A Georgian’s guide to the Iowa caucus

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Democratic White House hopefuls are making their final push before the Feb. 3, 2020, Iowa caucuses. Frontrunners are hoping for a decisive victory in the Hawkeye State ... ... while lower-polling candidates are hoping for a strong finish that keep their campaigns going. The Iowa caucuses are the nation's first big event in the annual presidential election season.

CORALVILLE, Iowa – After hundreds of campaign stops and tens of millions of dollars spent, Iowa Democrats will caucus Monday to decide which White House hopeful should take on President Donald Trump. Their choice could provide clues to how Georgians cast their ballots in March.

With a growing possibility that no clear winner emerges, the leading candidates are scrapping for the right to declare themselves the victor of their ideological lane, whether it be the progressive left or the more mainstream middle.

The polls point to a distinctly volatile contest, with a few percentage points separating the jumble of candidates at the top of the heap. Adding to the uncertainty, the state’s most-watched poll was shelved late Saturday amid concerns about irregularities.

Given the uncertain atmosphere, some candidates are downplaying their Iowa expectations. Others are making what could be a final plea to voters, mindful that a poor finish could sideline their campaign before the presidential parade marches north to New Hampshire.

Making a frenzied weekend push, Democratic contenders crisscrossed the state with one last plea to caucus. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drew 3,000 fans to a free concert in a riverside city. Other candidates trekked to industrial towns, suburban gyms and rural auditoriums to urge supporters to stick with them.

“I live and breathe politics, and I feel exhausted by the process,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to a crowd of nearly 1,000 at a junior high school in suburban Coralville on Sunday. “But this is the moment we’ve got to do the exact opposite.”

High-profile surrogates trailed the candidates, adding some star appeal to each stop. So did local activists, who hoped a last nudge from a neighbor would finally win over the state’s famously stubborn undecided group of voters.

“I promise you we don’t get what we don’t fight for,” said Betsy Butcher, a supporter of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “And I pinky promise you that you’re not going to wake up in November and wish you’d done less.”

What it means for Georgia

Iowa’s lily-white electorate couldn’t be much more different than the Democratic voting bloc in Georgia, which is dominated by African American voters. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Democrats in the two states tend to back the same presidential nominees.

In fact, only once have Democrats in Iowa and Georgia diverged in the last three decades. That happened in 1992 when Georgia Democrats endorsed Bill Clinton while Iowa Democrats supported native son U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.

Still, Iowa isn’t generally a good predictor of who will win the nomination, particularly for the GOP side. Iowans have picked the eventual Republican nominee just two times out of the seven Republican caucuses since 1980 that didn’t feature an incumbent. Trump narrowly lost the vote here four years ago.

But Iowa matters still, mostly because the candidates and media ensure that it does. Contenders hope the wave of attention, campaign cash and momentum from a victory — or even a close finish — propels them into Georgia and other more populous states that cast ballots later this year.

Why the AJC sends reporters to Iowa and other presidential primary states

Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein is in Iowa covering the lead-up to Monday’s Democratic caucus, as well as the results of the caucus.

Why would a Georgia paper send a reporter out of state when there is abundant political news at home? Iowa and Georgia are two very different states, but voters in both share many of the same concerns and the same national picture.

Early voting for Georgia’s March 24 presidential primary begins March 2, less than a month after the Iowa caucuses. That means the story coming out of Iowa will influence what happens here.

Bluestein will also follow a number of Georgians from both parties who are spending time in Iowa and other early primary states to support their candidates. Their stories are part of the larger tale of Georgia’s role in the presidential contest.


Why it might not be conclusive

Over the past year, candidates have devoted an unfathomable amount of resources and energy to this rural state. And when the dust clears on Tuesday, there might not be a decisive result.

That’s because the local Democratic party changed up its rules in a bid to be more transparent.

Rather than report one set of numbers — how many delegates each candidate wins — two other metrics will join the mix. The first is the raw number of voters; the second is the “final alignment” — a count of supporters who picked the candidate as a second choice.

Most news outlets will still focus on the delegate totals to declare winners. But the campaigns will be able to trumpet their vote totals if the numbers make them look more formidable. That raises the possibility of several contenders claiming a share of the victory laurels.

