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'No clear winner': Iowa Democrats fear caucuses won't anoint a 2020 front-runner

Iowa Democrats pride themselves on voting first - and picking winners.

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From left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), left, former Vice President Joe Biden, second from left, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, right, listen as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) makes a point during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

DES MOINES, Iowa - Iowa Democrats pride themselves on voting first - and picking winners.

Since the Iowa caucuses began kicking of the presidential nominating process in 1972, the victor has marched on to become the Democratic nominee in seven of the last 10 open primary contests, including in the last four: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore.

But in 2020, they fear it will be different. After more than a year of nonstop campaigning from upwards of two dozen candidates, there's a sense of foreboding among Democrats of all stripes that their state won't provide much clarity on who will ultimately become the party's standard-bearer.

It's a sentiment that's notably pervasive among rank-and-file Democrats, as well as inside of some of the major campaigns.

"I honestly think that when it's all said and done the headline of Feb. 4 will be something along the lines of 'No Clear Winner,'" said Amber Gustafson, a caucus director in Ankeny supporting Elizabeth Warren. "I don't think there's going to be any more of a clear picture on Feb. 4 than there is now. I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed, because we want to be the anointer."

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Four candidates have been bunched at the top of the field in Iowa, and polling released over the weekend only added to the foggy picture. A New York Times/Siena survey found Bernie Sanders pulling away from the pack with a 7-point lead, a Suffolk/USA Today poll placed Joe Biden with a 6-point advantage, while a CBS/YouGov poll revealed close to a dead heat between Sanders, Biden and Pete Buttigieg.

Warren, hailed for producing the best organized campaign in the state, sat in fourth place, drawing just 15% in each poll. Even before those results, her campaign was already downplaying the state it had invested so much in, declaring the four early states as "just the beginning."

Sanders looks primed to perform well on the first caucus ballots, but Biden or Buttigieg could pose a threat during the realignment process, when supporters of lower performing candidates are asked for their second choice. The scenario could allow multiple campaigns to take some sort of win away from the Feb. 3 caucus night.

"There will be more than one candidate who is claiming victory and there may be two or three who can rightfully point to something that shows success," said Chris Hall, a Sioux City state representative backing Amy Klobuchar.

Biden's advisers have consistently said Iowa isn't a must-win, even as the former vice president held leads in two respected polls in the state earlier this month. A top Sanders aide has said the first round of caucus results will be "the most accurate portrayal of who won the night," even though the second round of voting will determine delegate totals.

Some of Warren's own supporters don't even believe she'll prevail, but think she simply needs to perform better than expected to catch momentum. And Buttigieg may have the most riding on Iowa given his need to exhibit staying power. But even a finish in the top three would allow the 38-year-old to remind the country how far the once barely recognizable small-town mayor has come.

It's not surprising that campaigns are purposefully managing their own expectations. What's striking is that even their supporters see little opportunity to deliver their rivals a knock-out punch.

"If you've got four people separated by 4 points, then probably it's not going to make much difference," said John Epperson, a longtime Biden backer from Indianola.

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That means a jumbled field without a strong front-runner may remain unchanged as the race moves on to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the other three states to vote in February.

"I think you're going to have four candidates come out of Iowa relatively close to each other," added Rod Sullivan, a precinct captain for Warren in Iowa City. "It's going to be up to others to decide, I guess."

And if Sanders were to notch a commanding Iowa victory, the moderate wing of the party may be more incentivized to soldier on and litigate a debate over who is best equipped to stop him.

After the Times poll was released showing the Sanders surge, the Buttigieg campaign sent an email to its donors with the message, "The general election is at risk."

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It's a quadrennial political tradition for political operatives to wrestle with the importance of Iowa, the mostly white and largely rural state that employs a byzantine, arduous and time-consuming process for about 250,000 people to select a presidential preference. Historically, candidates who have written it off completely have not proven successful.

But with growing recognition that people of color comprise the heart of the party, the salience of Iowa's coveted political status is being seriously threatened for the first time. Julian Castro, now serving as Warren's top surrogate in Iowa, has said the state should lose its first-in-the-nation status by 2024.

"He definitely left a mark," said Grant Woodard, an Iowa Democratic operative. "The criticism is louder than ever before and the pressure is resonating more than ever."

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Iowa's saving grace has always been that it facilitates a process for anyone to road test ideas and develop a meaningful connection with voters. For Democrats, their history of accurately forecasting the eventual nominee is an added bonus.

But caucus veterans don't see the process playing out the same way in 2020.

"Hell, we may end up with a five-way tie coming out of this thing," said Dale Todd, a Cedar Rapids Democrat who previously supported Cory Booker and was aggressively courted by several campaigns.

Reggie Love, former President Barack Obama's body man, recently took Todd to a dive bar to reminisce about the 2008 campaign they were both on, play pool and advocate for Buttigieg, who Love endorsed last month.

"I'm getting in trouble with my wife because we're staying up till 2 in the morning," Todd said. On Sunday, Todd endorsed Warren, but he doesn't think any candidate will attain anything close to the eight-point margin of victory that propelled Obama out of Iowa to national stardom 12 years ago.

"I simply do not see anybody winning by a huge margin. The organizations are very similar. The resources being distributed are very similar. The ads are on all the time but they aren't moving anybody." Todd said. "It's all about who peaks at the right time. That final weekend, who is going to have the juice and who is going to inspire people."

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To some Iowa Democrats, 2020 feels closest to 2004, which also featured a scrambled four-way race between John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt.

Kerry, the establishment favorite who lagged in the state early on, has distinct parallels to Biden. Dean, like Warren, ran a campaign attacking special interests and corruption in Washington. Edwards, like Buttigieg, was the bright-eyed optimist who championed the politics of hope, but at the time was perceived as lacking experience, having only been a senator for five years.

There was even a Michael Bloomberg figure: Wesley Clark entered the race late when Kerry looked like a lost cause but opted to skip Iowa.

And hanging over it all were fears about nominating the wrong person to defeat President George W. Bush. That paranoia ended up fueling Kerry's late Iowa comeback, leading to Dean's infamous caucus night scream and ultimate demise.

Memories of Dean's bitter fight with Gephardt - and the negative consequences for both of them - help explain why Buttigieg and Warren and then Warren and Sanders sought to deescalate their skirmishes.

Iowans historically recoil from negativity and this year Democrats are even more sensitive about attacks that could irreparably damage their nominee.

"I think there's a lot of fear. We've got one shot at this and we can absolutely not risk it. This happened in 2004 to an extent," said Jennifer Konfrst, a state representative representing Des Moines. "The whole idea of date Dean and marry Kerry."

Konfrst had initially backed Booker but when he unexpectedly ended his campaign she wanted to have an impact. Last week, she endorsed Warren because she believed she best embodied Booker's "messages of opportunity and justice."

Picking a winner wasn't her only consideration though, partly because doing so this year is so difficult.

"I still believe a lot of Iowans are nervous and want to nominate the most 'electable' person," she said. "I also think none of us truly knows what 'electable' looks like."

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(c)2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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