Four years ago, I had a tremendous track record at predicting primaries (though, to be clear, I was wrong on my prediction of the Republican nominee). That started with the Iowa caucuses. Despite Donald Trump having led the previous 11 Iowa polls, I predicted Ted Cruz would beat him in the state, followed by Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul.

And that’s exactly what happened:

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I also predicted that Hillary Clinton would win Iowa’s Democratic caucus “by a nose,” which is also exactly what happened.

As Larry David might say, I was feeling prettay, prettay, prettay good.

But now it’s four years later, and what has PPFA done for you lately? I really want to get this right again. Iowa’s chaos, however, will make that difficult.

Anyway, just like four years ago, I plan to have an Iowa prediction for you on the day before the caucuses (Sunday the 2nd) and then an overall primary prediction on caucus day (Monday the 3rd). The latter, since it’s the first Monday of the month, will double as my final pre–vote Power Rankings.

2. Here’s the briefest of summaries why Iowa is currently impossible to predict. I’ll start with a chart of all January Iowa polls:

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  • Joe Biden and Sanders are the co-polling leaders. Biden has led half of the last six polls by exactly six points, including one that was just released (USA Today/Suffolk). In four polls he’s within one point of 25%, which no other candidate can say. However, he came in fourth in the most respected Iowa poll — Ann Selzer’s Des Moines Register survey.
  • Sanders likes his DMR, NYT, and Emerson polls, but CBS had by far the biggest sample and shows him and Biden neck-and-neck. The USA Today poll, which has Biden up six, is also just as recent as the Emerson poll, which has Sanders up nine.
  • Buttigieg continues to lurk as a contender to win the state. Of these polls, he’s been top-three in six of them — same as Biden and Sanders. The poll with by far the largest sample, CBS, showed him at an impressive 22 points, his best result.
  • Warren is, on average, fourth of the four, but she just picked up the key Des Moines Register endorsement. It’s unlikely polling has had a chance to be affected by that too much.
  • We have Amy Klobuchar working hard on the outside with a long shot bid. Thanks to that impressive Emerson poll, where her 13 points had her above Warren and Buttigieg, her polling average now nears Warren’s. Meanwhile, Klobuchar has picked up a lot of newspaper and local politician endorsements. Remember, Iowa can break late. Still, a legit four-candidate race is unprecedented. Five feels impossible. If Klobuchar gets to above 15%, that’s likely to the detriment of one of the Big Four.

Proudly, back in March, I put all five of these candidates in my “six most likely candidates to win Iowa” list. Only fifth-ranked Beto O’Rourke let me down, something he’s really good at.

And finally, top-line polling numbers aside, what always makes Iowa hard to predict is the re-alignment that occurs after the initial show of support. I hope to talk more about this quirk later in the week, as some recent polls have done a thorough job with “second choice” support.

3. You know who would take off with an Iowa win? Elizabeth Warren. Her post-October polling swoon has effectively lowered expectations so much that if she now wins Iowa, I think she’d take off and could topple Biden. I feel like Democratic voters want to nominate her, but she has to give them a reason to rally around her. As for the others:

  • If Sanders wins, it’s an as-expected result that wouldn’t benefit him too much. It’s still essential to his path to the nomination, because it would probably knock out Warren as a viable candidate and clinch a New Hampshire victory which sets up a Nevada win, but it’s not like he’d have a huge national polling bump.
  • Biden would practically wrap up the nomination with an Iowa win, but he’s the candidate least desperate for it. His strength comes later in February.
  • Buttigieg and Klobuchar both need big results and then a bit more luck in New Hampshire, too. Each needs two strong results in the opening two states — preferably placing over Biden — to become major players and take a lot of Biden’s moderate support.

But with Warren, it really feels like her campaign is over if she finishes behind Sanders in Iowa, whereas she becomes the favorite for the nomination if she wins Iowa outright.

4. Looking ahead, New Hampshire looks more and more likely to go to Sanders, barring Warren really outpacing him in Iowa. The last polls there had him 12 and 9 points clear of the field, with Warren, Sanders’s geographic rival for the Granite State crown, fading to fourth in both. Unfortunately for him, his polling bump would again be limited because his win is almost a foregone conclusion and its worth the fewest delegates of all the early states.

Nevada, meanwhile, still has Biden with a narrow lead, while South Carolina still has Biden ahead up huge. Those two states haven’t been polled as much as the first two, but don’t expect to see much movement there. There’s even a chance, due to Iowa and New Hampshire’s status receiving unprecedented amounts of criticism as white states having outsize influence over the primary of a heavily minority party, that Nevadans and South Carolinians purposefully resist being swayed by the results of the first two states. They may just dig in their heels, particularly South Carolina’s African American population, which hasn’t budged off their strong support of Joe Biden.

5. National polls, meanwhile, convey several interesting developments. Here’s the candidates’ rolling Real Clear Politics averages over the last two months:

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Specifically:

  • Sanders continues his nice climb and finally broke his 20% ceiling. With Biden holding steady at around 29 percent, Sander has been able to close what was an 11-point gap two months ago to just 6. With a week to go, that could tighten another couple points, and then with an Iowa win they could be close to tied.
  • Buttigieg is fading nationally, making two strong Iowa and New Hampshire results all all the more important. If he comes away from those two states without any top-twos, he will withdraw from the race before Nevada.
  • Bloomberg! Wait, he deserves his own point.

6. Bloomberg!

Don’t look now, but the Bloomberg ad machine has gotten his national numbers into the top four. How has he done it? By spending a ridiculous amount of money, of course! According to Yahoo Finance, here’s a ranking of money spent on ads:

  1. Bloomberg: $217 million
  2. Steyer: $143 million
  3. All other candidates combined: $116 million

Slowly passing a Buttigieg Campaign stuck in neutral, Bloomberg is up to about 8 percent in an average of national polls, and he even hit double digits in two of the last seven national surveys. Considering he’s not even competing in some states, it’s likely he’s approaching that all-important 15% in some specially targeted areas. I would expect he’s already at 15% in delegate-rich New York, whose 274 pledged delegates makes it the second most valuable prize of the Democratic Primary. New York doesn’t hold its primary until the big Northeast Primary Day on April 28:

28 Tue. Connecticut primaries 60
Delaware primaries 21
Maryland primaries 96
New York primaries 274
Pennsylvania primaries 186
Rhode Island primaries 26

If Bloomberg sticks it out and keeps climbing, he could reasonably accrue triple-digit delegates on that day alone.

7. For those hoping for an open or contested convention, Bloomberg’s climb up the polls combined with Sanders’s growing strength seen in today’s point #5 has put one of the two necessary “scenarios” from this post in play. If Sanders gets to 25 to 30 percent and Bloomberg peels off 15 to 20 down the stretch, that doesn’t leave much for a third candidate to get to a majority. It’s far from likely, but we should keep an eye on it if no candidate dominates the month of February.

ONE WEEK!

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