What the polls say

It’s a strikingly volatile competition, with a jumble of top contenders cluttering the top of most Iowa polls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has a slight edge in some of them, but Sanders is gaining steam in other recent surveys. Warren and Buttigieg are within striking distance, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar hopes for a late surge.

Adding to the confusion, Iowans often wait until the final days before the caucus to decide their pick.

“Whoever gets my vote better do a fantastic job this weekend,” said Robert Lee Ridder, a retired auctioneer in Oelwein.

Typically, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll helps clarify the muddled decision. But the newspaper abruptly tabled its release late Saturday after Buttigieg’s name was omitted in at least one call by a local pollster.

What Trump is doing 

The president made a beeline for the state to grab a share of the media attention and take a shot at some of his future rivals.

At a Des Moines arena on a bone-chilling Thursday eve, the Republican mocked the Democratic-led impeachment trial in Washington and singled out, one by one, the top "radical, socialist Democrats" competing to challenge him.

“We’re going to win the great state of Iowa, and it’s going to be a historic landslide,” he said. “And if we don’t win, your farms are going to hell!”

It’s part of a GOP attempt to upstage the caucus — or at least capture some of the spotlight. Dozens of Trump’s supporters scattered across the state over the weekend, each proclaiming that the president’s second term will bring more economic stability.

Biden happily seized on the GOP surge at his campaign stops, claiming that Trump is uniquely terrified of a matchup against him.

“Have you guys ever seen a time in the Democratic caucus when a sitting president has sent out so many surrogates?” he asked at a stop in Newton. “I’ve never seen a president so interested in who the Democratic nominee is in my whole life.”

Trump faces nominal competition from two fellow Republicans: Joe Walsh, a former congressman from Illinois, and Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, are challengers in that party’s Iowa caucus.

What Georgians are doing

No high-profile Georgia Democrat has played a more prominent role in promoting a White House hopeful than Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. And she was back in Iowa over the weekend stumping for Biden at churches and campaign offices along snow-packed streets.

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Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) 

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

 Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) 

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) 

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

Trump’s campaign leaned on an influential Georgia supporter, too. Ralph Reed, the former Georgia GOP head who now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, was to stump for the president at a Methodist congregation in tiny Mount Pleasant, a town of 8,000 people in the southeastern corner of the state.

What the candidates are saying

The leading Democratic candidates offered vastly different approaches to make the same closing argument: One way or another, each said in as many words, they’re the only ones who can defeat Trump.

Over a dozen stops across Iowa, the four top contenders tried to make the case that their policies, background or experience uniquely positions them to beat Trump in November, even as many downplayed expectations.

Biden played up his decades of experience in public office, saying that Republicans quake with fear over his candidacy because “they know if I’m the nominee, I’ll beat Donald Trump.”

His main rival for the more moderate vote is Buttigieg, who has presented himself as a more youthful alternative to the field of septuagenarians.

“This is no time to confront a fundamentally different challenge by falling back on the familiar,” said the 38-year-old. “Let’s have the courage to do something different.”

The more liberal candidates, meanwhile, promoted their sweeping policy proposals as part of a war on incrementalism.

“We’re not going to do this by nibbling at the edges. It’s going to take big structural change. And I’ve got a plan for that,” Warren said to a crowd of nearly 1,000 crammed into an Iowa City gym.

And Sanders, rising in some polls, received ear-splitting applause late Saturday in Cedar Rapids as he kicked off a free concert from indie rock band Vampire Weekend by ticking through his plans.

“The whole world is asking if the people of Iowa are prepared to stand up and fight for justice,” he said. “All over the world, people are watching to see if the people in Iowa are prepared to help create a government and an economy that will work for all of us, and not just the 1%.”

What’s next for the candidates

The race will shift on Tuesday from the snowy plains of Iowa to the snowy forests of New Hampshire, where voters cast ballots in a week. Then it’s on to Nevada and South Carolina, the first-in-the-South primary.

But the biggest troves of delegates will be awarded in March, starting with the populous states that vote on Super Tuesday and through Georgia's March 24 race. That's when Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, hopes to make his stand.