Is Biden in Danger of Not Meeting 15% Threshold in Iowa’s Caucuses?

January 29, 2020

Latest Data, Lagging Iowa Field Organization, Suggest Problems in the Center Lane

Biden Campaign’s Play for an Iowa Alliance with Klobuchar Is a “Tell”

By Al Giordano

According to the running polling average, Joe Biden is doing just fine in Iowa. He enjoys an aggregate of 21 percent support there according to RealClearPolitics’ measurements. 538 gives Biden a one-in-three shot (same that it gives Bernie Sanders) to win Iowa outright. But some recent surveys suggest trouble for the frontrunner in next Monday’s caucuses, and then came the “tell.”

The New York Times reported last night that operatives for the Biden campaign in Iowa had reached out to staffers of Amy Klobuchar seeking a caucus night alliance. The proposal was that each would instruct their voters, in precincts where their candidate does not meet the necessary 15 percent threshold, to rally behind the other one:

“The Biden officials, led by the campaign’s Iowa director, Jake Braun, asked the Klobuchar strategist, Pete Giangreco, about the prospect that the two campaigns could encourage their supporters in the state to back the other candidate in precincts where Mr. Biden or Ms. Klobuchar fall short of the 15 percent threshold required to reach the second round of balloting.

“Mr. Giangreco, however, said Ms. Klobuchar was not interested in any such agreement at the moment…”

There are several aspects of this story that might reveal a “poker tell” on the face of the Biden campaign. If Biden really is ensured a top-two finish in Iowa – a state that most polls say Bernie Sanders is favored to win – why would his campaign reach out to the Klobuchar camp, which by most recent measures is surging? (One recent poll, by Change Research, showed Klobuchar gaining 27 percent of late breaking voters and that she is taking them from Biden and from Pete Buttigieg).

Biden and Klobuchar are specifically competing in the most rural parts of Iowa, which is a lot of the state electorate. With about half Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers telling pollsters they most seek a candidate who they feel can best beat Donald Trump, and the other half saying they are liberals or progressives who say they seek a candidate who best represents their views on the issues, Biden, Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg are in the unenviable position of each being one of three competing for half the voters, while two candidates – Sanders and Warren – vie for the other half.

Do the math: If three candidates are competing for 50 percent of the vote, it would be very hard for all of them – or even two of them – to meet the required 15 percent threshold in enough precincts to meet it statewide or in all the four Iowa Congressional Districts.

Klobuchar’s reported rejection of the deal proposed by the Biden camp indicates that it is gambling on a Biden collapse in which the Minnesota senator could emerge as at the steering wheel of the “electability lane” in Iowa. That scenario could also end up handing the center lane survivor ticket to Pete Buttigieg, who by all local accounts has a muscular field organization second only to that of Warren’s.

There are two memories about Joe Biden’s flirtation with jumping into the 2016 presidential contest back in the fall of 2015 that keep resonating with me this 2020 political season.

The first: Biden had gone as far as to name a top-shelf campaign team that was ready to go, waiting for his green light. One of them told me at the time that Biden would absolutely launch a “Camp Obama” style organizer training effort. That his 2020 campaign did nothing of the sort may soon prove a harmful mistake. Of the five leading Iowa candidates, Biden has the worst field organization of all of them. It is comparatively non-existent, as if his campaign’s bet on roaring back in South Carolina’s late February primary had caused it to ignore the necessity to build strong organization in the earlier states.

The second: One day before Biden said he would not be a 2016 presidential candidate he went to meet with Elizabeth Warren in her home. It was the next day that, much to the dismay of his top team members, that he ruled out running in that cycle. Multiple well-placed Washington DC sources have commented to me since that, at that meeting, Biden had offered Warren the vice presidential nomination, even to announce it from the get-go and to start running as a ticket in the primaries.

Warren, the sources say, declined the offer. There was no way she would let herself become the only Democratic woman in the US Senate to oppose then-Senator Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Frankly, that was the overriding reason Warren declined the massive overture by “Draft Warren” organizations and opinion leaders to be a candidate in 2016. She was not going to divide the voters for whom the time for a woman president was long overdue.

Five days prior to the Iowa caucuses, nobody knows what is going to happen. There are five candidates with a decent shot at meeting the 15 percent vote threshold so important to perceptions of viability going forward. Historically, only three candidates have previously done that in any given caucus. Mathematical chances are slim that four might thread that needle, and minuscule that five would accomplish that at once, especially if two candidates find themselves in the 20 and 30 percentiles.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders did better in caucuses than he did in primaries because of the kinds of voters each different event draws. Young voters love the party-like atmosphere of a caucus. Older voters prefer the privacy of the secret ballot. Indeed, in Nebraska, Sanders bested Clinton in the caucus with 57 percent to 43 percent of the vote. But in a subsequent non-binding primary with much higher turnout in Nebraska, Clinton won 53 percent to Sanders’ 47.

The same happened in Washington state where Sanders walloped Clinton the caucus with 73 percent of the vote to 27 percent, but in Washington’s later non-binding primary, again with much higher turnout, Clinton won with 53 percent.

In 2016, Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Hawaii, Idaho and Utah all held caucuses. Sanders won them all – and only narrowly fell behind in Iowa and Nevada in a two-candidate contest – exceeded polling averages in those states, largely because many pollsters have such a hard time screening to figure out which voters will go to a caucus and thus be required to show their neighbors for whom they cast their vote. The lack of secret ballot in a caucus dampens turnout among older voters, and voters of color as well, for all the obvious reasons. The secret ballot is sacred to many people, still, especially those less inclined to then suffer punitively at the hands of neighbors who favor a rival, or whose employment security could be jeopardized by perceptions of political partisanship, for example, among public servants. (Indeed, in Minnesota right now one of the major news stories is about a legislative effort to change the current requirement that which party’s primary they vote in will become public knowledge: many municipal employees, in particular, have said they will not vote if that remains the case, for fear of on-the-job retribution if they are publicly viewed as Democrats or Republicans.)

In 2020, however, all those states except two – Iowa and Nevada – will instead hold secret-ballot primaries. The benefit for Sanders and the detriment for others is that the only two caucuses are two of the first three contests. After Nevada, there will be no more caucuses and the rest of the map is more daunting for Sanders, and better for candidates like Biden.

But not meeting threshold in Iowa? That would mean coming in fourth or even fifth. And that would likely damage today’s perceptions about Biden’s “electability.” After all, electability means winning elections or at least meeting a minimal threshold.

One pollster who does have a good track record for screening accurately for caucus voters is the Des Moines Register’s Ann Selzer. She’ll come out with her final poll on Saturday afternoon-evening. If Biden is over 20 percent in that survey, he can probably hang on to meet threshold. But if not – especially if Buttigieg remains strong or Klobuchar is showed as surging – Iowa may pose a grave risk for the central tenet Biden’s frontrunner status, the perception that he is most “electable.”

At that point, Biden’s campaign may deeply regret not having followed through on its 2015 plan for “Camp Obama” level organizer training, and it will already be too late to jumpstart something that large for the duration.

If you believe that field organization matters, this is something to watch five days from today.

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