Grundy Center, Iowa
One year ago, the conventional wisdom of some political pundits and at least a few (now former) Democratic presidential candidates held that Democratic voters had moved sharply to the left. Only a staunch progressive committed to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, the thinking went, could win the nomination.
With a few weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, only five candidates have a realistic chance of taking first place: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. These five are the only candidates who had qualified, as we went to press, for the last Democratic debate scheduled before the Iowa caucuses. Three of them — Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar — oppose Medicare for All, and Elizabeth Warren has backed away from it. Only Bernie Sanders is putting single-payer health care front and center on the campaign trail.
About halfway through his town-hall event here at the community center in Grundy Center, a small town a half hour outside Waterloo, Sanders asks the crowd of a few hundred to share their experiences with America’s health-care system. Some stories are more sympathetic than others. One woman named Rachel says her family of four spends $1,900 a month on health-insurance premiums for a plan that has a $7,000 deductible. “This is crazy,” she says.
“I assume you’re — what — working-class, middle-class family?” Sanders asks.
“My husband’s a patent attorney,” Rachel replies, not exactly inspiring sympathy for a mass revolution. Patent attorneys of the world, unite!
But a few minutes later a man named Ryan, who says he lost a factory job some years ago and is now buried under a mountain of debt from going to college late in life, talks about his experience lacking insurance and going to the emergency room for chest pain. After basic tests had been performed, Ryan says, he asked to be transferred to a free clinic.
“I did get an appointment, but it’s humiliating, honestly, Bern,” Ryan says. “I felt like when I was a little kid, poor, and I had the different-colored lunch card. And all the rich kids would pick on me then. That’s exactly how I felt.”
After declining an ambulance ride, Ryan says, he called his wife while driving himself to the clinic: “She laughed hysterically when I said, ‘You f***ing tell Bernie — you tell him that your husband died because he couldn’t afford to get fixed because they don’t care if the poor drop.’”
The effect of Ryan’s story, and others like it, is to inspire a sense of solidarity at Sanders’s town halls that you don’t get at the events of other candidates. Sure, at other candidates’ town halls, attendees ask the candidates to address issues affecting the less fortunate, but there is much less talk about the attendees’ own problems.
While Sanders spends about half of his January 4 town hall on Medicare for All, Warren delivers only a few lines about it that same afternoon during her town hall an hour down the road in Manchester. “It is possible to offer full health-care coverage, Medicare for All, for everyone, without costing middle-class families one single dime,” she says. After taking a beating on the issue, she retreated in November by promising not to push for Medicare for All until two years into her presidential term.
Pundits may have overestimated the number of hard-line progressive primary voters, but all it takes to win a five-way race in Iowa is a plurality. And as the last man standing who is all-in on Medicare for All, Sanders has a good opportunity to consolidate support on the left and win.
The last four Democrats to take first place in the Iowa caucuses — Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton — went on to win the Democratic nomination. There’s no reason that trend must continue in 2020, but the importance of taking first in Iowa shouldn’t be dismissed. When voters are undecided in a large multicandidate field, nothing is quite so persuasive as early victory.
Yet the race remains unpredictable. The most recent poll of Iowa Democrats showed Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg tied at 23 percent, with Warren at 16 percent and Klobuchar at 7 percent. And there are different ways to cobble together a plurality.
The poll by YouGov/CBS was conducted almost entirely before a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Quds Force general Qasem Soleimani. While Sanders has offered a few perfunctory words on the campaign trail highlighting his longstanding opposition to war, Joe Biden is putting foreign policy at the heart of his pitch to voters.
On the evening of January 4, Biden speaks to an elementary-school gym full of Iowa caucus-goers in Des Moines. The former vice president shows up an hour late to the event, leaving a nervous-looking 22-year-old campaign organizer to entertain the waiting crowd with chants of “Fired up, ready for Joe!” When all else fails, the organizer tries making some disco moves. (What did you expect from a 22-year-old who signed up for the Biden campaign?)
When Biden finally arrives, his remarks about the economy are brief and his performance is uneven. At times, he speaks in his signature mumble-whisper, but he perks up as he discusses Iran.
Soleimani “does have American blood on his hands, so don’t mourn his passing,” Biden tells the crowd. “But the administration has given us no confidence they have any plan or strategy in place for what to do next. None.”
Entering into a conflict with Iran requires the “informed consent of the American people through their Congress,” he insists. “Otherwise, it is an abuse of power. The bottom line is, any further action against Iran requires congressional authorization. This just reinforces the stakes of this election in my view. That’s why it’s so important to elect someone who’s already ready on Day One.”
The Iran issue alone is enough reason for two previously undecided voters I speak to at the town-hall event to make up their mind in support of Biden. A national CNN poll conducted in the fall found that 56 percent of Democrats thought Biden could best handle foreign policy, compared with 13 percent who said the same of Sanders, 11 percent of Warren, and 3 percent of Buttigieg.
Yet concerns about Biden’s gaffes and age are real. “I love Biden, but unfortunately he just seems too frail,” caucus-goer Cindy Ross, of Manchester, who intends to back Warren, tells me. “He reminded me a lot of my dad, and I’m old. . . . [My dad] was 98 when he passed.”
Those concerns are one reason you shouldn’t sleep on Amy Klobuchar, who has drawn bigger crowds and seen an uptick in fundraising since the December Democratic debate, in which she sparred with Pete Buttigieg.
“The Midwest is not flyover country to me. I really live here,” the Minnesota senator tells the crowd of more than 500 gathered at a town-hall event outside Des Moines on January 2. Electability is the major theme of her stump speech. She talks about the non-celebrity Democrats who won gubernatorial elections in Michigan, Kansas, and Wisconsin in 2018 and touts her record of winning over Republican voters in Minnesota. She notes that she doesn’t support “free college for rich kids” and says the difference between a “plan and a pipedream” is the ability to get something done.
Klobuchar was dogged at the beginning of the campaign by stories about how she was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive toward her Senate staffers, but on the stump she appears winsome and untroubled by the nerves that got to her in earlier debates.
“Mayor Pete was my favorite, but she’s closed the gap,” caucus-goer Dan Kirkpatrick, of Johnston, tells me after a Klobuchar town hall on January 2. “As a Midwesterner, I like both Pete and Amy. I like their Midwestern sensibility,” he says, but Klobuchar persuaded him she has more experience proving she would know how to “govern effectively.”
If Klobuchar is going to win Iowa on February 3, she doesn’t merely need to do well at the Democratic debate scheduled for January 14. She likely needs to win it. Biden or Buttigieg or possibly both need to slip. Klobuchar is polling right at 7 percent with four weeks to go, but that’s not a terrible place to be. “It’s common that things break at the last minute,” Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer tells me. In 2012, Rick Santorum was polling at 7 percent in Iowa a few weeks before he won the GOP caucus. In 1988, Dick Gephardt was polling at 7 percent a few weeks before he won the Democratic caucus. Whether Klobuchar can pull off the same feat — or one of the four other final candidates will win Iowa in 2020 — remains anyone’s guess.
This article appears as “The Final Five” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.